Oh, Christmas Tree! 

Keeping wood-be robbers at bay

Wednesday, Dec 26 2007

By the time the season’s Christmas trees have been hacked into mulch, an age-old battle will have been fought on tree yards across the city, between tree poachers and sellers. A robber held Ken Zoccoli, manager of the Chauvet Tree Farms lot at Santa Monica Boulevard and Beverly Glen in Century City, at gunpoint the year before last. He cornered Zoccoli in the shed with a .25 mm pistol and emptied the cash register of the day’s profits, $1,100 in all.

“You want everything?” said Zoccoli, “Even the singles? Sheesh!”

The guy had come in that evening looking kind of funny, Zoccoli recalls, but then again, a lot of people come onto his yard looking funny. Zoccoli didn’t notice anything until it was too late. In the end, they watched the guy flee down the street. Zoccoli’s son Matt, who also works at the yard, philosophizes, “You can’t catch a crackhead on foot.”

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Ken Zoccoli is a large guy with a lumberjack build, white hair and a white beard. He has been managing the Santa Monica–Beverly Glen yard for 10 years. At night, he sleeps in a camper on the grounds — most tree-yard managers do, since it is the surest way to keep an eye on the inventory. Zoccoli’s yard alone sells more than 1,800 trees a season. The trees are grown on a farm in Salem, Oregon, and trucked in. His son’s dog, Deuce, listens attentively as we talk, wagging his tail.

“At least you have a guard dog,” I say.

“Oh, yeah. He’s a big deterrent,” Zoccoli says, sarcastically. “He’s a killer.”

“At least he’ll bark if someone comes in?”

“Actually, he’s mute. He’s a Basenji, and that breed of dog don’t bark. He howls, though.”

If the dog doesn’t help, other things do. Like keeping some of the overhead lights on or making sure to only put the bigger trees near the fence facing the street. The smaller ones are too easy for poachers to haul over the chain link, load onto a waiting truck and drive away with, which has happened in years past. They lost a few of their 7- to 8-foot, $80 trees that way.

Other poacher-prevention methods are less subtle. The manager of one of their sister Chauvet lots keeps a shotgun mounted decoratively, if you will, on a wall above the register. Some growers, looking to thwart thieves who steal pines right out of the ground, spray trees pink (with hydrated lime and red food coloring, a.k.a. “the ugly mix”) or even with fox urine (the color and scent supposedly fade before they get to customers). Ultimately, though, you can only do so much. At night sometimes people hop the fence near the alleyway about half a block past Santa Monica on the Beverly Glen side of the Chauvet property, where the pathway is dark and secluded. Then they sneak to the westernmost corner of the lot and pitch the trees over that fence, where it’s too far away for Zoccoli to hear when he’s sleeping.

Nick Toledo, the manager of the Chauvet yard at Barrington Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard, has also been robbed. He was working at the El Monte yard at the time and had just started in the Christmas tree business. A robber stuck a gun through the metal bars of the cash register shed, but Toledo smashed the guy’s hand and took him down.

In general, the guys who run the seasonal yards are a hardy, scrappy bunch, so the easiest pickings for tree bandits are at grocery and drug stores, especially 24-hour establishments that are minimally staffed at night. Two weeks ago, thieves stole 10 Douglas firs worth $45 each from the parking lot of the 24-hour Ralphs at Barrington Avenue and Olympic Boulevard in West L.A. They loaded the trees onto a pickup truck in the wee hours of the morning and drove off. Store manager Rosa Martinez did not witness the theft, but came in later and discovered the inventory was low. Employees have since blocked off the five remaining trees with upturned shopping carts. “In the summer people steal watermelons and hide them in the bushes. They go back to pick them up later,” says Martinez. “It’s the same with the pumpkins on Halloween.”

For his part, Zoccoli at the Chauvet yard is all in favor of the shotgun method of deterrence; if not actually firing the thing at the poachers, then simply making its malevolent presence felt. Shooting a fleeing robber in the back as he runs, however, is illegal, as is brandishing a weapon. That action could land a Christmas tree protector in jail; a convoluted scenario that, in Zoccoli’s opinion, really sucks.

Reach the writer at galimurung@laweekly.com

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