Three Solar Thieves Nabbed in Napa

Rash of winery thefts has continued for a year; sheriffs provide prevention tips

by Paul Franson
winery vineyard solar panel theft
Deputy Sheriff John Thompson offered advice to growers and vintners on how to protect their solar investment.
Rutherford, Calif. -- The timing couldn't have been better. This afternoon, during a meeting convened at Rutherford Grange to tell vintners and growers how to protect their solar panels, Napa Deputy Sheriff John Thompson reported that the department had nabbed three thieves this morning.

The men triggered an alarm installed just two weeks ago at Honig Vineyards; this is the third known attempted solar theft at the Rutherford winery. Deputies were there in 4 minutes, according to Sheriff Doug Koford, and with canine assistance, they followed the perpetrator's path to nearby Silverado Trail.

One of the suspects was captured in a car near Rutherford Grill, and the others were found suspiciously walking along Silverado Trail early in the morning. All three have criminal records and are in custody for attempted theft. At least one suspect was talking to investigators, sources said. He was allegedly on methamphetamines, as are the other suspected thieves.

The Sheriff's Department arrested two other alleged solar thieves in December.

Sheriff Koford and Undersheriff John Robertson also attended the meeting and assured local vintners that they consider the thefts a very high priority. Robertson says at least 14 thefts of solar panels have occurred in Napa County, with an estimated value of more than $400,000.

Thompson, the primary officer working the solar cases, told the winery and vineyard representatives -- including some owners -- that the thefts are primarily being perpetrated by East San Francisco Bay meth addicts, who then fence them through a broker in the Central Valley. He outlined some of the measures being taken to find them, noting that investigators had collected significant physical evidence, including tools, receipts, tire tracks and footprints, and even DNA from cigarettes.

He also noted that the crooks have been using the Internet to find locations of the expensive panels, then consulting GoogleEarth for detailed layouts. They also typically scout the locations during the daytime before returning at night. They consult magazines aimed at "green" interests to target vineyards and wineries. Some of the panels have been sold on Craigslist.

Unfortunately, with harvest in full swing, the vineyards are busier than usual at night, making it difficult to spot untoward activities or out-of-place people. Thompson said "the word is out" that Rutherford is the place to go for the panels.

Thompson provided numerous hints on how to discourage theft, starting with the old joke that if you're being chased by a bear, you only have to run faster than everyone else -- not the bear. He noted that it's difficult to guarantee that you won't be hit, but these tips may make you a less likely target.

1.    Have a map of the panels with their serial numbers, so you can identify stolen property. Attendees suggested making the contractor supply that, and others suggested manufacturers could embed RFID (radio frequency identification) chips inside the packages to discourage theft.

2.    Use locking bolts; they do slow down the thieves. Thompson noted that at least one winery that has been hit twice epoxied down its panels. "I sure hope they don't have to repair any," he added.

3.    Install an alarm system, either one that tells the world with noise and lights, or a silent alarm to tip off the sheriffs.

4.    If you suspect anything, call the sheriff. Don't enter the scene, which could compromise evidence -- and don't mess with the thieves, who are typically high on meth.

5.    Note suspicious vehicles and activities, and warn your neighbors and workers to do the same. Take down license numbers of such vehicles.

6.    For now, call the sheriff at (707) 253-0911 from cell phones; 911 goes to the California Highway Patrol.

Thompson is organizing a Crime Prevention Safety Fair to be held in Yountville on Dec. 12 at the renovated Community Hall, and will have security systems vendors there.

During the meeting, the sheriffs also addressed the increasing problem of marijuana farmers in remote areas. Robertson noted that though Lake County has the most acreage, Napa County has "more  than 30 farms."

He warned people to monitor water shortages -- the dope growers steal water, often running long PVC pipes. All three officers warned people not to investigate any suspected activities: The marijuana growers are armed. Just notify the authorities and "back out the way you came."

"They're much more dangerous than they used to be, since the big cartels got involved," said Thompson, who also mentioned that two deputies in Lassen County have been shot by growers.

County Supervisor Diane Dillon, who represents much of rural Napa Valley, noted that one reason there's a big call for legalizing marijuana is the huge effort going into prohibition. "Some people are comparing it to the first Prohibition," she said, noting that the state could not only save money on enforcement, but also collect taxes if marijuana were legalized.
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