Cattle rustlers still ride the rolling hills of southwest Missouri

Like coyotes, the cattle rustlers struck in darkness.

Not on horseback as in the Old West. Over Memorial Day weekend in 2012 — and against a backdrop of rising agricultural theft in Missouri — the modern rustlers arrived along the fence of Bob and Evelyn Darrow’s Greene County property in a truck pulling a trailer.

They snipped his barbed wire and laid it on the ground. Heavy tires flattened tall grass as the truck pulled into a field a distance from the Darrows’ house. Then the rustlers corralled and loaded his breeding stock.

“To them, they were just animals,” said Bob Darrow, 71.

But to him and his psychologist wife, the 13 beef cows, an estimated $16,900 haul, were part of their livelihood as well as animals they had raised from calves and even named. Sage and Pink, Hello and Rosalie, Star, Silk and, among others, Evelyn Darrow’s favorite, Jeepers.

But the thief made a mistake: A tissue was dropped to the ground.

Now — arrested on July 11 after more than a year of investigation that ended in a manhunt in the woods of southwest Missouri — an alleged rustler sits in the Greene County jail on a $1 million bond. If convicted on all counts as a persistent and repeat offender, he could face anywhere from 15 years to life in prison.

At 63, Howard L. Perryman of rural Monett, Mo., stands as lean and weathered as a fencepost.

A known felon in and around Greene and Barry counties for decades, he’s previously been charged with nearly as many felonies, 60, as he is years old. He’s been branded with more than 20 felony convictions since 1967, including robbery, burglary and receiving stolen property. He has spent time in state and federal prisons.

When he was arrested, he was awaiting trial in Barry County on four felony counts of receiving stolen property and one count of tampering with a motor vehicle. He is accused of receiving more than $120,000 of stolen farm equipment and faces up to 15 years in prison on each count.

The Missouri Public Defender’s Office is set to represent Perryman on the most recent charges, but no attorney is yet listed in court documents.

“This guy has been around since I started as a deputy in 1988,” Greene County Sheriff Jim Arnott said of Perryman. “He’s always on the radar. I remember the detectives at that time talking about him and cattle rustling.”

“He’s been at this since he was a youngster,” said Barry County Sheriff Mick Epperly. “He’s not a stranger to nobody. He’s pretty slick at it.”

Besides the theft at the Darrows’ place, Perryman also was charged in Greene County with the theft last month of seven head of purebred black Angus cattle — three bulls and four heifers valued at $25,000.

The cattle were taken from W.D. Pipkin, an 82-year-old farmer. His family, which now has 900 acres, has farmed there since 1857. Pipkin is hardly shy about sharing his idea of the best way to deal with cattle thieves:

Tall horse and short rope.

“We just want to hang ’em,” Pipkin said as his bemused adult grandson stood by, shaking his head. “That’s what we want to do.”

Various law enforcement officials said they don’t view Perryman as a mastermind cattle rustler, but he could be a significant link to finding others involved in rustling in southwest Missouri, a region of rolling green farms that is ripe for the crime. They also hope the arrest sends a strong message to other would-be cattle thieves.

Increasing concerns about thefts

In late 2009, concerns about agricultural theft — from cattle to tractors to anhydrous ammonia, the nitrogen fertilizer used as a component of methamphetamine production — prompted Gov. Jay Nixon to reactivate a Livestock and Farm Protection Task Force and create a 10-officer Rural Crimes Investigative Unit within the Missouri Highway Patrol.

Since then, some $6 million in agricultural property has been recovered. The Missouri Cattlemen’s Association has been pushing legislation to add more officers to the rural crimes units and increase penalties for rustling.

Even now the crime remains a major problem in southwest Missouri, which as of January was the state with the third-largest number of beef cattle in the nation, behind Nebraska and Texas. Kansas ranked seventh.

Of Missouri’s more than 106,000 farms, some 52,000 raise cattle. Most are tiny family farms, said Mike Deering, the association’s executive vice president. Average herd: 36 head, which makes thievery all the more hurtful.

“It takes food off the table,” he said. “It’s a massive problem.”

No agencies keep precise cattle rustling statistics in the state, but the association estimates 200 to 500 head, worth $200,000 to $500,000, are stolen each year in Missouri. The Kansas Bureau of Investigation counts between 50 and 60 head stolen annually in Kansas over the last couple of years, although not all cattle thefts come to the bureau’s attention.

Farmers and others say cattle rustling has become especially bad in the last five years, as the economy has suffered and droughts and high feed prices have caused the price paid for beef cattle to escalate.

The Missouri Department of Agriculture estimates that, at market, an 800-pound animal that in 2008 brought $890 now fetches $1,150 or more.

Pipkin and Darrow reel off names of neighbors whose cattle also were stolen — five here, 13 there.

“We’ve had neighbors who have had 42 head stolen; another, 41,” said Pipkin’s son, Jim Pipkin.

Late at night thieves cut fences, roll trailers onto and along distant fields, and feed the cattle to lure them up to and into trucks. Off they go, often selling the cattle within 150 miles.

“They load them up,” Deering said, and take off over the state lines. “It’s easy to get out of Missouri, into Kansas and into Oklahoma. They’re positioned near the major highways.”

Logic would dictate that brands, tattoos and ear tags might help. But many producers in Missouri don’t brand their cattle.

“We do put tags on them, but they’re easily cut off,” Darrow said. “Even if you put an implant in as you would for your pets, they can be cut out.”

With sale barns often receiving hundreds of cattle at any one time, checking ear tattoos is often impractical.

“Cattle is by far the hardest thing to track down, because most cattle in Missouri is not branded and not tattooed,” said Cpl. Mike Bracker of the Missouri Highway Patrol, who investigated the thefts for the rural crimes unit.

“It’s not like a vehicle with a VIN (vehicle identification number) on it. A black Angus on one side of the road looks like a black Angus on the other side of the road.”

A tissue on the ground

Arresting Perryman took time, technology and sleuthing.

It began on May 27, 2012, when Darrow decided to check his cattle after spending the morning in another field cutting hay.

“I thought I should take a look at the heifers,” he said. “I couldn’t find them.”

He noticed a gate had been opened and closed, scoring the dirt. He saw the cut fence, the flattened grass. His stomach sank.

“An empty feeling at first,” he said. Then he got angry. His wife, having felt close to their animals, was devastated.

“I called the police right away,” Darrow said. At the scene, he saw the tissue on the ground near tire tracks.

According to a probable cause statement prepared by the Greene County Sheriff’s Department, the tissue was shipped to the Missouri State Crime Laboratory for DNA testing. The profile matched that of Perryman on file from previous felony investigations.

The same DNA profile also matched those in four other cases, including one in which Perryman’s DNA was found on a jacket and towel recovered from inside a vehicle that had been stolen in Jasper County but left in a field in Greene County at the site of another attempted livestock theft.

Last month, on June 12, according to the statement, a Greene County investigator had Perryman’s truck, a 1995 GMC Sonoma, under surveillance at a trucking company in Springfield when he witnessed Perryman drive into the lot in a 2005 Chevrolet Silverado flatbed pickup. Perryman got out of the Silverado and left in the Sonoma.

The officer ran the Silverado’s vehicle identification number and discovered the truck had been reported stolen from Jasper County in 2011. He began taking pictures and, as he did, W.D. Pipkin reported the theft of his Angus bulls and heifers. The thieves had created a makeshift corral and herded the animals inside their truck.

Gathering cattle is hardly easy. At the very least, Pipkin said, it would have taken an hour of hard work and, he presumes, more than one person.

“They knew what they were doing,” he said.

Truck tire marks were left in mud near the entrance to Pipkin’s field. Police made a plaster impression.

It matched the tires on the stolen Chevy truck.

Police placed a GPS tracker on the truck. On July 8, the truck began moving. Perryman was inside and took the Chevy to a tire shop in Springfield. A warrant was issued for his arrest.

“They went through a couple of counties and it took them a couple of hours to get him to come out of some woods,” said Barry County Prosecutor Johnnie Cox. “He finally came out.”

Darrow owns a manufacturing business and raises cattle as much for passion as for profit. He and Pipkin received an insurance settlement for their cattle, but the theft remains an emotional issue.

“You know, when they’re being born, lots of times, you’ll be out there all night long,” Darrow said, getting up at 2 a.m. and then 5 a.m. “You’ll sit up with them. Lots of times when you pull a calf (assist with the delivery), it might be backwards, a leg folded back. You lay there in the ice, the snow, the rain with a flashlight in your teeth. You get attached.”

Since the theft, he has installed cameras and vibration monitors at strategic points along his 220 acres. He’s placed logs along fence lines as barriers to trucks. Many nights, between midnight and dawn, he switches off with neighbors to remain awake, on the road, often armed, patrolling the area in search of unfamiliar vehicles.

Neither Darrow nor Pipkin nor law enforcement officials think southwest Missouri is home to only one castle rustler.

“Everyone knows there’s got to be a ring. There’s got to be an outlet,” said W.D. Pipkin. It’s a sentiment echoed by his son.

“Cattle rustling has been around since the 1880s and it’s still going to be out there,” Jim Pipkin said. “Yeah, we got one individual caught. He is in custody. Am I thinking this is going to cease? No, I’m not.”