The lawman watches as a pair of headlights blink on the horizon. He raises his night-vision binoculars above his thick, red mustache. A small, white pickup truck a few hundred yards out kicks up dust as it speeds along the back road. Nothing stands between them but darkness draped over acres of barren fields.
Loren Pope is a detective with the Christian County Sheriff's Department, which patrols a rustic stretch of country just south of Springfield, Missouri. Most folks just call him "Stash," in honor of his Yosemite Sam-style mustache.
In Christian County, more than a third of the local economy is tied to animal production, meaning most honest men's hours are hitched to daylight. But still, many farms like the one Pope is guarding belong to commuter farmers who live elsewhere and often hold full-time jobs.
It's a few hours before daybreak on a frigid night in February 2006. The only sound, aside from the truck, is the crackle of ice on the nearby marsh as it freezes. Stash listens as the truck gets closer. This is the third night that he has shivered against the trunk of a wide tree in this small stand of oaks near the intersection of Snowdrop and Spring Creek roads. He wears camouflage and a hydration backpack. His badge and pistol hang on his left hip. In the grass nearby, he has concealed a sack with toilet paper and granola bars. Among his gear is his weapon of choice, an AR-15 assault rifle.
Pope radios his stakeout team, which consists of another deputy hunkered on the other side of a field, two men in a squad car concealed behind a nearby barn and a deputy cruising in a patrol car about a mile away.
He tells them to hold their position until the truck gets closer. He dusts frost from his fatigues and swivels to check the bait in his trap: a pen of about 10 head of cattle.
Earlier in the week, Pope had received a call from the owner of this farm reporting the unbelievable: An entire herd had somehow ended up in the wrong pen. Overnight, they had migrated from their usual metal-barred warrens to a barbed-wire-lined pasture across the street. Pope figures this wasn't the work of drunken teenagers. It was the first step in a notorious operation hailing from pioneer days: cattle rustling.
Remember those old Westerns in which horse-riding desperados break into barns to drive pilfered livestock across the open plains? They're back, but with a modern twist. Hustlers now use paved roads, heavy-duty trucks and trailers to make cleaner getaways. In 2004 and 2005, there were 82 reports of cattle theft in Missouri. But Cattle Theft Task Force members say some cattle thefts may go unreported in rural areas.
This sting operation is Pope's solution. For four years, he worked for an anti-drug unit called the Combined Ozarks Multi-jurisdictional Enforcement Team (COMET). He had learned that druggies could be shaken down at any hour because they usually kept contraband on them. Cattle thieves were different. You had to catch them in the act. Missouri doesn't require beef haulers to show proof of ownership for their herds or to mark them with brands or radio chips. Thieves simply pull out the animals' ear tags the cattle equivalent of a license plate and they can move meat freely on the open market.
Pope watches the truck pull close to the driveway of the farm. But his heart sinks after one of his men radios in the pickup's license plate number: It is the owner of the cattle. The farmer had simply come to check on his herd.
Pope's radio crackles as the deputy across the field radios in, reporting a sighting of another farmer on a nearby parcel marching out to check on his cows. Locals have begun their own vigilante patrols.
Pope's one good lead is blown. It seems the rustlers who moved the herd have been spooked. To catch them red-handed, he would need to canvass thousands of acres of fields. He doesn't have nearly enough men.
This was Pope's first lesson on the year-old Missouri Cattle Theft Task Force, a statewide squad made up of investigators from the Missouri State Highway Patrol, the Missouri State Water Patrol and a half-dozen sheriff's departments. After the failed stakeout, it became clear that drug-bust-style enforcement wouldn't work on cattle thieves.
Pope would need a new attack plan.
Gov. Matt Blunt formed the Cattle Theft Task Force in January 2006 and brought together a city boy and a sailor to lead it. Sgt. Daniel Nash of the Missouri State Highway Patrol grew up in San Francisco. He specialized in homicide investigations and had no experience around farms. Corp. Steve Crain with the Missouri State Water Patrol had mostly answered noise-disturbance and body-recovery calls at Table Rock Lake. Both knew they were short on cowboy cred.
They both had also worked on the COMET drug task force, so they recruited Pope. In high school, after moving to Stone County, just south of Christian County, Pope earned pocket money cutting hay and milking cows. He had hick heritage enough to tell the difference between a Jersey and a Holstein.
Pope recruited his own expert. In January 2006, he called Joe Rector, an investigator who carries the title "special ranger" with the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association. Rector assists with cattle theft investigations in Oklahoma. He claims to have recovered $984,000 in stolen cattle and agriculture equipment in 2006. And he says his ranger squad helps recover $5 million annually. Pope spent two days riding along as Rector's sidekick in the hinterlands outside Oklahoma City.
He explained to Pope that what he'd learned doing drug busts wasn't going to work in cracking down on cattle thefts. "I'm gonna show you an easier way," Rector told him. Rector favored waiting for thefts to happen, then using CSI-style tactics to lift fingerprints and evidence. He uses theft patterns to anticipate which areas will be hit next and to develop a roster of suspects.
Most herds in Missouri the country's No. 2 beef producer after Texas are owned by commuter farmers, leaving the livestock largely unprotected. This spring, the price of cattle has reached near-record highs. Price can fluctuate within a few hundred dollars based on each animal's breeding and health, but a six-to-ten-month old calf might net upward of $700. And farmers have been reluctant to protect their investment with the use of brands or the computer chips used by veterinarians for household pets. Ken Disselhorst, a field representative for the Missouri Cattlemen Association, estimates that only about 10 percent of cattle in the state carry brands and only 2 percent to 5 percent are catalogued by electronic identification tags.
After Pope's failed stakeout, the Cattle Theft Task Force members began funneling tips and incident reports to the Missouri Informational Analysis Center, a post-9/11 operation in Jefferson City that works to identify patterns in criminal operations. The data showed that stolen trucks and trailers were often ditched across county lines, meaning cattle thieves might steal from one county and sell in another. The amount of stolen gear showed that urbanites were getting in on the action farmers lifting cattle would have had their own tools. They also catalogued detailed descriptions of individual missing animals so they could be identified by sight at auctions. They learned how to read auction house receipts to determine who was selling cattle, where the checks were being sent and where the cattle were going. "It sounds kind of boring, but the best way to catch these people is a paper trail," Nash says.
Prior to the Cattle Theft Task Force, there was no statewide accounting system for cattle thefts. Since January 2006, the team has arrested eight suspects. But authorities are secretive about the details in those cases. "Because these guys are not convicted yet and they are suspects, I can't release any details on those active investigations," says Sgt. Jason Clark, a Missouri State Highway Patrol spokesman. Clark says 300 cattle, worth about $400,000, have been located and returned.
Nash estimates that thieves usually unload their goods within 72 hours, no farther than 100 miles away from where the animals were stolen. Much of the stolen cattle ends up at the state's 123 auction barns. The don't-ask-don't-tell atmosphere of many auction houses opens the market for cattle rustlers.
On a recent Monday afternoon, men in denim, fatigues and Carhartt coats squeeze into four rows of blue bleacher seats and an upper deck cramped with folding chairs inside the Callaway County Livestock Center in Kingdom City. Some chew tobacco and spit it across the concrete floor. Inside the corrugated metal walls, fans circulate stale air that reeks of manure, body odor and astringent. Today, the weekly sale will last 10 hours as 2,100 head switch hands.
The farmers face a small, wire-rimmed arena resembling a boxing ring. Above it, part-owner and auctioneer John Harrison is clad in flannel and a wide-brimmed suede Stetson. At his signal, handlers swing open a large door and two huge black heifers barrel out. The ring men prod and zap the animals with cattle prods to keep them moving. Then the men duck behind metal ladders positioned like barricades as the beasts turn to charge.
Men raise their hands. Harrison counts up the bidding in a monotonous cadence into a microphone. When he shouts "sold," the specifics of the transaction flash on a wood-framed digital scoreboard listing vitals: head count, average weight, total weight, bid price and buyer number. Buyer No. 404 has purchased the two half-ton heifers for $950 a piece.
Behind the scenes, auction operators don't often ask for proof of identification for sellers and buyers. There's little that could help investigators track stolen cattle.
Workers in the chutes say they don't ask too many questions. "If someone pulls up here in the middle of the night with a load of stolen cattle, we have no way of knowing," says 25-year-old Travis Woodworth. He's in charge of corralling sold cattle, which are driven by men on horseback into cages that extend in a giant maze the size behind the main building. Asked if he's been moving stolen cattle, Woodworth chuckles. "Hell," he says, "I wonder that sometimes myself."
When Harrison takes a break from auctioneering, he heads to the house cafeteria of yellow laminated tables and orange plastic chairs. He enters the room as Dale Davis, a heavyset, ruddy, 66-year-old retired farmer from Bellflower is complaining about the state of thievery. Davis wears a mesh cap that advertises his favorite brand of farm product. "It has been worst really the last two years," Davis says. "It happens here. Hell, it don't take no time to unload them." Davis spots Harrison and clams up.
Harrison adds powdered creamer to a Styrofoam cup of iced tea and exits the cafeteria down a wood-paneled hallway. When asked if his barn is handling hot cows, he looks down the hall both ways. "I don't think there is as much of that as there was," he says of cattle rustling. "We pretty much know where they are from. It hasn't happened in a long time."
He pauses, taking a long swig of his tea.
"If we are suspicious, we check into it."
Sixty-eight-year-old Ralph Mika leans against his pickup truck, watching the sun set over his 82-acre farm. The long winter cold has finally snapped on this day in late February, and melting snow streams in wide channels across his muddy pasture. The yard is thick with the smell of wet hay and thawing cow patties.
Mika chews his cigar butt like cud. His heavyset frame is bound in a pair of straining overalls, and his skin is scorched magenta from too many days in the sun. Mika has spent most of the afternoon on his tractor, lifting hay into cattle pens. His friend Mel Nichols, a city handyman who usually works on rental houses, follows behind him with a pitchfork. Nichols does the grunt work because Mika's shoulders and arms are virtually useless, racked by carpal-tunnel syndrome and arthritis. Behind them loom rows of gigantic round hay bales.
At its peak a few years ago, Mika's farm held 106 head of cattle. It was supposed to be his retirement fund. He'd been a social worker at a Veterans Affairs Hospital in Iowa until 1995, when he retired to rebuild the crop farm he'd inherited from his father. Mika commuted there 14 miles a day from his home in Mexico, Missouri.
The trouble started in January 2004 when he rented a single-wide trailer on his property to a farmhand named Louie Bowers Jr. and his wife, Deanna. In exchange for free rent, Bowers was supposed to tend the herd. "I trusted him," Mika says. "Hell, everybody trusted him."
In March 2005, Mika counted his herd for his income taxes and realized he was short 47 cows and 34 calves. Bowers claimed innocence, so Mika told him to be more vigilant and bought replacements. Seven months later, the town veterinarian arrived to pregnancy-check the herd, and Mika realized he was down another 54 cows, 43 calves and one bull. He called the Cattle Theft Task Force. Nash and Crain were dispatched to solve the mystery.
The task force found that 72 of Mika's herd had passed through sales barns. Nash and Crain told Mika that Bowers had used aliases to drop off the stolen cattle at a series of barns in the middle of the night.
Nash and Crain gave Mika a list of those who had purchased his stolen cattle. They came from farmsteads in Kansas, Oklahoma and Wisconsin. But there was a catch. In order to have his animals returned, Mika would need a county prosecutor willing to go out and seize the stolen property. And much of it has been sold and resold on the auction circuit.
Mika had insured his cattle in mid-2004, but he hadn't updated his coverage as his herd grew. Last November, he received a check for $57,000 to cover $125,000 in losses. He expects he'll have to sell the farm to recoup. His wife recently bought him a plaque to hang in their living room. It bears a windmill and the inscription "We've been though a lot together and most of it was your fault."
"I wiped us out," he says, spitting a wad of cigar into the dirt. "I can't recoup it. I ain't got no money to buy any cattle back. At 68, your most valuable asset is time. I don't got enough time."
In the wan light, Mika nods to Nichols.
"We got a baby calf out there," he says, swinging his head toward a black animal the size of a Great Dane at the far end of the pasture. The baby bull, born last night, has wandered down the wrong side of a fence that divides the field, separating itself from its mother. It whines and stomps back and forth frantically. Mika and Nichols split up, walking in a wide arc to come up behind the animals. Ankle-deep mud pulls at their galoshes. Mika heads toward the mother; the handyman moves toward her kid calf. Mika waves his hands and grunts. Nichols mimics his actions. The cows saunter forward, churning and splattering mud as they head back toward the main cattle pen. When they reach the edge of the fence, Nichols pins the newborn against it to slow him down and kicks his legs toward the mother to keep her on the other side of the field, which is closer to the gate they are aiming for. If the mother crosses the fence line, they will have to backtrack to drive her and her calf back into the main field and through the gate.
"Now watch her!" Mika shouts.
"I am! I am!" Nichols says. "You watch her. You are on that side."
Mika blocks off the gap in the fence, then steps aside as Nichols releases the calf. It takes off after its mother. Both men play zone defense around the animals, closing off the available lanes of travel until they drive the calf and his mother toward a main holding pen near Mika's pickup.
Mika bets the calf will be worth about $150 if it survives the day, double that in two months. He'll neuter it to make it a steer, and in a year, it could bring $950. The newborn will be sold, just like his stolen cattle, at a livestock auction.
On a recent Wednesday, Pope surveys the rolling grasslands of Christian County through the window of his white, unmarked Ford F-150 police truck. The sky is shifting from blue to gun-metal. He can tell a storm is coming.
His flattop is perfectly spiked, his mustache in full bloom. Country tunes twang as Pope swings past the Springfield Livestock Center. His windows are down so that he can hear animals bray. An hour ago, he helped Nash and Crain try to flip a former cattle thief to become an informant. Pope dressed casually for the meeting; he wears a preppy blue button-up shirt, slacks and low-cut leather boots. In Missouri, rustling is a class-C felony, punishable by two to seven years and a fine of up to $5,000. But it's rare for a cattle thief to rat out his buddies. It was a short visit, he says.
He passes more round hay bales, then a rusted-out dairy farm that will soon be razed to make way for condos. He passes members of a high school basketball team out jogging. They cheer his nickname: "Hey, Stash! Stash! Stash!" He stops by another dairy farm and waves to Pat Thompson, a gray-haired woman with mud-caked hands who is out with her herd. She admits she's worried.
"They have a new access road with the new addition," she says, pointing to a road that snakes toward rows of tiny houses in the distance. "Used to be, when I was a kid, you knew everybody. Now you got all these subdivisions. You got people you don't know."
About a mile away, Pope spots his destination, a small cattle pen surrounded by grazing fields. Pope backs his pickup to a fence that leads to the metal-barred swing gate for the enclosure. The area is hidden by surrounding trees and a steep hillside. It's secured by a pair of locks.
Pope explains what he'd do if he were a rustler: He'd get dropped off first with a cell phone. He'd fill the trough with feed to draw the cattle. Rather than fight the locks, he'd use a pair of wire cutters to create a new chute from a weak spot in the barbed-wire fence. Then he'd call in his hauler, load the cattle and head 30 minutes south into Oklahoma.
He will add this spot to his list of possible crime scenes to scope. Because, despite all the advanced hunting techniques he has learned, Pope is still a cowboy at heart.
"Desperate? I don't want to use the word desperate," Pope says. "Proactive. We want to catch these guys in the act."