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Cattle rustling on the rise again in Texas

An Old West crime becomes new again, partly in response to the recession. One disgusted Texas Ranger says rustlers 'disgrace the cowboy name.'

August 11, 2009|Kate Linthicum

DECATUR, TEXAS — Troy McKinney was sitting in his truck outside the Decatur Livestock Market when he got a call about four heifers gone missing from a ranch in Hunt County. He sighed, spit a wad of chewing tobacco into a Styrofoam cup, and took out a notebook and a pen.

"How much did them heifers weigh?" he asked the rancher. "Any kind of markings on 'em? You got any suspects? You made anyone mad or anything lately?"

News of another cattle theft was the last thing McKinney wanted to hear. The livestock theft investigator for several north Texas counties was already knee-deep in nine other cattle-rustling cases.

Cattle rustling, a crime as old as the Old West, is making a comeback. There are no national statistics, but Rick Wahlert of the International Livestock Identification Assn. said most of his organization's 27 member states had reported a rise in missing or stolen cattle.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, August 12, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Cattle rustlers: An article in Tuesday's Section A about a resurgence in cattle rustling incorrectly described someone as drinking from a Styrofoam cup. Disposable foam products, such as cups and plates, are made from a different form of polystyrene than Styrofoam.

In Texas, home to a $6.3-billion beef industry, more than 6,400 head of cattle were stolen in 2008, nearly three times as many as in 2007, according to the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Assn. The trade group says the numbers are on track to rise again this year, driven in part by the recession.

A fat heifer or well-muscled steer can fetch up to $700 at auction. And unlike a stolen car or television, which often can't be resold at market value, an animal will reap what it's actually worth.

McKinney, who has a wide, ruddy face and graying blond hair, is part cowboy, part detective. He and the state's 28 other livestock theft investigators know their way around a rodeo as well as they know the penal code. Technically, they are members of Texas' most elite law enforcement agency, the Texas Rangers. But mostly they report to higher-ups at the Cattle Raisers Assn.

The Ranger badge, a shiny silver pin emblazoned with a lone star and a longhorn, is one of the hardest to come by in Texas. Every morning, unless he's going undercover, McKinney affixes it to the breast pocket of his crisp Western shirt. He puts on a white cowboy hat (the good guys always wear white, he explains) and straps a Colt .45 pistol on his right hip and an iPhone on his left.

From morning until night, McKinney crisscrosses northeast Texas in his silver Chevy, examining crime scenes, interrogating witnesses and searching for stolen livestock at cattle auctions. In his truck he keeps binoculars, rope, two containers of Red Seal smokeless tobacco and a box of Winchester bullets.

McKinney's major case at the moment involves 122 prime black Angus cattle worth more than $100,000 that disappeared from Supreme Farms just outside Denton -- along with nine saddles.

The cows started vanishing about a year ago, but it was months before anybody noticed because the ranch doesn't do regular head counts. The ranch bookkeeper, Al Croix, told McKinney he thought the culprit was a guy named Marty Kays, 34, the son of one of the ranch hands. As a young man, Kays had earned the nickname "Cowboy" because of his superior calf-roping skills.

Luckily for McKinney, the cattle were branded, so he searched a database of the state's 100,000 registered brands. He found that cattle bearing the Supreme Farm brand (the letters JS over a small U) had been sold at sale barns in four towns -- without the owner's consent.

Next, McKinney went to the auctions to collect sales receipts. Many of these, he said, identified the seller as Marty Kays.

McKinney went to the sheriff's office to talk to investigator Larry Kish (who, it turned out, was working on a case in which Kays was a witness). They brought Kays in for questioning.

"After a little hemming and hawing, he confessed," McKinney said. He said Kays told the investigators he had used the ranch's own pickup and livestock trailer to steal the cows. According to McKinney, Kays blamed the theft on drug addiction. In 2003 and 2007, Kays did time in the state penitentiary for drug possession.

The ranger had little sympathy. Thieves, McKinney said, "disgrace the cowboy name."

"They're half cowboys, so they know how to talk the talk and walk the walk and all that stuff. And they know how to work cattle and load 'em up," he said. "But a true cowboy wouldn't steal."

McKinney learned the cowboy life on his father's farm in west Texas, tending to cattle, doing branding, vaccinations and castrations. At 46, he still does team roping at rodeos.

In 1987, McKinney joined the Nolan County Sheriff's Department. Ten years later, after stints at two other sheriff's departments, he was nominated to become the cattle rustling investigator for the Texas Rangers.

He was thrilled. "I never was much of a ticket writer and I never liked working accidents," McKinney said. "I like messing with livestock."

Most cases of cattle rustling are straightforward: A thief backs a trailer onto someone else's property in the dead of night, lures the animals inside and speeds away.

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