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SLO County farms and ranches to get new forensic crime-fighting tool

Law enforcement in San Luis Obispo County has a new tool to help fight property theft, particularly farm equipment. It’s called SmartWater, but it’s not the bottled water you can find in a convenience store.

SmartWater CSI is a commercial product that is colorless and tasteless. And when a tiny bit is applied on a tractor, copper tubing, tools: it leaves an invisible marker that lasts five years. Microscopic information just like DNA.

“It has a code in it, it looks like water, it’s clear, it has certain chemicals in it, so we can mark property, particularly in the farming industry,” said Jim Vogue, San Luis Obispo County’s undersheriff.

Vogue demonstrated how the product works this week at San Luis Obispo ranch. Anyone can buy SmartWater online and use it on their personal property like bicycles. But in the coming months, SLO County sheriff investigators will be going around to area farms and ranches marking equipment with SmartWater, for free.

“We have a one billion dollar industry in this county—of agriculture—so we get a lot of agricultural theft because we have a lot of property out there, and there is definitely money to be made by thieves,” Vogue said.

According to the San Luis Obispo County’s Sheriff’s Office, the agency spent just under $25,000 from the Sheriff's Office Investigative Fund* to buy 450 kits, and each kit can mark up to 80 different pieces of equipment. As deputies hand out the kits, they’re registered with a geolocation and a unique forensic code that’s stored in a worldwide database. If police come across suspected stolen property, they use a special ultraviolet light to see if it’s been marked with SmartWater. If it glows green, they’ll take a sample and within ten days will know who the property belongs to.

And applying the product could help in criminal cases, since prosecutors may have a stronger case against a thief caught with SmartWater-marked equipment.

Randy Butschillinger is a former police officer who now heads the law enforcement division of SmartWater CSI. He said even if thieves try to scrape off the invisible marker, it’s almost impossible “because you have to get every single bit of it off; if you leave one speck, we can identify it,” Butschillinger said, adding that the product helps deter crime.

Vogue supported that assertion.

By spending agency money on the product, “we hope to deter crime, number one, and to be able to recover items that are stolen and give them back the rightful owner,” Vogue said.

Along with the kits, the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office purchased hundreds of metal signs from the SmartWater CSI company that deputies plan to post at wineries, crop farms, and cattle ranches to let potential thieves know they’re SmartWater protected.

*Editor's note: Seven days after a press conference convened by the SLO County Sheriff's Office, during which the undersheriff told KCBX News the department had received state law enforcement grants to buy 450 kits of SmartWater CSI, KCBX News sought clarification from public information officer Tony Cipolla as to the precise state grants received. He replied, via email on Sept. 25, "unfortunately, the Undersheriff misspoke regarding the state grants. The expenditure $24,662, came out of the Sheriff's Office Investigative Fund account." A sentence stating where the money came from to buy the kits has been amended to reflect Cipolla's correction. 

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