Prairie-dwelling cattle thieves, take heed.
Since the formation late last year of a special unit, lead investigator Kendal Lothman has been on a quest to clean up a crime that resulted in more than a million dollars in statewide losses between 2011 and 2014.
Think of him as a one-man posse devoted solely to stopping cattle rustlin’.
That cattle theft needs its own state-level investigative unit should come as no surprise to those in Kansas, a state that currently claims more than twice as many cattle as humans.
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Though far from a new crime — cattle theft has been an issue in rural communities for generations and was a factor in the formation of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation in the 1930s — it has persisted over time, often increasing along with the price of beef.
And it takes many forms, as one recent and bizarre case in Missouri indicates.
To run the one-man Kansas’ Livestock/Brand Investigative Unit, state Attorney General Derek Schmidt tapped Lothman, the former sheriff of Kiowa County. A 22-year law enforcement veteran, Lothman’s new position makes him available to assist local law enforcement authorities who might need additional resources when investigating cattle thefts.
Although Schmidt declined to make Lothman available for an interview, he praised Lothman as a knowledgeable resource with a background that lends itself to the job.
“You have to have somebody who knows the law enforcement community, but also who understands and is comfortable working with the livestock community,” said Schmidt.
The idea for the new unit emerged last spring, when Bill Brown, animal health commissioner for the Kansas Department of Agriculture, found himself with a hole to fill.
In the span of about two years, the department had lost both of its brand investigators. And with cases of cattle theft continuing to arrive from across the state — a total of 56 incidents resulting in the loss of 225 cattle would be reported in 2014, according to Kansas Bureau of Investigation statistics — Brown and his colleagues sat down and came up with the idea for the new unit.
Since then, the unit has sought to limit the crime’s scope in a state that, with its roughly 45 livestock markets and nearly 6 million cattle, is among the national leaders in cattle inventory.
In general, reports of stolen cattle haven’t increased over the past few years, according to state data. After 74 reports in 2010, the ensuing years have seen 48, 25, 37 and 43 reports — although the value of lost cattle has increased steadily, with a valued loss of $330,264 in 2014.
Since it’s typically carried out in lightly populated areas, where witnesses and security systems are scarce or non-existent, cattle rustling has long given investigators headaches.
Unlike other types of property theft — in which the perpetrator can simply walk down the street to the nearest pawnshop and unload their stolen merchandise — cattle rustlers often unload their inventory in a completely different jurisdiction, if not a different state altogether.
What’s more, no two incidents are exactly the same.
Recently, for instance, authorities in Barry County, Mo., received a call about a curious case in which a pair of black angus heifers had been stolen from a nearby ranch.
The missing cows, worth about $2,000, were replaced with a pair of sickly cows that might fetch just a quarter of that.
This past week, meanwhile, Barry County officials took another call from a man who said 12 cattle had mysteriously showed up at his residence.
“Every one of them seems to be just a little bit different,” said Doug Henry, a detective in Barry County who has handled a number of cattle theft cases.
And it’s not just cows.
Cattle theft is often accompanied by the theft of other agricultural goods: bales of hay, farming equipment, scrap metal.
“If they’re going to steal the cattle, they’re going to steal the equipment to go with it, too,” says Steve Lutz, a captain with the sheriff’s office in Reno County, Kan., which recently handled a case in which 1,000 bales of grass hay were stolen from a residence near Hutchinson.
Still, other states have managed to make strides against the crime in recent years.
In 2009, the Missouri Highway Patrol formed its rural crimes unit to address an increase in agriculture- and farming-related crimes.
The state scored a significant victory when authorities in 2013 arrested Howard Perryman, a man with a lengthy criminal history and an alleged penchant for cattle theft.
Perryman, who was accused of stealing more than $100,000 worth of cattle and equipment, was sentenced last June to 30 years in prison.
Since then, says Henry, cattle theft in Missouri has dropped 90 percent.
“As soon as we put Howard behind bars, everything kind of quit,” Henry said.
Kansas authorities, surely, are hoping for a similar decline with the implementation of its new unit.
Currently, Lothman has eight or nine active investigations, according to Schmidt, with the total number of missing cattle at about 175.
With cattle selling at an average of roughly $1,500, Schmidt says, “you’re talking about a significant amount of money.”
“It’s a learning experience for (Lothman), but we’re trying to put as many tools in his toolbox as possible so that he can perform that job,” said Brown, with the department of agriculture. “I think it’s going to work.”