Stealing Cows for Meth

Originally broadcast November 25, 2015 on Al Jazeera America.

OKEENE, Okla. — It likely took thieves a bag of feed, a cattle trailer and 15 minutes to steal 20 cows from rancher Doug Barnes. It took about three months for him to find out.

“I could tell someone had been here, but I had a neighbor who had some cows out and I thought maybe they’d used my corrals to catch ’em,” said Barnes. “I found out later that wasn’t the case.”

Twenty cows at about a thousand dollars a head means Barnes will have to take a bank loan to stay in business, and he’s not the only one. In the northwest corner of Oklahoma, authorities estimate that at least 100 head of cattle have gone missing thanks to the efforts of a cattle-rustling ring operating in Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico.

“Everybody’s watching everybody now,” said Barnes. “We’ve got neighbors driving the road at night trying to catch somebody.”

Cattle rustling may seem like an antiquated crime from the Wild West, but modern-day cattle rustlers have traded in their horses for pickup trucks and are stealing for a very contemporary reason.

“I could say that probably better than 70 percent of the people that we arrest are associated somehow with the illegal use of narcotics,” said Jerry Flowers, chief agent for the Oklahoma Agriculture, Food and Forestry Department. “That, in Oklahoma, is normally methamphetamine.”

Because of drought, beef prices have nearly doubled since 2009. Today, a single cow can fetch up to $2,700. Over the last two years, according to the Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association, livestock and agriculture producers in Oklahoma alone lost around $3 million in revenue to cattle rustlers, and on average, about 3,000 cattle are reported stolen in the state every year. Only about 45 percent get recovered by law enforcement.

Over the last four years the number of meth labs in Oklahoma has dropped significantly. Authorities shut down 930 clandestine labs in 2011. Last year, only 177 were discovered. However, during that same time period, officials saw meth produced in Mexico reach an average purity level of 90 percent while the number of meth busts at the border nearly tripled.

Much of the product that does get through ends up in the Sooner State.

“The only way to really describe what the meth situation is in Oklahoma is to call it an epidemic,” said Mark Woodward of the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics. “These people stay high for days at a time. It often costs money to feed their addiction — [money] they don’t have — so they resort to impacting innocent people to get money, whether that’s through identity theft, cattle rustling, stealing trailers, or stealing copper off of construction sites.”

A typical cattle-rustling case looks a lot like an auto theft case. Investigators chase paper trails, interrogate suspects and follow leads. But the cattle market moves quickly, and a cow sold in Oklahoma City in the morning can be in South Dakota by nightfall. And when stolen cows go straight to slaughter, all evidence is effectively destroyed.

“We’ve certainly seen an increase in the number of reported thefts and reported theft investigations over the past couple of years,” said Michael Kelsey, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association. “We think the primary reason for that is because the value of cattle has increased so much so over the past years.”

In 2009, the average price of beef to consumers was $3.89 per pound. In September of this year, that price tag had jumped to $6.07 per pound. The average cow weighs 1,300 pounds and after processing yields around 700 pounds of beef. Many farmers can’t keep 24-hour surveillance on their cows, and with some herds getting as large as 600, cattle rustling offers big rewards with little risk.

“It costs the farmer who lost ’em. It costs the court for all the court proceedings. It costs the state of Oklahoma for my investigators to spend days and weeks during the investigations,” Flowers said.

For ranchers like Doug Barnes, there’s little hope that his cows will be returned, and almost no chance he’ll receive restitution. Even if a suspect is convicted, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to repay Barnes the full $20,000. He says in lieu of restitution, he’ll settle for jail time for the thief.

“I hope they prosecute ’em,” said Barnes. “They need to pay a price.”

Tristan Ahtone

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