Grand Theft Cattle
In the range wars of the 21st century, the cattle rustler runs Ponzi schemes and the lawman drives an SUV. STEVEN RINELLA joins the new posse.
John Suther looks like someone who appeared from under the bed in a cattle rustler's nightmare. His badge describes him as senior special investigator for California's Bureau of Livestock Identification, but in the parlance of his trade he's known more simply as a stock detective. The job warrants the use of a 4x4 Chevy pickup outfitted with lights and a siren and, on more than a few occasions, a bulletproof tactical vest. Suther's personal jurisdiction measures 250 by 800 miles, or, in other words, the entirety of California. His body size is proportional to the task. He's six-two, 230 pounds, and his small, blue, deep-set eyes leave one in the uncomfortable position of second-guessing the meaning behind the mischievous smiles that he likes to flash from beneath a handlebar mustache and the brim of a beaver-felt cowboy hat.
The new range wars are on
The new range wars are on
Stock detective John Suther
Stock detective John Suther
19th-century stock detective Tom Horn
19th-century stock detective Tom Horn
Suther, 51, was born and raised on a ranch in Northern California. When he's not on the road, which is about half the time, he lives outside of Redding with his wife and son, his horses, and a small herd of cattle. His occupation, which is more like a lifestyle, might seem anachronistic, a throwback to a bygone century when hired gunmen strung cattle rustlers by the neck from cottonwoods and left their bodies to be picked clean by turkey buzzards. But while many of the details of the profession have changed—rustlers are more likely to end up in jail than at the end of a rope, and stock detectives rely as much on DNA and GPS as they do on tracks in the dust—the ancient game of cat and mouse is surprisingly alive and well in today's New West.
That stands to reason, because as long as people insist on taking valuable things that belong to others, there's bound to be someone who makes his living getting those things back—and livestock certainly has a value. There are about 94 million head of cattle in the United States, along with six million sheep and nine million horses. (These three species make up the vast majority of stolen livestock.) That's roughly one animal for every 2.8 Americans, for a total market value of more than $50 billion. Larry Hayhurst, the head of Idaho's livestock-identification agency, put it to me this way: "A truckload of cattle is worth 20 grand. And, hell, people will knock off a 7-Eleven for 50 bucks."
The appeal of livestock theft is that it's often difficult for buyers to differentiate between legitimate and stolen goods. Unlike electronics, which usually fetch only 25 to 50 percent of their actual value when sold to pawnshops or on the black market, hot cattle usually net 100 percent.
John Suther has been a stock detective for more than ten years, and he makes about 15 arrests annually, more than most of the dozens of stock detectives working in the West today. Of these, he's had only two hung juries and not a single acquittal. His investigations have involved a never-ending litany of 21st-century weirdness: thugs stealing dairy calves at knifepoint; a guy hauling stolen and hog-tied calves in the back of a Volkswagen Jetta; organized criminal operations laundering drug money through trade in stolen livestock; illegal immigrants running barbaric underground rodeo circuits; and, in one of the largest cattle scams in American history, a missing $865,000 from one of the highest-paid actors on TV.
Some might say this is the New West, but it comes with an old twist.
IN A ROUNDABOUT WAY, my interest in stock detectives was begat by a childhood experience. When I was a little kid, my uncle Jim suggested that he and my old man raise a pair of hogs. Uncle Jim proposed that my dad put up the money for the piglets and the feed and that he would do all the physical work of raising them on his farm in Illinois. At slaughter time, they'd each walk away with a whole pig for the freezer. The deal progressed through the initial stages. Then one day Uncle Jim called to say that one of the pigs had mysteriously vanished. My old man wasn't terribly upset; after all, he figured, he still had half a hog. However, Uncle Jim explained why that wasn't true.
"The one that got away," said Uncle Jim, "well, that one was your pig."
I ruminated often on that missing pig. While I resented the loss of the bacon, I appreciated the romanticism of having a real-life (however petty) case of rustling in my family history. This seemed especially portentous years later, when I felt my own temptations to rustle. I was a broke graduate student living in western Montana. All that separated my friends and me from the thousands of pounds of prime beef roaming the ranchlands on the outskirts of town was a rifle, a pickup truck, and a couple hours' time—all of which we had at our disposal. We obsessed over hypothetical plans, even thinking of how quickly we could disassemble a steer with a chainsaw. The only thing that stopped me—besides a general sense of morality and a fear of jail—was thoughts of the man who might come after me.
I envisioned a modern-day version of Tom Horn, the turn-of-the-century stock detective who straddled a fine line between lawman and outright murderer. I was familiar with Horn through Steve McQueen's portrayal of him in the fanciful 1980 biopic Tom Horn, which I rented and watched about a thousand times when I was in junior high. Horn's actual biography is even creepier than the movie lets on. Born in 1860 to a family of petty criminals in Missouri, Horn headed to the Southwest at 13 and found work as an Army scout in the long campaign against the Apache before finding steady employment working for the cattle barons of Wyoming and Colorado. He was considered one of the best at retrieving stolen cattle. He'd ride alone into troubled areas with little more than a .30-30 rifle, a blanket, and a pound of bacon. He stalked the land like a ghost, and it was widely rumored that many of his suspects ended up six feet under. In July 1901, Horn was working in the vicinity of a well-known rustler's homestead when the man's 14-year-old son turned up dead with a couple of bullet holes punched through his back. Horn was convicted of the murder and on November 20, 1903, became the last man hung by a court of law in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Some historians argue that the snap of Horn's neck marked the end of the Wild West, but today stock detectives still work in every state west of a line drawn from North Dakota down to Texas. These are known as "brand states," which means that they mandate the identification of horses and cattle through a system of indelible marks, or brands, frozen or burned into the animal's hide. The states charge a fee of around two or three dollars per animal for the registration and inspection of brands. An animal's brand might be inspected three or four times during its life, whenever it's sold or moved across state lines. This money funds the stock detectives, who represent a rather unusual intersection of private interests and government powers. John Suther's agency, the California Bureau of Livestock Identification, receives no taxpayer funding whatsoever. The bureau's entire budget is covered by the roughly 3.6 million brand inspections performed in that state every year.
Other states have similar arrangements. In Texas and Oklahoma, livestock-theft investigators recover $5 million or $6 million in cattle assets annually. In Idaho, stock detectives reclaim more than a thousand head of cattle a year, and have been involved in investigations of the ritualistic cattle mutilations that are a cause célèbre among alien buffs, who see it as proof of ET tampering here on Earth. Such statistics made me hungry for some of the action. I lucked out the day Suther told me to meet him at the airport near his office in Sacramento.
"AT FIRST I THOUGHT that was a burned body." Sergeant Walt Reed was staring out the driver's-side window of his patrol truck at the desiccated corpse of a road-killed dog. Reed, 46, is with the Rural Crime Task Force of Kern County, California, which often works in tight cooperation with Suther and the BLI. I was riding along with the two of them during an operation in the southern San Joaquin Valley, about a hundred miles north of L.A. Centered around Bakersfield, the dust-filled, hardscrabble landscape is dominated by industrial-grade agriculture and petroleum refining. Over the past five years the region has experienced rapid population growth, as well as an alarming spike in cattle rustling. Reed and Suther hoped to slow that trend with a sudden saturation of law enforcement. To that end, they aimed to verify ownership of every head of livestock moving along the transportation corridors of the greater Bakersfield area that day. The operation was timed to coincide with a livestock auction at a nearby sale yard, but they were not limiting their scope to that alone. Four other teams of cops and stock detectives were spread out across a spider web of highways and back roads.
Beyond the dead dog was a weedy lot anchored by a pile of rusted shopping carts. Beyond that, Highway 99. Our position allowed us to watch for livestock trailers on the four-lane highway. I had come to think of the road as an artery that might deliver a strange line of adrenaline into our lives at any moment. My enthusiasm had already earned me a reputation as a giver of false alarms. I'd been straining my eyes to the point of headache in order to watch the traffic emerging from the heat waves a mile distant. At one point I spotted a gleaming body of metal being pulled behind an SUV. I stared until I could verify the presence of what looked like ventilation holes. "A livestock trailer!" I shouted out. "Way down there!"
"Nope," said Suther. He seemed to be refuting my claim through clairvoyance rather than vision, because he hadn't even turned his head toward the SUV. I was about ready to argue with him when it blasted by. Sure enough, the trailer was packed with furniture. No sooner had I returned my gaze to the northbound traffic than Suther spoke up.
"Cow truck," said Suther. "Southbound. Let's go!"
Sergeant Reed gunned the patrol truck, blasted down the approach ramp, and snaked across traffic into the left lane. I thought of his father, a California game warden who, Reed had told me, was killed during a high-speed pursuit with a poacher when Reed was 18. Reed followed his father's footsteps into law enforcement and now specializes in crimes that are particular to farmland environments; in a county where agriculture is the number-one source of revenue, there are plenty of these. "Someone or another will steal just about anything," Reed remarked to me. He once worked an unsolved case in which a large team of criminals harvested $140,000 worth of peaches from an orchard in a single night.
Reed approached the livestock trailer at 95 miles per hour and commented that one of the brake lights was out. However, they didn't need this as justification to pull the man over; California agricultural law allows them to stop any vehicle capable of hauling livestock. Reed drove in so close that Suther could have reached out the window and grabbed a cow's tail. Before turning on the flashers, Suther wanted to get a look inside in order to verify that the truck was hauling cattle, not horses. In the past few years, horse rustling has largely fallen off his radar due to market forces and the 2006 closure of the nation's last three remaining horsemeat-processing facilities, which once provided an easy outlet for stolen horses. Now the most common crime involving horses is the opposite of theft. "We've got people waking up to find someone else's horses standing in their pasture," Suther said. "Feed's expensive, and people can't afford to keep them, so they just dump them."
Suther verified that the trailer was in fact loaded with cattle. When Reed flicked on his flashers, the guy swerved so abruptly to the shoulder that the animals shifted on their feet as though busting a country line-dance move.
The driver was in his early twenties. He was wearing rubber knee boots, jeans, and a dirty tank top. His arms were covered in tattoos, and he had a limited command of English. He was clearly shaken. Reed asked for his driver's license and the hauling papers for the cattle. The man didn't have either. Reed took down his name and went back to the truck to call it in.
Suther climbed up on the trailer's fenders to study the 20 Jersey cows riding inside. He consults a database, updated weekly, of all cattle reported missing. It includes anywhere from a few animals to a couple hundred. Beyond the database, he's just looking to see if everything makes sense. For one thing, does the load look like a load that a legitimate fella might have cause to haul southward on Highway 99? How about herd uniformity? Do the cattle all look like they came from the same ranch, or are there a couple of misfits that might have slipped in through the neighbor's fence?
Often, simple intuition will help Suther nab rustlers, something he honed over 17 years working at a livestock auction yard outside of Shasta. The experience informed his work as a detective by giving him a nuanced understanding of the industry, including its seedier underbelly. Like the time Suther was talking to a couple of 18-year-old rodeo fanatics who were trying to sell a trailer load of cattle. In Suther's mind, there was something about them that just didn't add up, though he couldn't quite put his finger on it.
"So where'd you get these cattle?" Suther had asked.
"Some Mexican who came to a roping."
"Well," said Suther. "Let's go talk to that Mexican."
"Not sure where he is nowadays."
"Who else you buy from?"
"OK...We stole 'em." The kids went to jail.
As for this tattooed livestock hauler in the rubber boots, Suther thought that the cattle looked OK. Reed and Suther were convinced that the hauler was an illegal alien, but they didn't want to call off their entire operation in order to arrest and process a suspect who likely had no connection to rustling. When Suther handed him a citation, the guy's face went dark with fear.
"That's for not having the hauling papers," said Suther. "If it doesn't get paid, I'll come looking for you."
The guy thanked Suther about a dozen times. When we got back in the truck, Suther turned to Reed. "I got a way with people. I give 'em a ticket and they thank me."
ODDLY, SUTHER NEVER once uttered the word rustler to me. Perhaps he doesn't like its association with the romantic, Robin Hood–esque heroes in so many western movies. But he does have a strange appreciation for the suspects he deals with and often relates their exploits in the kind of amused tone that you might use to recount your favorite episode of The Simpsons.
He told me at least a dozen of these stories. One time, he worked a series of cases in which Holstein heifer calves were getting stolen from dairy farms over a region several counties wide. There was little to link the thefts except some scraps of duct tape left lying on the ground at a few of the crime scenes. Suther figured that the rustlers might be using the tape to bind the animals' legs. This went on for four years and involved as many as 500 calves. His lucky break came one day when a broken-down pickup was discovered in the vicinity of a dairy farm. There were rolls of duct tape in the truck. It turned out the truck was registered to one of a trio of thieves comprising a father, son, and stepson. They were selling the calves at half their value to a dairyman who knew he was receiving stolen property. One went to prison, and two are "in the winds," as Suther says—they jumped bail.
Suther's most ambitious case to date hit the tabloids and major news agencies in January, because it happened to involve the actor Kiefer Sutherland. An avid rodeo fan, Sutherland had been lured into a Ponzi scheme by a cattle trader turned con man named Michael Wayne Carr, of San Joaquin County, California. Carr had promised Sutherland a 20 percent return on investment through a plan to buy roping steers in Mexico and then resell the animals in the United States. First Sutherland made an investment of $550,000. Carr played him like a fish, immediately repaying the money and profits without ever actually buying or selling any Mexican cattle. Sutherland took the bait and forked over a second investment of $865,000. Carr absconded with the money, and Sutherland never saw a dime.
The media attention on Sutherland's involvement overshadowed that of his fellow victims, many of whom had been close associates and friends of Carr's. I visited one of them, Ronnie Scott, 57, a brand inspector with the Idaho Brand Board. Think of a brand inspector as a Wild West version of the guy who checks your bags when you exit a big-box electronics store. But instead of matching a customer's boxes with his receipts, a brand inspector matches cattle to their rightful owners. The job is perilous. A recent posting for a brand-inspector position in Billings, Montana, described "continued exposure to extreme weather conditions." Applicants should be able to "rope and clip animals," handle unpredictable livestock, work ten-hour days on their feet, and "move quickly, climb fences, etc. in order to avoid serious injury." Scott is no stranger to such work. He was a professional horse jockey for 16 years before joining Idaho's brand board 25 years ago.
When I met him at the auction yard of the Twin Falls Livestock Commission, Scott looked as if he was providing bovine massage services. He explained that he was feeling for the steer's brand beneath an overgrown coat of hair. These animals were coming off open range, and they looked like they wanted to squash a human or two before settling in. I ducked the stampede by jumping into Scott's manure-carpeted field office, which he calls, among other monikers, the Chicken Shack. He told me that this isn't always the best idea. "Just wait until one follows you in there," he warned.
The state of Idaho has more than 18,000 registered brands (compared with more than 23,000 in California). Many of them resemble Chinese characters, and inspectors talk about "reading a brand." A good inspector can make distinctions between hanging C's, lazy C's, steeple C's, and bar C's while the animal is running and covered in mud.
While Ronnie Scott's middle has grown outward since his days as a jockey, his five-three height hasn't changed. When he's reading brands, he often stands on his tippy toes to get a better view. In the two days I spent with him, he fielded at least 20 jokes from ranchers and colleagues about his diminutive size. As a point of pride, his ring tone is the theme song from the movie Hang 'Em High.
In early 2009, that tune announced a call from John Suther. The two men had never met; Suther had been led to Scott through the course of an investigation involving Carr.
Suther had been investigating Carr since January 2007, five months before he became aware of the Sutherland connection. His initial interest had to do with the theft of several hundred Texas longhorn and Mexican Corrientes roping steers in the vicinity of San Joaquin County. Carr, it turns out, had been shipping the stolen animals out of state under forged bills of sale and brand-inspection papers. As Suther followed the trail of evidence, he uncovered a long history of transactions between Carr and Scott, as well as some missing documents that should have been filed. "I thought maybe there was some laundering going on," remembers Suther. "It was something I needed to look into."
When Suther called him, it didn't take Scott long to realize that he was being questioned as a potential suspect. Scott remembered interrupting the conversation to say, "Now, let's just hold on a minute."
Scott was hardly a conspirator of Carr's. "I became friends with Carr through roping tournaments in Reno, Nevada," he recalled. Scott began to lease small numbers of Texas longhorns from Carr for rodeo practice. Eventually, the two men entered into larger deals intended to turn a profit. On several occasions, Scott purchased from Carr entire truckloads of steers. Scott would sometimes buy the animals sight unseen and pay for them before their arrival. On several occasions, Carr was very slow to deliver. But he always had an excuse. Scott remembered one in particular. "Carr called me and said, ‘Ronnie, the steers you bought are looking a little thin. Let me put them on pasture for you before I send them up.'" Scott agreed, and Carr delayed the transfer of the animals by several months.
Their last deal was disastrous. Scott sent Carr $35,000 for a load of steers and never saw the animals. In hindsight, Scott now thinks he understands the reason behind the delays: Carr didn't actually have the steers. Instead, he was selling nonexistent animals with the expectation that he'd soon be able to steal enough to cover the deal.
I asked Scott why he never reported the crime before revealing it to Suther. He had a hard time explaining. It seems he felt bound by a cowboy creed that barred him from ratting out a friend before exhausting every other option. "I hoped there'd be another way to settle the matter."
Kiefer Sutherland was bound by no such creed. When his deal with Carr went south, he hired a private investigator, who went to Suther, adding a celebrity element to the detective's already expansive investigation. Working with prosecutors, Suther eventually built a 12-felony case against Carr that included forgery, embezzlement, theft of 1,381 head of cattle, and close to $2 million worth of fraudulent transactions related to those thefts. By any estimation, it would be the largest rustling crime in U.S. history. Suther arrested Carr on September 8, 2008, after the suspect left the Waterloo Club, a bar and restaurant in Stockton, California. Suther was accompanied by five cars full of officers, including Detective Shelby Oliver, from the San Joaquin County sheriff's department. Carr was cuffed without incident.
"He was awfully surprised," said Suther.
THE LAST TIME I hung out with John Suther, we were drinking cans of beer from a cooler and shots of tequila from a bottle wielded by his colleague Richard Wright, a brand inspector who works out of Fresno. The three of us were in Reno for a meeting of the Western States Livestock Investigators Association. We were joined by about 75 other stock detectives, hailing from every brand state and the Canadian province of Alberta.
We'd spent the day in a casino banquet hall decorated with mirrored walls and chandeliers. It was a strange backdrop for a gathering of folks whose unofficial uniform features cowboy hats, well-worn boots, oversize belt buckles, and silk neckerchiefs. But the juxtaposition provided a handy metaphor for an ancient occupation thriving in the modern world.
That day, we'd taken in a schedule of events that explored some unexpected angles of the profession. Two Idaho district attorneys lectured on effective interrogation and cross-examination techniques for use in today's courtroom atmosphere of liberal judges and sympathetic juries. An agent with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Craig Hanglebend, discussed several cases in which debt-ridden livestock producers had faked the theft or disappearance of their herds in order to default on federal farm loans. Later that afternoon, an FBI terrorism expert, Berry Pitman, gave a briefing on "agroterrorism" while wearing blue fatigues and with an automatic pistol strapped to his hip. Pitman, who worked in Afghanistan after 9/11, showed slides of documents seized from terrorist training camps that demonstrated Al Qaeda's interest in delivering foot-and-mouth disease to U.S. cattle. The final presentation dealt with satellite-tracking technologies for livestock. Then we headed off to a prime-rib dinner that began with the Pledge of Allegiance and ended with a raffle for a 7mm bolt-action rifle.
Now, in the boozy hospitality room, I expected the guys to discuss the changing landscape that confronts their line of work. Instead, they wondered aloud why the FBI agent had been packing heat. "What?" asked a stock detective from Nevada. "Did he think we were going to shoot at him?"
In the following months, I called Suther often to get his reactions as the Carr case hit the national news. He was always much more excited to discuss his newest investigation, which, when it's officially announced, will dwarf the Carr case by a factor of almost ten. Details are forthcoming, he says, but he promises that it involves "high-profile" characters and the embezzlement of millions of dollars through a cattle-related scam.
But I usually got the conversation turned around to Suther's brush with fame. (At one point, while discussing the pending trial, he mentioned "Kiefer's shooting schedule" without even a trace of irony.) Suther figures that Carr will ultimately serve eight to nine years in a state penitentiary. I joked with Suther about whether we'd be seeing an episode of 24 in which Sutherland's character, Jack Bauer, races the clock while torturing a cattle rustler with a branding iron. That might be far-fetched. But it's safe to say that, in Tom Horn's day, someone like Carr would have ended up at the end of a rope. I got to wondering whether modern-day leniency might make it possible for me to explore a career in rustling after all. I told Suther my plan with the rifle, the pickup, and the chain saw.
He paused for a moment and thought about it. "I'd like to see you try," he said.