Dallas-Fort Worth area authorities take the extra effort to rein in cattle rustlers

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by By VALERIE WIGGLESWORTH / The Dallas Morning News

kvue.com

Posted on October 5, 2009 at 5:55 AM

Updated Wednesday, Oct 21 at 4:06 PM

JIM MAHONEY/DMN

If only all of Troy McKinney's cases were so easy to solve.

The special ranger headed out to Farmersville to investigate the reported theft of two calves, the latest in a growing caseload of agricultural crimes in Texas and Oklahoma. The recession, combined with high cattle prices, means another busy year for McKinney, who chases cattle rustlers in a nine-county district for the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association. The association recorded 2,400 head of cattle stolen in 2007 from Texas and Oklahoma. The number nearly tripled to 6,404 in 2008 and is expected to be higher this year.

As McKinney pulls his pickup into a gravel driveway, he sees the two calves penned up in the front yard. There is little doubt, though, that someone tried to steal them - tire tracks in the yard, tampering to the electric fence, the unfamiliar truck and trailer spotted one evening.

McKinney, 46, wants to hear what a neighbor has to say. But his cellphone interrupts, blaring the first few notes of George Thorogood's "Bad to the Bone." On the line is a market inspector. Some cattle are missing in Kaufman County.

McKinney knows cattle, having grown up on a ranch in Alpine, Texas. He also has 22 years of experience in law enforcement. He's one of 29 special rangers who work for the Fort Worth-based association, which is funded by its 15,000-plus members. The rangers are deputized by the Texas Department of Public Safety or the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation and work regularly with local law enforcement.

McKinney's office is in Collinsville, in Grayson County. His territory spans Dallas, Denton, Collin, Kaufman, Rockwall, Grayson, Fannin, Cooke and Hunt counties. He puts a lot of miles on his Silverado. His leather-bound book with case notes sits on the dashboard, handcuffs hang from the emergency brake, a pistol rests on his hip.

He regularly shifts his focus among more than a dozen open cases, working the best leads first. A lot of leads come by word of mouth. But he also has the DPS crime lab at his disposal to test evidence.

Larry Gray, the association's executive director of law enforcement and theft prevention services, said the rangers have to be equally skilled in law enforcement and livestock. It's too difficult to teach an investigator about cattle, he said.

"You've got to know the ways of the West," he said.

Though the Farmersville calves were found in a neighboring pasture, McKinney is still concerned. Just because this theft wasn't successful doesn't mean the thief won't try again.

"Small cases may lead to big cases," McKinney said.

That's what happened in Denton County, where a former ranch employee is accused of stealing four or five head of cattle at a time over a two-year period.

Marty Lee Kays is accused of taking 244 head of cattle valued at more than $140,000 from Supreme Farms and selling them at sale barns and to individuals, according to an arrest warrant.

Kays, 34, was arrested Aug. 21 and is being held in the Denton County Jail. Formal charges are pending.

"We have a good clearance rate," Gray said of the association's rangers. "The cattle industry is small as far as people knowing one another. Word spreads quick."

It also helps if the cattle are branded, though state law doesn't require it. The recovery rate for branded cattle is about 80 percent; unbranded cattle are recovered maybe half the time, Gray said.

Little has changed

Cattle rustling hasn't changed much over the years. Thieves are usually looking for money. And cattle are one of the few stolen goods that will sell for fair market value. The price can range from a few hundred dollars to $1,400 depending on the age, size and quality of the animal.

Frequently, the thefts are connected with drugs. Denton County records show Kays has two previous arrests for drug possession.

The case against him is bolstered by the association's database that tracks the more than 5 million head of cattle sold each year at more than 115 Texas livestock markets. With each sale, market inspectors record the seller's name, vehicle license plate number and a detailed description of each animal, including the brand.

With evidence like that, McKinney rarely has to testify in court. Most of his suspects plead guilty.

But convictions in the smaller cases tend to result in probation. And that's not much of a deterrent.

"What we're seeing is a lot of the same offenders over and over," Gray said.

New legislation

A new law that went into effect Sept. 1 makes it a third-degree felony to steal fewer than 10 head of cattle. The previous state jail felony charge carried a penalty of up to two years in jail. The more serious charge means up to 10 years in prison.

"Hopefully, it will put them away for awhile," McKinney said.

Last month, the ranger recovered more than $80,000 in stolen property, including 35 saddles, more than 100 pieces of horse tack, a Chevy pickup, a $25,000 carpet-cleaning machine and 15 trailers.

James Kelly Harris, 44, is being held in the Grayson County Jail on 11 felony charges, including burglary, theft, evading arrest and possession of a controlled substance. Bail is set at $101,500.

The case is a win for McKinney, who loves nothing better than to return stolen property to its rightful owner.

"I wish everything had a happy ending," he said.

But the reality is not so rosy. Cattle thieves strike at a rancher's livelihood. And restitution is hard to come by.

McKinney is determined to track them down. As he drives off to his next case, his cowboy hat is easily visible through the windshield of his makeshift office.

It's a white hat. That's what the good guys wear.

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