Feb 7, 2014 8:26 PM by Cameron Polom, KSBY News
A string of burglaries has hit the southern San Luis Obispo County agricultural community hard.
Thieves made off with nearly a half million dollars worth of equipment from more than 20 businesses and farms over the last six months.
Ranchers claim, even though it's been happening for so long, they were given no heads up to the massive theft ring.
"I notice they had cut through the siding sheet metal and made a door out of there," said Vernon Garcia pointing towards the makeshift entrance the thieves made in his equipment shed.
It's becoming an all too familiar site for south local farmers.
"I came back over here and I looked at my cash register and it was pried open and there was nothing in it," he said.
Garcia is an ex-auto parts dealer and says the thieves stole a pair of NASCAR intake aluminum heads and manifold, power drills and other tools totaling a few thousand dollars. They also made their way into his RV, rifling through every nook and cranny, leaving $10,000 worth of damage along the way.
"I just couldn't believe it, and I hadn't heard of any of these break-ins," said a frustrated Garcia.
He isn't the only one who was caught off guard.
"It hit home pretty good," said Gary Nightongale.
Nightongale, trucking manager of C and M Nursery says they didn't know about the thefts, either. Like at Garcia's place, the thieves once again cut a door into the aluminum siding and made their way in.
The San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Office says anywhere from 15 to 20 farms and businesses have been hit in a similar fashion.
"When I saw the lockers open I looked down and saw the welder and plasma cutter gone," said Nightongale.
"I've got a neighbor over here that got broke in and they took a very heavy welder and grinders from him and they hauled that over a half a mile," said Garcia.
"We've been compiling all the cases together to determine if there's a link between them," said Sgt. Jay Wells of the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Office. "We've put a Crime Stoppers reward out for those. We're actually at a stage in the investigation where we're putting out some public notices."
Sgt. Wells says they've been alerting ranchers personally; however, of the seven we spoke with, none had been contacted before becoming a victim. We asked if they were to alert ranchers and scare the criminals into stopping, wouldn't that be a win, too?
"In a way, it's a win for those types of cases," said Wells. "We can say they stopped those types of crimes, but we can't necessarily prevent them from finding a new method and targeting in a different manner."
The Sheriff's Office is now offering a Crime Stoppers reward for information leading to the thieves' arrests. They've also begun notifying those who are vulnerable. They say they can't emphasize enough the reason they hesitate to put too much information out is because it could stop them from catching those responsible.
The Sheriff's Office says investigators are working some strong leads. They encourage ranchers and farmers to invest in a security system of some sort to help deter some of these activities. They believe the majority of what's stolen will find its way to the black market or be sold at swap meets across the state.
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