The story behind North Dakota cattle shooting, $5,000 restitution sentence
March 16, 2016
When Mandan cattle rancher Miles Tomac first saw dead cows in his pasture, he asked his veterinarian to make a farm call.
The 60-year-old rancher and his large animal vet were walking the grounds and talking over what might have killed two cows and a calf when they came upon a blood trail.
That trail led them to a total of nine animals that had been casually executed in a shooting spree.
"A thousand questions were going through my mind at the same time," Tomac says of that day back in 2012. "Was this a grudge? Who hates me? Is it personal?"
“People that poach deer or elk or anything else, when they go on a shooting spree, and Game and Fish gets ahold of those guys, they lose their rifles, their pickup, their hunting license for a year.”Miles Tomac, Mandan cattle rancher
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That was July 4, a holiday North Dakota ranchers should be getting together with family and friends and grilling the beef they raised, not looking at the work of a vandal and grieving years of labor gone up in smoke.
Tomac and rancher John Dixon lost four cows, four calves and one yearling between them, in a section pasture along a highway.
An investigation led to a Hensler iron worker who was charged with felony criminal mischief.
Just last month, Dillon James Gappert, 27, accepted a plea that requires him to pay a total of $5,000 in restitution.
That's less than half the $12,000 court records say the animals were valued at.
Tomac doesn't feel the restitution will come anywhere near to compensating him for his loss of a seven year old, a three year old, as well as the calf, all animals he had raised himself.
Bred cows were going for $1,200 a piece at the time, and calves for $600-800 dollars. "And that's not factoring in future crops. The calves the cows had up in that pasture, when we sold them that fall, they were all pot-bellied and small. What about that loss? We run our cows until they are twelve. So what about all the calves both those cows would have had over the years?"
Tomac says it was a hot July day, and the animals had been dead too long to salvage.
"There wasn't even the possibility of getting some hamburger out of it."
Tomac was further frustrated when his insurance company denied his claim.
"It's just an injustice all the way around."
Tomac repeated the scene in his mind as the investigation unfolded, trying to understand why someone would take up a handgun and kill the animals as they grazed peacefully, or just stood chewing cud and swatting flies.
Investigator Fred Frederikson, a deputy brand inspector, worked the Mandan case as well as others that year.
He has 35 years in law enforcement and about 10 felony cases that he is working at any given time, and he says he never can understand this sort of crime.
"These people clearly don't respect the work that someone put into the care of those animals," Frederikson says. "I think that every time I work a case like this."
He says the plea was reached as prosecutors bumped up against the statute of limitations.
"This is one of those cases where you wish you would have had more evidence," he says. "But in the end, we had to go with what we had. I didn't know we were going to have a plea bargain until I walked into court that day."
Frederikson, who is employed by the North Dakota Stockmen's Association, said he worked with law enforcement from other agencies on the case, but that his organization is shorthanded and covers a lot of country.
"We build each case with interviews and evidence and get all we can get on it then get it to the state's attorney. It's a sad fact that we only have three officers statewide for the stockmen's association. We're spread pretty thin."
Investigators determined that the livestock was shot with a Ruger semi-automatic pistol, but they did not link the shooter to a vendetta against either rancher.
Gappert's attorney has said that his client was with his family over the holiday and that he doesn't own a handgun like the one investigators say killed the livestock.
As part of the plea agreement, Gappert will have the charge removed from his record if he complies with the terms, which includes staying out of trouble with the law for nine months.
Tomac, a hunter, feels the accused would have been punished more severely if he'd been caught illegally killing wildlife.
"People that poach deer or elk or anything else, when they go on a shooting spree, and Game and Fish gets ahold of those guys, they lose their rifles, their pickup, their hunting license for a year."
Frederikson says neighbors look out for neighbors, and security cameras may help, but building a case after the fact doesn't bring anyone much satisfaction.
"We do what we can to protect the producers. We know they're out there in 30 below weather feeding and then in 110 degree weather baling hay. They get to see their livestock grow up and they get to see the good things. You just pray to God you can make it with it."