Ag and livestock theft
March 12, 2013
"I'm not new to theft. In fact, as the sheriff, Squiggy and four of his closest friends got stolen in the summer of 1996," began Executive Director of the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police Byron Oedekoven during his presentation on ag and livestock theft at the Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation (WyFB) Legislative Meeting in Cheyenne on Feb. 19.
"Squiggy was a little steer that had been dropped on his head and he was a little simple around the edges. But, he loved to see you and hoped you brought him a piece of cake, and somebody managed to load up Squiggy and four of his friends and take off. I have a pretty good idea of who, but what you know and what you can prove turn out to be two different things," explained Oedekoven of his personal experiences with theft on his ranching operation.
He continued, noting that he hoped to shed light on what the situation is today, and how producers can best work to prevent theft, or react when they realize they have experienced it.
Oedekoven began with a trip down cinema memory lane, which included stops at Andy Griffith and Dirty Harry, and highlighted how the movies changed public perception of law enforcement from one of white hat – good guy, and black hat – bad guy, to the point of violating rights to solve cases, with outside help since local enforcement was unable to solve anything on their own.
"Our dilemma in law enforcement is we use to be able to hire the ranch kids with a little common sense and a little different outlook on rural issues, and that's getting harder to do. Our pool of applicants has shrunk, and I would offer that the movies and TV has made the idea of a position in law enforcement not as appealing as it used to be when the good guys wore white hats," explained Oedekoven of the changes that have likely been most noticeable when working with law enforcement on rural issues, including livestock theft.
With fewer rural applicants comes a less comprehensive understanding of livestock in general, and the rules, regulations and laws specific to them. While officer trainees are given a short course on livestock theft and transportation during training, it does not sink in with all of them. To help with this, Wyoming Livestock Board Director Leanne Stevenson is preparing additional educational materials to present to deputies and officers in an effort to increase their understanding, and comfort level in asking questions when dealing with livestock specific situations.
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"What we see now is, in one area of the state, someone is putting up game cameras to watch the ranchers in their driveways. Someone is up to no good, because they want to know when you're coming and going. That one took me aback a little bit, that the bad guys would use that to know when the good guys were gone. Not good," noted Oedekoven of what situations are transpiring in livestock theft today.
Another "thief of opportunity" in Riverton had a mystical lost puppy. She would drive up a driveway and knock on a door. If someone answered, she would ask about her lost puppy. But, if they didn't answer, she went inside and helped herself to cash, and usually two-three pieces of jewelry. She was caught after a rancher driving by a neighbors noticed a strange car had been in the driveway a while, and knew the owners were not home. He got the car's plate number and description and called local law enforcement. When the dust settled, over $60,000 was recovered from the thief.
"An observant rancher is who called, and that's good. That's how it should be," noted Oedekoven of the importance of paying attention in catching thieves, both by citizens and law enforcement personnel, and the fact that most thieves work to avoid confrontation when taking items of any type.
"One of the takeaway points here is you need to talk to and involve your sheriff, or, if your agency is large enough, the control commander who is in charge of the officers doing the rural patrol," stated Oedekoven on a good starting point for producers who suspect or know they are experiencing loss.
Talking to county commissioners about supporting sheriffs in their budget requests was another suggestion Oedekoven made.
"If the sheriff doesn't have the money and the resources and the folks, it isn't happening, guaranteed. Your communication to commissioners about rural patrol and officers on duty makes a difference, I think, about what they should have for priorities," explained Oedekoven.
Pulling together as neighbors, and including the sheriff as a neighbor, is what Oedekoven called agriculture's biggest strength. The biggest weakness is public perception that livestock theft is really no big deal, and is probably just an instance of that poor dumb rancher not keeping his cows numbered right. In some cases, the results of reported thefts tend to back this assumption to a degree.
"According to the attorney general in an internet article, since July of 2011 as an advisor to livestock theft, they've investigated 21 cases, 13 of which were unsubstantiated. Three were prosecuted and eight are still pending. Thirteen unsubstantiated is disturbing to me. We need to do a really good job of knowing where all our stuff is," noted Oedekoven of another management component that can help determine if theft is a viable probability in a specific scenario.
For those who highly suspect, or know they have experienced theft, calling the sheriff is step one. Steps two and three include notifying brand inspectors and the state livestock board.
"If they did any part of this deal trying to be legal – they started out illegal but they wanted to kind of legal themselves up so when they get to the end it looks real pretty for them – the brand inspector is item second on the list, for that reason. Item third would be to encourage the brand inspector to involve the investigators from the Wyoming Livestock Board to work with the sheriff, and to complete that circle of having everybody on the same page, investigating that theft," explained Oedekoven of the chain of events he encourages producers to start, and follow through on.
Paying attention and watching for oddities, knowing how much of what is located where, and involving the right circle of people were all listed as key steps to successfully reducing, and ideally stopping, livestock and other ag theft in a given area.
Oedekoven said he hopes those things will improve the ability to prove what many producers already know is occurring on or near their operations.