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Cattle rustlers a growing menace, making a fast buck on back roads of rural America

PERRY, Okla. (AP) _ The truck raced like a phantom down the lonesome dirt road, poking its headlights into the pre-dawn darkness and spewing blinding clouds of dust. The deputy, who was watching nearby, smelled trouble.

Todd Culp saw the mysterious truck barrel through a stop sign at 80 mph and wondered where it was rushing to at 5 a.m. The off-duty deputy gunned the engine of his unmarked green pickup in pursuit.

Culp soon noticed the truck matched the description of one involved in a recent theft _ and it was hauling an animal trailer. Fifteen miles later, the driver stopped on the ramp of the Cimarron Turnpike. He jumped out. The deputy was right behind him.

``Stop! Sheriff's Department. Get on the ground!'' Culp barked, drawing his .45-caliber pistol. But the man ran to open the back doors of the trailer, disappeared on the side and began whooping and hollering. Out stumbled a half-dozen cows and one calf.

It was, authorities say, an awkward _ and belated _ attempt to get rid of the evidence of a crime: cattle rustling.

The era of dusty stagecoaches and wagon trains is long gone but cattle thieves _ the bad guys in a thousand Westerns _ never quite rode off into the sunset. Rustlers are now a growing menace in some parts of rural America, striking in the dead of night and sometimes selling their haul before the rancher or farmer discovers the animals are gone.

``It's a low-risk, high-reward kind of crime and people figure that out very quickly,'' says Joe Rector, an investigator who tools around the back roads of central Oklahoma, a Glock 9 mm pistol on his hip, caramel-colored ostrich-skin boots on his feet, a police scanner buzzing in his ear.

Millions of dollars of stolen cattle have been recovered in the last two years in Oklahoma and Texas. And in Missouri, a rash of thefts totaling more than $1 million _ also since 2004 _ recently led the governor to create a special task force as lawmakers have called for increased penalties for the culprits.

Back in the days of the Wild West, cattle thieves sometimes paid for their crimes with a rope around the neck. Now, they're more likely to get a slap on the wrist or prison if it's a repeat offense or an especially large theft.

Some say rustling is on the rise because of a 25 percent increase in beef prices in the last five years. Others, though, say thieves are oblivious to market fluctuations and tend to be common criminals _ some of them methamphetamine users _ looking for a fast buck.

``It's financial problems. It's greed. It's to support a drug habit,'' Rector says. ``It's just because they're there.''

Cattle thieves are able to exploit a world of absentee owners, busy auction barns and a way of doing business that relies more on a handshake than paperwork. They usually prey on smaller ranches and farms, and can pocket thousands of dollars in no time.

``It's quick, it's good money and it's not hard if you know what you're doing,'' says John Bradshaw, a Texas cattle investigator. ``If you steal one cow worth $1,000, that pays your house payment or a car. ... It may take 20 minutes .... You've got the rest of the week to do your (legitimate) job. It's a good racket.''

And unlike other crimes, Bradshaw says, rustlers collect full value. ``If you steal a TV and sell it, you might get $30,'' he says. ``With cattle, you're getting 100 percent what they're worth.''

Bradshaw has seen thefts jump since last fall, and says he's investigating cases involving about $2 million. He recently nabbed one brazen thief who'd drive around southeast Texas pastures, looking for cattle near the side of the road. The man would lure the animals into pens with feed, call the auction barn using a fake name, say he didn't have a trailer, and ask someone there to pick up the cattle.

Once they were sold, he'd have the check written out to a stranger he had approached in town _ usually a drug user desperate for cash who was paid off with a small cut of the illicit profits. The man tried the scam nine times, Bradshaw says, and succeeded in four instances before he was caught.

Solving cattle thefts, like any other crime, takes good detective work. ``You have to understand who, why, when and how,'' Rector says. ``Nine out of 10 times, we've got no suspects.''

But there may be clues: footprints, tire tracks, paint chips on a tree _ even the animals' DNA has been used.

While modern technology helps the sleuths, other advances _ everything from cell phones to gooseneck trailers _ aid the crooks in making a fast getaway.

``One hundred years ago, they had to herd cattle on horseback,'' says Larry Gray, chief investigator for the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association. ``Now with the interstate and good trucks, you can steal a load of cattle during the night in the Houston area and be in Baton Rouge the next morning.''

Cattle stolen in Oklahoma, for instance, have shown up in Kansas, Missouri and Colorado.

Rustlers tend to be locals, anyone from trusted ranch hands to neighbors, even the victim's kin. ``You have to know how to handle animals, how to move them, how to load them, you have to have a place to dispose of them,'' Gray says. ``It's not something a novice would try. It would be hard for a city boy to do.''

And, he says, thieves learn from their mistakes. ``Each time you catch them, they get a little smarter, they get a little harder to catch,'' Gray says.

Gray's organization, formed 129 years ago to track cattle thieves in Texas, is still at it today. It's easy to tell they're the good guys: They wear white hats.

The 29 investigators (including Rector and Bradshaw) have full police powers in Texas and Oklahoma _ they can make arrests _ and help local law enforcement who may not have the time, staff or expertise to fight rustlers.

The association, working with state and local officers, recovered or accounted for about 5,200 stolen cattle last year, compared with slightly more than 2,400 in 2004. Restitution was actually higher two years ago _ $1.7 million, compared with nearly $634,000 in 2005.

The association also investigates the theft of horses, saddles and trailers and white-collar fraud, such as bank embezzlement. Along with cattle, it helped recover more than $6.4 million in stolen animals and related items in 2005 _ an increase over the $4 million reported a year earlier.

Texas and Oklahoma aren't the only states with cattle rustlers: Arkansas and California recently reported thefts or arrests.

And Missouri has seen about 175 cases in the last two years, most of them small: Police say more than 1,150 animals have been taken. Authorities believe an organized ring is responsible for some of the thefts.

The state has responded with law enforcement training sessions and a special database that tracks incidents so police can try to link some of the cases. The state cattlemen's association also has upped the reward for information leading to arrests.

In Missouri, where the average herd is 40 cows, the loss of 10 or 15 can be financially crippling to farmers, says Fred Ferrell, the state's agriculture director. ``You've stolen their factory ... you've stolen their income for a year,'' he says.

Bob Herndon knows. The Marionville, Mo., farmer suspects three or four men brazenly cut through five fences one moonlit night last October, trampled across two neighbors' property, then took the time to sort out 25 of his cows and calves _ ones without distinguishing marks _ while he slept a quarter-mile away.

``What really burns me is they brought them out of a field and put them in my corral,'' Herndon says. ``How they got them in there, I don't know.''

Herndon, who now take turns with his neighbors doing citizen patrols at night, was luckier than some: He had some insurance.

Leon Washington did not. He says he lost some $75,000 worth of cows and calves in January when a theft occurred in broad daylight. Neighbors actually saw men rounding up his animals on land he rents in Houston, he says, but the thieves had the same kind of white Dodge truck he drives, so they didn't arouse suspicion.

``It takes you 10 to 15 years to get there (have a top-notch herd), then all of a sudden you lose it in three hours,'' he says. ``It's devastating. This was a lifelong investment. Not only did I lose my retirement, I lose the $25,000 to $30,000 in income it was bringing. That's what's killing me.''

Some say branding animals is the best way to prevent thefts, but some farmers and ranchers don't have the tools to do it or prefer not to because it's stressful to the animals or can reduce the value of the hide when sold.

Brands also can be altered, duplicated and would do little good in situations where cattle are sold before the owner realizes they're gone.

Sgt. Dan Nash of the Missouri Highway Patrol says yet another factor makes it hard to track these thieves: There's not a heavy emphasis on paperwork and identification in auction barns.

``It's an honor-bound business,'' he says. ``Your word and your handshake mean more than anything else. That's what the thieves depend on.''

Bill Barnhart, managing director of the OKC West auction barn in El Reno, Okla., says that's not likely to change. He has about 10,000 customers and most don't even come in to sell their livestock _ they may send a neighbor or ranch hand.

``There's a lot of trust involved,'' he says. ``We want to protect that. They don't want to jump through a lot of paperwork and IDs. They don't want to do it. And we don't want to do it. We like this way of doing business.''

But there was a long enough paper trail for Rector, the investigator, when he began looking into the two men charged here in Noble County after the January chase on the Cimarron Turnpike.

He called around and discovered the men had sold about $50,000 in cattle to four auction barns within six weeks. One sale took place 300 miles away from they were caught; another _ surprisingly _ occurred in their home county. ``Nobody says these people are rocket scientists,'' Rector says.

Rector believes the men were involved in as many as eight thefts, though they've only been charged in two so far; he's now working the other cases.

Police are at work, too, in Missouri.

And Herndon, the veteran farmer who branded his remaining animals after the theft last fall, is hopeful his case will be cracked _ and the thieves will be punished.

``I have a feeling that they're going to get caught,'' he says. ``A thief will make a mistake sooner or later. That could be a year from now. Or tomorrow. We just wait. That's about all we can do.''
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