Sacramento Police Crack Nut Case

Authorities believe they have captured the ringleaders of a sophisticated almond-theft operation that robbed California's Central Valley farmers of $2 million worth of nuts this year.

Almond growers hope the bust from late Sunday night marks a turning point in efforts to stop a string of brazen thefts targeting California's top export crop.

A "good Samaritan" who had read news reports about recent nut thefts called police Sunday after seeing workers loading boxes from various nut processors into a rental truck at a Sacramento warehouse, Merced County Sheriff's Detective Vince Gallagher said.

The tipster wrote down the name on one of the boxes, and police confirmed that the packing company had recently reported having nuts stolen.

Authorities uncovered more than 123,000 pounds of almonds and 13,000 pounds of walnuts at the warehouse and at another West Sacramento storage facility being used by the same individuals, Gallagher said.

"This is the break we've been waiting for," he said Tuesday. "This is the main operation."

Police arrested Sukhwinder Singh Grewal, 41, and Amrik Singh, 27, on suspicion of receiving and possessing stolen property, Gallagher said.

Grewal is the owner of Sona Spice Imports, a Sacramento-based importer and wholesaler of goods from India. Both men already were on investigators' list of people of interest, Gallagher said.

Calls to Sona Spice Co. were answered Tuesday by Grewal's wife, Ravinder Grewal, who said her husband had been released on bail and is looking for a lawyer.

"Police have his cell phone and computer," she said. "We're very scared. We have no idea what they're doing."

Grewal said she had never met Amrik Singh and that he did not work for Sona Spice Co.

Investigators suspect the almonds inside the warehouse had been stolen from orchards throughout California's Central Valley. The importer was selling them in unmarked boxes to mom-and-pop stores throughout California and parts of Canada, Gallagher said.

There is no indication the buyers were aware the nuts were stolen, Gallagher said.

"We're now concentrating our efforts on the shippers of the nuts, the trucking industry and the significance of the timing of when they were stolen and who'd have knowledge of that," he said.

Growers in California's Central Valley produce about 80 percent of the world's almonds, more than two-thirds of which are then exported overseas, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture. In 2004, the almond industry took in $1.4 billion - almost double the profits of the state's wine exports, according to department figures.

As prices for almonds rise with demand, a growing black market has emboldened thieves.

There were two reported almond thefts in the Central Valley region last year. This year, that rose to 14, said Bill Yoshimoto, project director for the Agricultural Crime Technology Information and Operations Network. The network is a coalition of agricultural commissioners offices, district attorney offices and sheriff's departments in the Central Valley.

The methods used by the almond thieves signified "a very sophisticated crime," Yoshimoto said.

"The individuals doing this, they need to know shipping and marketing patterns. This is not your common, everyday crook," he said.

David Phippen, a Manteca-based almond grower who had $260,000 worth of nuts stolen in July, said he suspects the thieves got hold of shipping data and knew when trucks were loaded.

"I don't think they just randomly drove around the countryside of California happening on loads of almonds," he said Tuesday. "These guys knew exactly what they were doing. They were privy to some information."

Many almond growers and processors have beefed up security.

"We had to add cameras and locked our whole area up at night. We even locked the individual containers, but they cut the locks and still took the almonds," said Hartley Spycher, a Turlock-based processor.

About 76,000 pounds of Spycher Brothers almonds that were reported stolen earlier this month were recovered after Sunday's arrests.

His workers no longer pre-load trucks the night before so thieves can't drive them off his lot, he said.

"It's just like anything else that's illegal. If you know how to get it and have customers ready to buy it and you can get around the proper rules, you're going to have people trying to make money off it," Spycher said. "In this case, it's almonds."
By Robin Hindery