SOUTH POINT ROAD, Hawaii >> Fifteen feet away from a Kau Gold Orange Co. watchman, three men held guns in one hand, using flashlights in the other hand, looking for the watchman in the darkness.
Guard details theft
of Kau Gold oranges
Grower Morton Bassan has suffered losses of $2 million
By Rod Thompson
The men could not see the watchman, but he saw their guns: two rifles and a semiautomatic pistol with a 6-inch cylinder at the end. The watchman said it was a silencer. He had seen one before, he told the Star-Bulletin.
While losing tons of oranges to thieves during the past year, citrus grower Morton Bassan made 42 police reports but had little evidence on how the thievery was taking place until his watchman's dramatic nighttime encounter Jan. 5.
Police did an extensive investigation of the prior complaints but in a report to the prosecutor said they had no suspects, Lt. Henry Hickman said.
Frustrated and suffering losses totaling about $2 million, Bassan put his 150-acre orchard up for sale.
On Jan. 3, Bassan discovered thieves had struck again during the night. His field hands estimated losses at 38 tons worth $60,000.
On the night of Jan. 4, Bassan posted the watchman. The man does not want his name used because he fears for his safety, but he made written reports on what happened that night and the next.
The watchman saw three flashlights in a far corner of the orchard. Bassan believes the thieves use that as a command center, keeping in contact with walkie-talkies.
The watchman saw lights in the orchard for up to 45 minutes, then 16 flashlights leaving the orchard and crossing a field of jagged aa lava. The intruders drove away on an unpaved power line road.
Bassan said he never considered thieves crossing the forbidding rocks, but the next day, he discovered several trails through the area.
That night, they came again. The watchman saw 20 lights crossing the lava and called 911. Suddenly, he realized six lights were coming close to him, and he ran.
"I spotted six lights panning all around. I then heard, 'Where did he go?'" the watchman wrote later.
He saw two rifles.
"The other gun that I saw was a black handgun, .45 (caliber) maybe," the watchman said. "But it had a smooth black shaft at the end of the gun. He had about a 6-inch silencer on his gun."
Capt. Ronald Nakamichi declined to comment on whether the new sightings aid the police investigation.
"We're continuing to see how we can resolve this," he said.
How thieves could carry tons of fruit across a lava field to a waiting truck remains unclear.
"We have unbelievable amounts stolen," Bassan said. "It's happened, so we do believe it. How they do it is another story."
Sometimes the stolen fruit shows up in sales in Honolulu stores. Bassan referred to a sale involving at least 1,200 cases of oranges at a Honolulu store last year.
A state Department of Agriculture investigation determined the fruit came from other Big Island growers, but investigators would not name them, Bassan said.
Bassan's loan officer, Linus Tavares of Farm Credit Services of Hawaii, said, "There's no one (else) on this island with that kind of production."