Skip to contents
Business

Colorado cattle rustling’s colorful history helps modern brand inspectors keep up with a changing crime

Hundreds of cattle go missing every year in Colorado, most of them simply lost. But the state’s brand inspectors work to ensure thieves don’t cash in.

Shane Schaneveldt, left, Spud Tharp, center, inspect cattle prior to an auction at the Producer’s Livestock Marketing Association Sale Barn in Greeley, on April 3, 2019. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun).
  • Credibility:

GREELEY — Amid clanging gates and lowing cattle, Terry Florian steps into a crowded pen and begins a subtle dance among the livestock, carefully stepping around and between their churning hooves to catch a glimpse of the brands burned into their hides.

He and his fellow brand inspectors circulating outside the sale barn will cull through more than 200 head of dairy and beef cattle this April morning before they go on the auction block. By cross referencing brands and ownership papers they ensure that the transactions are legitimate, and discourage an age-old scourge of the American West — cattle rustlers.

Though not the pervasive issue it was in the 19th and 20th centuries, cattle theft remains a sporadic problem in Colorado. As recently as December, an Aurora rancher discovered that more than 50 from his herd had been run off his property and, it appeared, loaded onto a truck. Although the case remains under investigation, the animals haven’t been recovered.

Rustling represents an even more troubling practice in some neighboring states. Five years ago, Kansas created a livestock and brand investigation unit under the state attorney general’s office specifically to address cattle theft. Oklahoma officials created a special law enforcement unit to pursue both cattle and farm machinery thefts and reduce losses in that state’s multibillion-dollar agricultural industry.

More than 2.8 million head of cattle across Colorado rank the state 10th in the nation and fuel a more than $2 billion annual economy that fluctuates with the commodities markets. That makes the state’s far-flung herds an attractive target of opportunity, as stolen cattle — if they remain undetected when they’re brought to market — yield the same price as legal cattle.

And it explains why Florian and nearly 70 other brand inspectors throughout the state take note of cattle markings and documentation. Those tools, along with an industry in which the key players develop familiarity with one another, make Colorado a difficult place to unload stolen livestock.

“It’s fairly well cut and dried,” Florian says of the process.

State brand commissioner Chris Whitney notes that the markets themselves, like this sale barn on the northern edge of town, play the biggest role in discouraging rustlers. With his inspectors checking the livestock prior to auction — and holding any money if they have questions about ownership — turning stolen cattle in cash becomes a risky business.

“We want to have choke points where, if you stole an animal, it’s going to be hard to monetize it,” Whitney says. “The idea is to make it uncomfortable and not remunerative — and potentially dangerous — to be in the stealing business.”

Shane Schaneveldt (standing) and Spud Tharp (climbing fence) inspect cattle at the Producer’s Livestock Marketing Association Sale Barn in Greeley, on April 3, 2019. Colorado has about 70 brand inspectors, which makes it difficult for thieves to unload stolen livestock. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun).

But even keeping a close eye on livestock sales doesn’t prevent Colorado ranchers from experiencing their share of losses. Annual reports of missing or stolen livestock — the vast majority being cattle — average a little over 100, with losses ranging from a little over 400 to more than 650 head over the past four years. But that’s where the numbers get a little fuzzy.

Cattle often roam over vast expanses of pasture land, and some go missing temporarily and turn up later, having wandered into a neighbor’s grazing land or just some remote or hard-to-spot location. Others die on the range never to be found. Ranchers generally anticipate losses of about 2% of their herd.

But some go missing under more suspicious circumstances, notes Terry Fankhauser, executive vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association.

“They’re a fairly valuable commodity, and honestly they’re not that hard for a skilled person to steal,” he says. “We’ve seen some groups of cattle go missing over the last couple, three years. It would appear, because they’re in groups, that it’s not incidental in the sense that one goes missing. It’s a little bit organized.”

That appeared to be the situation in the Aurora case.

Reports of a herd of cattle — it turned out to be 56 head — being driven by someone on horseback in the mid-December darkness in northeast Aurora went unheeded until the next morning, when Ray Wooters went to feed his livestock and found they were missing.

Wooters estimated the value of the cattle at about $75,000 and says all were branded and numbered. He contacted sale barns in the area to be on the lookout, but tracks from the herd disappeared at a common point, suggesting that they’d been loaded onto a vehicle.

Whitney, the brand commissioner, suspects they may have been taken to a neighboring state. Kansas is a branding state, he says, but notes that it has only a couple of inspectors. Still, it would be difficult to account for a herd that large.

“I think you’d have to break them into much smaller lots,” he says. “Either take them a long way away, or divide them into smaller lots and spray them around. But the more of that you do, the more risk that somebody will find out.”

Cattle in an auction pen prior to the April 3, 2019, sale at the Producer’s Livestock Marketing Association Sale Barn in Greeley. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun).

Truth is more mundane than the romance of the West

Although the Western rustling archetype may feature grizzled, dusty scoundrels on horseback driving cattle away from their home range — or, updated, luring livestock grazing near a roadway onto a truck in the dead of night — sometimes the truth is more mundane.

A neighbor may find a rancher’s cattle mixed among his own and simply not let anyone know — even though the law requires that they report found animals to a brand inspector within five days if they haven’t already notified the owner. If those cows have calves, he can mark them with his own brand, and sometimes no one is the wiser. Maybe he keeps the cows and enjoys the revenue from their offspring. It’s almost like swiping an ATM.

In Moffat County, where cattlemen once ruled the range and rubbed elbows with the likes of Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid and Tom Horn, two cases — a century apart — illustrate both the wild West romanticism and the modern-day realities of rustling.

In 2012, a jury convicted Monty Luke Pilgrim on 15 of 27 counts of theft of agricultural animals, concealing strays and wrongful branding — all felonies. In all, there were nine alleged victims — neighboring ranchers — but the jury came back with the guilty verdicts pertaining only to five of them.

The case came to light when a neighbor discovered a cow bearing his brand and a calf bearing Pilgrim’s brand in Pilgrim’s herd, and then alerted a brand inspector, who found dozens more suspicious cow-calf combinations.

In a case built largely on circumstantial evidence, Pilgrim claimed he was framed by a neighbor.

Cows graze in a field of last year’s corn crop near Yuma, Colo. on Wednesday, February 13, 2019. (Austin Humphreys/For Colorado Sun)

Ascertaining that the calves had been born to the cows that did not belong to Pilgrim involved some uncommon investigative skills. Gary Nichols, an investigator with the Moffat County Sheriff’s Office, explained that cows bearing the brands of Pilgrim’s neighbors were introduced, one by one, to a pen containing the calves, which were hungry and not yet weaned.

A calf instinctively would find its mother. In this manner, brand inspectors and investigators determined that 36 cows and 31 calves from the herd did not belong to Pilgrim.

Ranch owner John Raftopoulos was running a couple thousand cows at the time. Two eventually were found in Pilgrim’s possession. Like most ranchers, Raftopolous simply had factored their disappearance into the cost of doing business.

“We experience from 2 to 4% loss or mysterious disappearance easily every year,” he says. “Either they die or you can’t find them. Usually you do find 2%, but the other 2% go off and die in a wash or disappear somehow. For people to just load them up and take them, that doesn’t happen very often. The most common thing is for someone to pick up a newborn calf. We have that once in a while. You suspect, but it’s hard to catch somebody.”

And while a neighbor found in possession of a neighbor’s “stray” is hardly uncommon, it’s uncommon to find the number investigators found in Pilgrim’s herd. Some of the cows had been missing for years.

“A hundred years ago, he’d have been swinging from a cottonwood tree!”

Pilgrim’s sentence included only 90 days of jail time, which he was allowed to serve across the state in northeast Colorado after he picked up and moved to Nebraska. He also got three years of supervised probation, 150 hours of community service and restitution, fines and court costs of over $14,000. And he had to write letters of apology to five victims.

“After sentencing,” Nichols recalls, “one victim rancher yelled at the top of his lungs outside court, ‘A hundred years ago, he’d have been swinging from a cottonwood tree!’ They hung people back then.”

The sentence seemed light to some observers, reinforcing a common perception that agricultural crimes tend to be less understood by the judicial system than other criminal behavior. Nichols notes that many prosecutors in rural jurisdictions tend to come from urban backgrounds and have little to no experience dealing with stolen commodities like livestock.

That was the case in the Moffat County case, where the young prosecutor, Han Ng, had a steep learning curve on agricultural matters. Yet he embraced the challenge; he even learned to ride a horse and bought a cowboy hat.

“On the Pilgrim case, he was willing to become educated, and did research on his own,” Nichols said. “It was a learning experience for him, and we were hoping he’d stay around for a while. But prosecutors come and go. We seldom get one that has an agricultural background or upbringing.

“In my 35 years,” Nichols adds, “that was the largest cattle theft case in the history of Moffat County.”

But it was hardly the most notorious.

Flashback to late 19th-century Brown’s Park, right on Moffat County’s border with Utah and not far from the Wyoming border. Ann Bassett was born into a largely lawless region rife with outlaws, cattle barons and smaller ranchers who did what they could to stand up to the larger outfits that had little use for them.

Although Bassett’s father, one of those small ranchers, sent her east to sand her rough edges, she still preferred rolling her own Bull Durham and drinking her whiskey straight, says Littleton-based author Linda Wommack, who wrote “Ann Bassett: Colorado’s Cattle Queen.”

She fell in love with the foreman of her father’s ranch, Matt Rash, and they were engaged to be married. But local cattle baron Ora Haley reputedly enlisted hired gun Tom Horn to kill Rash, and later another of the Bassetts’ ranch hands.

“Because of the death of Matt Rash, and this onslaught of getting rid of small ranchers, Ann goes on a vendetta,” Wommack recounts. “She stampedes his cattle, drives them over rock cliffs into Green River. In 1911, after 10 years of running off Ora Haley’s cattle, he plants evidence on her ranch of one of his cattle hides.”

She was arrested for cattle rustling and put on trial, but a hung jury necessitated her retrial in 1913. By this time, Wommack says, the rest of Moffat County had had enough of Ora Haley and his ranch and sentiment swung heavily in Bassett’s favor. This time, she was acquitted.

Business in Craig closed down and threw her a party. A local newspaper dubbed her “Queen Ann.” She eventually married and lived happily ever after, more or less, until her death in 1956.

“In her last interview,” Wommack says, “she said, ‘I did everything they said I did — and a hell of a lot more.”

A story made for the movies? A few weeks ago, Wommack optioned her book’s film rights.

Chris Whitney, lead brand inspector for the State of Colorado, left, and brand inspector Terry Florian at a cattle auction in Greeley. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun).

How many cases are solved?

Since the 1860s, Colorado has employed brand inspectors through the state’s Department of Agriculture, although they’re funded through the cattle industry by revenue from inspections. While branding isn’t required in Colorado, Whitney says nearly all ranchers do it — hence, the more than 30,000 brands registered in the state.

Brands alone don’t establish ownership of livestock, but they create a “presumption of ownership,” a starting point for investigation that could be rebutted by other evidence.

The 500-600 losses reported each year are recorded on a “Missing or Stolen” form, even though it could mean that some animals wandered away on their own or got lost on summer range. If ranchers suspect their livestock has been stolen, then they check another box on the form and explain why they think that might be the case.

“It can’t be something like, ‘I don’t like my neighbor, I think he’s stealing from me,’” Whitney says. “We’d rather see cut fences, tire tracks, witnesses who saw people in the neighborhood.”

Whitney’s office then forwards information from the report to a wide audience ranging from law enforcement, including sheriff’s offices and the State Patrol, to public livestock markets, county clerks and brand inspectors from neighboring states.

When evidence points toward theft, then Colorado’s brand inspectors coordinate with local law enforcement. Although brand inspectors often have more experience in agricultural matters, certified officers have the investigative experience to track a case.

How many cases are solved? Whitney says “Missing or Stolen” reports are tracked “only in the loose sense that if we find (missing livestock), we’re aware.” Sometimes, a rancher might find the missing animals and forget to update the brand inspector’s office.

The link with methamphetamine trafficking

Whitney calls cattle rustling a “continuing concern” that has prompted him to devote time to talk with law enforcement groups and prosecutors to “remind people that in some cases, violation of livestock law is a felony. It’s not a joke. It’s tough to prevent it, but we try to make it extremely difficult to unload them.”

Other states also have stepped up enforcement efforts. Jerry Flowers, who retired after 34 years as a detective with the Oklahoma City police, now leads a nine-member unit established in 2008 to pursue agricultural crime, including cattle rustling and farm equipment, for the state of Oklahoma, whose cattle population ranks fifth nationally.

On average, he says, he and his agents annually recover between $3 million and $6 million in stolen livestock and equipment — an effort that often involves working in concert with agriculture investigators in surrounding states. When cattle prices spiked in 2008, his unit investigated about 3,000 head reported stolen. That number has since been cut just about in half, he says.

One thing he sees — anecdotally, if not statistically — in Oklahoma that Colorado investigators have not is a connection between cattle theft and drug trafficking, particularly methamphetamine.

Cattle await auction at the Producer’s Livestock Marketing Association Sale Barn in Greeley, Colorado, on April 3, 2019. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun).

“More often than not, these ol’ meth-heads cruise country roads and find easy targets,” he says. “Easy access in and out, cattle standing on property when it’s still cold, and they’re still coming up to shaking feed sack because they’re used to being fed during the winter. They’ll lock in the location on GPS and come back at 3 a.m., back a trailer up, fill the trailer and take off. More of it happens like that everywhere than elaborate schemes.”

Because so many livestock cases involve thieves crossing state lines, Flowers also has embedded one of his agents with the FBI, so “instead of calling a federal agent who has no idea about agriculture into a case, we’ve got one cross-commissioned.” He has hired seasoned criminal investigators from other agencies, but his agents have something else in common.

“All of my agents have cattle, we all live on ranches,” he says. “We walk the walk and talk the talk, because we live it, as opposed to an investigator who works in an urban setting. We’ve even chased an outlaw on horseback a time or two. It’s not what we do, it’s what we are.”

The Colorado Sun has no paywall, meaning readers do not have to pay to access stories. We believe vital information needs to be seen by the people impacted, whether it’s a public health crisis, investigative reporting or keeping lawmakers accountable.

This reporting depends on support from readers like you. For just $5/month, you can invest in an informed community.