GROESBECK, Texas – Andy Wilkins was 15 when he tried cattle rustling for the first time. A pilfered yearling he sold to a wheat farmer brought him about $175.
“Man, it was easy,” he said. As he got older, he grew bolder.
Wilkins, 38, boasts that he can load 16 head of cattle onto a truck by himself in 30 minutes. If a cattle thief is lucky, the rancher will have animals already in a small pen, meaning the bulk of roundup work is done. “You just … pull up and load them up, and get out of there,” Wilkins said.
Hal Dumas comes at cattle rustling from the other side.
Dumas, one of more than two dozen “Special Rangers” stationed throughout Texas and Oklahoma, supervises a vast area of South and Southeast Texas.
With more than 4 million head of cattle spread over 51 million acres of range and pasture land, there’s ample opportunity for rustlers to drive in, load up a trailer and drive out without being noticed.
“They just go through a gate, or cut a lock,” Dumas said. “A lot of them aren’t locked.”
Dumas, a ranger for 15 years, tells the story of rustlers just south of Houston a few years ago. They repeatedly made off with cattle within view of thousands of motorists traveling along a busy highway in daylight because the thieves looked like they belonged. In some cases, absentee owners live in the city and don’t check on their country ranch operations until the weekend.
Compared to a ripped-off $500 car stereo that may fetch $50 at a pawn shop, a stolen $500 calf could get $500 at a sale like the one held every Thursday about 40 miles east of Waco at the Groesbeck Auction & Livestock Co.
“So it’s pretty lucrative,” said Dumas.
In 2008, Dumas and his fellow rangers investigated the theft of 6,404 head of cattle, up from 2,400 the previous year.
The numbers of cattle stolen today certainly don’t rival those of Civil War years, when hundreds of thousands of cattle were taken by rustlers from Mexico, by Indians and by renegade cowboys.
The paper trail tracking cattle sales is vital to prosecution and possible recovery if any of the animals are reported stolen, a problem that’s nearly tripled in the past year in Texas and Oklahoma alone.
Enter Robert Ware. He’s been an inspector for more than three decades with the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association which, not coincidentally, formed 132 years ago to combat rampant rustling on what then was the open range.
Ware takes notes as he walks easily among hundreds of nervous cattle eyeing him suspiciously in pens at the sprawling, steamy and noisy Groesbeck auction, one of 115 Texas livestock markets.
Armed with a clipboard and “drive-in” sheets about the size of a traffic cop’s ticket book, he jots down each animal’s particulars — color, sex, horns (if any), age, brand. Even the distinctive ear marks have a language all their own: crop, over half crop, under seven, under hack, swallow fork, under bit.
The timeworn system employed by 70 inspectors such as Ware works. Their reports go to the association’s Fort Worth headquarters and are entered into what’s touted as the nation’s largest centralized and computerized brand recording and retrieval system. That information is then disseminated among more than 700 law enforcement agencies nationwide.
In 2008, animals and equipment worth nearly $5 million were recovered. The previous year, the value of recovered property topped $3 million.
It was the sale of three Holstein heifers stolen in June 2005 from a dairy farm near Sulphur Springs that snagged Wilkins, who fits the profile of the typical modern-day rustler: a cowboy short of cash, trying to pay for a pickup and cattle trailer and not getting enough work.
That year, after leaving a job as a bulk milk truck driver to go off on his own, Wilkins’ fledgling trucking business hit tough times and he returned to rustling to make ends meet. One haul of Angus cattle, each head weighing 500 to 600 pounds, was worth $1.75 a pound.
“You load up 14 of them, you’ve got a chunk of money,” he said.
In the case of the Holsteins, a dairy farmer bought the calves for $150 to $200 apiece and took them back to Sulphur Springs — and the local auction like the one at Groesbeck.
“The owner was sitting there at the dairy sale,” Wilkins said. “He recognized them.”
When investigators questioned the farmer, he directed them to Wilkins, who had already served seven years in prison in the 1990s for stealing livestock.
“You know how you try to lie your way out of it? … After a while, I told them I did it,” Wilkins said from a visiting room at the Coffield Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, where he’s serving 10 years.
He could be locked up until 2015. A parole hearing is scheduled for October.
Of the dozen men currently serving time in Texas prisons for rustling, Wilkins may be among the most prolific. He figures he stole about 400 cattle over the years.
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