OKLAHOMA CITY (KOKH) — It’s an old west crime with a new age twist – drug addicts are stealing cattle to fuel their meth or heroin habit. They can make quick cash by selling the animals at markets across the state.
Colton Castle, co-owner of Castle Farms, experienced the problem firsthand. His ranch is typically his oasis.
“I just love being out here, going out and spending time with my cows and not having to worry about traffic jams or anything like that,” said Castle.
His peace and quiet was interrupted in October after he put more than 200 calves in this pen to wean. When he went to turn them out on wheat pasture, the count was six head short.
“So then we proceeded going through the neighbor’s cattle, checking creeks and everywhere,” he said. “Six head – they don’t just hide underneath a tree somewhere.”
Six calves had been stolen, robbing Castle of about $5,500.
“As long as Oklahoma’s been around, cattle thefts have been around,” said Brett Welldon, a special ranger with the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association.
But most of today’s thieves are driven by their need for drugs.
“These outlaws that come in and steal this cattle are looking for quick money to get that next quick fix,” said Jerry Flowers, the chief law enforcement agent for the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture. “Whether it's hydrocodone, Oxycontin, methamphetamine, or heroin - we see it daily out here, that these people are out here victimizing our farmers and ranchers in the state.”
All the cattle rustlers need is a truck, a trailer, and a little bit of ranching expertise. After the thieves load up the cattle, they usually drive them to a market in another part of Oklahoma or across the border. Then they offload the animals by passing them off as their own.
“If you bring cattle in here on a Sunday, sales on Monday, and a lot of times you can pick your check up that evening,” Welldon said.
It’s hard to track stolen cattle, but it’s not impossible.
“We investigate those kind of crimes daily,” Flowers said.
His eight-member team investigates about 1,500 missing cattle a year.
“My unit alone, just last year in 2018, we'll recover between four and five million dollars of stolen equipment and cattle every year,” said Flowers. “That's my guys, just ourselves.”
Special rangers with the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association also work to combat cattle theft.
“Those guys have a lot of assets on their farms and ranches, but those assets are usually on hooves,” Welldon said. “Everything they got, for the most part, is wrapped up in those animals. So that’s our motivation for what we do, to try to recover those cattle for those people.”
Oklahoma doesn’t require ranchers to brand their livestock, but it’s the best way to find missing cattle.
“There's an old saying - trust your neighbor, but brand your cattle,” Flowers said. “Brand your cattle. It's a telltale way to identify your livestock, not only if they get stolen, but if they get out.”
Since Castle’s calves were branded, he’s hopeful they’ll be able to get them back one day.
“I think they could be found,” he said. “I know that the Department of Ag is actively trying to find cattle.”
It’s people like Castle who inspire law enforcement agents.
“That really tugs on our heart, to help those kind of people, because those are the hardworking men and women of Oklahoma that are taking care of us, and we're dadgum sure going to try to take care of them,” Flowers said.
Each head of stolen livestock can carry up to 10 years in prison in the state of Oklahoma. The court can also order the thief to pay the victim three times the value of the stolen cattle for restitution.