Wednesday, October 10, 2001

Thieves push isle
orange grower
out of business

Kau Gold Orange Co. on the
Big Island has endured 3 years
of huge agricultural theft

By Rod Thompson

KAU, Hawaii >> The state's only major orange grower is on the verge of going out of business because of three years of agricultural thefts that cost him $1.9 million.

Despite increasing security measures, Morton Bassan says major thefts are continuing at his Kau Gold Orange Co.

Bassan is in the midst of harvesting now. With 18,000 orange trees on 150 acres, too many to monitor individually, Bassan says he can't tell how extensive current thievery is until harvesting ends next June.

But if losses continue, he'll go out of business before then.

"Deciding not to throw any more good money after bad -- raising fruit for thieves -- is probably the most difficult decision of my life," Bassan said. "With everything we tried, we have not been able to stop the thieves and buyers."

Bassan and his wife, Keiko, began growing oranges in Kau in 1979. They estimate they grow 95 percent of the state's orange crop.

In 1998, they enjoyed a bumper crop, shipping 75,045 35-pound cases of mostly oranges, but also some tangerines and tangelos.

Then thieves hit. In the three years that followed, the numbers plunged to 18,193 cases, then 24,637 and 15,213 cases.

The cause was not drought, Bassan said. He spends $6,000 per month on electricity to pump water to his trees.

Private investigator William Lyman agrees that Bassan's losses are from criminal activity. "I think a lot of it is by theft," he said. Lyman said he found oranges on the ground with stems attached, torn from trees. Bassan harvests by cutting stems, he said.

At major Honolulu supermarkets, Bassan has repeatedly found oranges that he believes were stolen from him. He identifies the fruit by certain markings.

How could large quantities be shipped without detection? State officials don't check arriving shipments in Honolulu, he said.

Bassan has inner and outer fences of barbed wire surrounding the two-mile perimeter of his property.

How did thieves get past those?

"That's what puzzled us," Bassan said.

Reluctantly, he concluded his employees were involved, he said. But when the employees quit, thefts continued.

Various trails lead to the edge of his property, where holes have been found in the fences.

On two occasions, his security people found trespassers on his property. One was taking pictures of his crop. Bassan calls them scouts.

Bassan has mixed comments on the police response. Most truly want to help, he says. But in the end, nothing happens.

Investigators don't have the skill to follow the paper trail backwards from Honolulu supermarkets to the thieves, he said.

In one case, a wholesaler told state Department of Agriculture investigators a certain lot of oranges came from a grower in Puna. But when investigators followed the trail of invoices, it stopped at a post office box in Honolulu, Bassan said.

Walter Mitsui at the Agriculture Department said his investigators traced some shipments back to legitimate purchases from Bassan.

Kona police Lt. Henry Hickman said an "extensive" report has been turned over to the prosecutor for review.

Still, the thieves come.

"They're just like ninja," said Bassan's wife, Keiko.

Bassan has hired more security personnel and installed high-tech security devices.

His field workers, only part-time now, continue harvesting. But Bassan is doing no preparation for a crop next year.

E-mail to City Desk

Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Do It Electric!]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]

© 2001 Honolulu Star-Bulletin