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Stories Added - June 2009
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Perry signs bill to stiffen penalty for cattle theft
Polk County Enterprise - June 2009
BY CHARLES K. FRANKLIN
AUSTIN – Gov. Rick Perry has signed legislation to increase the penalty for cattle theft from a statejail felony to a third-degree felony. The change brings Texas more in line with neighboring states who already have stiffer sentencing laws. Oklahoma, New Mexico and Louisiana all recognize the signifi cant adverse impact livestock theft imposes and have enacted stricter penalties. Thieves know the laws are lax in the No. 1 cattle-producing state in the nation and — not surprisingly — cross over state lines to target Texas producers. This poses a signifi cant threat to Texas’ $15 billion a year cattle industry, not to mention the impact on the horse, dairy cattle, sheep, goat, swine and exotic wildlife industries. Prior to 1993, livestock theft was classifi ed as a third degree felony. In 1993 the Texas Legislature created the State-Jail Felony category, also known as a fourth-degree felony.
Livestock theft has risen since the law was changed in 1993, largely due to the number of repeat offenders who are let out on statejail- felony probation, according to the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association (TSCRA). “Cattle theft is very active in Texas, especially during tough economic times,” Larry Gray, TSCRA executive director of law enforcement said. “In 2007, 2,400 head of cattle were reported stolen. In 2008, that number jumped to 6,404. Under current law, theft of less than 10 head of cattle, horses or exotic wildlife is a state-jail felony. SB 1163 would change current law to allow for a third-degree felony.”
TSCRA has 29 Special Rangers stationed strategically around Texas and Oklahoma who have in-depth knowledge of the cattle industry and are trained in all facets of law enforcement. All are commissioned as Special Rangers by the Texas Department of Public Safety and/or the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation. TSCRA Special Rangers primary responsibility is to investigate cattle theft, however, they work alongside local law enforcement agents across the state on numerous criminal cases. “Thieves are drawn to cattle because of the potential return,” Gray continued. “While stealing a car or television will get a thief pennies on the dollar, stealing cattle can return actual market value within hours. A thief can steal one cow, take it to the auction the same day and receive the value of that animal. The crime is attractive, and in Texas we need a stronger penalty.” According to TSCRA Special Ranger Scott Williamson, most apprehended thieves are repeat offenders. However, because livestock thieves are sophisticated and knowledgeable of the Penal Code, they rarely steal more than 10 head at a time.
“They would prefer to get something that isn’t branded and something gentle so they can get it loaded in a hurry,” Rex Clamon, manager of the Livingston Livestock Exchange said. “They look for places that have pens on the side of the road so they can just pull up and grab a load.” Thieves will often take the animals directly to market, but they do risk being found out. There are many ways an auction house can detect stolen cattle. If a rancher has a registered brand they can report the theft to authorities who then enter the information into a centralized database where comparisons are made to each individual sale. This is called a brand inspection.
Calves too young to be branded may have ear marks like an over bit, under bit or crop. A rancher would keep track of each calf’s coloring along with a corresponding ear mark and date of birth. But this is not a sure-fi re way of proving ownership, and is not something easily compared in an electronic database. A savvy rustler, though, doesn’t even have to risk being caught in an auction house. They can simply take the cows directly to a slaughterhouse. “If you’ve got some branded cows that’s the best place to get rid of them,” Clamon said. The cost to a rancher can be significant and long-lasting. Bobby Gokey of Goodrich had 55 cows and calves stolen from a pasture near Onalaska in 2008.
He estimated the loss to be around $60,000 plus the loss of future sales of calves, had the cows been there to produce. “You don’t only lose just 55 cows,” Gokey said. “Then you lose all your calves you would have sold that year and over the next eight to 10 years. You can’t claim future losses on your taxes. As far as the IRS is concerned you’ve lost what you lost and that’s it.” It is very difficult for a rancher to protect himself from monetary losses associated with cattle theft. Insurance cannot be purchased for a herd, according to Gokey. “You have to insure every one of them cow by cow,” Gokey said. “A small rancher who gets most of his income from selling calves and cows can be put out of business by the loss of just a third of his herd.” The man who stole Gokey’s cows was arrested.
Gokey said at one time the man was a business owner and doing well but apparently had become involved in drugs and had lost everything. He said the thief had stolen a trailer from Burkhalter Trailers and had used horses to round up the cattle into Gokey’s own corral. A neighbor saw the truck and trailer make three trips to the end of a dead-end road where the pasture was located. He had remembered enough details to enable law enforcement to find a match. A local feed store owner remembered the man and his truck because he was a new customer. He was caught trying to sell some of the cows several counties away. Although the brand had not yet been reported stolen, questions were raised about why he had bypassed at least six auction houses to bring the cows there. Gokey said no conscientious rancher would do that knowing the level of stress it puts on the cows. Gokey was able to recover 14 calves and six cows, but the stress from being transported and the loss of some of the mothers caused six of the calves to die.
“They were so weak you could just pick them up and carry them,” Gokey said. Two of the returned cows also died because of stress. “There can certainly be stresses involved such as penning and loading, mixing young calves with older cows, ventilation in the trailer,” Dr. Bud Robison from Livingston Animal Hospital said. “During and after transport they may be mixed with other cattle that may be sick. It’s like sending your kid off to school. They may be fine when they leave home, but they can pick up all kinds of germs at school.” The new law will take effect on Sept.1, 2009 and any theft before that date will be treated according to the law currently on the books. The bill, introduced by Senator Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo), passed the Senate by a vote of 28-2. “The increase in cattle theft is one of the most important issues to TSCRA members,” said TSCRA President Dave Scott. “We want to thank Senator Seliger for introducing this critical legislation and working to get it passed in the Senate.”