NEWBERRY — As temperatures heat up this summer, Newberry County’s zero turn lawn mowers and farm equipment become hot items for thieves.
Newberry County Sheriff Lee Foster said four zero turn lawn mowers were stolen in Newberry County during the last three weeks. He said these thefts are a problem throughout the state and region.
“We find criminals have adopted thefts along a marketing strategy where they steal the most valuable (farm equipment, ATV, trailers or lawn mowers) for that particular season,” he said.
Foster said fall and early spring seem to be when thefts of farm utility vehicles and ATVs increase because farmers and hunters use those vehicles more during hunting season and pre-planting season.
In a typical scenario, Foster said a group of suspects will steal a piece of equipment and then travel a few counties away. They will pull into a subdivision and pose as someone down on his or her luck in the lawn care business needing to sell the mower — worth $5,000 — for around $1,000.
“That’s pure profit for the criminal and (unfortunately) the consumer buys it,” he said.
Unlike a vehicle, ATVs, trailers, mowers and farm utility vehicles are not registered.
John Deere and some other repair companies keep serial number records of the equipment they service and check serial numbers against known stolen vehicles.
“I’m not advocating a registry because in my opinion people fear that increased taxes and fees would accompany, one but I would be in favor of some form of registry if it would help track these stolen vehicles,” he said.
While not going into specifics of an ongoing investigation, Foster said information they have received suggests the equipment is being stolen in the middle of the night. By the time the owner realizes it is gone, the equipment has either been taken to a chop shop for parts or could be as far away as Tennessee.
“According to our intelligence on this group, they use ‘scouts’ to look through rural farm areas and neighborhoods,” he said. “Then late evening or early morning, they return and shove the vehicles on a trailer or in a moving truck and are gone. If the theft occurred while a resident was away at work, the thieves could have up to an 11-hour head start on law enforcement. The odds of recovery are relatively low because of the mobility of our society.”
Often the moving truck has also been stolen.
“The vehicles are used on farms or in restricted areas (which adds to the difficulty of recovery), but we are doing everything in our power to try and locate the missing vehicles,” he said.
“We encourage our residents to be proactive to try not only to protect themselves but to allow us to help them,” he said. “If residents have the capability, we ask they lock their vehicles up.”
Other suggestions include recording serial numbers, not leaving vehicles/equipment in an easily accessible location and adding identifying marks such as engravings or stamped names.
Foster said residents need to call 911 if they see someone acting suspiciously and call law enforcement if they are approached about buying an expensive piece of equipment at a greatly reduced price. Foster also suggested setting up video cameras or game cameras for surveillance.
Foster noted the constitution limits the Newberry County Sheriff’s Office’s capability for video surveillance so the public’s assistance in that area is crucial. Residents could then share video evidence with law enforcement, if they chose to do so.
“Video evidence of suspects, license plates, etc. is an outstanding way to identify a suspect,” he said.
Residents needing advice on how to set up a camera can call the sheriff’s office and a deputy will come assist them.
New information shows thieves are targeting all brands of equipment although last year John Deere seemed to be the most popular.
“This group is known to go behind people’s houses to steal, and that is a great risk to the criminal because of the odds there is a person home who has the capability to defend their property,” he said.
In this county, another complicating factor is the large number of people who cut grass for family members or who own their own lawn businesses and are legitimately moving equipment.
Foster said his deputies are checking problem areas, especially at night. In the process, he requests the public’s patience and understanding.
“If we stop someone, check on a zero turn mower, for instance, it’s not to be harassing anyone but to try and protect our residents’ property. We are pulling out all the stops through technology, investigations and manpower to catch those responsible,” he said.
Anyone with information regarding the thefts should contact the Newberry County Sheriff’s Office at 803-321-2211.