Call him the veggieburglar.
An urban farm in Hunts Point was picked clean by a thief who hit the patch three times in the span of two weeks.
The Libertad Urban Farm, sandwiched between apartment buildings on Simpson Street in the Bronx was first burglarized on August 3 in broad daylight, the police said.
On his first visit, Rico Valdez, 33, whom police said has a “lengthy rap sheet,” allegedly broke down the locked tool shed and grabbed everything he could, from garden hoes and leaf blowers to ripe Asian pears that were hanging from saplings.
When someone asked him what he was doing the burglar allegedly said he was just helping out. Then he disappeared, along with hundreds of pounds of tomatoes and all the garden equipment he could grab.
Tanya Fields, who founded BLK Projek in 2009, a women’s empowerment initiative that runs the Libertad Farm, said she first noticed the eggplants were gone. Then she realized their 70-pound grill, a four-foot cooler, the rakes, shovels and hoes were also gone and her wooden tool shed was leveled.
“I was distraught,” Fields said. She filed a police report and put the neighborhood on alert.
Later that night on August 3, Fields got a call from a neighbor that a burglar was back in the garden.
“So I go over there with my baseball bat, ‘Louisa’ " as she calls her Louisville Slugger, "and I find him in the act of trying to pull that lawnmower over the back gate.”
With an outstretched bat Fields and another community member were able to corner Valdez until the police came and arrested him.
“I was so emotional at that point, and pretty angry, that I think people called the cops on me, for his safety,” Fields said.
Valdez was charged with vandalism and petty larceny and was released from custody pending further investigation, police said.
Uneasy that Valdez was let out and free, Fields filed an order of protection, hoping he couldn’t actually be “crazy enough,” to come back, she said.
But on August 16 Libertad was hit for the third time in two weeks.
“I saw them at night” said Edgar Guerrero, a neighbor whose apartment window faces the urban garden. Guerrero said he saw three men dragging the lawn mower away, an observation confirmed by the track marks leading to the broken back fence.
Authorities believe it was Valdez again, this time with accomplices.
"Valdez," a resident of Simpson Street, "is wanted for the petty larceny incident on August 16," authorities told Metro.
On their third break-in the thieves made off with the lawnmower, two leaf blowers, and four new shovels that replaced the eight Valdez allegedly stole the first time on August 3. They also had stomped and destroyed much of the garden during the burglary.
Fields estimated the stolen property amounted to more than $1,500. But considering the months of work that’s gone into the garden, and that the onions, eggplants and Serrano peppers -- their main cash crop sold fresh or made into hot sauce -- are gone, the damages are far greater than just the cost of the tools.
Fields versus fiend
Fields, 35, created BLK Projek and the Libertad Urban Farm with the intention creating a sustainable resource of healthy foods in community where fresh produce is scarce and bodegas are abundant. With the help of City Councilman Rafael Salamanca she secured the Simpson Street lot for Libertad in 2013.
Heartbroken that her passion project was trampled and the hard work of many was wasted, Fields was not willing to wait for the police to find the veggie bandit.
When she found out Valdez was known around the neighborhood, she did a little investigating of her own and figured out how he was able to pull off his multiple thefts. She learned that Valdez’s girlfriend lives across the street, and that her balcony faces Libertad Farm, making it easy for someone to case the place, and see when people come and go.
“So I went and knocked on the door,” Fields said, “and he was there.”
“I said, I know that you have been in this farm, what did you do with our stuff?” Flustered, he claimed it wasn’t him and that he had been in the hospital during a heist.
Then Valdez allegedly suddenly grabbed a t-shirt and “jumps out the window and climbs down the balcony like Spiderman,” recalled Fields.
“It’s too bad he’s using his powers for evil and not good,” Fields said.