New Missouri policies could reverse trend in cattle rustling

Thursday, December 3, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY — In 2006, Ralph Mika discovered he had been robbed over the course of two years.

A couple living on his property was supposed to be taking care of his cattle, but eventually he realized that instead of looking after his livestock, they were stealing them.

His story is only one of many Missouri cattle rustling cases.

Mika, now 70, resides in Mexico, Mo. In 2004, he decided that instead of driving back and forth between his home and his farm in Audrain County, he would hire a couple, Lewis and Deanna Bowers, to look after his farm in exchange for room and board. Five years later, the Bowers are convicted felons.

After a three-year legal battle with the courts, the Bowers were sentenced to 5 years probation and 45 days in prison for the theft of more than 100 cows and calves. Lewis Bowers began serving his prison sentence on Oct. 27, and Deanna Bowers is scheduled to begin serving her sentence on Dec. 14.

The Bowers have to pay in restitution the value of the stolen animals, set at $106,920. Mika claimed another $55,000 to $60,000 for the loss of future earnings from the calves, which the Bowers don't have to pay.  

According to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report, last year there was more than $22 million worth of livestock stolen in the U.S. with about 11 percent recovered. In Missouri in 2007, the most recent data available, more than $800,000 worth of livestock was stolen with a 10 percent recovery rate.

Cattle rustling has become far more prevalent in Missouri over the past two years, said Jeff Windett, executive vice president of the Missouri Cattlemen's Association. After peaking earlier this year, he said, Missouri has seen a decrease in theft as of late.

The decrease can be attributed to a couple of things, Windett said.

The first is a new law, which went into effect August . It makes any person who is convicted of stealing or receiving stolen livestock, valued at over $3,000, guilty of a class B felony, which requires a sentence of 5 to 15 years. The law also requires those convicted to serve at least 80 percent of their sentence.

Before the new legislation was passed, livestock theft was classified as a class C felony, which a maximum prison sentence of seven years.

This increase in punishment may be a big deterrent to potential thieves in the future, Windett said.  

Another part of the effort to curb cattle rustling has been the reinstatement of the Farm and Livestock Protection Task Force. In August, Gov. Jay Nixon brought the task force back into effect to help aide law enforcement agencies track down and prosecute cattle thieves, according to a release from the governor's office. 

Mika said he is a strong supporter of the task force and what it does but it needs more help. Right now, he said, it is "woefully overstaffed," and with more help it could be even more effective.

What caused the rise in theft is not positively known, but there are theories. 

"When the economy goes down, theft goes up," said Carmen Fenton, spokeswoman for the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Ranchers Association. Back in 2007 when the economy was in better shape, the numbers were low, she said, but in the past two years, there has been a dramatic increase in cattle theft.

Windett said the increase may be due to how profitable it can be. Cattle rustling is "pretty lucrative," he said, and it requires a "low investment by those stealing the cattle."

A lack of branding compounds the problem. There is no law in place forcing ranchers to brand their cattle. Without this branding, it becomes harder for livestock to be traced to their original owner and easier to sell the cattle on the legitimate market at full price.

While there is a voluntary brand system in Missouri, there are no brand inspectors to check livestock during sales or transportation to confirm ownership.

Windett said it is doubtful Missouri will see a required branding system in the near future.

"I don't know how, given the states economy and budget, it could happen right now," he said.

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