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Corn theft sparks security push

A padlock now secures the electric auger for a grain bin at the Gene Stehly farm, northwest of Mitchell, to detour thieves from taking his corn. Stehly had more than $4,000 worth of corn stolen from one grain bin in December. (Chris Huber/Republic)

The case of a rural Mitchell man charged with stealing corn has caused some farmers to install more security, especially at isolated sites.

Electrical boxes used to power augers that move corn out of bins are being locked. Bins are being made harder to access, with bales placed in front of them. Bins in isolated areas are checked more often, and emptied sooner.

With corn and other agriculture commodities bringing record prices, it's simply a smart way to do business, said farmer Gene Stehly of rural Mitchell, who owned the corn that was allegedly stolen.

"We're talking a lot of money here," he said.

Stehly now has a padlock placed on the auger electrical boxes to ensure no one steals grain from him. He said he's heard a lot of other producers say they are taking steps to protect their corn and grain.

Stehly said such thefts may have taken place in the past. He said in a good year, he harvests 700,000 bushels of corn and when he does the math at the end of the harvest, a 1 or 2 percent difference won't raise an alarm. But at today's production and prices, that could mean 14,000 bushels of corn, or about $84,000.

"That's not something I would have paid much mind to," he said. "But now, at these prices ..."

A man Stehly has known for 40 years, Scott Suelflow, is accused of taking more than $4,000 worth of corn from a 55,000-bushel storage facility late last year.

The thefts took place on two nights, Dec. 8 and Dec. 9, according to court documents.

Suelflow, 52, was indicted on two counts of grand theft, a felony, by a Davison County grand jury.

The indictments were handed down Jan. 27. A trial has been set for June 19.

According to court documents, Suelflow admitted to the thefts on Dec. 10 after an interview with an investigator.

"On the way back to the Sheriff's Office, he told me he did it and is guilty," Davison County Sheriff's Deputy Steve Harr wrote in the arrest report.

Suelflow allegedly took 366.79 bushels of corn early on Dec. 8 from an unlocked bin on land farmed by Stehly. According to the court documents, Suelflow took another 392.5 bushels from the same bin early the next day.

He took the corn to the Farmers Alliance Elevator in Mitchell and was paid $2,054.02 for the first load and was to receive $2,198 for the second, Harr wrote.

The corn was valued at $5.60 per bushel, although Stehly said he had sold it in advance for $6 per bushel.

Stehly has emptied that bin, which is located 12 miles from his farm. He has several bins at his farm and when full, they contain 500,000 bushels of corn, worth $3 million at the current price.

On Dec. 9, the missing corn was noticed and Stehly had a hired man stake out the bin. Early on the morning of Dec. 10, the hired man allegedly discovered Suelflow once again at the bin.

According to the documents, Suelflow told the employee he had spotted a raccoon and chased it into the bin. But the Sheriff's Office was called and Suelflow was asked to meet with Harr later that day.

He continued to tell that story to the deputy for 20 to 25 minutes before dropping the story and admitting to the theft, Harr wrote in his report.

Suelflow was booked at the Davison County Jail and posted $600 bail, 10 percent of the $6,000 bond that was set. He also agreed not to leave the First Judicial Circuit and signed a waiver of extradition if he does.

Suelflow hired Doug Papendick, a Mitchell lawyer, to defend him.

Harr said agricultural theft is a rare crime and a court employee said Monday she cannot recall seeing another such case come through the local legal system.

That was echoed by the South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation and the South Dakota Department of Agriculture.

Department of Agriculture Deputy Director Jon Farris said the theft of grain and other ag commodities has never been a major problem. But stolen cattle remain an issue in the state, Farris said.

"In western South Dakota, it's a huge concern," he said.

The South Dakota Public Utilities Commission regulates the dozens of large grain elevators in the state but does not regulate privately owned bins.