Tulare County Sheriff’s Lt. Chad Rhyman applies SmartWater to power tools. Photo by David Castellon.

published on June 12, 2019 - 1:24 PM
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When discussing the problem of crime, more often than not, the topic focuses on the urban landscape.

But here in the Valley, crimes on farms, ranches and other rural areas is a problem requiring new technology and new ways of doing things, and Tulare County Sheriff’s officials figure they’ve found a way to put a dent in agricultural crime.

Since January 2017, the sheriff’s department has been handing out to farmers and ranchers sample bottles of SmartWater, which isn’t actually water, but rather a clear mineral solution and adhesive that can be applied to most anything that can be stolen, from tractors to tools to vehicle parts to all-terrain vehicles, along with office equipment and computers that also can be targeted in thefts at farming operations.

It works by applying with a brush or sprayer the clear liquid onto parts and on various spots of large items at risk of being stolen, similar to the way an owner’s name or identifying mark might be stamped or written on valuables so they can be identified if they’re recovered by law enforcement.

Thieves tend to look for these identifying marks, and often remove them by prying off vehicle identification numbers, grinding off serial numbers or removing unnecessary parts that are marked, said Lt. Chad Rhyman, who oversees the Tulare County Sheriff’s Agricultural Crimes Unit.

So even when suspected stolen items are recovered, it can be hard for law enforcement to prove they were stolen by matching them with their owners.

SmartWater changes that, because once the liquid is applied, it dries quickly and can’t bee seen by the naked eye, Rhyman said.

But it can be seen when law enforcement shines an ultraviolet flashlight on it, and the treated spots glow green, he said, noting that normal UV lights will not cause the glow, and the manufacturer provides a the lights to law enforcement agencies it has partnered with to promote the product.

All Tulare County patrol deputies have the lights, “So, if they do a traffic stop — say it’s in the middle of the night — they look in the back of the truck and see there are a whole bunch of tools back there. [A deputy] could casually shine the light back there” and if any of the tools have green, glowing spots, that gives the deputy probable cause to ask for proof of ownership and to question the driver and passengers, Rhyman said.

“Most people don’t go driving around with $3,000 worth of tools in their car,” he said, adding that if the responses don’t satisfy the deputies that the people in the truck are the legitimate owners, those tools can be confiscated, and a further investigation could be launched.

Similarly, detectives and deputies who recover stolen items use the UV lights to search for SmartWater marks.

“I like to mark something where your hands aren’t rubbing it or touching it,” said Rhyman, adding that he also recommends applying it in multiple spots, including around the bezel surrounding a vehicle’s ignition switch, the steering column and various spots in an engine compartment, while avoiding areas thieves might discard before selling stolen items or breaking them down to sell for parts.

But what makes SmartWater smart is that the glowing chemical has a second purpose. If a suspect doesn’t confess to stealing the item and the initial investigation doesn’t turn up the owner, investigators can scrape away a small amount of the chemical, place it in an evidence bag and mail it to the manufacturer’s U.S. headquarters and lab in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

SmartWater actually started about 20 years ago in England, the brainchild of a former British detective and his chemist brother that they marketed to residential customers to mark their household property.

Each bottle of SmartWater is made with a slight chemical variation from the others, with up to a billion variations possible.

Once customers obtain their bottles, they register them on a SmartWater database accessible to the law enforcement agencies working with them. Once the Florida lab receives the scraping, the exact chemical compound can be identified and matched to a registered user, much like matching DNA to a person, said Rhyman, whose detectives first heard about SmartWater in late 2016 at a rural crimes task force meeting.

After doing research, the sheriff’s officials liked SmartWater so much that they ponied up almost $50,000 to buy the special UV lights and 600 sample bottles — each about the size of a nail polish bottle — and in January 2017, deputies and detectives began handing them out to Tulare County ag businesses, making it the first law enforcement agency in the Valley to promote using SmartWater.

The sheriff’s departments for Madera and Merced counties followed last year.

As for how the product has worked, Rhyman said it has been a success, but not in a way anticipated, as SmartWater appears to be more of a deterrent for criminals than a way to solve crimes.

Simply put, no items marked with SmartWater have been reported stolen or recovered by the Tulare County Sheriff’s Department in the 2 ½ years the program has been in place.

Rhyman said that’s because the program is promoted heavily, and businesses using SmartWater post signs warning, “PROPERTY AND EQUIPMENT FORENSICALLY PROTECTED BY SMARTWATER AND REGISTERED WITH” the Sheriff’s Department, which seems to be enough to prompt crooks to avoid those places.

The Madera County Farm Bureau put up $50,000 last year to buy SmartWater bottles for its members, along with UV flashlights and larger lights for the Madera County Sheriff’s Department and police in Madera and Coalinga.

Christina Beckstead, executive director of the Madera County Farm Bureau, said her agency put up the money after members who heard about how much farmers in Tulare County liked SmartWater inquired, “Why aren’t we doing this in Madera [County]?”

Sheriff’s Lt. Zach Zamudio said SmartWater has been a success there as a deterrent, as “I haven’t heard farmers say anything marked with SmartWater has been stolen.”

And deterring thefts is much easier than tracking down, arresting and prosecuting criminals.

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