Steele County farm workers charged in corn theft

  • Article by: MIKE HUGHLETT
  • Star Tribune
  • February 15, 2012 - 11:14 PM

First there was the case of the purloined pigs. Now comes the Steele County corn caper.

Two southern Minnesota farm workers were charged earlier this month with two felonies each in an alleged plot to illegally relieve their employer of 14,000 bushels -- or $84,000 worth -- of corn.

It was the third alleged corn theft case in the Upper Midwest in the past year, and it comes on the heels of a raft of hog thefts nationally, including a series in Minnesota that received widespread attention.

The backdrop for this farm larceny: historically high corn and livestock prices that have upped potential returns for criminals.

On Jan. 31, Blooming Prairie police got a call from a local farmer who said he was worried that two of his employees, Arnold Schwamm and Jeana Anderson, were planning to pinch some of his corn, Steele County court documents say.

Blooming Prairie Police Chief Paul Wayne then got hold of an informant whom Schwamm had allegedly recruited for the corn heist.

The 73-year-old Schwamm told the informant that the farm owner "would not miss the corn," court records say. The targeted farmer, Tom Vavra, runs a particularly big spread and has six big new storage bins on the outskirts of Blooming Prairie, Wayne said.

Schwamm, an Austin resident, had worked for Vavra for 18 years; Anderson, for under two years, Wayne said. Neither Schwamm, Anderson nor Vavra could be reached for comment.

When Vavra was out of town for several days, Schwamm and Anderson allegedly planned to steal the corn in several truckloads. It takes only five minutes to fill a semitrailer with corn, and 14,000 bushels wouldn't cause observers to notice any change in the bins' corn level, Wayne said. "They had thought it through."

Blooming Prairie police busted Schwamm and Anderson at the grain bins around 3:30 a.m., just after the first semitrailer had been loaded with more than 500 bushels of corn worth about $3,000. Both have been charged with one count each of theft and conspiracy to commit theft, which could bring jail time.

"What gets everybody up in arms around here is that it probably wouldn't be difficult for more of this [corn thievery] to occur," Wayne said.

The Blooming Prairie corn job follows a December theft of 4,000 bushels of corn in Mitchell, S.D. And last September a farm worker in northern Iowa pleaded guilty to first-degree theft after he stole 42,000 bushels of corn from his employer.

Hogs and cattle targeted, too

With the price of corn over $6 a bushel -- up 50 percent from mid-2010 -- the grain is golden nowadays. So are hogs and cattle, both of which have fetched record prices over the past nine months.

Thieves have recognized this, stealing more than 900 hogs -- all plump and ready for slaughter -- from three Minnesota growers since August.

The first theft, from a Kandiyohi County farmer, involved 590 hogs worth about $130,000; the second, in Nicollet County, covered 150 pigs worth more than $30,000.

A third heist involved at least 150 more hogs filched in Faribault County, said Marc Chadderdon, an investigator for the Nicollet County Sheriff's Office.

Chadderdon said that since the hog thefts, there have been reports of cattle thefts in southern Minnesota, including 15 to 20 head in Nicollet County.

Chadderdon said investigators in all three counties think the hog thefts are connected. But they have no suspects or strong leads, he said, despite extensive spadework in the pork community and a wealth of media exposure for the first two thefts.

"I thought we would get a lot of tips," Chadderdon said.

Two southern Minnesota men were charged last fall in connection with the theft of several hundred young pigs from growers in Mitchell County, Iowa.

However, Chadderdon said, that theft doesn't appear to be linked to the Minnesota cases.

Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003

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