Suspicious activities mounting in rural county

 Farmers experience increased thefts of equipment and fuel 

By Flint McColgan
Minot Daily News

MINOT, N.D. (AP) — Jared Lochthowe, a farmer in the rural Minot area, went up to the window on the garage door of his work building at around 11:30 on a night late last year after his dogs started barking. Outside he saw that a semi-truck had parked in his field with two men inside. After an hour of watching them with his lights out so they wouldn’t know he was there, he decided to call 911.

Soon after he called the men left his property in a hurry, he says. It seemed to him, judging by the speed they left and that he had seen an electronic device in one of their hands, that they were listening in on emergency radio frequencies with a hand-held scanner.

“There was two people in the truck and I could see, because the lights were all off, the highlighted, electronic device they were holding,” he told the Minot Daily News. “And I assumed it was a scanner because of how they left immediately.”

When interviewed on his property, Lochthowe said that while this was a unique and troubling incident, it has become characteristic of suspicious activity in the rural areas near Minot in the last few years as population has climbed.

He thinks that the two men were probably after the Bobcat loaders and a Honda Side by Side ATV that he had left in the field. While nothing was stolen from him that night, other Minot-area farmers were not so lucky.

“Well, I had about a half of a 500-gallon tank of diesel and half of a 250-gallon tank of gas,” Joel Olson, a farmer in Eureka Township, said in an interview. “I had it locked, but, you know, it’s pretty easy to knock that valve over, anyway. And that’s what they did, they opened both of those.”

Olson returned after an absence from his property to find that the fuel was gone. There were no tracks in the snow, so whoever had taken the fuel had done so well in advance of Olson’s visit.

When he went out on a recent Saturday, though, there were tracks.

He had a larger, red tank that was powering a dog heater to care for some feral cats he had found. But the cord to the heater was unplugged and he could see the nozzle to the tank just lying there. About another 500 gallons of fuel was gone.

“In other words, they had the nerve to come back,” Olson said. “This is about a month after the other theft.”

He wasn’t sure if these thefts were exclusive to him, so he asked his fuel delivery man if he had heard of anything else like this had been happening. Apparently, it was a problem affecting several people in the area.

Tom Burtch, a farmer north of Minot, has had people in an unidentified, old model Chevrolet, come up to his property and pump the fuel out from some of his field vehicles. He knows this because he’s got cameras and security.

At a recent agricultural conference he spoke with other North Dakota farmers about the latest security systems and cameras.

“We’re nervous about it for sure, and I think you’re going to see some people who are looking into enhanced security,” he said.

Lochthowe, who observed two possible would-be-thieves before calling it in to the Ward County Sheriff’s Department said the men in the semi were pulled over by a deputy just two miles down the road.

He said that in talking with the deputy the men had claimed they were simply “lost,” which he said is a poor excuse for having been in his yard for an hour in a semi-truck in the middle of the night.

“My question is, did the Sheriff’s Department ask for a bill of lading or what address were they supposedly trying to find at 11:30 at night, that’s my question,” Lochthowe said.

When contacted about rural fuel thefts in the county, Ward County Sheriff Steve Kukowski said that while he didn’t have any specifics on the matter, he has no reason to doubt the stories and claims of these farmers.

“We are having gas thefts and other problems,” he said, adding that the department has put out more patrols in recent years.

But the department has 2,013 square miles to cover and protect.

Kukowski recommends that people add additional security systems on their properties, to look out for suspicious activity and people in their area, and to call his department to report that activity. Though, with the changing times, “suspicious” has taken on a different meaning for North Dakotans, particularly in the west. Calls are already up this year over 2013.

“In this day and age, what’s suspicious?” he asked, adding that out-of-state plates are the new normal and people often get lost