Surveillance video captured three thieves slipping onto E.J. deJong's dairy farm under the cover of night, making their way past the cows in his milking parlor.
One, wearing a cowboy hat, used a bar to pry open the door to the farmer's office, where deJong stored thousands of drug-filled syringes used to boost milk production in his herd.
They made quick work carting out their haul. In just one night, deJong lost about $30,000 worth of the genetically engineered hormone rBST, or recombinant bovine somatotropin, in what police say was one of the most brazen, high-value heists to date. The three suspects still haven't been caught.
Rural crime officials say vials of rBST are a favorite among thieves who resell the growth hormone for top dollar on the black market. Fewer dairy farmers use it these days due to concerns over its health effects, and thefts have declined in recent years, but the sophistication and overall worth of the December break-in have alarmed authorities over the possibility of a larger hormone-peddling syndicate.
"These kinds of crooks don't steal this stuff unless there's a market for it," said William Yoshimoto, a Tulare County prosecutor and project director for the Agricultural Crime Technology Information and Operations Network. "We're worried something is starting up again."
RBST was one of the first major biotechnology-related products to enter the nation's food supply when it was approved in 1993 by the Food and Drug Administration to boost milk production in dairy cows.
Organic farmers and animal welfare organizations remain skeptical that milk from hormone-treated cows is safe for human consumption. Canada and Europe ban the hormone, mostly out of concern that it makes cows more prone to illness, and major U.S. producers like Oregon's Tillamook County Creamery Association have forbidden its use.
Nationally, consumer groups say about 15 percent to 20 percent of dairy cows are injected with the hormone. In California, the nation's No. 1 dairy state, the pharmaceutical is still applied regularly, according to the California Farm Bureau Federation.
DeJong said he started using rBST nearly a year ago when milk prices dropped. He hoped it would help coax more than a gallon of extra milk each day from the least productive of his 4,100 cows.
He bought dozens of boxes of syringes from Monsanto Co., which markets the hormone under the brand name Posilac.
"I believe it makes money using it," said deJong, whose Hanford dairy is one of Kings County's largest. "But now, with this theft, I'm going to have to discontinue it."
In nearby Tulare County, the state's No. 1 milk producer, hormone heists reached 10 in 2004 but declined to just two last year.
However, the high-value heist at deJong's ranch shows that the value of the individual thefts are increasing even if they're less frequent.
Though DeJong was the first to catch it on video, similar heists have targeted farmers throughout the San Joaquin Valley. Some have been clandestine break-ins; others were inside jobs.
"We arrested an individual last year for stealing rBST and his way of doing business was to get a job at the dairy or go in and apply for work so he could get a lay of the land," said Tulare County Sheriff's Lt. David Galloway. "He then would go back and steal."
Authorities have not been able to catch thieves selling the stolen hormones on the black market in the United States or Mexico, Yoshimoto said.