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Mangoes are particularly popular, says Griffin, because they are so easy for thieves to spot - they turn crimson, orange, or gold when ripe - and grow densely during the short and concentrated June-to-August harvest season. "You can pick a lot of mangoes from a small area in no time at all," Griffin notes. "So as a grower, the more you have, the more you stand to lose."
Nobody stands to lose more than J.R. Brooks and Son. As producer of $8 to $9 million worth of the county's $15 million annual crop, the Brooks company grows more mangoes than anyone in the United States. In a county where most farms take up less than 50 acres, Brooks owns or manages about 4000 acres planted with limes, mangoes, avocados, and other tropical fruits and vegetables. "When you're trying to watch over that much land, thieves can cause you one hell of a headache," says Michael Hunt, head of Brooks's field operations. Last year alone, the grower lost more than $100,000 in thefts of equipment and fruit. Most of the damage, says Hunt, was to the mango crop.
This year, with a mild winter and steady rains that came at just the right time, the rust-and-gold blossoms were supplanted by quickly ripening mangoes in May, a month earlier than usual. Brooks field managers immediately began to notice thefts, despite the fact that many of the groves are bordered by barbed-wire fences. As usual Metro's agricultural patrol unit pitched in to help, but with six officers and a sergeant doing the patrolling, SW 152nd Street south to the county line - 944 square miles - is a lot of territory to cover. For the growing season, Brooks paid Homestead's Southwest Security $35,000 for extra personnel to patrol mango groves, and the company also spent $10,000 for a pilot to fly over groves, searching out unauthorized vehicles.
Despite the extra security measures, thieves were managing to make off with a fortune in fruit all over South Dade. By June growers had reported an estimated $41,000 in losses, as compared to a little more than $105,000 all of last year. Police say those numbers represent about 30 percent of actual losses. "The frustration level gets very high when this sort of thing is going on," says Colleen Griffin of the Mango Forum.
How to keep a closer watch over the crop was a constant topic of conversation among Brooks field managers. As always, all the growers vowed to watch out for each other's property. "If another grower sees one of my groves being pilfered," says Michael Hunt, "he's not going to say, `Ha, ha, ha, they're going to go out of business,' because they'll be in his grove next. So he's going to do something about it."
When suspected thieves are sighted in a Brooks grove, Hunt says, foremen head out for a look, keeping in close radio contact with each other and the central office. They use roadblocks to corral suspects, then hold them at shotgun-point and call the police. It is not company policy, Hunt emphatically states, to try to stop a fleeing poacher by firing at him. "The only justification for shooting someone or causing bodily harm is if you are in desperate fear for your own personal well-being," says Hunt. "It's justifiable in that case, when it's a him-or-me situation."
On Memorial Day afternoon, four managers at J.R. Brooks and Son were discussing the lime crop at the company's headquarters in the Redlands when Michael Hunt answered a call from Fred Rutzke, a grower who contracts with Brooks to manage several of his groves.
Hunt put the call on the speaker phone. From the mobile phone in his pickup truck, Rutzke reported that two white men were stealing mangoes from the Brooks "JRB" mango grove just north of SW 280th Street and east of the L-31 drainage canal, near Homestead General Aviation Airport. Along with lime production foremen Murray Bass, Steve Hoveland, and Charles Dorsey, Hunt and mango production managers Keith and Greg Mitchell scrambled to their pickup trucks. Hunt drove west to the graffiti-splattered steel bridge that spans the canal at SW 288th Street, about a half-mile south of the grove. There he and Rutzke set up a roadblock. The other men drove north, intending to set up another roadblock at SW 168th Street and the canal.
Murray Bass reached SW 168th Street just east of the canal and met up with Jeff Crawford, a supervisor in Brooks's avocado division. Bass, the only man involved in the pursuit who didn't carry a gun in his truck, left his truck and joined up with Crawford, who carried a twelve-gauge Mossberg pump-action shotgun in a door holder next to his left leg.
According to Brooks employees who gave statements to police after the shooting, Bass and Crawford cruised slowly east on SW 168th Street. Further west on the same road, lime foreman Charles Dorsey pulled up next to a white GMC pickup with two men inside. In the back of the truck were seven blue-plastic milk crates filled with mangoes, some jackfruit, and a barrel full of lychee nuts. "Where'd you get those mangoes?" Dorsey asked the men. In response, the driver floored it and sped away. "They're coming your way," crackled the radio in Crawford's truck. Moments later the white pickup swerved around Crawford and Bass, heading east at about 60 miles per hour. Three more Brooks trucks - Dorsey's, and the Mitchell brothers' - followed closely behind.