By Wally Kennedy
Globe Staff Writer
MARIONVILLE, Mo. —
When Kyle Burk saw some of his calves in the road near his corral and some busted gates last month, he knew he had been hit.
“They stole 27 head. They loaded them right out of the corral,’’ he said. “There were 87 in the lot. They sorted out 30, but took 27. The three they didn’t take were pretty wild.
“It probably took them an hour and a half. It was brazen, all right. There are three houses here, and I live an eighth of a mile up the road there.’’
The theft occurred on Jan. 18 in the middle of the night. The cattle — about a third of Burk’s total herd — had been bought two weeks before at the Joplin Regional Stockyards. Burk buys and raises calves into cattle, then sells them at stockyards.
“They had to have been watching,’’ he said. “I built my corral for the ease of the handler. It cost $7,000, and I’ve had it for five years. I’ve never bent anything on it. They destroyed everything.’’
Lawrence County, where Burk lives, is one of Missouri’s top cow-calf producing counties. It and several other counties in Southwest Missouri have become the target of cattle rustlers.
Although it may seem like a relic of the Old West, cattle rustling remains very much alive.
A spokesman for the cattle industry estimates that about 200 cattle have been stolen in the past two years in Southwest Missouri, constituting a potential loss of $200,000. Local cattlemen think the actual number of cattle stolen has been underreported.
Law officers worry that some Old West justice may be dispensed, too.
They fear that someone is going to be shot — either the rustler or the rancher protecting his property. The use of force was a topic of discussion at a meeting of law enforcement and cattle owners on Feb. 7 at the University of Missouri Southwest Research Center near Mount Vernon. They were told that a cattle rustler, if caught, could be sentenced to seven years in prison.
More than 160 area cattle owners attended the meeting to hear comments from county prosecutors and local sheriffs, who advised cattle owners not to take the law into their own hands.
Lawrence County Sheriff Brad DeLay said cattle thieves should hope law enforcement catches them first.
“A lot of people are worried about that,’’ Burk said. “I would confront them.’’
He installed security cameras at his corral. A few days after the theft and after the incident was featured in a local news report, the rustlers came back, took out some fence and ripped out his cameras.
“The reason they came back was because it was on the news. They were being smarta----,’’ he said.
What about shooting rustlers in the leg?
In Burk’s case, the rustlers brought their own trailer. Bill Garrett, of Golden City, wasn’t so lucky. They used his stock trailer to steal his cattle in December.
“They came up, stole my trailer and loaded them up. They cut a five-wire fence a half-mile north and went across 80 acres of cropland to get to the trailer. They did not come in our driveway,’’ he said. “They got 17 of 24 yearlings.
“They got my cattle and my trailer. I don’t know where this stuff is going.’’
Eldon Cole, a cattle expert with University of Missouri Extension in Lawrence County, said, “The theory is that these cattle are being mixed with other cattle of a similar type. They grow them for a while, camouflage them with other cattle of a similar kind and take them to market.’’
The Dec. 19 theft at Garrett’s farm occurred despite the fact that there was a house across the road from the barn where the yearlings were taken.
Garrett attended the meeting at Mount Vernon.
“I went. I really got frustrated,’’ he said. “They made it clear we could not take the law into our hands. They were asked whether we could shoot their tires out or if we could shoot them in the leg. They said you would spend the whole farm defending yourself if you did something like that.’’
Garrett said he thinks the rustlers are probably armed.
“People are pretty frustrated,’’ he said. “You have a little insurance, but we don’t win no matter what. They can get away with stealing half of your income. If we don’t catch them, we’re done.’’
Garrett acknowledges that deputies have large territories to cover.
“They’re all overworked and understaffed,’’ he said. “What we need is more enforcement and more people watching for them.’’
Barton County Sheriff Mitchell Shaw said, “These thefts are happening in secluded areas late at night. We want people to call us about suspicious vehicles with antennas or spotlights. If you see a truck and stock trailer out at night, call us and let us know.’’
Shaw, too, is worried about the use of lethal force.
“Somebody’s going to get shot,’’ he said.
“The epicenter of this cattle rustling is between Springfield and Joplin,’’ Cole said. “We’ve always had a little cattle theft on an ongoing basis. Right now, it’s tied to the strength of the cattle market. Prices are high and very attractive.
“We think there are several entities involved in this. It’s either that, or this is a pretty sophisticated ring of personnel,’’ he said.
Most often, the thefts have involved calves that have just been weaned, and they are typically stolen at night.
“They’re stealthy. They have figured out a way to put it all together and get rid of the cattle,’’ he said.
Jim McCann, with the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association, said, “These guys are not run-of-the-mill thieves. These are cattlemen who know what they are doing to be able to do it on a moonlit night.’’
McCann said some cattle owners are planning their own patrols of rural roads when the moon is full.
The concern about cattle owners taking the law into their own hands, Cole said, is real.
“That’s why we had the meeting at the research center. We had the cattlemen, market representatives and the Missouri Highway Patrol rural crimes investigation unit. We had everybody on the same playing field to look at how we each can help the other,’’ he said.
“We need to be reporting suspicious-looking activity. There needs to be more nighttime stopping of cattle trailers. We need to catch someone in the act,’’ he said. “There’s a lot of mad farmers out there. I fear someone is going to get shot over this.’’
Mike Bracker, with the Missouri State Highway Patrol, said, “All of the agencies are working together on this, but we can’t be everywhere at all times.”
Rope a nope!
At the meeting in Mount Vernon, some cattle owners even asked whether there was an instance where they could get a rope and find a tree.
Gregg Bailey, of Aurora, president of the Southwest Cattlemen’s Association, advised against vigilante justice. “We don’t want someone being hurt,’’ he said. “Call first and don’t hesitate to keep contacting (law officers) until you get an answer.
“The cattle rustler is going to do whatever it takes to not get caught. Instead of confronting them: ‘Hey, what are you doing around here?’ Stay back, gather information and call law enforcement.
“It’s going to be persistence on the part of cattlemen and farmers being aware of their surroundings and calling law enforcement. A minor detail they provide may be the one, when combined with others, that breaks the case.”
Bailey said the cattle owners were told by Lawrence County Prosecutor Don Trotter that he would be shooting for the maximum sentence of seven years if someone gets caught.
“But how many days would they serve behind bars? Maybe 180 days to 12 months behind bars. That’s not bad for a couple of hundred thousand dollars. There have been a lot of dollars in cattle stolen over the last two years,’’ he said.
Bailey estimates that as many as 200 head have been stolen in the past two years in Southwest Missouri. At roughly $1,000 a head, that’s $200,000 in losses.
“A concern involves the judges and law enforcement, and following the law that is out there,” he said. “How are these people being handled from a law standpoint? Do we need tougher laws?’’
Stockyards face stiff penalties if they are caught knowingly selling stolen cattle. Burk said local stockyards, aware of his theft, have asked him to come by and check out cattle that have been brought to market. So far, he’s not seen any of his cattle.
Burk, a fifth-generation farmer, started working with cattle when he was 18. He’s 25 now and has been doing well except for last year’s drought, which took a heavy toll on local cattle operations.
His cattle were valued at $920 a head, making the total loss on Jan. 18 about $25,000. He had insurance that paid $558 a head.
He’s not letting the loss of a third of his herd stop him from moving forward. There’s too much at stake in his life to do that. He’s already purchased some yearlings to replace those that were stolen.
“I was going to build a house with the money from those cattle. My wife is pregnant. We’re going to have a baby in July,’’ he said.
Anyone with information relating to a cattle theft can call the Barry-Lawrence Crime Stoppers tip line at 1-888-635-8477. Residents are asked to report any strange or unusual activity involving trucks and stock trailers out late at night.
There are $5,000 rewards for the arrest and conviction of cattle thieves offered by both the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association and the Missouri Farm Bureau.