From the e-mails, voice mails and other sources:
BRANCHING OUT -- A few years ago, thieves began snagging copper wire wherever they could find it. They took it from air conditioners, power poles, you name it, and turned it in for cash, most likely to fund their drug habits.
Recently, they stole wire used in the automatic sprinkler system installed as part of a beautification project along Highway 99 just south of Modesto. They even swiped copper battery cables from vehicles owned by San Rafael-based landscape contractor Watkin & Bortolussi, which were parked in the project's temporary construction yard.
Then, last Tuesday, they added a new twist: Thieves pulled 11 of 21 newly planted silk oak trees out of the ground. Russ Lake, a California Department of Transportation engineering technician overseeing the project, figures the crooks probably thought they'd been spotted and took off, leaving behind the saplings -- roots and all -- on a makeshift cart at the job site.
The contractor replanted them. Two nights later, though, the thieves returned and took all 21, Lake said.
The trees are intended to someday shield the blight seen from the freeway, Lake said.
"You look to the east and there's an old trailer park and a junkyard," he said. "It's aesthetically vile."
The project includes new ice plant and the irrigation system. The contractor will replace the stolen trees, and the beautification continues.
Balthasar Beck, project manager for Watkins & Bortolussi, said he suspects the thieves had a market for the trees: unscrupulous landscape contractors willing to pay cash for the stolen goods.
He said thieves frequently target such projects, but this one ranks up there with the worst.
"Modesto was pretty bad," Beck said. "It's also pretty bad when you go out there in the morning and nothing works (because the wiring has been stolen)."
"We've had lots of trouble with vandalism," Lake added. "But it's the first time we've seen it with trees. There's been a lot more activity here in Modesto than in Stockton or Lodi. The freeway going through Modesto makes it easy. There's a lot of people milling around looking for things to take."
STILL ACCURATE -- Last week, Weed & Seed committee member and south Modesto resident Bob Schmal handed me a copy of a report involving the needs of county islands and fringe areas, pockets of county land surrounded by or next to city areas.
The report concludes that many of these areas are, indeed, urbanized areas, which means they need all the amenities given to urban areas: better police, fire and recreation services, recreation facilities, and sanitary and draining facilities.
"Lack of adequate sanitary and drainage facilities create eventual health problems. Lack of proper police protection and recreation facilities may combine to form the core of a juvenile delinquency problem. Substandard firefighting organizations serving in areas where substandard dwellings are situated almost wall to wall, without benefit of routine building inspection, provide a combination which invites fire disasters and which may become a potential menace to the entire community," the report states.
Does that sound familiar? Just one thing: The report, titled "Study of the Fringe Areas of Modesto California -- An Analysis and Recommendations Pertaining to the Problems of the Unincorporated Areas Surrounding the City of Modesto" was done by the University of Denver's Department of Government Management. In 1948.
At least the community leaders who commissioned the report got their money's worth. Sixty years later, it's still an accurate working document.
HIS NAME IN LIGHTS -- In Sunday's Bee, the Celebrations page of the I section offered birthday greetings to Hickman's Fred Claus, who will turn 80 Saturday. The name struck me because of the movie (which I didn't see) with Vince Vaughn starring in the title role of the same name. It's a story about Santa's brother, "Fred Claus."
Hickman's Fred Claus did see it.
"I didn't get any free tickets or royalties, though," he said. "And it cost me a little bit (a $100 fine) at Rotary."
And they fined him another $100 for his upcoming 80th.
Happy birthday, Fred.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2383.