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Rustlers keeping special cattle rangers busy

(Journal stock photo.)

GROESBECK, Texas (AP)--Robert Ware easily walks among hundreds of nervous cattle eyeing him suspiciously in pens at a sprawling, steamy and noisy auction barn and takes notes.

Armed with a clipboard and "drive-in" sheets about the size of a traffic cop's ticket book, Ware, an inspector for more than three decades with the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, looks from under his green camo-patterned cap and jots down each animal's particulars--color, sex, horns or no horns, age, brand and distinctive ear marks that have a language all their own: Crop, over half crop, under seven, under hack, swallow fork, under bit.

The paperwork tracking cattle sales also is vital to prosecution and possible recovery if any of the animals are reported stolen, a problem that's nearly tripled in the past year in Texas and Oklahoma, according to figures kept by the 15,000-member cattle raisers association.

The group, not coincidentally, formed 132 years ago to combat rampant rustling on what then was the open range.

"Cattle theft is alive and well," says Hal Dumas, one more than two dozen "Special Rangers" stationed throughout Texas and Oklahoma.

In 2008, Dumas, who supervises a vast area of South and Southeast Texas, and his fellow rangers investigated the theft of 6,404 head of cattle, up from 2,400 the previous year. In 2007, the officers commissioned as Special Rangers by Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation and Texas Department of Public Safety investigated nearly 1,000 instances of not only cattle theft, but also stolen horses, trailers, saddles and ranch equipment.

The timeworn system employed by 70 inspectors such as Ware works. Their reports go to the association's Fort Worth headquarters and are entered into what's touted as the nation's largest centralized and computerized brand recording and retrieval system, making information on missing and stolen livestock available to more than 700 law enforcement agencies nationwide.

In 2008, animals and equipment worth nearly $5 million were recovered. The previous year, the value of recovered property topped $3 million.

With more than 4 million head of cattle spread over 51 million acres of range and pasture land, there's ample opportunity for rustlers pulling a trailer with a pickup truck to drive in, load up and drive out with no one seeing them or by blending into the landscape.

"They just go through a gate, or cut a lock," Dumas said. "A lot of them aren't locked."

Dumas, a ranger for 15 years, tells the story of rustlers just south of Houston a few years ago. They repeatedly made off with cattle in broad daylight and within view of thousands of motorists traveling along a busy highway because the thieves looked like they belonged. In some cases, absentee owners live in the city and don't check on their country ranch operations until the weekend.

Compared to a ripped-off $500 car stereo that may fetch $50 at a pawn shop, a stolen $500 calf could get $500 at a sale like the one held every Thursday about 40 miles east of Waco at the Groesbeck Auction & Livestock Co., one of 115 Texas livestock markets.

"So it's pretty lucrative," said Dumas, 56.

Then there's the case of dimwitted thieves who brought attention to themselves, along with the law, when they pulled up to the auction barn and produced some calves out of the back of their van.

When something weird like that happens, "I call Hal," Ware said.

"They do all kinds of stuff," Dumas said of rustlers. "But that's a dead giveaway."

More often, however, the cattle thief is someone like Andy Wilkins, from Blossom, near Paris in North Texas.

"The first time I did it, I didn't get caught," said Wilkins, from a visiting room at the Coffield Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice where he's serving 10 years in his second stint behind bars for livestock theft.

Wilkins, 38, who grew up on a dairy farm, was 15 when he tried rustling for the first time. A pilfered yearling he sold then to a wheat farmer brought him about $175, or about 50 to 60 cents a pound.

"Man, it was easy," he said. "Later on, when I got older, I thought: 'I can do it again and I won't get caught.' It just got to snowballing."

About a dozen men currently are in Texas prisons for rustling and Wilkins may be among the most prolific. He figures he stole about 400 cattle over the years.

"I can load 16 head of cattle by myself and be out of there in 30 minutes," Wilkins said. "The Texas Ranger didn't believe me on that."

Wilkins fits the profile of the typical modern-day rustler, a cowboy short of cash, trying to pay for a pickup and cattle trailer and not getting enough work.

"Most of the time it's usually just one or two individuals who get together and decide they're going to be entrepreneurs and start stealing cattle," said Larry Gray, who heads the association's law enforcement team.

If a cattle thief is really lucky, the rancher will have animals already in a small pen, doing the bulk of roundup work.

"You just go in there and pull up and load them up," Wilkins said. "And get out of there."

His first conviction came in 1990 when he was arrested for 17 counts of livestock theft--most of them for stealing Holstein heifer calves that brought him $150 to $200 apiece. He served seven years in prison.

In 2005, after leaving a good job as a bulk milk truck driver to go off on his own, his fledgling trucking business hit tough times and he returned to rustling to make ends meet.

One haul of Angus cattle, each head weighing 500 to 600 pounds, was worth $1.75 a pound.

"You load up 14 of them, you've got a chunk of money," he said.

It was the sale of Holstein heifers he stole from a dairy farm near Sulphur Springs to another dairy farmer that came back to trip him.

"I didn't tell him," Wilkins said. "He didn't realize they were stolen."

The farmer who bought the cattle took them back to Sulphur Springs--and the local auction like the one at Groesbeck.

"The owner was sitting there at the dairy sale," Wilkins said. "He recognized them."

When cattle association investigators questioned the farmer, he directed them to Wilkins.

"You know how you try to lie your way out of it?" Wilkins said. "Being raised in a Christian home, your conscience bothers you when you try to lie. After a while, I told them I did it. It made me feel better when I admitted it."

Rangers determined he'd stolen other cattle and recovered some of them by identifying the earmarks--a notch carved out of an animal's ear by a rancher with a pocketknife--noted by an association inspector at a sale.

Wilkins plea-bargained two concurrent 10-year sentences and could be locked up until 2015. He now shares a cell with a convicted killer serving a life sentence and cleans tables in the cafeteria at the maximum security East Texas prison while he waits for a possible October parole.

"I let a lot of people down," he said.

Today's theft numbers certainly don't rival those of Civil War years, when hundreds of thousands of cattle were taken by rustlers from Mexico, by Indians and by renegade cowboys, according to the Texas State Historical Association's Handbook of Texas.

The huge losses prompted 40 cattlemen in February 1877 to form the cattle raisers association. It incorporated in 1882 with the first inspections made the following year and eventually located along trails and at shipping points and markets.

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