OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The duo didn’t fit the picture of the rough, horse-riding characters portrayed in old westerns.
The 20-somethings drove up in a shiny pickup. They wore baggy pants and sweatshirts. Each tucked a single leg of his pants into an expensive looking pair of cowboy boots that clearly hadn’t seen a day of hard work. Despite this being Oklahoma City proper, one complemented his look with a pair of spurs, which jangled as he moved.
The rough characters of old answered to no one, but this pair had a healthy amount of respect for one person in particular: Mom.
Apprised by state agriculture agents Paul Cornett and Donnie Crain that her son and his friend were under investigation for stealing cows, she demanded loudly to know why her son hadn’t mentioned it. His reply: He forgot.
The men - whom agents later identified as Conilius Demar Wright, 23, and Tyvenski Kewaun Long, 24 — were charged in Canadian County last week with stealing livestock. Wright faces three counts of larceny, while Long is charged with two counts. Both also face a conspiracy charge.
The penalty for stealing livestock is up to 10 years in prison.
If Wright and Long struck an unusual image of those accused of rustling livestock when confronted by state agents on a weekday afternoon last month, officials in the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry say it’s because the crime, itself, has changed.
In some parts of the country, thieves looking for a quick buck target televisions and jewelry. In Oklahoma, enterprising criminals with a little bit of knowledge of livestock — who are lured by payouts of thousands of dollars — target cows.
By the start of November, nearly 1,200 cattle were reported stolen from pastures across Oklahoma, said Jerry Flowers, chief of the 10-agent unit tasked with investigating agricultural crime in Oklahoma. By the year’s end, he said, it could be as many as 1,500.
Between theft of equipment including tractors and trailers, and cattle rustling, the state’s agricultural industry has lost more than $4 million this year, he told the McAlester News-Capital.
Wright and Long told the state agents they took the cattle to buy marijuana and pay bills, Flowers said. The two have not yet entered a plea.
Methamphetamine is the biggest inspiration for cattle theft, Flowers added, though heroin is an increasing contributor, as well. He estimated that 80 percent of the cases that his agents process are drug-related.
“It’s really becoming a real big problem,” he said. “We get involved in the narcotics end of this thing pretty much routinely.”
Flowers’ unit recovers about 40 percent of the cattle reported stolen each year. It files about 200 felony charges a year, many built on paper trails that are especially painstaking in cases when cattle aren’t recovered.
The thing that makes gently lowing cattle such a tempting target is price. A 450-pound heifer calf can sell for $1,575.
Their targets are also becoming more convenient. The industry is attracting a new kind of producer — city and suburban dwellers who invest in small swath of land in the country, then buy and raise a few head of cattle for supplemental income to pay for things like vacations.
Gone are the days when huge herds roamed the prairies. These days the typical herd size is around 40, said state Sen. Eddie Fields, R-Wynona, chairman of the Senate Agriculture and Rural Development Committee.
But the new livestock farmers rarely brand their cattle, Fields said. That can make tracking ownership tricky and frustrate investigators’ efforts to differentiate one missing black cow from another.
Even branding isn’t a guaranteed protection. Fields always brands his cattle but still fell victim himself at his Osage County ranch about a decade ago. Someone made off with 10 head. He said the cattle just went missing one day, and there were few leads. The thieves were never caught.
Today more than 45,000 Oklahomans raise beef, and cattle outnumber people in the state nearly 2-to-1.
Cattle are the state’s No. 1 agricultural commodity, said Michael Kelsey, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association. And stealing them is easier than most people might think, he said, though it still takes know-how.
“A lot of those thieves, yes, they’re connected to meth abuse, but they also have connection to cattle,” he said. “There is some practical experience that is beneficial to the thieves.”
Flowers said Wright and Long worked at a sale barn for about two weeks before using their new skills to take cows.
Cattle thieves — Flowers calls them “outlaws” — generally gamble that days will pass before a rancher notices a few missing cows from a large rural pasture. That allows rustlers enough of a head start to off-load the merchandise at sale barns across the state or in another states, then pocket and spend the proceeds.
“It’s frustrating,” he said. “It’s expensive. It can even be life threatening. You pull in on somebody doing something like that, you don’t know what they’re going to do.”
Operators of sale barns are stepping up to deter thieves from taking advantage of them to dispose of stolen livestock.
In addition to videotaping the arrival and unloading of trailers, barns keep an extensive paper trail of the seller and buyers, said Terry Chapman with the Oklahoma Livestock Marketing Association. Those records are turned over upon request to Flower’s unit.
Auction operators work closely with law enforcement to deter thefts. They also report suspicious activity, which was actually what led to the recovery of J.D. Thomason’s cows.
Chapman said the biggest challenge for everyone is identifying the people who are selling stolen cattle - quickly.
A single day can mean the difference between recovery and a cow being sent to a slaughterhouse.
That’s nearly what happened to Thomason, who operates a ranch in the southwestern corner of Payne County, about 45 miles outside Oklahoma City. He didn’t know three of his pregnant cows were gone until Flowers’ investigators — through dogged, old fashioned door-knocking — tracked them to his pasture.
Thomason said he made the mistake of leaving several panels in a field. The rustlers, who drove miles out of their way looking for prey, capitalized by using the panels to build a pen. They pulled up a trailer and lured his cows away — likely with a bag of feed, he said.
Thomason said he’s out in his fields often, but as cattle tend to roam, it can be difficult to get an accurate count.
The rustlers took the cows to a sale barn — which coordinates cattle auctions across the state. The thieves were caught red-handed, and the cows reunited with a thankful Thomason, Flowers said. Court records show Long and Wright have been charged with stealing the cattle.
It was the second time in the past six years that Thomason had fallen prey to thieves. The first time, he said, he lost nine head of cattle from the same pasture. Those were never recovered.