Patrolling the rural range

Doug Vander Esch is the new agricultural sheriff that will be

– Not every sheriff’s deputy can say his childhood on a dairy
farm offers relevant experience for a job in law enforcement.
But as interactions with farmers, ranchers and vintners top his
list, Deputy Doug Vander Esch certainly can draw from his years on
his parents’ Iowa farm.
By Lori Stuenkel

Gilroy – Not every sheriff’s deputy can say his childhood on a dairy farm offers relevant experience for a job in law enforcement.

But as interactions with farmers, ranchers and vintners top his list, Deputy Doug Vander Esch certainly can draw from his years on his parents’ Iowa farm. The new Rural Crime Deputy started his beat in unincorporated South County earlier this month.

Maybe it’s that farming background that already is making him popular among local farmers. Maybe it is his amiable demeanor and friendly blue eyes, which belie his imposing height and shaved head. Perhaps most important is simply his presence in the agricultural community.

“I’m in the information-gathering stage right now,” Vander Esch said. “Most of what I’ve been doing so far is meeting with all the farmers, getting to know the area and learn my way around, knowing who should be where.”

The meet-and-greet is a needed step to re-building what has historically been a strong relationship between the Sheriff’s Office and South County farmers. The Rural Crime Deputy works a different kind of beat, and although Vander Esch spends much of his time alone patrolling country roads, it is his interactions with farmers and ranchers that will be his focus.

Local farmers appreciate the effort.

“He’s been great,” said Tim Chiala, of George Chiala Farms in Morgan Hill. “He’s come by a few times just to say hello, ask if we have any problems or issues with things.”

Jeannie Lopez of Uesugi Farms said she has met with Deputy Vander Esch several times, as well.

“He’s spoken to the entire office,” she said. “It makes me feel more confident that we have a voice with the ag sheriff.”

Relations between the agricultural community and the Sheriff’s Office became strained late last year following a rash of equipment thefts from local farms. Sheriff’s Capt. Ed Laverone has said the department did not give former Rural Crime Unit Deputy Dino Diaz the tools or the time to do the job of ag deputies in the past. The result was that communication between farmers and the department declined and the string of thefts went unaddressed for months, with farmers becoming increasingly frustrated.

Aside from building relationships, Vander Esch is patrolling rural roads in his four-wheel-drive SUV and distributing signs to farmers and ranchers that warn against trespassing.

Earlier this week Vander Esch responded to a gasoline theft from a farm outside Gilroy and used the opportunity to remind other farmers to lock up their gasoline each night.

The agricultural beat is not much different from his previous beat with county parks, Vander Esch said. The biggest difference is the switch from working nights to working days, he said, which gives him busier shifts. He worked in county parks during the past year; before that he rotated between different beats and schedules in the sheriff’s department for several years.

Immediately after he moved to San Jose from Iowa 14 years ago, though, he served as a corrections officer more than a decade. He still resides in San Jose with his wife of 13 years and two sons, ages 6 and 10.

Besides his new agricultural focus, Deputy Vander Esch said his job is to protect residents and prevent crime, as any deputy would do.

“We’re all looking out for it, it’s just my focus is on the rural community,” he said. “If anybody comes up on anything, especially anything in progress, they’re going to act on it.”

His target of preventing further farm equipment thefts centers on proactively spreading the word about the Owner Applied Number program. A system to recover stolen equipment, it was developed by the FBI and is supported by numerous agencies, including law enforcement, the farm bureau and Rural Crime Prevention Task Force.

The program issues farmers a 10-digit number to put on their equipment that identifies the state, county and individual farmer to which it belongs. All law enforcement agencies in the state have access to the numbers directory.

Vander Esch recently was invited to describe the program in detail, as a guest speaker at a meeting of the Santa Clara County Farm Bureau.

He calls it the easiest thing farmers can do to protect their equipment. County farmers used to be involved in the program, so he found that some still had numbers registered in their name, but few have been actively marking equipment.

“It’s been well-received so far,” Vander Esch said of the program. “A lot of it is updating information.”

Chiala said he knew the program existed elsewhere, and was eager to sign up. Vander Esch actually saved him the trouble, by registering Chiala and bringing the number to him.

“It’s one of those things that we’ve wanted to do,” Chiala said. “With all the current thefts that have happened, we want to protect our equipment.”

George Chiala Farms was struck by thieves more than once in the past year, losing a few hundred dollars’ worth of pallets and stereos from several tractors.

“If your stuff ever gets stolen, it gets traced back to you” with the number, Chiala said.

That is precisely why Vander Esch thinks there’s no reason for a farmer not to enroll in the Owner Applied Number program.

“You can put the number anywhere you want, as many times as you want,” he said. “When we take a theft report, then we will cross-check it with the numbers of any equipment reported stolen.”

Uesugi Farms has been in the program for 12 years, although a $15,000 tractor that was stolen in September has not been recovered.

Solving rural crime does not stop at Vander Esch. Another detective, Jeff McCoy, joined the South County office this month to help in the effort. Although he previously was working on cases in this area – particularly stolen vehicle recoveries – he moved to the San Martin substation to be more readily available, said Lt. Dale Unger.

In the past few weeks, no major cases have arisen, and no old cases been solved, but farmers are already feeling closer ties to the department and Vander Esch.

“We’ve always had a good relationship with the sheriff’s department and local law enforcement, but this way I feel like I have a personal relationship with him,” Chiala said.

“I wouldn’t hesitate to call him if I felt that something was suspicious. Before, I didn’t really know any of the deputies very well, but this deputy I have no problem calling.”

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