Cattle rustlers facing stiff penalties
Law enforcement officials, county commissioners and cattle association members gathered at the Lawrence County Historic Courthouse in Mt. Vernon on Monday, Jan. 7 to discuss the problem of cattle rustlers that has plagued producers in the southwest Missouri area for several months.
Lawrence County Presiding Commissioner Sam Goodman opened the meeting, introducing Lawrence County Prosecuting Attorney Don Trotter, Lawrence County Sheriff Brad DeLay, University of Missouri Extension livestock specialist Eldon Cole and Dade County Prosecuting Attorney Gary Troxell to those in attendance.
Randi Schwarzbach, of Miller, asked why, when a cattle thief was apprehended, it wasn't treated as a serious crime.
Trotter responded by stating the maximum penalty had been requested in each case of cattle rustling he had pending.
"No one is receiving a pat on the wrist," Trotter said. "I have as many cattle as anyone in this room, and I take this very seriously.
"The one plea deal I offered was to a 17-year-old," Trotter continued. "He knows he is going to have to testify or he goes to jail, too. There are no deals."
Trotter said the maximum sentence a first-time offender would receive is seven years. Those charged with a second offense can receive up to 15 years in federal prison.
DeLay explained the thieves were traveling in a circuit, hitting cattle producers in Greene, Lawrence, Dade, Newton and Jasper counties.
"There are some we might not know about yet," DeLay said. "It may take a few weeks for someone to realize [cattle] are missing.
"We have a good clearance rate, but it takes time," he said.
DeLay asked those in attendance to be especially vigilant when it came to noticing things that were out of the ordinary.
"If you see someone or something, grab a license plate number," DeLay said. "We're seeing people, probably meth heads, that could be armed. Don't confront them. If you see something suspicious, call it in. The information is added to the database, and it helps solve cases."
Greg Bailey, of Lawrence County, said he thought the thieves were more organized than typical drug users.
"They tend to do this late at night, and they're pretty good," Bailey said. "You don't just walk out into a field, separate cattle, steal a truck and trailer and drive over rough terrain. They know what they're doing. What can we do?"
"The more witnesses you have, the better," DeLay said.
"Odds are, though, that you'll be out at 1 a.m. facing two or three cowboys hopped up on meth," Trotter said. "They're doing the same thing they do during the day, but they're doing it at night. They work at large ranches or other livestock organizations and know what they're doing."
"What about the guy who loads [a trailer] up and then claims, when he's caught, that he just went to the wrong place?" Bailey asked.
"If you see a guy doing this, it's not the first time," DeLay said, "but we can build on previous convictions. If he ends up on your farm with a trailer from Kansas and a truck from Texas, it all adds up."
DeLay also said if his officers arrive to a call of someone in the process of committing a crime, the perpetrators are going to jail.
"My guys are smart enough to know when someone claims to be on the wrong farm," DeLay said.
Keith Hankins, a Dade County cattleman, told about his experience with the organized theft of his cattle.
"They planned it out," Hankins said. "They had people watching the road. They attended to the details. There were no double tracks through the field.
"Once, they picked 13 of the biggest to take," Hankins continued. "They're cutting fences, staging trailers and backing onto the lot. You worry about the meth heads, but the organized thieves are the bigger problem."
Mark Harmon, a field representative for Joplin Regional Stockyards, said law enforcement needed to take the matter more seriously.
"I've had 60-year-old men in my office crying, because they lost $60,000 and that was what they were going to use to pay the mortgage," Harmon said. "My business puts $325 million back into the economy. The general population has lost the perception of the value of agriculture."
Harmon suggested cattle associations and large producers contribute to a reward fund to be distributed following the arrest and conviction of the thieves.
David Brown, of Miller, said he had knowledge of a female suspect taking photos of cattle in the Golden City area.
"She said she just thought it was a pretty picture," Brown said, "but when she left, the owner noticed a four-inch band of masking tape on the gate and along the fence. They have scouts that are marking fences."
Trotter said the King of the Castle Doctrine, which allows homeowners to use lethal force against illegal intruders, would offer some protection to livestock producers.
"If I felt threatened, I would shoot," Trotter said. "You have the right to protect yourself."
Stockyards were identified as one area of potential weakness when it comes to the sale and dispersal of cattle.
"Do you request [personal] identification?" asked Schwarzbach.
"We know our customers," Harmon said. "We don't ask for identification. We have enough field men who check cattle in. If the seller is not in the database, it's an automatic red flag."
DeLay said the penalties for livestock operations knowingly selling stolen cattle are steep.
"They will be criminally charged," DeLay said. "It's a felony."
Brown suggested producers invest in wildlife cameras and strategically place them where thieves are not likely to see them.
"I have one that is infrared; it takes photos at night," Brown said, "clear enough that you can get a picture of the person. I actually caught four people on camera."
"Trail cameras are good investments," DeLay added. "They [generally] take very clear pictures."
Alfred Painter, a Lawrence County resident, suggested forming a database featuring photos of those convicted of cattle thievery.
"People could check the database if they see someone they don't recognize," he said. "Another thing we should do is get to know the people in our neighborhoods. Let the bad guys know they are being watched."