A woman pulls off a road near Golden City and starts photographing cattle in a field. Just a pretty picture, she tells the owner — and nothing seems suspicious until the woman is gone and the owner notices a short strip of masking tape placed on the fence gate.
That woman was no casual passer-by with a camera, says southwest Missouri cattleman David Brown. She was a scout for a rustling operation, and the 4-inch piece of tape she left on the gate marked the field for thieves who would come along later.
Brown, of Miller, recounted to producers, prosecutors, county commissioners and law enforcement officials at a recent meeting about the rustling problem that several southwestern Missouri counties have had to deal with for months, The Monett Times reported.
Lawrence County Sheriff Brad DeLay said the thieves are traveling in a circuit, hitting cattle producers in Greene, Lawrence, Dade, Newton and Jasper counties.
“There are some we might not know about yet,” DeLay said. “It may take a few weeks for someone to realize (cattle) are missing.”
The summit, which was held at the Lawrence County Historic Courthouse, gave producers a chance to share their frustration over the crime as well as ideas for thwarting rustlers.
Some in attendance said the criminal justice system seems to treat cattle theft lightly.
But Lawrence County Prosecutor Don Trotter said he goes for the maximum penalties when thieves are caught. A first offense is punishable by up to seven years in prison and a second by up to 15 years, Trotter said.
“I have as many cattle as anyone in this room, and I take this very seriously,” Trotter said.
DeLay urged vigilance when something seems unusual.
“If you see someone or something, grab a license plate number,” DeLay said. “We’re seeing people, probably meth heads, that could be armed. Don’t confront them. If you see something suspicious, call it in. The information is added to the database, and it helps solve cases.”
The thieves aren’t amateurs who randomly decide to steal cattle, the producers and law enforcement officials agreed. Many work at cattle operations and know when and where to strike.
Trotter said a typical theft may involve “two or three cowboys hopped up on meth.”
“They’re doing the same thing they do during the day, but they’re doing it at night,” Trotter said. “They work at large ranches or other livestock organizations and know what they’re doing.”
Dade County cattleman Keith Hankins described what happened to his cattle.
“They planned it out,” Hankins said. “They had people watching the road. They attended to the details. There were no double tracks through the field.