JARDINE: Cattle rustling still riles ranchers in Modesto area

jjardine@modbee.comJuly 20, 2013 

    alternate textJeff Jardine
    Title: Local columnist
    Coverage areas: People, issues, the community
    Bio: Jeff Jardine joined The Bee's staff in 1988 after a decade at the Stockton Record. He covered sports before moving into news in 1996 and became the Local Columnist in 2003. He graduated from University of the Pacific in 1979, majoring in communications and history.
    Recent stories written by Jeff
    On Twitter: @jeffjardine57
    E-mail: jjardine@modbee.com

Cattle rustling sounds so, well, Old West.

It seemed so simple, so B-movie Western back then: Assemble a posse, catch the perps red-handed with the hoofed contraband, get a rope, find a tree and have a necktie party.

This is the New West, though. Nobody steals cattle anymore, right?

Wrong, as evidenced by the theft last week of 16 replacement heifer calves, a month old and weighing 80 pounds each, from a dairy near Hilmar. Thieves hit the same dairy for 10 calves exactly two weeks earlier. Both thefts happened overnight, between 2:30 and 3:30 a.m.

Wrong, as the report of 259 cattle stolen from a Denair dairy a year ago would suggest. Owners told authorities they discovered the losses only during a head count at the end of the month and couldn't say when or how the animals disappeared.

Wrong, as one West Side rancher can attest. Several years ago, he reported his bull missing from his pasture. Brand inspections and rural crimes detectives swung into action, with no luck.

Then, a funny thing happened: The bull mysteriously reappeared in the field at the end of the breeding season. Someone "borrowed" the bull to service the cows and then returned it to its owner to feed the rest of the year.

True, cattle theft isn't as prevalent as, say, auto theft. Rural crimes detectives spend far more of their time chasing marijuana growers in the fields and orchards, and thugs who steal equipment and sell it for scrap. But with a value of $1,000 per calf, livestock theft is costly.

Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin said his rural crimes investigator is working only one cattle theft case involving only a couple of head.

Dan Levin, a rural crimes detective in San Joaquin County, moved into that duty a year ago and knows of only two cattle cases in that time — a cow stolen from a dairy in Manteca and six Jersey replacement heifers from a dairy near Galt.

Stanislaus County detectives are handling the aforementioned Hilmar cases and average about three per year, sheriff's Sgt. Keith Rakoncza said. But that would assume all thefts are reported.

Tom Orvis of the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau distributes a newsletter alerting the ag community to thefts, marijuana arrests, news about rural crimes and links to agencies in Stanislaus, Merced and San Joaquin counties. It urges its readers to take action:

"Report — Report — Report

No Victim = No Crime!"

In fact, The Bee learned of the recent 10- and 16-calf thefts from that newsletter, TV stations read about it on Modbee.com, and it suddenly blossomed into one of Tuesday's top stories.

Yet Orvis, who is as well-connected as anyone in the ag community, said he hadn't heard about the 259-animal heist near Denair last year.

"Maybe (the dairyman) is working with the Bureau of Livestock Identification and doesn't want anybody to know," Orvis said. "Usually, something that big, we'd hear about. But you never know."

The farm watchers are making an impact. In Stanislaus County, rural crime reports have dropped more than 50 percent when comparing the first six months of 2012 with the first six this year.

The majority of cattle thefts involve dairy cattle because they are easier to steal. They're accustomed to being around people. The calves are kept in individual hutches. Most are ear-tagged shortly after they're born and later chipped for identification purposes. Many range cattle ranchers still do the old-fashioned spring roundups and brandings.

Most cattle thieves know that under Assembly Bill 109, the prison realignment measure, even if they are caught, they'll probably be home in time for dinner because the jails have room for only violent crime suspects and those on parole holds.

In lieu of real jail time, rancher and Assemblyman Frank Bigelow, R-O'Neals, moved a step closer, hitting them in the wallet. His bill passed unanimously through the state Senate's Committee on Public Safety. If it becomes law, convicted livestock thieves will have to pay a fine of up to $5,000. The brand inspection bureau would receive the money generated from the convictions, using it to solve open cases and prevent future theft.

But will a $5,000 fine deter cattle thieves any more than the metal theft laws have stopped metal thieves from stealing copper on a daily basis? It's doubtful.

Nobody's making B-movie Westerns these days.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.

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