Recent arrests in a south Alabama theft ring and a Dallas County farm vandalism case are the latest victories for the state’s Agricultural and Rural Crimes Unit (ARCU). Since forming in June 2013, ARCU has 55 felony arrests and 68 misdemeanor arrests to its credit and has recovered $1.5 million worth of stolen equipment.
ARCU Chief Lt. Gene Wiggins credits the unit’s success to good working relationships with local law enforcement agencies.
“Police and sheriffs respond first, but ARCU provides a valuable resource because our jurisdiction covers the state,” Wiggins said. “Our agents are talented investigators, and they always have agriculture on their minds. Calling us is like having more specialized deputies on the case.
Along with outreach to law enforcement agencies, Wiggins said his unit has reached out to agricultural groups, like the Alabama Farmers Federation, to educate members on preventing theft. “We’re trying to be proactive,” Wiggins said. “Thieves are looking for easy access to something valuable. The most important thing farmers can do (to protect their property) is be vigilant.”
Dallas County farmer Johnny Henry knows first-hand the benefits of vigilance. Before Christmas, vandals cut plastic wrap from cotton bales on his Selma farm, and he filed a report with ARCU. Later, as farm workers cleaned up the mess, they noticed a suspicious vehicle in the area.
“The driver was returning to the scene of the crime, I guess to see his handiwork,” Henry said.
After an ARCU investigation, the driver and his son confessed. “It’s a relief to know these criminals have been arrested,” Henry said. “It’s now a closed chapter. I can’t thank everyone enough.”
Another ARCU success story led to four arrests in theft investigations of a utility trailer, golf cart, all-terrain vehicle and zero-turn lawn mower in south Alabama and the Florida panhandle. Thieves targeted businesses, including the SunSouth John Deere dealer in Covington County.
“People stealing equipment from our dealers has been an issue the past 10 to 15 years,” said SunSouth Chairman Lester Killebrew. “ARCU is doing a tremendous job. I think what they’re doing will deter crime because it won’t be so easy for thieves to target rural areas anymore.”
ARCU was created by 2013 legislation consolidating state law enforcement agencies. While the law does not take full effect until 2015, Gov. Robert Bentley and Alabama State Law Enforcement Agency Secretary Spencer Collier saw the immediate need for an agricultural unit.
“When we started ARCU, I was eager for our unit to get out there and demonstrate there was a need for agricultural investigators,” Wiggins said. “It’s a good feeling to know the governor and Secretary Collier trust me to head this unit.”
However, Wiggins said, the best feeling is letting a victim know a crime has been solved.
“It’s so gratifying to call someone — to hear their voice change to a tone of sincerity and appreciation,” he said.
Wiggins said he believes the unit will continue to help reduce and solve rural crimes, and possibly expand in the coming year. To report a rural crime, visit arcu.alabama.gov. or call 855-75-CRIME.