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How To Catch A Cattle Thief

Nov 20, 2014
Originally published on November 20, 2014 5:30 pm

On Sept. 9, BJ Holloway's life savings were stolen. Six cows worth about $10,000 were taken in the dead of the night from his land in Spencer, Okla.

BJ started raising cows when he was just a teenager. His parents gave him the first two, and he raised those until they had calves he could sell off to buy some more. Over the years, he kept doing that, breeding the cows and selling off the little ones. Raising cows is a business for BJ, and all of his savings are wrapped up in them, which made the theft of the cows absolutely devastating.

"It really hit me that night when everything is quiet in the house ... knowing your investment is gone," said Holloway. "If you ever had anything taken away from you that you worked all your life to try to create — all the sudden, it's gone."

BJ had no idea who took his cattle. And here in Oklahoma, when cows are stolen, lots of times, you never find the thief. The cows all look alike, and BJ hadn't branded of all his cattle, meaning there wasn't any way to tell who they belonged to.

Luckily for BJ, cattle cop Jerry Flowers was on the case.

Jerry Flowers' official job title is chief special agent in charge of the law enforcement section for the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture. Jerry is a cowboy through and though. He and his team have an unofficial uniform of starched jeans, starched shirts, "wore-out boots, and a clean, white hat."

Jerry got turned on to BJ's case by the owner of the local cattle auction house, OKC West. The owner of OKC West, Bill Barnhart, called Jerry after getting an anonymous tip, a phone call, from someone saying that a man named C. Wright was stealing cattle.

When Jerry looked up C. Wright in the auction house records, he found that the same day BJ's six cows were stolen, C. Wright came into the auction house with six cows to sell. And the cows that C. Wright sold were the same kind of cows that were stolen from BJ.

Jerry been waiting a couple weeks for C. Wright to strike again, and eventually he got another call from the auction house saying C. Wright had shown up and dropped off three more cows.

Jerry watched surveillance video of C. Wright making the drop. And the video shows just how easy it is to sell stolen cattle. In the video, C. Wright gets out of the truck, says a few words to the auction house employee, and the three cows run out of the trailer into the pens to be sold. That's it. No one checks any paperwork, and C. Wright doesn't have to prove he owns the cows. This is the way they do business here in Oklahoma. It's a handshake. It's based on trust.

After Jerry watched the video, he sat in the parking lot of the auction house waiting for C. Wright to show up. Jerry knew he would be back to pick up the money for the three cows he thought the auction house had sold for him.

Jerry watched and waited until C. Wright's truck pulled in. When it did, Jerry approached the truck and got C. Wright and his friend to confess to stealing the three cows in under 20 minutes. They also confessed to taking BJ's six cows.

Later C. Wright and his friend told me stealing cows is easy. They said all you have to do is walk into the pasture with some food in a bucket. You shake the bucket at the cows, and they come over. Once you've got them in the pen — you back up your livestock trailer and chase the cows inside.

"Once they in, I shut my gate, put everything back like it was, and I'm gone," C. Wright told me. He said stealing three cows took about 30 minutes, and it seemed like a perfect crime.

Out here on these ranches there are very few houses, very few people to catch thieves in the act. C. Wright and his friend made a calculation. The amount of money you can get for the stolen cows is high. The chance of getting caught is low.

Which makes you wonder why the ranchers out here don't do more to protect their cattle. They could beef up security by putting in cameras. They could put RFID tags in the cows so they could always know where they are. They could brand all their cattle so auction houses know who they belong to.

But the ranchers out here are doing their own calculation. Sure, they could spend the money on RFID chips and security, but for them, cow thefts are still rare enough that it doesn't make economic sense to do that.

Jerry says C. Wright and his friend will be charged next week. They face jail time.

As for BJ, he's unlikely to get his cows back. He could get some money back from the auction house's insurance, but he's still waiting to hear if that will actually happen.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

There is a crime wave sweeping the West right now - cattle theft, or as the cowboys call it, cattle rustling.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

A couple of months ago, BJ Holloway was hit. He lives in Spencer, Oklahoma, and works in a Wal-Mart.

BLOCK: And he may have the smallest herd of cattle in the state. He has nine - or had nine.

SIEGEL: One night in September, Holloway went to feed his cows and saw the padlock to his pasture gate was busted.

BJ HOLLOWAY: I saw that my lock was cut, and I knew then something was wrong.

BLOCK: Six of the cows were gone. It was a huge blow.

SIEGEL: The herd was his life savings.

HOLLOWAY: It really hit me that night when everything was quiet in the house, and I wake up. And knowing that your investment is gone - you know, if you've ever had anything taken away from you that you had worked all your life to try to create, and all of a sudden it's gone.

BLOCK: Luckily for Holloway and for hundreds of other cow theft victims in Oklahoma, there's a detective on the case. Stacey Vanek Smith from our Planet Money team rode along with Jerry Flowers, cow cop.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: I meet up with Jerry Flowers in the parking lot of the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture. He heads its team of 10 agents. And he looks exactly the way you want a cattle cop to look - white handlebar mustache, leather holster, loaded .45.

JERRY FLOWERS: Starched jeans, starched shirts and wore-out boots and a clean, white hat. Good guys wear white hats.

SMITH: Is that true?

FLOWERS: Well, it is out here.

SMITH: Jerry has just gotten a break in BJ's case.

FLOWERS: Ready to go?

SMITH: Ready.

FLOWERS: All right. We're going to get in right there.

SMITH: Jerry walks and talks a little bit like a character out of a John Wayne movie. For instance, he doesn't just say, oh, Stacey, we have a lot of work ahead of us. He says...

FLOWERS: We will get busier than a one-legged bobcat covering up his own crap on a frozen pond.

SMITH: (Laughter) Did you just make that up?

FLOWERS: Well, yeah, it just comes right out. That's busy right there.

SMITH: We are on our way to the local cattle auction. A woman has called in an anonymous tip. The guy you're looking for, she said, he's been selling the stolen cows at the OKC West auction house.

FLOWERS: The caller explained that she was sick of this guy victimizing so many people, stealing their cattle.

SMITH: The caller gave a name - first initial C, last name Wright. Jerry looked C. Wright up. And sure enough, the day after six cows were stolen from BJ Holloway's little ranch, C. Wright came into the auction house and sold six cows. Jerry's been waiting for C. Wright to strike again. And last night, C. Wright showed up at the auction house and dropped off three more cows.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Unintelligible).

SMITH: Spend a few minutes at a cattle auction, and it's easy to see why cattle theft is on the rise. This place is packed. Ranchers stand around in tight jeans, drinking coffee and staring at their calculators. Every few minutes, the gate to the arena opens, and a handful of cows rushes in.

(SOUNDBITE OF COWS MOOING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: All right. (Unintelligible).

FLOWERS: There's $10,000 or $15,000 every time the gate opens and shuts. That's twice what they were worth two years ago.

SMITH: The drought in the West has made feed for cattle a lot more expensive. That's pushed cattle prices way up. And if you steal one of these really expensive cows, it's pretty easy to sell. You just drop it off at an auction house like this one and pick up your check the next day. There's no paperwork, no proof of ownership needed.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO CONVERSATION)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: OK, we're good on the southeast side over here.

SMITH: We sit in Jerry's Ford F-150 and wait for C. Wright to show up. It's a stakeout.

FLOWERS: Yeah, I'm going to just park right in here beside these trucks.

SMITH: A few trucks go by, but they're not our guys. Nothing for a while, and then...

FLOWERS: That's his truck right there. I think he just pulled in the parking lot, pulling right up to the front right now in a black Chevy. No bumper on the back. I'm just near pretty sure it's him. In just a second, I'll tell you. Yeah, that's him - got a white t-shirt on, baggy jeans and a stocking cap. Stay in the car. If he comes out with a gun or something, I'm going to have to kill him.

SMITH: Jerry gets out of the truck, and he approaches C. Wright's truck with a slow, sheriff-style walk, hand on his pistol. C. Wright and another guy get out, and Jerry begins to search their car.

SMITH: Jerry just pulled a gun out of the car. He's showing it. He just tucked it in his pants.

Things get a little more intense after that.

Oh, he's going to cuff him.

Jerry questions one of the guys for about 15 minutes, then he hurries back to the car. He's grinning.

FLOWERS: I'm as happy as a dead pig in the sun.

SMITH: That doesn't sound happy.

FLOWERS: It is if you're a dead pig.

SMITH: C. Wright and his buddy confessed to stealing and selling BJ's cows. They also confessed to stealing three more cows they just came across in some field last night. But there's still a crucial piece missing. Who owned the other three cows? In Oklahoma, you can never tell. Not all cattle have ear tags. Not all cattle are branded. There's no state database, which means to figure out who the other victim was, we have to return to the scene of the crime.

FLOWERS: We're going out into a very rural, isolated area.

SMITH: We pull up to the gate where the thieves broke in. And I am dying to ask these guys some questions, like how do you steal a 1,500-pound cow? Jerry checks with the outlaws, and the guys agree to talk.

Hi, how are you guys? I'm Stacey.

C. Wright and his friend are in their early 20s. They wear baggy clothes, boots and spurs. They grew up in the country. They know cattle, they say.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: We cowboys.

SMITH: We walk out into the pasture. C. Wright says, last night, he put some food into a bucket - sweet feed. He says, cows love it.

C. WRIGHT: I was shaking the bucket and I (whistles).

(SOUNDBITE OF COWS MOOING)

SMITH: And did the cows just, like, come?

WRIGHT: They looked up, and I shook the bucket again.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLING)

WRIGHT: And here they come.

SMITH: Even now, just hearing that, some black cows pop up over the hill.

What kind of cows are those?

WRIGHT: Black Angus, it look like - $2,300 apiece.

SMITH: Twenty-three hundred apiece? That is basically, like - that is $5,000 walking towards.

WRIGHT: Yes, it is.

SMITH: See, the cattle rustlers made a calculation. They figured money for cows is really good, the chances of getting caught are low, and on a big ranch like this, the cows wouldn't even be missed.

WRIGHT: They make it so easy.

SMITH: By the time we get back to Jerry's truck, the rancher has shown up.

JD THOMASSON: All right. Well, I'll call you in the morning.

SMITH: JD Thomasson owns hundreds of cows. He had no idea some had been stolen.

THOMASSON: One or 2-3 head, I'd have probably never called the law or nothing. I'd have wondered about them if I had never found them.

SMITH: JD Thomasson made his own calculation. He says, sure, he could spend extra money on security cameras, put RFID chips on all the cows or even just brand all of them. But cow thefts are still rare enough that it doesn't make economic sense to him, and all of this adds up to lots and lots of cattle theft. Of course, that equation isn't the same for everyone. BJ Holloway didn't have hundreds of cows. He had nine. C. Wright and his friend took six of them. Jerry walks them through that crime and the tone changes. It's dark now. The rustlers have lost some of their swagger. And Jerry seems to sense it's lesson-teaching time.

FLOWERS: You shouldn't have took from this guy. This guy has nothing. This was it. This was all he had. And you all put a hurt on him by doing that, all right? So your cattle rustling days are over. Do we all agree on that? All right, got your word on that?

WRIGHT: Yeah.

SMITH: The guys are quiet after that. Jerry says, C. Wright and his friend will be charged next week - 12 counts larceny of a domestic animal. It's a felony. They're both facing jail time. Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.