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1,200 Pounds of Parchment Stolen from Coffee Farm

December 23, 2019, 6:00 AM HST
* Updated December 23, 12:25 AM
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Thieves stole around 1,200 pounds of parchment from Hala Tree Coffee in December. PC: Jean Orlowski

An unidentified party, or parties, last week stole roughly 1,200 pounds of parchment from a South Kona Coffee operation.

Jean Orlowski, of Hala Tree Coffee in Captain Cook, reported thieves broke into the company’s mill in Opihihale and removed the parchment from a container in staging storage. The amount they took could be transported as one load in the back of a pickup truck and has a processed value of between $30,000 and $40,000, Orlowski said.

“We don’t know exactly what happened,” he continued. “It was (equal to) about 800 pounds of roasted coffee.”

According to Orlowski, the mill is not visible from the road, and there are only a few neighbors in the area, indicating the crime was likely premeditated and possibly involved people already working in the coffee industry.

Other facts of the case also stoke Orlowski’s suspicion that the thieves have knowledge of how coffee is processed and where they might be able to unload such a large amount of illicit product.

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“It’s not green coffee or roasted, you still need to process it,” he said. “There are not many people who can do that (on the island).”

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“The problem is that somewhere, there has to be some kind of black market,” Orlowski continued. “Somewhere there must be somebody who’s buying this coffee and selling it. I don’t know how they’re selling it. That’s where we need to catch them.”

Robert Wagner, Hawai‘i Police Department Assistant Chief, said selling such a large amount of unprocessed parchment wouldn’t be overly difficult for someone familiar with the industry.

“A person who normally turns in coffee all the time would not have any problems at all (unloading) stolen coffee, whereas a person who is not a coffee dealer (would) have extreme difficulties unloading the product,” Wagner said. “So basically for these types of cases, we look at those that already are in the coffee business first as being our likely suspects.”

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Orlowski said he’s reached out to all the farmers and processors he knows on the island to make them aware of the situation, though he’s not optimistic his stolen property will ever be retrieved.

This is Hala Tree Coffee’s first time dealing with this type of theft, and Orlowski doesn’t have security cameras at his mill. He said video surveillance is an idea he wants to look at not only for his operation, but for the entirety of the Kona Coffee Belt.

“Maybe put four or five or six cameras on Māmalahoa Highway to see where (potential thieves) are coming from or where they’re going (after a crime),” he suggested.

Orlowski added that even if the cost for the cameras amounts to hundreds of dollars, farmers in the area would be supportive. They may even sponsor it, he believes, adding he would pay for one or two cameras out of his own pocket.

The bags stolen are complete with the company’s logo, and the product inside is packed a certain way. Orlowski is hopeful that such information might produce a lead, assuming the criminals don’t have the foresight to alter the packaging.

Wagner said catching agricultural thieves in the act can be more difficult on the front end due to issues like geographical remoteness, but the crimes aren’t harder to solve than others because there’s a pool of likely suspects.

The Hawai‘i County Prosecutor’s Office in 2017 initiated an agricultural theft investigator position through a grant from the state Department of Agriculture.

Shane Muramaru worked as an agricultural investigator through at least 2018. His job description included monitoring sales and sellers at roadside stands and farmers markets. The program incorporated the legal necessity of producing uniform receipts to prove the origin of the product in order to aid Muramaru in his work.

Prosecutor Mitch Roth extolled the virtues of the program, saying last year that his office found it to be useful in curbing ag theft and prosecuting associated criminal cases.

Rep. Richard Creagan, who represents South Kona and Kā‘u, introduced a bill in the 2018 Legislative session to officially establish an ag theft pilot program and appropriate $200,000 to fully fund it. However, that bill was shot down by lawmakers.

The measure was reintroduced in both the House and the Senate in 2019 and crafted to incorporate a program on Maui as well as Hawai‘i Island. It passed as SB759 SD2 HD1 CD1 and was signed into law as Act 217 by Gov. David Ige on July 2, 2019.

Big Island Now was unable to confirm if ag theft program investigators are involved in Orlowski’s case, or what the general work of those staffing the ag program has been since it was funded, as an inquiry made with the Prosecutor’s Office was not returned by press time on Friday.

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