Nov. 09--CLANTON -- If you want to know what modern cattle rustling is like, just ask Thomas Smith. The Chilton County rancher had 12 head of cattle stolen on two different occasions in September.
"They just ran the cattle up into the horse trailer from the catch pen," Smith said of his black Angus animals. He has about 100 head on his farm just north of Clanton. "I was able to get all of them back but one. Some were found at a stockyard in Athens, and others were found just across the line at a stockyard in Tennessee. One of them had already been slaughtered."
A sagging economy and high beef prices have stock thefts on the rise. The Associated Press reports increases in the thefts from the Beef Belt in Texas and Oklahoma to other beef producing states in the Midwest and South. These modern rustlers won't fit the typical Hollywood image of mounted desperados wearing 10-gallon hats with bandannas covering their faces, said Billy Powell, executive vice president of the Alabama Cattlemen's Association.
"Most of them use stock trailers pulled by pickups, or even 18-wheelers, to haul the animals away," he said, noting that there is no national group that collects stock theft data. "They use four-wheelers or motorcycles to round them up, and then haul them to stock yards to sell.
"During tough economic times, we see the numbers of thefts increase. It's a quick way for somebody to make money."
Grown animals will sell for $2,000 to $2,500 a head on the market, depending on their age, condition and weight. Smith said his cows were valued at $2,500 a head.
"They are sure enough pretty cows," he said. Half of the animals were pregnant at the time of the thefts. "I was glad to get them back."
Complicating law enforcement efforts in rustling cases, the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries did away with its investigative division June 1 due to state budget cuts. The group investigated crimes ranging from equipment theft to rustling. There were 10 investigators in the division before the budget ax fell, said Bob Holley, who headed the outfit.
He's now back with the department working part time. The agency is trying to add more part-time investigators as the budget will allow, said Brett Hall, an assistant commissioner.
"If the economy stays bad, we'll see more theft cases," Holley said. "Some folks may kill a calf for food occasionally. But most of the cases deal with grown animals going to stockyard."
Stock theft cases now are worked by local sheriff's offices.
"The sheriff's departments don't have the manpower or expertise to investigate the cases," he said. "They have so many other cases to work, cases like drugs and burglaries. When we had our investigation division running, we worked very closely with the sheriffs' departments across the state. We could track cases through stockyards all over the state."
Stockyard owners have "an excellent" track record in cooperating with investigations, Holley said. The businesses take down the license plate number of vehicles that deliver animals and most ask for a copy of the driver's license of the person getting the check, he said.
"People that own stockyards understand that thefts hurt their regular customers," Holley said. "They don't want to buy stolen cattle."
The nature of the crimes makes solving them difficult. They occur in rural areas. Most producers don't count their cattle every day. Big operations could have hundreds or thousands of animals scattered over pastures in several counties, so it might be weeks or months before they discover animals have been stolen.
And Alabama doesn't require brands, a sure-fire way to prove ownership.
"Unfortunately, cattle don't have a serial number that goes with them or some sort of permanent ID" short of branding, said Jim Fraley, an Illinois Farm Bureau livestock specialist. "Thieves look at it as an opportunity and can market the cattle under their name. It's a fairly easy thing to do."
Stock thieves aren't your normal run-of-the-mill crooks, Powell said.
"Someone looking for money to buy drugs will break into a farmhouse and steal a TV or steal equipment from a barn," he said. "Most folks who are bent on those kinds of things aren't accustomed to handling cattle. To steal cattle, you have to have some experience in how to get them gathered and up in the trailer."
Smith took matters into his own hands, watching his pastures more closely. He caught two men on his land driving a truck pulling a trailer. He blocked them in with his own truck and called the authorities.
Chilton County Sheriff Kevin Davis lauded Smith for his "heightened alert."
"The boldness of the thing -- for them to come back three different times to the same pasture," Davis said. "Obviously, they didn't feel very threatened at being caught. But I've never given criminals credit for having high intelligence."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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