By Rachel Gordon, Staff Writer
The San Francisco Chronicle
Authorities announced Monday the arrests of a warehouse operator and a suspected accomplice they believe are involved in the thefts of almonds and walnuts from growers in the Central Valley over the past 18 months.
About $400,000 worth of stolen nuts was recovered Sunday night from the two suspects. The edible goods apparently were headed for India, China, Canada and other destinations in Europe and the United States, police said.
The discovery accounts for part of the estimated $2 million of nut crops reported stolen from the heart of California's farmland during the past year and a half. At least 14 large truckloads of almonds and walnuts have gone missing.
But a break in the case came Sunday night when an alarm sounded in a Sacramento warehouse on Railroad Street. The property owner went to investigate and "noticed that something didn't look right," said Royjindar Singh, a deputy with the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department, which has been investigating the agricultural heists.
The property owner saw workers inside the warehouse transferring nuts from boxes marked with the names of Central Valley growers into unmarked containers. He had read news accounts of the thefts and immediately contacted the Merced County Sheriff's Department, which then notified the Sacramento Police Department.
Officers swooped in and found almonds and walnuts that were stolen from four different locations in the San Joaquin Valley. They detained 11 people but, after initial questioning, let all but two men go.
The two men, 27-year-old Amrik Singh and 41-year-old Sukhwinder Grewal, were arrested on charges of possession of stolen property. Grewal lives in the Sacramento area, and Singh's residence was unknown Monday night.
Police believe Grewal also runs legitimate businesses specializing in East Indian food products and merchandise such as Michael Jordan posters out of the warehouses. Royjindar Singh described the stolen nut enterprise as "a side business." He said detectives described Grewal as a key player who coordinated the illegal activity. Authorities did not offer an explanation of Amrik Singh's alleged involvement.
The suspects may face additional charges, for such offenses as grand theft and burglary, said Royjindar Singh, who is not related to the suspect.
Police did not say Monday whether they believe Amrik Singh and Grewal actually stole the nuts or were acting as middlemen.
The nuts were stolen from growers' yards, commercial processing plants and rail yards, where they were being kept in 40-foot shipping containers aboard tractor-trailer rigs awaiting transport to the Port of Oakland.
Royjindar Singh said more people may be arrested.
The nine others who were detained and released were simply warehouse workers following orders and not directly involved in the almond and walnut caper, authorities said.
By the end of Sunday, detectives from Merced, San Joaquin and Stanislaus county law enforcement agencies were involved, as well as Sacramento police and the Tulare County district attorney's office.
Royjindar Singh said that during the bust, police found a paper trail that provided a detailed accounting of where the stolen nuts were headed. The paperwork also led investigators to another warehouse in West Sacramento where more almonds were discovered. In all, police recovered 123,675 pounds of almonds and 13,080 pounds of walnuts from the two warehouses.
"This is the break our detectives were waiting for," Deputy Singh said.
He put the nuts' value at $400,000 -- just a fraction of the $2 million that growers have reported stolen. He said the suspects are not thought to be responsible for all the nut-filching that has taken place, but for a good portion of it.
Police started contacting the growers Sunday night.
"It was one of those late-night calls you welcome," said Dave Phippen, vice president of Travaille and Phippen, an almond grower in Ripon (San Joaquin County). Police recovered about 4,000 of the 88,000 pounds of almonds his family-run business lost to thieves on July 3.
"We didn't get all our almonds back," Phippen said. "But the most important thing is that maybe now that these men were caught, this will put an end to the theft."
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Calif. police 'crack' down on thieves; $400k worth of almonds, walnuts found