Monday, October 2, 2006

FORT WORTH, Texas — It’s not quite like the olden times in Texas, when cattle rustlers were hunted down by sheriffs’ posses and strung up in the nearest oak tree.

Times have changed, but almost every day at one of the state’s 119 auction markets, stolen cattle are sold. The rustlers’ take for the day may be as much as $10,000.

Some law enforcement officials claim cattle thievery is on the rise because beef prices have steadily risen. Others claim the increase stems from the profit margin the rustlers enjoy. Still, others point to the ease with which many thieves can get rid of their stash — often just as easy as selling a stolen car to a chop shop or a color TV to a pawnshop.

“These crooks who are stealing them don’t have much of any overhead,” said Hal Dumas, a regional supervisor for a statewide organization that tracks cattle rustling and other theft from ranchers. “All it costs them usually is the gas it takes to takes them to haul the animals to an auction somewhere.”

Mr. Dumas, 53, works for a Fort Worth-based organization called the Texas and Southwest Cattle Raisers Association (TSCRA), which operates a full-time cadre of investigators — often called “cattle rangers.”

Mr. Dumas lives in Franklin and is responsible for overseeing cattle-theft investigations in 42 central and East Texas counties, where about 25 percent of Texas’ cattle are raised.

There always are several such crimes actively being investigated, said Mr. Dumas.

One of the biggest rustling operations, he recalled, recently was broken up near Houston, where a man who had his own herd stole about 200 head of cattle before TSCRA investigators and local cops found some stolen branded cattle mixed with the rustler’s own cattle in his pasture.

Mr. Dumas said the Houston rustler operated in plain sight, but because residents in big cities often don’t pay much attention to what others are doing, this culprit got away with it for many months.

“A thousand people probably saw him stealing them, but nobody paid any attention,” said Mr. Dumas.

Scott Williamson, 43, who like Mr. Dumas is a TSCRA field inspector and covers 17 counties north and northwest of here, says he always has a full plate, with some of the arrests ultimately demanding considerable time testifying in court against the culprits.

One of his most interesting cases was the 2004 apprehension of a young gang of rustlers, led by a 20-year-old cowboy wannabe who hatched the idea of becoming “the Robin Hood of cattle rustlers,” he told reporters later, by watching all of John Wayne’s early movies and devouring Louis L’Amour novels.

Roddy Dean Pippin began his “career” by building a wooden crate to put in the bed of his pickup, then convincing a friend to accompany him to a ranch where they knew the owner rarely was present. As the friend drove up close to several of the small herd, Pippin lassoed three calves and pulled them into his makeshift pen and then hurried off.

The next day, Pippin sold the calves and got a check for $257. “And then I was hooked,” Pippin later told investigators.

After he was caught, Pippin said he personally had rustled scores of cattle from three or four Red River Valley ranches near the Oklahoma-Texas border, and that he and one of his accomplices had hit at least 10 other ranches.

Pippin agreed in a plea bargain to serve eight years in prison. “That’s probably more than we could’ve gotten otherwise,” said Mr. Williamson.

“It may not be like in the old days,” said state Rep. Glenn Hegar, 35, a farmer from Katy, just west of Houston, “but Texas still takes cattle rustling seriously, very seriously.”

While many tips come to TSCRA from farmers, ranchers and auctioneers, the organization’s computer system gets credit for the fact that last year its agents recovered more than 5,200 head of cattle, worth some $3.5 million.

At every auction house in the state, agents make notes as to age, sex, markings and particularly the branding of each animal. Then, when a rancher describes a stolen cow, TSCRA checks its database and — if the animal has been branded — chances are the stolen animal can be returned to its owner.

The big problem is that many cattlemen do not brand their animals. The average cattle owner in Texas owns about two dozen animals, said Mr. Hegar, so many are not equipped to handle branding.

In the Pippin case, several law enforcement officials remarked that the youthful rustler swore he stole only from the wealthy, and often commented that he seemed like such a nice, engaging young man.

Dan Mike Bird, the district attorney in Vernon, who knew most of the victims in the Pippin case, was unmoved.

“Out here,” he said, “our opinions about cattle rustlers haven’t changed since the frontier days, when cattle thieves were hanged. We don’t take kindly to any cattle rustler, no matter how pleasant he may be.”

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