Cash cow: Texas cattle theft on the rise

By Emily Alleman (Written Story), Alsha Khan, Mary Ellen Knewtson and Meleena Loseke

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Cows waiting for auction at the Lexington Livestock Commission sale barn. Photo by Meleena Loseke.

If drought conditions were not enough for Texas cattle ranchers to be fretting about, they can now add “increased cattle theft” to the list.

The year 2012 saw 10,000 cows stolen statewide, up more than 7,000 from five years earlier. This increase is part of an upward trend in thefts observed by Special Ranger Doug Hutchison, who works on cattle cases with the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association.

“It doesn’t take very many cattle on a trailer to get a handful of money,” Hutchison said.

The thefts have been easy to notice as overall cattle numbers decline. The economy and the drought of 2009 thinned herd counts by about 70 percent, and Hutchison said this drove the price of each remaining cow higher, making each theft even more lucrative. The current average price of an adult cow is now approximately $1,500, he said.

A rustler could be anyone looking to supplement an income, but common culprits include ranch hands stealing internally as well as drug users, Hutchison said.

“More times than not it seems like it is a drug related kind of thing. Sometimes crack cocaine,” Hutchison said. “Meth was usually the underlying drug of choice.”

A specific case that Hutchison worked involved a brother and a sister who stole an estimated 14 cows from the woman’s ex-brother-in-law while he was in Afghanistan serving as a helicopter pilot for the Army.

“That to me, just kind of brings out a whole new low to it,” Hutchison said, “when you’ve got somebody out there fighting for the country, and they’re over there ripping the guy off.”

The ranger said that an informant brought the case to the authorities eight months after the theft, and following an investigative period, the criminals were brought to justice. The sister, who was already in jail on a meth charge, received one more year in prison for the cattle theft, and the brother received probation.

University of Texas Substance Abuse Expert Jane Maxwell expressed skepticism that methamphetamine users were likely to attempt cattle theft, due to the high visibility of the crime as well as potential penalties, including a jail sentence ranging from two to 20 years and fine of $10,000.

“If I were high on drugs, I don’t think I’d be rustling cows,” Maxwell said.

She said that after 40 years of studying drug trends nothing surprises her, but she also knows the drug scene is rampant with myth and misinformation. In her recent survey of Texas meth users at treatment centers, Maxwell found 56 percent of users had been arrested in the past year. Of these arrests, 18 percent involved theft.

“When meth users engage in theft it’s an acquisitive crime to get money to buy Sudafed and supplies or food,” Maxwell said. “The cattle could be a big payoff — or more dangerous than shoplifting.

Meth users or otherwise, stolen cattle usually turn up sooner or later at public cattle auctions, such as the Lexington Cattle Commission. At their weekly Saturday auction, it’s market inspector Mark Nygard’s job to keep a record of all sales.

“Our job is to inspect all of cattle that are ahead of auction,” Nygard said. “We keep a permanent record of every head of livestock sold in the state of Texas and Oklahoma.”

If something comes up missing, cattle owners can call the area supervisors to track down any recorded sales sold them and hopefully catch the thief, Nygard said. Meticulous records make cattle rustling difficult to get away with, but if the cow is not branded, tracking and returning becomes more challenging. Nygard, who also works for the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, said calves and yearlings are not branded as often, making them easy to successfully steal, and can still be worth around $600.

In 2009, Texas lawmakers cracked down on cattle thefts, raising penalties to possibly include a maximum 10 years in prison for anyone who gets caught stealing. So far, the law hasn’t seemed to deter thieves, but the Texas Cattle Raisers Association will continue enforcing it until the cows come home.

[Package published on Multimedia Newsroom in September 2013.]

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