SLOUGHHOUSE, Calif. — The rustlers drove the back roads, looking for the right spot on John Gill's place. They didn't want any surprises as they went about their thieving ways.
In the late afternoon, they began rounding up the cattle on horseback. Or, perhaps, they used herding dogs--no one is sure which. By dusk, they had driven 81 Hereford-Angus steers into a corral and loaded them onto two trucks.
And then they were gone.
Jack Gill, who was not insured, was out $53,000. That means he won't get a new pickup this year and he won't be able to repair the barn on his 10,300-acre Rancho Grande, here in the foothills of the High Sierra.
Beef Prices Up
"This should have been my most profitable year in 10 years," said Gill, 68, whose family has been ranching for three generations. "Beef prices are way up over last year. You don't get the brass ring that often; you catch it when you can."
Gill won't be catching the brass ring this year and neither will thousands of other victims of cattle thieves. Rustlers, part of the American scene since the days of the great trail rides, remain the bane of ranchers from California to Florida.
In California alone, the number of cattle stolen through the first five months of this year stands at 1,222--more than double the number for the same period last year. In Texas, the country's top cattle-producing state, $4.5-million worth of livestock and equipment was stolen last year.
Virtually every state west of the Mississippi, as well as most in the South, have investigators who specialize in cattle thefts.
They are needed. The cattle thief, using interstate highways for his getaway, is more mobile than ever. No longer can investigators count on finding stolen steers at the auction barn in the next county.
Can Move Cattle Quickly
"The thing people don't realize is that cattle can be moved from Florida to anywhere in the country in a couple of days," said John O'Brien, the head of the law enforcement unit for the Florida Department of Agriculture. "Once the cattle are out of our jurisdiction, it's hard to get them back."
Hence the assessment of Sacramento County Sheriff's Deputy Brian Kennedy, who is investigating Gill's case: "They're probably hamburgers on the table by now."
In American lore, the cattle rustler is an archetypal villain, the man with the black hat who would swing from the nearest tree if the good guys should happen upon him in the middle of his work.
The word "rustler," which referred to cowboys who "rushed and hustled" cows off the open range, was first used in print in 1882 in a publication called Blackwood Magazine: "a gang of 'rustlers'--as the lawless desperadoes who abound in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona are called."
But the picture of the modern rustler is somewhat different from the stereotype. Today's rustlers steal most often from someone they know and usually limit themselves to one or two animals. And, although many cattle thieves are hard-core criminals, others are stealing because times are tough and they are behind on house or credit card payments.
"When the economy gets bad, you get more people stealing them to eat," said Gary Shoun, Colorado's brand inspector. "When the market is good, you get more people stealing the stock to resell."
Another variety of cattle theft involves ranchers who steal from themselves to collect insurance. That has happened with more regularity as farm and ranch economies have fallen, causing insurance companies--alarmed by the increasing number of claims--to stop paying on mysterious disappearances.
Danger Is Minimal
Stealing cattle is certainly more profitable than stealing television sets; unbranded cattle can be sold at full price in auction barns. And, on the vast ranches in the West, the danger of being caught is certainly less than in burglarizing a home.
"It's impossible for the ranchers to watch their cattle day and night out on the range," said Del Pedro, the director of California's Bureau of Livestock Identification. "It's a pretty good risk for the modern-day cattle rustler pulling in with a big rig, loading the animals in quick time. It's better than robbing a bank. Sometimes ranchers don't realize they have been hit until weeks later, when they gather their animals to take them to market."
However, stealing cattle is not something that a second-story artist, say, might want to try for a change of pace.
"There're a lot of ways to steal cattle, but there're only a few people who know enough to do it," Florida official O'Brien said. "You have to be around cattle and know how to handle them. You have to know how to feed them and how much stress they can stand on a livestock truck. You can't learn that from watching a John Wayne movie."
Rancher Loses 65 Head
Cattle rustling ranges from sophisticated operations to something much less than that. Certainly, rustlers did know what they were doing when they hit Jack Sparrowk's ranch in California's San Joaquin County. So far this year, Sparrowk has lost 65 head of cattle worth $40,000.