In CSI: Fort Worth style, special lawmen track rustlers
03/27/2014 7:20 PM
03/28/2014 7:31 AM
Like a beat cop working the streets, Wayne Goodman is marking his turf and showing his badge as dozens of stock trailers unload hundreds of cattle at the Dublin Livestock Auction.
Goodman looks like Texas law, with a cowboy hat and twin silver belt buckles, one for his jeans and the other for his Model 1911 .45 pistol. Handcuffs are riding on the back of one belt, and the silver badge of a special ranger for the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association is pinned on his blue shirt and embossed on his green windbreaker.
When Goodman, 57, walks into the sale barn, a tall cattleman eyes that big pistol with elk antler grips, then steps back and swings open the door. “I let people with guns go first,” he says.
Goodman’s one of just 30 of a unique brand of public/private “cow cops” who investigate agricultural crimes across Texas and Oklahoma.
The special rangers employ 19th-century skills like tracking but also use DNA technology to identify stock or whip out smartphones to tap into the Fort Worth-based association’s database of cattle sales.
Goodman, a former North Richland Hills detective whose territory covers eight counties, including Tarrant, is no stranger to technology. As a police detective, he specialized in computer crimes and often played the part of “the 13-year-old girl on the Internet” when targeting child predators.
Since 1877, when a group of rustler-plagued ranchers in Graham first put them on patrol, the state-certified special rangers have investigated cases that run the gamut from tractor and trailer thefts to fence cuttings (a felony in Texas) and, of course, cattle and horse thieves.
Rustling is as old as the Texas frontier, and it hasn’t ridden off into the sunset.
But it has changed. Instead of driving cattle off the lonesome range, modern thieves with portable pens and gooseneck trailers are more likely to target absentee “weekend ranchers,” whose habits are all too predictable and who are less likely to brand their stock, said Larry Gray, who oversees the law enforcement program.
More fraud cases
In the last 10 years, special rangers have investigated nearly 10,000 cases with a market value of more than $44 million, according to the association’s records.
During that period, 32,823 cattle and 587 horses were stolen, as well as 198 saddles and 117 trailers. Out of 365 cases filed, offenders have been sentenced to 1,723 years of confinement.
Last year, the special rangers investigated 770 cases with a value of $3.74 million — a sizable drop from 2005, when they tackled 1,111 cases worth $6.45 million.
A big reason for the decline is that record beef prices have made ranchers more vigilant about protecting their stock, Gray said.
But with the cash flow of many ranchers pinched by a three-year drought, the rangers are spending more time on complicated “white-collar” or fraud crimes.
“That’s where somebody maybe borrowed $500,000 from a bank on a set of cattle and then sold them out of trust,” Gray said. “We’ve worked a whole lot of those. It’s very time-consuming. Our special rangers just about have to be accountants to figure those out.”
The drought has put a lot of ranchers in a squeeze, Goodman said.
“People that have been in the business a long time have sold off bank-owned property,” he said.
That situation often turns into a “rob Peter to pay Paul thing, when a note comes due,” Gray said.
“He gets behind on some of his other bills and sells a few off and then it happens again and they continue to do it until those cattle are gone,” he said.
In Texas, that’s called hindering a secured creditor.
“We’re having a record number of cattle involved because of some of these cases involving 600 to 700 cattle. Our number of cases have dropped, but we’re seeing bigger cases,” Gray said.
‘Playing a shell game’
For more than two years, Goodman worked one Northeast Texas case involving up to 2,500 cows worth $2.5 million.
A father and son, Ricky and Ryan Evans of Hopkins County, face state and federal charges of first-degree felony theft and wire fraud. They’re accused of defrauding 19 victims, including a sale barn, four banks and the Farm Service Agency, a division of the Agriculture Department.
According to a federal indictment, Ricky Evans operated a calf-raising program commonly referred to as “feed on the gain.”
“He would take on cattle to graze on his property and he would sell your herd off, but not before he had another herd. He would sell off a herd and pay off some dividends,” Goodman said. “They were playing a shell game.”
The “eyes and the ears” of the special rangers are market inspectors with the cattle raisers association who work at the 98 cattle auctions in Texas, Goodman said.
In a normal year, inspectors will record brands and descriptions of 3.5 million cattle, as well as the names, addresses and vehicle license numbers of sellers, all of which is fed into a database.
The $1.3-million-a-year law enforcement program is fully funded by the association’s 16,500 members, who pay on a sliding scale depending on the number of livestock they own. The minimum is $100 a year for up to 50 head, said Gray, a former Fort Worth police officer who has overseen the special ranger program for 32 years.
But a membership isn’t required when a farm or ranch is victimized.
“The attitude of our membership is that if they steal from a nonmember, they will steal from a member as well,” he said.
The membership amounts to affordable and effective insurance, said Evelyn Dunn of Cleburne, whose “text-beautiful” sorrel horse was stolen in January from a sale barn where her husband works.
“In less than 22 hours from the time I called Mr. Goodman and sent him pictures, I had my horse back,” Dunn said. “He’s very thorough and polite and very good at his job.”
Goodman also likes the variety. He’s been on the trail of an only-in-Texas sort of crime — a counterfeiter who has been knocking off high-dollar custom spurs.
“I haven’t nailed that guy yet.”
Cash on the hoof
The Dublin sale is a microcosm of the big-money Texas cattle industry: 800 or so cows changed hands in just hours. With the U.S. beef herd at its lowest level since the early 1950s, cows are going for $1,000 to $1,500 or more.
Those prices make rustling tempting, said Goodman, who is based in Godley. Not to mention that thieves in Texas can get market value for a cow because sellers don’t have to prove ownership at a sale barn.
“If I break into your house, I might get 5 to 10 cents on the dollar on a TV set. Right now, you can get $1,000 or more for a cow. When you sell it, you get full market value. You get a pen of cattle and you have a whole pocketful of money,” Goodman said.
The most active areas for cattle theft are East and Northeast Texas and southeastern Oklahoma, Gray said.
“Absentee ownership is the reason for a lot of it. They might live in Dallas and they only see those cows on the weekend. Those thieves figure that out fast,” he said.
Another problem is that small operators in eastern Texas are often negligent about branding or identifying their cattle, he said.
Exacerbating the problem in Northeast Texas is that Oklahoma has no brand inspection, said special ranger Toney Hurley, whose district covers 11 counties.
There’s a $10,000 reward connected to the theft of 60 cattle from multiple operators over two years in Hopkins County, he said.
“We’ve got one victim that is probably $40,000 in the hole. He’s been victimized three times,” Hurley said.
The high prices are inviting for thieves.
“When you have a 3-week-old calf that could bring $400, that’s a pretty good profit for somebody who can just drag that calf under a fence. I’ve seen them put calves in the back seat of cars,” said Hurley, a former sheriff’s deputy.
Cattle thieves are seldom novices, Gray said.
“You very seldom see a city boy start stealing cattle. It’s somebody who has a background in agriculture who knows the system,” he said.
The same goes for special rangers, who were mostly farm- or ranch-raised, Gray said. Most are former police officers or sheriff’s deputies, seven are former game wardens, and a retired Texas Ranger recently joined the force.
Like a game warden who loves fishing, Goodman loves the cattle industry and a job that often puts him in the saddle to round up strays.
“I’ve had a horse my whole life. This was the job I always wanted.”
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