Napa police had an important break in the case of the disappearing winery solar panels on Sept. 30. They caught three men they believe were trying to steal panels from Honig Vineyard and Wines. One of the men is reportedly cooperating with authorities. According to the police, they suspect methamphetamine addicts are stealing the panels and selling them to finance their drug habits.
Over the past year, several Napa Valley wineries have had solar panels stolen. Honig and ZD Wines have been hit on multiple occasions. It's an odd side effect of the region's embrace of clean energy—Napa wineries top the list of solar-powered wine-industry operations. In November 2008, thieves made off with 39 of Honig's panels, not an easy feat since each of the 2-foot by 3-foot panels weighs about 35 pounds and is bolted into place. The panels cost about $1,000 each. Honig was hit again in April.
On Sept. 30, Napa County sheriff's deputies responded to an alarm activation at Honig Vineyard at about 1 a.m. According to winery president Michael Honig, the winery had just installed relatively inexpensive motion-detecting infrared cameras near its solar panel field at the back of the winery property. According to a sheriff's department press release, deputies arrived to find a blue Toyota 4Runner backed in near some brush east of Honig's vineyard, and three suspects scattering in different directions.
The deputies decided to stake out the truck for the remainder of the night. At 6:48 a.m., one suspect returned to the Toyota, having spent the night in a field near a cattle corral to the north. James Deakins, 43, was quickly arrested.
An hour later, deputies found two other suspects walking along the Silverado Trail near Skellenger Lane—Scott Phillips, 36, of Stockton and Roger Freitas, 41, of Oakley. The suspects were booked into the Napa County Jail for attempted burglary, conspiracy to commit a felony and possession of burglary tools. Deakins was also booked for possession of a controlled substance (suspected methamphetamine), and Phillips was booked for committing a felony while out on bail.
Police are investigating the possible connection of the suspects to the rash of solar panel thefts. The sheriff's department is asking the public to be vigilant about suspicious persons or vehicles in the area. The majority of thefts have occurred late at night or in the early morning hours in rural areas of the county.
Coincidentally, sheriff Doug Koford and deputy sheriff John Thompson were scheduled to meet with winery owners later that day to update them on the case and offer advice on protecting their solar panel installations. Thompson was able to announce the arrests and assure attendees that the sheriff's department considers the thefts a high priority. The officers reported that there have been 14 thefts in Napa County, with thieves stealing $400,000 worth of panels.
Thompson said the department believes the thefts are primarily the work of East San Francisco Bay meth addicts, who fence the panels through a broker in the Central Valley. Some of the panels have been sold on Craigslist. He said investigators had collected significant evidence.
The thieves have apparently relied on Internet sources to identify vineyards that have solar panel installations, then used Google Earth to get a precise layout of the property.
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