Hot Potatoes!

Some farmers in the San Luis Valley were just waiting to be picked.

Indeed, by 1997, the Harrisons and Felmlee were still waiting for payment, despite the fact that, as it was learned later, the Messicks and Riffe were writing each other checks for large sums of money. In June 1997, for instance, the Messicks continued to claim that they didn't have the cash to pay off the two potato growers -- yet somehow they still were able to lend Riffe Potato $130,000. (There is some question as to whether the money ever changed hands; investigators suspect that while the money was never loaned, "repayments" were gladly accepted.) And in August, Riffe Potato sold a parcel of land -- land that was put up as collateral for the SBA loan -- to the Messicks for $10.

A few months later, the Riffe Potato Company was in default on the SBA loan, and in December 1997, Randy Hafford, a bank officer with First Commercial Bank in Dallas, received a phone call from two neighbors of the Monte Vista potato warehouse: David Riffe had skipped town. "The inside of the place was covered with rotten potatoes, filled with insects and everything," he recalls. "It was a mess."

Riffe hasn't been seen since, although court officials believe he is living in Colorado Springs. The elder Messick, meanwhile, has moved to a $400,000 house situated on a golf course in Arizona.

J. Hadley Hooper

First Commercial quickly foreclosed on the warehouse and equipment and put them up for sale in an effort to recover some of the loan. If the bank cannot recoup the full amount of the loan, the SBA -- using taxpayer money -- will pay off the rest. So far, there have been no takers. The warehouse and the equipment have been listed for sale for two years, but the depressed potato market -- and a persistent case of blight that has hit San Luis Valley potato growers -- has limited the number of potential buyers, Hafford says.

Jim Miller, director of policy for the state agriculture department, explains that produce theft occurs most frequently when farm prices for a commodity are either very high or very low. When they are high, he says, the temptation is for an unscrupulous broker to skim from a crop because he can sell it for so much money. When prices plummet, farmers frequently warehouse their produce in an attempt to wait for a bump in its price. For a broker, all that commodity sitting around sometimes proves too tempting to let lie.

Formulated with such knowledge in mind, state agricultural policies are designed to prevent fraud and theft. For example, when prices are very high or very low, Miller says, state ag officials try to keep a close eye on warehouse operations to make sure that any dip in their bank accounts -- and thus an inability to cover debts -- is noted. Yet the Messicks' business was not seriously audited until it was too late.

"Do I wish we had been in there earlier?" asks Graalman. "Of course I do. By the time we got there, the horse was already out of the barn."

In addition, businesses that buy or sell farm products are required to be licensed and bonded. Yet the Messicks and Riffe's bond was only $10,000 -- a tiny fraction of the money that the farmers lost.

In 1998, the Harrisons and Felmlee sued the Messicks and Riffe. This past September, a Rio Grande County district court judge ordered the potato con men to pay $240,000 to the jilted farmers (the Harrisons had received some payment for their potatoes before Sargent/Riffe potato companies stopped paying altogether). How that will be collected, and when -- if ever -- remains to be seen.

That is not the end of the spud-swipers' problems. Three weeks ago, the state attorney general filed criminal charges against David Riffe and Richard A. Messick related to the disappearance of approximately $400,000 worth of San Luis Valley potatoes.

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