It started about two years ago, when David Machado was held up at gunpoint. He was working in his shop in Tulare, the county seat of Tulare County, California, when he heard the house alarm go off. He jogged to the home he shares with his wife and saw a car parked out front. Initially, he thought the car belonged to a friend. Perhaps someone had accidentally pushed open the front door, which had a faulty latch. He went around to the back door and turned off the alarm. Then he heard the car horn.

‘Shoot his ass! Shoot his ass!” After a few tense moments, the men jumped into the car and left.

Walking back outside, Machado said he confronted three men. One pointed a gun at his chest. “I just went like this,” Machado said, lifting his empty hands in the air, “and the guy standing behind him says, ‘Shoot his ass! Shoot his ass!” After a few tense moments, the men jumped into the car and left. They only got one thing: a rosary that belonged to Machado’s grandmother-in-law.

Machado has carried a pistol ever since, but the break-ins have only increased. Once, he said, he and his wife had just returned from watching his grandchildren in a Christmas program when he heard someone throw a large stone through a bedroom window. Two men were trying to crawl in through the broken glass. Machado fired a shot into the ground to scare them away.

About a week after that, he said someone kicked down the back door and stole an air rifle. He trailed the thief around town, until he lost sight of him. “We had five incidents in about two months,” explained Machado, a compact but sprightly man with a neatly trimmed gray beard, weathered face, and quick smile.

After yet another break-in, during which someone tore open the metal wall of his farm’s workshop, Machado’s friend in the Tulare County District Attorney’s Office called him and said, “Hey, we gotta do something. This is getting old.” Machado agreed.

Their solution was SmartWater CSI, a colorless, odorless liquid that turns a yellowish hue when placed underneath a UV black light. Marketed as the ultimate theft deterrent, it comes in a nail polish–sized vial with a swab applicator. According to its manufacturer, 10 minutes after application, SmartWater will dry and remain on any nonskin surface for at least five years. But traces of SmartWater also rub off on anyone who touches it, staining skin and clothing. Theoretically, anyone trying to grab something from Machado’s workshop would get SmartWater all over their hands, leaving stains traceable by law enforcement.

In January 2018, deputies from the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office set up a trap, parking a trailer and generator outside Machado’s workshop, both wired with GPS and covered in SmartWater. They waited, but no one came. A month later, Machado pulled the trailer into his workshop. That night, the alarm went off. Machado grabbed his shotgun and pistol and went to check it out.

David Machado’s workshop

Someone had torn away the metal wall to the workshop again, just enough for a person to squeeze through, and took a plasma cutter and one of the decoy generators. Using the planted GPS, deputies tracked down a man who had pictures of the stolen goods. They inspected his shirt with a special light. It was covered in SmartWater. Machado recounted the story to me with a certain amount of glee.

“And as they were putting him away, he said, ‘Darn SmartWater.’

The entire stretch of California’s Central Valley that borders Highway 99 is a tour of agricultural giants — cultivating almonds, citrus fruit, and cattle. In the 300,000-square-mile Tulare County, farming brings in a gross income of $7 billion. Tulare County alone produces about 41 percent of the country’s food.

Despite that, it’s not a wealthy place. One in four residents here live below the federal poverty line, making around $30,000 for a family of four. And the combination of low income and big agriculture fuels crime.

Rural crime, particularly theft, can be tricky to prevent and solve because orchards and ranches are located on sprawling lots, making them more difficult to patrol. Crimes can include cattle rustling; theft of pricey generators, chemicals, and tractors; or crop stealing. About two years ago, counties across California faced a rash of nut thefts involving a scheme where rogue truck drivers disguised as shippers picked up loads of pistachios or almonds and vanished into thin air. Because one load of nuts can be worth a half-million dollars, law enforcement took notice.

SmartWater being applied to a bee hive.

Traditional models of crime prevention are being used in Tulare County, such as engraving registration numbers on equipment and putting up barbed-wire fences. But increasingly, the county is turning to SmartWater.

Is SmartWater CSI a truly revolutionary technology, or is it simply hawking a pseudoscientific anti-theft placebo?

Invented in the 1990s by British brothers Phil and Mike Cleary — a chemist and an ex-law enforcement officer, respectively — SmartWater CSI has its origins in science and crime fighting. The small startup, which goes by the same name as its primary product, has only one U.S. office, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and has hired mostly ex-military officers as corporate staff and sales representatives. The company touts itself as a transformational way to catch thieves and locate stolen objects. SmartWater CSI’s tagline is “The Crime Fighting Company,” which it supports with anecdotal successes across the world.

Since its founding, SmartWater has partnered with churches, museums, and retail outlets to deploy the water as a theft deterrent. In 2008, it was featured on an episode of CSI: New York. Archeologists sneaked SmartWater into Syria last year to spray ancient artifacts in case ISIS ransacks and tries to resell them. Shakespeare’s birthplace, in Stratford-upon-Avon is covered in a bespoke version of SmartWater. One police team used SmartWater to protect nesting falcons and their eggs. The London police department, which started deploying SmartWater in 2012, credits the tool with a reduction in unsolved cases. The BBC reported that SmartWater was used to catch a London car thief. In one promotional video, someone places SmartWater on a pebble and tosses it into the ocean, only to return at low tide with the UV light to find that pebble.

Traces of SmartWater seen under a UV black light

SmartWater says that each vial of its solution is marked with unique code, supposedly like DNA, which is registered to a customer. When an item is stolen and retrieved, law enforcement can take a sample of the SmartWater traces and send it to a proprietary diagnostic lab to confirm the code. Beyond that, the company is vague about its product. SmartWater is described on the company’s website as a “traceable liquid,” a “solution,” and a “forensic liquid.” The best description on the website says the product “uses an extremely robust form of ‘nanotechnology’ to encrypt data, with water being the application medium.”

An independent forensic scientist I spoke with compared SmartWater to luminol, which is used to detect the presence of blood at crime scenes. When luminol is sprayed across a surface, it creates a chemical reaction with some of the protein in traces of blood, making a blue glow.

Although similar commercial products are readily available on Amazon, the company keeps its formula under wraps. When I asked Randy Butschillinger, a sales representative for SmartWater who works with law enforcement and governmental agencies, for details about how SmartWater works, he demurred, saying that he didn’t want criminals to know the secret sauce. When I pressed for details he said, “Truth be told, I don’t know.” But he assured me it worked.

Because it’s often used in conjunction with other police techniques, it can be hard to discern SmartWater’s crime-fighting abilities. But that hasn’t stopped the company from making substantial claims about its product. Some of these seem dubious. For example, the website claims, “90% of our customers suffer no additional criminal attacks following the installation of a SmartWater® Forensic Sprayer,” but the data comes exclusively from SmartWater customer interviews and isn’t linked to variables like crime rates, arrests, or prosecutions. One company study based out of England says that SmartWater reduced theft by 85 percent, but similarly, it’s not clear how the company substantiates these claims. And the company’s primary champions are insurance companies that give discounts to their clients for using the product. (Most of the studies showing that SmartWater deters theft were funded by the insurance industry.)

Is SmartWater CSI a truly revolutionary technology, or is it simply hawking a pseudoscientific anti-theft placebo? From the outside, it’s hard to tell. Gordon Weekes, the assistant public defender for Broward County, Florida, said he has worked on some SmartWater cases and believes it is “scientific hogwash” and a “public relations gimmick.” In South Florida, where SmartWater has been in use for about a year, law enforcement gave SmartWater mixed reviews. “Unfortunately, SmartWater hasn’t been too smart for us,” one official said.

Still, the Florida-based company is making serious inroads into agriculture. Tulare County was the first county in the western United States (and the second U.S. county overall) to enter into a contract with SmartWater. Four additional counties in the San Joaquin Valley have joined in the past year, and six more — including Fresno, San Bernardino, and Kern County — are making serious inquiries.

The chief law enforcement officer for Tulare is Sheriff Mike Boudreaux, who was recently elected to his second term in office. Boudreaux strives to maintain a good relationship with the agricultural industry, and for good reason. It controls the economy in almost every way here and made up a substantial amount of his campaign fundraising.

Boudreaux compared the product to a movie trick where a thief opens the proceeds from a bank heist to find that everything is covered in pink paint.

Boudreaux has an air of country elegance, but he also tends to see the world as black and white: There are “criminals,” and there are the rest of us. Though he says he watches both Fox News and CNN and tries to remain politically neutral, Boudreaux has a framed photo of himself with Donald Trump on a bookshelf and hopes to partner with ICE to deport undocumented arrestees. His office is in a commercial complex in Visalia, and Boudreaux keeps his appearance clean and professional, wearing a green tie attached with a tie clip. Female employees wore heels in his office. Cowboy boots were kept to a minimum.

Sheriff Mike Boudreaux

“Multibillions of dollars’ worth of agriculture is pushed across the world,” Boudreaux told me. “With that, you have a criminal elements.” Two years ago, Boudreaux ordered his four-man Agricultural Crimes Unit to scour the internet for a new technology, “something innovative, really obscure,” to wrangle the county’s theft problems. One of them found SmartWater on the internet.

Boudreaux compared the product to a movie trick where a thief opens the proceeds from a bank heist to find that everything is covered in pink paint. SmartWater’s biggest asset, in his mind, is its ability to mark someone’s possessions. As Boudreaux explained, if your Rolex was found on a pile of other Rolexes, someone would be able to determine which one was yours.

Last year, Boudreaux’s office purchased $60,000 worth of SmartWater, and he is zealous about the initiative. He’s spearheading an effort to bring SmartWater to the surrounding counties and wants to introduce the product to high-value agricultural industries that have suffered newsworthy thefts, like bees and nuts. (SmartWater is not approved for consumption.)

Through the California State Sheriffs’ Association (Boudreaux is on the board), the sheriff has made public presentations about the product and hosted numerous law enforcement agencies that want to see the product in action. He said his office has distributed 1,600 vials of SmartWater to Tulare County Agricultural Association members, in addition to 500 more vials to other residents, gratis.

“The idea is that we would hope that the more the information gets out there, the more people become familiar with it, the more they will invest in their own protection for their property,” Boudreaux told me.

Since the product’s rollout a year ago, Boudreaux says there have been several success stories. Deputies used SmartWater to mark bait money in the county’s justice center, where cash was being mysteriously pilfered from individuals’ belongings. Boudreaux’s department watched via surveillance as the employee took the money from co-workers’ purses. After she went to deposit the cash in the bank, deputies swooped in, showing that the SmartWater on the money matched the SmartWater on her hands. (According to online court records, no complaint has been filed in this case.)

In another case, security guards employed by Union Pacific Railroad approached the sheriff’s office to help solve a series of confounding train horn thefts. In September 2017, Tulare County deputies applied SmartWater to two train horns and caught two men stealing the horns through surveillance and from the traces of SmartWater all over their hands. The men were arrested “without incident,” according to the official report. It’s not clear whether SmartWater is admissible in criminal court, because most of these cases, like the train horn thefts, involve multiple investigatory methods and confessions. Tulare officials told me that investigations into the theft by Union Pacific were ongoing, and the case has not yet gone to trial.

Everything, except the animals, was marked with SmartWater.

This case, according to Boudreaux, was a real game changer. “Our inmates said that they felt in the beginning [that SmartWater] was just propaganda and that we were just using it to fool them, until the train case… Then they went, ‘Holy smokes, this is real.’”

Vital to Sheriff Boudreaux’s vision is a statewide coalition of SmartWater users. Pete Alvitre, a sixth-generation Californian who owns multiple citrus farms in Tulare County, is an avid user of SmartWater and describes it as one of the many tools in his theft-deterrence toolbox. A large man who wears a button-down Hawaiian-style shirt covered in American flags, Alvitre owns three citrus farms in addition to a red retrofitted 1932 Ford Victoria, two small rescue dogs, and several miniature donkeys that his wife raises as a hobby. His farms are outfitted with solar panels, turbines, and various generators and tractors. There was a workshop full of woodworking and metal sculpting equipment. Everything, except the animals, was marked with SmartWater. Even Alvitre’s iPhone.

Pete Alvitre

Alvitre had dabbed SmartWater on parts of equipment that would not be painted over or that would be less obvious but nonetheless imminently touchable in a hurry — handles, steering wheels, gear shifts, and lug nuts. “You want to look for places where they are not going to spray paint,” he said. “I love it because it’s the silent one. It’s invisible.”

When asked if there were any downsides, Alvitre said possibly “the expense…but I think the people who own the technology and are developing it [will get] more and more people on board. Their prices will come down, and you will get the technology more refined.” Alvitre received his vial free from the sheriff’s office and said he still had plenty left over.

“I want to get the word out to as many people as I can,” Sheriff Boudreaux said. He encourages people to hang signs warning of SmartWater use on premises. There used to be an enormous billboard on the side of the highway just outside the city:

Thieves beware!
Tulare County is forensically protected by SmartWater.
The Invisible, Silent Witness

Part of SmartWater’s crime-fighting promise relies on the invisible deterrent — creating the sense that it is impossible to tell what might be branded, a dirty trap to catch a passing thief. Or, as Boudreaux frames it, “Not only are we educating our community partners and agricultural partners, but we are educating the criminal.” (According to SmartWater, the company has made no political contributions other than to support some of its initiatives related to identifying stolen artwork and other artifacts.)

Before I left town, I visited the Tulare County intake facility, which is down the road from the main men’s jail. Like everywhere else in the county, there are echoes of farm life here: The jail includes an orchard and chickens, in addition to a donkey to keep the coyotes away.

A video advertising SmartWater playing at the Tulare County intake facility.

In the waiting room, where people wait to be booked into jail or pay their bail, a promotional video about SmartWater CSI played on an endless loop in both Spanish and English. “You will be marked and arrested!” a man’s voice intones. On the screen, you can see a man’s face spotted in SmartWater’s signature yellow fluorescent dye. Sheriff Boudreaux said this was part of an intentional plan to ensure that people coming into the jail facility — the criminal element he spoke of — knew about SmartWater and its potential to derail their schemes. On the wall is the sign that has become nearly ubiquitous: “Thieves beware!”

Additionally, the intake facility is outfitted with a box light that shines on each arrestee as they proceed into the facility for their pat-down and medical check. This way, Sheriff Boudreaux explained, each incoming person is checked to see if they have participated in some unknown crime. According to jail employees, one or two people have been detected in this manner. They did not know the outcome of those cases.

After nearly a year of reading about SmartWater and spending time in Tulare, I was left with a series of nagging questions about the product, but my questions received, at best, vague answers. I discovered that there are, evidently, different types of SmartWater products, but I was told that telling me more would give too many clues to would-be thieves. To some extent, how it works is besides the point. “It’s not a product,” he said. “It’s an overall strategy.” To that end, he credits Boudreaux for completing a full implementation.

SmartWater isn’t the only company in the law enforcement tech sector that makes big claims but refuses to turn over detailed information about its products or independent efficacy statistics. In 2016, an Oakland resident developed a technology called ShotSpotter, which promised to detect the sound waves of gunshots to increase the speed of law enforcement response. Though the technology seemed to work, a Forbes investigation revealed that there was no evidence it actually played a role in reducing gun violence.

The product’s main purpose seemed to be the sense of control it brought him, the idea that he could outwit would-be thieves.

Some courts have refused to admit ShotSpotter technology, and there are indications that the errors can be more than banal. This summer, a victim of a police shooting filed a lawsuit alleging that the officer relied on bad ShotSpotter technology. An investment report said the incident “casts doubt on the integrity of the company’s data,” but that hasn’t stopped jurisdictions like Atlanta from purchasing the service and advertising it as a success.

Butschillinger acknowledges the doubters who see SmartWater as a “gimmick.” Fresno County, for example, has seen the SmartWater presentation but hasn’t decided whether to invest. Still, he insists that the product is real. Butschillinger says the company is even deploying a new product: SmartWater fog, a barely perceptible mist designed to be sprayed on humans. Butschillinger says SmartWater can be a game changer for law enforcement: In Fort Lauderdale, there was a 26 percent reduction in theft, which, Butschillinger points out, saved law enforcement the cost of investigating and prosecuting crimes that don’t happen. When I pushed him on whether that drop could actually be statistically attributed to SmartWater, he said, “Nothing is for sure,” and added that the important part was to use it properly.

For farmers using SmartWater in Tulare, those statistics may not matter much. Touring Alvitre’s farm, it was clear that the product’s main purpose seemed to be the sense of control it brought him, the idea that he could outwit would-be thieves.

David Machado

As for Machado, he says the thieves keep coming back. “It’s their job. It’s what they do.” He’s installed motion sensors, and bright lights illuminate the property at night when someone moves. His neighbors keep a watchful eye on his home. He has a German shepherd. He replaced the screws in the shed with special bolts that can’t be ripped out, and he still has his gun. Though Machado has signs around his property warning that he uses SmartWater, he says none of it has helped much. Recently, the sheriff suggested Machado try something new: a fence.