Today’s cattle rustlers look incredibly similar to the outlaws of old, with a few key distinctions— their targets are worth more and easier to catch, transport and sell. Rustlers plague Plains ranchers now more than ever, with often devastating results.
Oklahoma’s solution: an elite team of nine investigators — each an experienced cattleman and trained law enforcement officer, tasked with investigating agricultural crimes from stolen cattle and equipment to timber arson.
Led by 40-year law enforcement veteran Jerry Flowers, the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture Food and Forestry special agents investigate the theft of around 2,000 head of cattle per year and a combined $3 to $4 million in cattle and ag equipment, with a recovery rate of around 87 percent. The reason for their success? Chief Flowers said it lies in the experience of his team.
“My agents truly are the cream of the crop,” Flowers said. “They have the time and experience necessary to solve cases, which is shown in our success rate.”
Each of the investigators has livestock handling experience, typically with both cattle and horses. It’s a unique distinction in law enforcement, and one Flowers thinks relates them to the law enforcement officers of the old Wild West.
“Cowboy and Western heritage is huge to us,” Flowers said. “We’re all working cowboys as well as law enforcement officers. We’re like modern day gunfighters; we’re the real deal.”
The investigative team includes a U.S. Marshal on an FBI task force, among other highly qualified individuals, and trains the Oklahoma police force on dealing with ag crimes each year. With 34 years as an Oklahoma City police detective, Flowers himself has a reputation for solving tough cases, a skillset benefitting the team in a time when cattle theft is easier and more profitable than ever before.
“Rustling is an extremely lucrative crime,” Flowers said. “Where other stolen items are sold for pennies on the dollar, cattle are worth the same price whether sold by the owners or thieves.”
Accessible local livestock markets and quick drives across state lines make cattle thieves extremely difficult to track. The team relies on timely tips, watchful auction employees and evidence to quickly track down stolen cattle before they enter the larger marketplace.
In a recent investigation, cattle stolen in Texas were brought to a sale barn in Oklahoma to avoid detection. Rustlers brought in several small loads of cattle in the middle of the night, and then asked repeatedly about receiving their check immediately. The auction contacted the task force with suspicions and they arrived to investigate, and make arrests.
In addition to reports from livestock markets, the task force directly investigates stolen cattle reported by producers. The more aware and proactive producers can be, the more likely they are to recover their cattle. Flowers shared some of his best advice for dissuading thieves and working with law enforcement in the case of theft.
Flowers said the most effective way to protect livestock is to use “common sense” — keep tight fences, count cattle and do not pen calves close to the main road. However, with over four decades of law enforcement experience, Flowers can provide unique insight into criminal patterns and how to avoid loss of property.
A frequent problem, and one that often complicates the ODAFF agents’ jobs, is ranchers unintentionally purchasing stolen cattle online. Flowers warns producers to never buy cattle sight-unseen online.
“If the deal looks too good to be true, it probably is,” Flowers said. “Even if there are photos of cattle with the ad, I encourage buyers to try to set up a viewing of the cattle.”
Flowers said stolen cattle are frequently intermixed, so lots of cattle varying widely in age should raise red flags with buyers. If a lot of cattle varies between 2-year-old cows to 9-year-old cows and are marketed as a mixed group, they may be stolen.
Ranchers concerned about protecting their own cattle from being stolen can do a few simple things to help deter would-be rustlers. Flowers said spending a little extra time and effort can make a big difference for cattle protection.
“If it’s convenient for you, it’s convenient for a rustler, too,” Flowers said. “The extra time invested in moving cattle away from the road, rounding up cattle the day of a sale, and feeding cattle further in the pasture, is worth every minute.”
In addition to counting cattle and making accessing cattle more difficult, Flowers is also a big proponent of branding.
An animal with a registered brand is much easier to locate and identify than an unbranded or branded but unregistered animal. Branded animals are more recoverable than tagged animals because the agent or sheriff can verify the owner information and location.
Finally, Flowers encouraged livestock and rural landowners to report strange occurrences, including people driving by multiple times and cars or people that don’t look like they belong. As law enforcement officers, Flowers and his team would much rather investigate a threat than an actual loss.
“Never be afraid to call 911,” Flowers said. “Investigating is just what we do, and reporting could save you from a devastating loss.”
Of all the cases the ODAFF task force handles, agricultural equipment thefts are the second most frequent behind cattle theft. Tractors, trailers, implements and other equipment can easily be stolen and never recovered without proper identification.
Flowers suggested recording all product IDs first and foremost. Without recorded identification numbers, owners have no way of identifying their stolen equipment or proof of ownership.
When equipment is stolen, thieves often remove license plates, serial numbers or other forms of identification. Putting a number unique to the owner — for example, the last four digits of a Social Security or cell phone number — in a hidden spot on equipment greatly increases the chances of recovery.
About ODAFF Investigative Agents
Flowers started working with the ODAFF Investigative Services Unit in 2008 and was commissioned by Jim Reese in 2013. The unit has processed between 400 and 450 felony charges against outlaws that victimize Oklahoma farmers and ranchers. All of the investigators are CLEET certified Peace Officers in the State of Oklahoma and attended the police academy.
Should you need the services of ODAFF Investigative Services, you may contact the main office by phone at 405-522-6102 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. In the case of a crime that has just occurred, contact your local law enforcement agency and the ODAFF Investigative Services. £