Crime

To catch a cattle thief: High-tech tactics and old-school hustle

Farmer Bob Herndon lets calves out of a pen in a corral on his farm near Marionville, Mo., May 10, 2006. Herndon, who lost 25 cattle to thieves, begsn branding his animals and patrolling with other local ranchers at night to watch for suspected cattle rustlers. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)
Farmer Bob Herndon lets calves out of a pen in a corral on his farm near Marionville, Mo., May 10, 2006. Herndon, who lost 25 cattle to thieves, begsn branding his animals and patrolling with other local ranchers at night to watch for suspected cattle rustlers. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein) ASSOCIATED PRESS

DALLAS -- Despite echoes of old Westerns, cattle rustling is a thoroughly modern problem in Texas, with high-tech methods to catch the crooks. And a special law enforcement team says it's often an inside job by someone with the special skills needed to wrangle cattle.

When ranchers realize they're missing cattle, they call the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association Special Rangers, a team of 30 lawmen who investigate livestock-related crime throughout Texas and Oklahoma.

In recent years, theft has become a popular crime for down-on-their-luck cattlemen. Most thieves steal from small mom-and-pop ranches, but big heists that make dozens of cattle disappear are becoming more and more common.

The steers in Waco were both branded and tagged, yet they still vanished, probably on the back of a tractor-trailer headed out of state. The challenges of getting away with a massive cattle heist are huge but still worth the risk for many thieves.

The theft of fewer than 10 head of cattle is a third-degree felony in Texas, punishable by 10 years in prison. In 2014, the state handed down 240 years of jail time to cattle thieves. That high rate of theft isn't going anywhere, said Larry Gray, executive director of law enforcement with TSCRA.

Despite recent downpours, grasses aren't strong enough for most ranchers to feel comfortable growing their herds. Small herds mean high demand for beef, which drives up prices. High beef prices mean stealing cows can be very profitable.

"Historically, there's three types of thieves here: there's family, employees or someone who knows them," said Marvin Wills, the special ranger in charge of the Waco case. "Ninety percent of the time, that's who was involved in the theft."

Driving across the dusty countryside, a six-shooter by his side and a big white hat on his head, a special ranger seems like he belongs in a pulp Western.

But this isn't an antique crime. It's a thoroughly modern one, and rangers use advanced law enforcement tactics to keep up.

They use digital databases that track every head of cattle sold in the state -- its brand, physical description and the names of who sold it and who bought it. They use DNA evidence to track down the dam and sire of suspicious cattle, proving if whether they were stolen or not. Ear tags today can come equipped with electronics that track cattle or even send email and smartphone notifications.

More modern crimes like Internet fraud are also becoming more common, Gray said. A victim will purchase cows from out of state on the Internet based on photographs provided by the seller. If the livestock ever arrives, it may not be as healthy as advertised.

Yet sometimes the old ways of protecting livestock are the most effective. Everyone at TSCRA agrees that the best way to protect cattle is to brand them. Trying to find stolen cattle without a brand is like trying to find a stolen truck without a license plate.

Smaller ranches east of Interstate 35, Gray said, may not brand their animals, putting them more at risk. Mom-and-pop operations might think they don't have large enough herds to make branding worthwhile, but ultimately they are the most at-risk for theft.

"I've talked to 'em, I've preached to 'em," Special Ranger Troy McKinney said. "They're just not going to do it."

Each ranger runs large chunks of the state, and the miles logged tracking cattle thieves add up. The Special Rangers will quickly wear out their association-owned trucks by driving up to 35,000 miles each year.

"A lot of people tend to romanticize it, but it's a lot of hard work," Gray said. "There's a lot of freedom. They're responsible for their districts."

Rangers must have five years in law enforcement before joining the force, but more important for Gray is experience working with cattle.

"You can teach a guy to be a cop, but you can't teach him the livestock experience," Gray said. "It's becoming to be more of a problem because there's not that many people that are raised in the industry anymore."

Not only do the rangers know how to round up cows, most of the thieves do too. Stealing cattle isn't a smash-and-grab job. It takes a professional who knows their way around a pasture.

"Someone raised in Dallas doesn't wake up and think, 'I'm going to steal cattle,'" Gray said. "It takes a set of skills to be able to commit a cattle theft."

John Darrell Green was a lifelong cowboy before his arrest. He knows how to load up a trailer full of cattle. He knows to look for unbranded livestock as easy targets. And now, from behind bars, he knows the penalties for getting caught.

"If it (cattle) ain't marked, you can get away with it," Green told The Associated Press last year. "That's the trick."

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