As Touchstone Pistachio Company ran through its routine audit earlier this month, something wasn’t adding up.
More than 42,000 pounds of pistachios had vanished.
The company soon enlisted the Sheriff’s Office in Tulare County, California, for help and on Saturday, law enforcement officials said they had found the missing nuts and arrested the thief. Police said the culprit, Alberto Montemayor, 34, was hiding the pistachios in a tractor trailer parked in a nearby parking lot and then repackaging them to sell.
The case is just the latest heist of pistachio nuts in Central California, where the nuts were a $5.2 billion economic engine tied to more than 47,000 jobs last year, according to studies commissioned by the industry. Last August, the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office arrested a 23-year-old man for allegedly stealing two trucks full of pistachios valued at $294,000.
Nuts are an ideal high-priced item to steal and resell because unlike electronic devices, they don’t have serial numbers — making them virtually untraceable. And since Central California produces the vast majority of the country’s pistachio, walnut and almond supplies, it is fairly common to see large trucks hauling tens of thousands of pounds of nuts, Quartz reported. That makes it harder for law enforcement to identify which vehicles are carrying stolen product.
Thieves have used forged documents, fake companies and computer hacking, BuzzFeed News reported in 2016, to pose as legitimate truckers. Similarly, the thieves are also able to sell off the product to retailers, who are none the wiser about who is actually receiving the money. Last July, the Kern County Sheriff’s Office arrested two men accused of going to an almond and pistachio distribution center and posing as drivers picking up a shipment. (They are due back in court this month.)
Heists skyrocketed between 2014 and 2017, resulting in the loss of more than $7.6 million worth of nuts, according to CargoNet, a company that tracks truck thefts. But over the past few years, thefts have declined as the farm industry has become savvy to the schemes and larger growers have adopted new policies, such as taking photos and thumb prints from drivers, according to Capital Press.
Touchstone Pistachio Company, which has facilities in Chowchilla and Terra Bella, is owned by Assemi Brothers, three siblings who emigrated from Iran. The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Tulare County Sheriff’s Office first got involved in the company’s case on Thursday, after an audit found that tens of thousands of pounds of pistachios were missing.
The county’s agriculture detectives led the case, and coordinated with other counties to find the missing nuts.
“Investigative leads in Fresno and Kern County discovered the tractor trailer containing the pistachios had been moved from the Montemayor Trucking lot in Delano to a nearby lot,” the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement.
When detectives inspected the truck, they found the pistachios siphoned into 2,000-pound sacks — making it easier for resale, police said.
It is unclear how many pounds of the stolen pistachios remained in the trailer. The Sheriff’s Office said any remaining product was returned to the Touchstone Pistachio Company.
Montemayor was booked in county jail, according to the Sheriff’s Office. It is unclear if he has a lawyer.