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Officials working to corral cattle thefts

By Sarah Thomas sthomas@news-journal.com
Oct. 19, 2013 at 10 p.m.


Texas cattle thieves made off with more than 10,000 head of cattle this past year - a 35 percent increase from previous years - proving cattle rustling isn't a relic of the Old West.

The numbers were compiled by the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, which works in conjunction with local law enforcement agencies to investigate, track and recover stolen cattle.

Rusk County rancher Bill Thompson, who's been running cattle for more than 45 years, knows firsthand the devastation caused by thieves. One hundred cattle once roamed his property, but thieves have cut his herd to 52 during the past 10 years.

"They've tried their best to find my cows, but they've had no luck at it," Thompson said Thursday.

Thieves left behind four-wheeler tracks at his ranch after a theft in mid-summer.

Thompson said he believes the thieves used the four wheelers to herd the cattle into a trailer.

What's worse is the 2011 drought continues to plague ranchers like Thompson, making it difficult to rebuild herds with beef prices at record highs.

Texas lost 600,000 cows in 2011, a 12 percent decline in its cattle population, according to the Texas AgriLife Extension Service.

"I'm not replacing them because they are too blooming high," he said of prices.

Based on today's market prices, a top-notch young cow can go for more than $2,000, said Blaine Jernigan, Rusk County Agrilife Extension agent.

Larry Hand, a special ranger with TSCRA for the past three and a half years, said cattle thefts generally fall into three categories: stolen by a random stranger, by hired ranch hands, or a buyer fails to pay the seller.

"You thought you sold them. You end up not getting paid under what we call prompt payment. The buyer takes possession of the cattle with the promise to pay within 24 to 48 hours and that never happens," Hand said.

He said the safest way to sell cattle is at a recognized sale barn because the auction has to balance the money down to the penny before they close the door.

"Sellers will always get paid," he said.

<h3>Cash cows</h3>

Cattle thieves may not be typical burglars or shoplifters, Hand said, but they share the same problem as many other thieves.

"A lot of time these good ol' country boys get hooked on drugs and since they've lived the country life, they know about cattle and how to steal them," he said. "Many of the cattle thefts that occur out here in the countryside are driven by the same need for cash for drugs as are the auto burglaries and other thefts."

And stolen cattle literally are cash cows.

"There's hardly any other commodity that a person can steal and get the same amount of dollars that the original owner would get," Hand added.

In 2009 - after the theft of cattle tripled from 2,400 head in 2007 to 6,404 head in 2008 - the Texas Legislature recognized the value of cattle and passed Senate Bill 1163, making the theft of even one calf a third-degree felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

In August 2011, a jury sentenced Carl Wade Curry of Athens to 99 years in prison after he stole more than 2,000 head of cattle worth almost $1 million during a five-year period, Hand said.

Curry received an additional 20 years for a cattle rustling case in Smith County.

"That's how serious the Legislature and the people of Texas take cattle theft," he said.

Hand patrols District 13, which includes Gregg, Harrison, Upshur, Rusk, Panola, Smith, Wood, Marion, Shelby, Nacogdoches, Angelina and San Augustine counties.

"Thefts occur in all these counties," he said, adding most cases are filed in Panola, Rusk, Upshur and Wood counties.

And thieves sometimes steal the equipment used to move the cattle.

"They'll take equipment from one farm to steal cattle from another," Hand said.

In 2012, TSCRA special rangers investigated 980 cases of cattle and ranch equipment theft, which led to the recovery of more than $4.47 million worth of livestock and property.

<h3>Difficult cases to crack</h3>

Cattle thefts can be difficult to investigate because they often take place in rural areas where neighbors, crime watch groups and surveillance are scarce.

Special rangers and sheriff's offices are working several unsolved cases in East Texas.

In 2012, thieves stole 15 steers weighing from 400 to 500 pounds from a ranch in Upshur County, Hand said. Earlier this year, thieves made off with several crossbred cows from a ranch south of Carthage, transporting them on an oil lease road. Another bunch of cows and a bull were stolen from a pasture in Arp off Texas 64 and at Texas 135.

"We desperately need some solid information from the public. Someone knows something they are not sharing with law enforcement," Hand said.

When cattle are stolen, investigators have to search for physical evidence, with clues ranging from tire tracks, broken chains and locks to bank records.

"Cattle theft in general can be difficult because there's not always an apparent suspect," Hand said.

The key to solving the crimes, he added, is special rangers maintaining a good working relationship with local agencies, including police departments.

"We work with all levels of law enforcement to get the job done," Hand said.

Cattle theft investigations also can be time consuming, with some lasting several months.

<h3>Preventative measures</h3>

Thompson said he eventually had his cattle branded and registered his brand with the Rusk County Clerk's Office.

When cattle are taken to a sale barn, market inspectors look for brands and make sure the owners or their agents are selling the cattle.

Brands also work as a deterrent for most thieves because branded cattle stick out at sale barns, Hand said.

However, some thieves are taking branded cattle to river bottoms so they can breed them for unmarked, untraceable cattle, Thompson said.

"They can't carry branded cattle to an auction because that'd be a dead giveaway," he said. "So they breed them in the river bottom and pull the calves out to sell."

TSCRA has developed security methods it said make cattle less susceptible. But the techniques don't always work.

"The trouble is that they said if I branded them they'd be easy to find, but I branded them and they ain't been found yet," Thompson said, adding he still thinks branding is a deterrent.

The longtime cattleman isn't optimistic about getting his cattle back.

"Absolutely, positively no. Nobody's even reported seeing them," he said.

On top of branding his herd, Thompson has also made changes to the way he manages his cattle.

He's moved them so they're not near the road, and he has people who visit the property at different times each day.

Hand said those are all good theft-prevention measures.

"When a rancher builds a pin near the road, he is advertising his cattle to these thieves who many times are out scouting and looking for an easy payday."

Even with all the preventive measures available to ranchers, Hand said, thieves will continue to target cattle because the price of beef is showing no signs of dropping.

"Cattle are at an all-time high as far as price," he said. "We don't see the problem of cattle theft going away anytime soon."

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