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Thieves targeting isolated, rural properties in Virginia

GOOCHLAND, VA — Rural Virginia residents face some of the same crime problems as people in cities and suburbs, and preventing theft can be a challenge in the country.

Palmer Clifford, a corporal with the Goochland County Sheriff’s Office, said unlike urban neighbors, farmers and other rural landowners have a lot more acres to protect.

“You’re talking three or even more, upwards of a hundred (acres),” Clifford said in an episode of Real Virginia, the weekly television show produced by Virginia Farm Bureau. “There’s nothing else around, so people can access (the property) coming off an adjacent property on one side. Sometimes they can park on the roadway and just enter through a field or wooded area.”

He added that even when areas are fenced, thieves still can find a way in.

“If they’re trying to steal something and they’ve already got it in mind, they’re going to go after it,” Clifford noted.

In Amelia County, Kerry Harding experienced this firsthand when people trespassed on his property and stole a catalytic converter from one of his farm trucks.

“My son, who was hunting, came up on two guys at the back of our barn stealing some parts from us,” Harding recalled. “He called me, and we eventually found them as they were fleeing on four-wheelers.”

The father and son followed the two men and called the police. Eventually, two suspects were arrested.

Harding said the thieves took equipment and caused about $12,000 worth of damage. The theft also cost him time away from the farm to testify in court.

In nearby Nottoway County, farmer Bo Toth had both an all-terrain vehicle and a pickup truck, worth a total of $15,000, stolen.

The truck was taken while abandoned on a rural road with a flat tire. The ATV was parked near a grain bin on his farm property, and the next morning it was gone.

Toth said he’s also had someone attempt to take a catalytic converter out of a pickup truck that was parked near a cattle pasture.

There are several different legal classifications for trespassing, but entering someone’s property without permission is a Class 1 misdemeanor under Virginia law. Someone convicted of that crime could face 12 months in jail and up to a $2,500 fine. If someone steals $1,000 worth of property like a vehicle or equipment, with the intent to sell it, that’s considered grand larceny. If convicted of this felony, they face between two and 20 years in prison.

Virginia State Police and security experts say laws help, but the best defense is for rural residents to take steps to reduce the crime of opportunity, like locking buildings and vehicles.

Clifford said some rural landowners have a false sense of security, so they leave their doors unlocked. However, they shouldn’t. “Take the keys out of the tractor, put a lock on the trailer hitch.”

He also suggested installing solar-powered lights or motion-sensor lights. And if you’re out of town, ask neighbors to keep an eye on the property.

Harding and Toth agreed that landowners should step up their own security to reduce theft in the countryside.

“You just have to be aware, especially if you store equipment away from your farm, you just have to check on it,” Harding said.

Toth concurred. “You have to be more vigilant,” he said.

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