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Texas Agriculture Archive

March 17, 2006

Cattle Rustling
As more and more Texans are learning every day, it’s not just a crime of the past

By Bobby Horecka
Field Editor

The sun begins to glow orange in the western sky as you climb into your pickup, mind racing to the week ahead to that business presentation on Tuesday or that teacher conference on Wednesday morning.

You scan your herd of cattle as you give the lock one last tug before you drive home.

"Those calves are filling out nicely," you think. "They should bring a good price at the sale barn."

But you won't get to find out.

Someone else gets to your herd before you do—all but that gangly old heifer, too stubborn to climb into the thieves' trailer.

You're a victim of what most folks thought was a crime of yesteryear. You've been hit by cattle rustlers.

And you're not alone.

In fact, cattle thieves this year are plaguing every cattle producing state in the country, claiming whatever they can manage to coax on their trailers, some even so brazen as to commit their crime in plain view and in broad daylight. In the Houston area alone, rustlers have nabbed more than 450 head of cattle in the last few months.

"Cattle market prices have been so strong lately that it has become quite lucrative for a cattle thief," said Larry Gray, director of law enforcement services for the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association (TSCRA), the lead investigative unit in Texas for cattle and ranch-related thefts.

"Just think—for one trailer of cattle, you could be looking at $10,000-$20,000," Gray said. "And all they're out is the gas of hauling them to the sale."

If caught, the rustler does face a stiff penalty, depending on the number of cattle he’s stolen. Less than 10 head is a state jail felony, meaning he’ll spend at least a couple of years in prison. Ten or more is a third degree felony, punishable by up to 10 years behind bars.

Many of the cattle thefts Gray’s team of investigators have focused on of late have centered in Harris, Fort Bend, Galveston and Brazoria counties. Most are small operations with just a few cattle, and most of the thefts have been orchestrated while the owner wasn’t around.

Most of the thefts have been relatively small heists—a dozen or so cattle here or there—but others required considerably more effort, field inspector Brent Mast said, such as one of the cases where the thieves made six separate loads before they called it quits on one cattleman. Evidence leads investigators to believe the thefts may be related, but the case remains unsolved until they can locate the stolen cattle, which are now pushing the half million dollar mark in total value.

“I thought the days of cattle rustling were long gone, but they’re obviously not,” said State Rep. Glenn Hegar (R-Katy), who last session authored legislation to better define the statutory role of the special Texas Ranger division inspectors.

“Given what we’ve seen around the state in the last few weeks, I’d say we’re dealing with a much bigger problem than any of us may have realized.”

David Murrell of Winnie knows that fact all too well.

Roughly a year ago, he lost some 20 head of cattle to a boy who had worked for him and many of his neighbors. Although the boy was eventually caught and sent to jail, only two of Murrell’s cows and a bull were recovered.

Having lost so much, Murrell remains critical of the current system in place.

“There’s no accountability of the people in place—the sale barn still earns its commission and the inspectors still collect their 48 cents a head,” he said. “And what for? I’m still missing my cattle.”

Murrell said he felt the system would be better served if sale barns required certified letters from the county clerk before they could be sold.

“An honest rancher wouldn’t mind bringing a letter to sell his cattle,” he said, “but a thief sure would.”

Gray’s team of inspectors totals 29 officers, each working somewhere between 10 and 18 counties each in Texas and Oklahoma.

“We’re stretched pretty thin,” Gray admits. “But that’s really all we can afford in the division.”

For their size, their recovery rates are phenomenal. Last year alone, field inspectors helped recover more than $4 million worth of livestock and ranch machinery.

The law enforcement officers are aided in their efforts by 70 market inspectors, who identify 5 million to 6 million cattle each year at more than 125 Texas livestock markets.

They report their findings to TSCRA’s Fort Worth headquarters, where the information is entered into a large brand recording database, which in turn is distributed to more than 700 law enforcement agencies nationwide.

TSCRA members do have a leg up in retrieving their cattle in many cases, Mast said, because the organization keeps records of its members’ herds, making them easier to track and locate.

But, Gray said, his inspectors work all cases equally, regardless of membership.

Mast offered the following tips:

• Check on your cattle as often as possible at different times of the day.

• Vary feeding times and locations, and whenever possible, avoid pen feeding the animals.

• Don’t build working pens directly off main roads.

• Always brand your cattle. Unbranded animals are very difficult to find, particularly when they get mixed with similar breeds at the sale barns.

• And most importantly, get to know your neighbors.

Let them know what you drive, when you’re usually around and who they can expect to see on your property working your cattle.

“And always report to your local sheriff anytime you think something might be suspicious. The quicker you notify the law, the better the chance of recovery,” Mast said.

“In 12 hours, you can be a mighty good ways off,” he said. “Where a herd may have started in East Texas, you could easily be as far away as Kansas in that time. And the farther away they are, the less likely a chance we stand of recovering the stolen cattle.”

Anyone with information about the crimes in the Houston area is urged to contact local law enforcement officials. “We’ve had lots of tips, but you never know when that single piece will come along and the puzzle falls into place,” Mast said.