(NEW YORK) — Cattle ranchers and law enforcement in the American West are fighting a tough new battle to protect the herds — keeping meth addicts from stealing their cows and selling them to finance their drug habit.
Cattle rustling is a crime straight out of a John Wayne western, combined with a modern Breaking Bad twist.
Law enforcement says meth addicts will sneak onto ranches and farms to steal cows, worth around $1,000 a head, and then sell them at auction for money.
In one instance, caught on surveillance footage at a ranch in Missouri, thieves backed up a big rig to the cow pen, and one by one, coaxed the cattle onto a trailer. The thieves cleared the pen, except for one lone cow.
Cattle theft is a serious crime. These days the penalty can carry up to 10 years in jail.
Chief agent Jerry Flowers of the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture’s law enforcement division and his nine special agents make up a crack unit dedicated to taking down cattle thieves, patrolling Oklahoma’s vast prairies and cattle ranches.
Selling stolen cattle is not relatively hard to pull off, police say. Livestock markets can move thousands of cattle in a week, and many of them aren’t branded.
“I’ve had people call me up and say ‘Hey Jerry, I’ve had a couple steers stolen.’ I say ‘what do they look like?’ ‘Well they’re 500 pounds and black steers,'” Flowers said.
Recently, Flowers and his agents were tracking two suspects, one-time ranch hands David Wallace and Larry “Snag” Smith. The two men were accused of stealing 100 cows from Oklahoma rancher Jet McCoy of The Amazing Race fame.
McCoy said his cattle were taken gradually and it took a while before he noticed they were gone. It wasn’t until he took a plane up to survey his land, to make sure they hadn’t just wandered off onto a neighboring property. For McCoy, $100,000 worth of stolen cattle is serious business.
“It’s no surprise to me that in the old days when they found somebody stealing cattle and horses that they’d just strung ’em up,” he said.
Eventually, Flowers said he and his agents learned Wallace and Smith had taken cattle to a livestock market in Atoka, Okla. Police said the two suspects left a paper trial at the stockyard, and the agents quickly caught up with them.
Both men now are in custody but have yet to enter a plea.
For Flowers and his agents, these sort of modern-day American cowboy heroes, being on the job is more than just a whiff of a bygone era.
“It’ll never end,” Flowers said. “I still enjoy every morning, getting up pulling my boots on and enjoy the thrill of the hunt, when we go out and chase these outlaws.”
Watch the full story on Nightline Friday night at 12:35 a.m. ET.
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