MOUNTAIN VIEW, Okla. -- Cattle bones litter the dusty field next to a hay barn. Glare from the hot sun makes them glint against the red dirt and sparse patches of green grass.
Chief special agent Jerry Flowers surveys the scene searching for any clues that might lead him to the outlaws. A knocked down fence. A broken gate lock. Tire tracks. Even a discarded cigarette.
"Do you know anyone that would do this to you?" Flowers asks Randall Stephens. "Family, farmhands... enemies?"
Just two days prior, Stephens' herd of beef cattle numbered 127.
Now, standing in his pasture with a dazed look, Stephens, 65, who has ranched in this rural area about 100 miles west of Oklahoma City all his life, tells Flowers he's missing eleven. He hasn't a clue as to 'whodunit.' He mentions a few boys from town. Flowers recognizes the names. Known cattle thieves.
"He was a good boy," Stephens said of one of the possible suspects. "But he got into that meth and it's just ruined him."
Flowers asks Stephens a few more questions before packing up to leave.
"Rack your brain trying to think of anyone that would've done this," Flowers says. "We'll be in touch. We'll find em."
Stephens, dressed in overalls and wearing a baseball cap. shakes his head and then asks a last question before Flowers and his two partners depart.
"Who are you guys with? Sheriff's office?" Stephens asks.
"We're with the Department of Ag, sir," Flowers says. "Cattle cops."
Across the country, a modern-day crime more typically associated with the Old West -- cattle rustling -- is plaguing the livestock industry. In Oklahoma, a record number of cattle thefts were reported in 2013 -- 830 cases, according to the Oklahoma Cattlemen's Association.
"This is the highest I've ever seen it," said Richard Gebhart, president of the association which represents 5,500 of the state's farmers and ranchers. "It is a horrendous deal and everyone is trying to double down on their efforts to prevent it."
Part of that effort is Flowers, who heads up a small posse of law enforcement agents in the Department of Agriculture. Their job is to track down cattle thieves, who Flowers says annually cost the state's farmers and ranchers about 1,000 cattle and property damage and other losses totaling about $2 million.
With current drought conditions yielding a poor wheat crop around the state, beef prices are sky high; a 500-pound steer now sells for about a $1,000, Flowers said.
Flowers and nine other agents are responsible for policing all of Oklahoma's 77 counties. Agents are stationed around the state so they can be familiar with their territory.
Last year, the unit worked more than 220 cattle-theft cases and recovered nearly $1 million in stolen cattle and farming equipment.
The pace isn't letting up. Through the first three months of 2014, Flowers and his crew already have worked almost 60 cases, including an investigation that led to the discovery in March of a meth lab in Creek County and the recovery of about 70 stolen livestock and about $1 million worth of farm equipment stolen from Kansas. Flowers said his agents recover about 40 percent of all cattle reported missing to their office and that their program has become a model for others states.
"Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico ... they all look to what we do," Flowers said.
A hot tip
Flowers had been looking over maps in his Oklahoma City office not far from the Capitol early one morning last week when the phone rang with first word of the cattle theft in Mountain View.
He'd leaned back in his chair and took mental notes.
--Big brand of a backward S on the cows' right hips.
--Taken sometime within the past 48 hours.
--Southern edge of Kiowa county.
Flowers pulled out his cell phone and summoned to his office some of his fellow agents, including Paul Cornett, a former game warden in Kiowa County. Flowers knows the next step for stolen cattle is often a sale barn where thieves try to unload their ill-gotten gains.
"We are heading west," Flowers told the agents. "Figure out when they were stolen and who is selling today. Let's roll on this one quick."
Looking at Flowers, you'd never guess he's patrolled Oklahoma City's streets as a member of the police gang unit for 25 years.
He sports a tall, white cowboy hat that nearly matches the color of his close-cropped hair and drooping handlebar mustache. His starched white shirt with a bull-riding print across the back is tucked into his Wranglers. A hazelnut-colored leather gun belt, boots and an oversized belt buckle complete the cowboy look.
As he climbed into a Ford Expedition, outfitted with police lights, siren and Kevlar run-flat tires, he did a quick inventory check: AR-15 rifle between the seats, 12-gauge shotgun behind him, and two small cans of franks and beans.
"You never know when you can get something to eat when you are in the middle of nowhere," Flowers explained. "Same reason we have all the firepower. If we get into a sticky situation, backup is going to be a while."
For Flowers' unit, eight-hour days can quickly turn into overnight stays when on the trail of an outlaw. Each agent drives, on average, more than 3,000 miles per month.
Despite the long hours and constant travel, Flowers says he loves his job. He's able to see parts of Oklahoma he never knew existed; from the flat plains to the mountains, the deserts to the wetlands.
"I thought I had seen the state in its entirety," he said. "The people are also so unique and good-hearted, you don't meet a stranger in Oklahoma."
Frequently, Flowers and his team are offered supper at the farms and ranches they visit, a far cry from the day-to-day receptions he received as a police officer.
"On the gang unit, today's victim was tomorrow's suspect because everything was about retaliation," he said. "I worked drive-by shootings and gang murders and arrived at houses that had a hundred bullet holes in it with some innocent child that had been shot out of their bed because they caught the rounds of a rival gang."
Fed up with that life, Flowers left when coaxed by the agriculture commissioner to head the department's investigative services office as chief of the special agents in 2008.
A break in the case
About a half hour after leaving Stephens' pasture, Flowers and his men get a break in the case. A neighbor has reported seeing an unfamiliar truck pulling a trailer filled with cattle on one of the side roads leading to Stephens' property a couple days back.
Flowers details agent Michael Hooper to interview the neighbor while he and Cornett canvass the rest of the town. They knock on doors and stop strangers at the gas station looking for information about past thefts and tips about anyone they might know in cattle rustling.
They also ask about methamphetamine use in town.
About 90 percent of all cattle rustling incidents can be traced back to addicts in need of a quick fix, Flowers said.
"Meth is an absolute epidemic out here in the country," Flowers said. "We arrest outlaws from all walks of life, but more often than not, they are hopped up on meth and looking for quick money."
Stealing cattle can be as simple as cutting a fence, backing up a truck and shaking a bag of feed. Cattle come willingly.
Tips come in bunches as the agents make their way through town. But Flowers learns nothing he considers substantial.
Hooper returns with information from the neighbor, a vague description of a clean, silver truck pulling cattle and heading northwest in the direction of Elk City or Sayre.
"They both have auctions tomorrow," Hooper says. "We'll have to pull records to see if anybody sold any cows with that backward S."
It's important to find missing cattle before they get to auction, Flowers says. Once sold, they could be on a truck halfway across the country and possibly gone forever.
"That's when things get desperate," he says. "That's like hunting for a needle in a haystack."
At OKC West stockyards in El Reno, owner and operator Bill Barnhart had received a bulletin issued by Flowers' office alerting him to be on the lookout for Stephens' stolen cattle with the backward S brand. Barnhart pays close attention on auction days, knowing stolen cattle might try to be shopped.
Barnhart works closely with Flowers, both to protect his customers and his own business.
"Rustling is bad for everybody," Barnhart says. "Jerry's boys do a great job helping out owners get their cattle back. Usually it's only a matter of time before they get them."
State law does not require a unique and registered cattle brand, although some law enforcement officials believe it would help when cattle go missing or are stolen. The cattlemen's association offers a $10,000 reward for information that leads to arrests or the return of stolen cattle belonging to its members.
Now, Flowers is in Barnhart's office wanting to look through his list of recent sales. Flowers wants to see if he finds the names of the possible suspects that Stephens gave him. His agents are doing the same at several other sale barns across the state. No matches turn up.
Knowing how wily some of the thieves are, Flowers takes the news in stride. His team will keep checking sale barns and running down tips.
"This isn't a dead end," Flowers says. "Usually in these small towns this is the biggest news they ever get so everyone starts talking and somebody eventually talks a little too much. That's when we'll get the break in the case."
In nearly 40 years of law enforcement, Flowers has worked on just about every kind of case. Before the gang unit, he was an Oklahoma City police detective. He said he was one of the first on the scene of the Oklahoma City bombing and he's worked cleanup on nearly every major tornado.
His voice is steady as he recollects those horrific experiences. But his tone grows angry as he talks about innocent people having the fruits of their hard work stolen by some "gutless cowards" in the middle of the night.
"These people live off the land and the tools of their trade are their worn and scarred hands," Flowers said of the farmers and ranchers. "They work hard to feed this country and to provide a life to their family, but for everyone else, too."
"That's why it's such a privilege to work for these people that work so hard for the rest of us."
And why Flowers won't give up his search. The pursuit continues.
Copyright 2014 - The Oklahoman, Oklahoma City
McClatchy-Tribune News Service