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Modern-day cattle rustlers strike in Florida

In what some say is a sign of the economic times, thieves have been making off with valuable cows.

November 25, 2011|By Peter Franceschina, Sun Sentinel
  • Patrick Wilson of Lake Worth, Fla., had six of his cattle stolen from a Wellington pasture.
Patrick Wilson of Lake Worth, Fla., had six of his cattle stolen from a Wellington… (Mark Randall, Sun Sentinel )

Reporting from Wellington, Fla. — The thieves struck early on a Sunday morning, when it's quiet in the agricultural areas— no joggers from nearby upscale developments; no feed trucks rumbling down the dusty roads.

The modern-day rustlers were after Brangus cows, some of them moms with their calves, and adult and young bulls. The cattle were docile, often hand-fed.

"They're like my kids. They will come right up to you," said owner Patrick Wilson, a big, weathered man with an easy smile. He started raising cattle a decade ago as a hobby, and "it got way out of hand," he said.

Days later four cows were taken from a pasture about 15 miles to the north, in Loxahatchee. Those cows disappeared sometime between Oct. 10 and Oct. 24.

Cattle rustling in South Florida is rare; The two Palm Beach County thefts are being called a sign of the economic times. A rash of thefts has cost ranchers in Southern and Midwestern states millions of dollars, with beef prices at relative highs in the last year.

"I would certainly say it's trending upward," said Jim Handley, executive vice president of the Florida Cattlemen's Assn. "I am hearing of it occurring a little more in recent years than I have in the past 15."

In the Palm Beach County cases, the bad guys weren't on horseback, with lassos. They were hauling an enclosed aluminum trailer — the kind used by lawn services — behind an older, black Ford F-150 pickup truck with an extended cab and peeling hood paint; a Navy Seal plate adorned the front.

Two men in their early 20s managed to load six of Wilson's cows into the trailer on the morning of Oct. 2, a witness told authorities.

There are about 1.7 million beef cattle in Florida, and an additional 115,000 or so milk cows, Handley said.

In Punta Gorda on Florida's west coast, 10 cattle were stolen in January 2009 and taken to Ocala for sale, but the thief was caught. Last October in Okeechobee, rancher Bob Edwards lost about 100 cows while he was in the hospital being treated for cancer.

"They took them someplace, put them in a semi and went north with them — went out of state, I would think," he said, adding it was an $80,000 financial hit. "I'm pretty well-off financially, so it did not kill me. I hated it, though."

The thieves who took Patrick and Buffie Wilson's cattle had several options once they made their getaway, said Chuck Russo, Palm Beach County state director for the cattlemen's association.

The cows could have been taken to a livestock market in another part of the state, or put to pasture somewhere else, Russo said. Typically, if the thieves want the cows for their meat, there is no mistaking it.

"They usually butcher them right on the spot and take the meat," he said.

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