One or two at a time, William Cantone slipped cows off the Oakdale ranch where he worked for more than 20 years and sold them at an Escalon sales yard. From 2006 to 2007, he sold 44 cows. Most were pregnant.
Cantone, 62, pleaded guilty last month to stealing 20 of the cows after explaining that his former boss, Peter Schaafsma, said he could take two cows a month as a bonus. Schaafsma died in April.
"He was only charged (with taking 20) because he made allegations my father wasn't here to defend. The lies are unforgivable," said Deanne Dalrymple, Schaafsma's daughter. Schaafsma owned Schaafsma Dairy and co-owned S&H Dairy along with his wife, June.
Sheriff's Detective Thomas Moebs started investigating the case after Cantone's ex-wife, Patty Cantone, reported him in May. When the dairy owners confronted him, Cantone said he accounted for the loss of the cows by declaring them dead, an unusual way of handling the books, Dalrymple said.
"He knew he was in a pickle," she said during a court hearing last month.
The phrase might seem a throwback to the Wild West, but cattle rustling is alive in 2008 and on the rise.
From May to November of last year, 807 head of cattle and calves were reported missing or stolen in California, according to the Bureau of Livestock Identification at the California Department of Food and Agriculture. That's up from 602 during the same period in 2006.
Valued at $466.5 million, dairy products are the leading agricultural commodity in Stanislaus County, according to the 2006 Stanislaus County crop report, the latest figures available. Cattle and calves, valued at $351 million, are third, behind almonds.
In the past decade, more than 16,000 head of cattle and calves worth more than $9 million have been reported missing and stolen from California farms and ranches.
"As we solve these cases, we often find that either an employee or a neighbor is involved," said Greg Lawley, chief of livestock identification at the California Department of Food and Agriculture's Bureau of Livestock Identification.
Cantone was a herdsman and had significant control of the cattle at Schaafsma Dairy, a ranch that cares for cows used at S&H Dairy. S&H is co-owned by the Schaafsma and Hilaredes families. About 65 percent of the cows Cantone took belonged to the Hilaredeses, Dalrymple said. Ron Hilaredes, who runs S&H, could not be reached for comment.
Hilaredes told Moebs no one had permission to sell his cows, Moebs testified in court. But the checks for cows sold by Cantone at the sales yard were made out to Cantone.
Cantone was taking pregnant dairy cows. Calf hauler John Lorenzo transported them. He told Moebs that Cantone would direct him to take penned cattle without ear tags to the sales yard. The brand inspector at the sales yard said it was common knowledge Cantone was able to sell the cattle, so no one questioned it. The cattle were not branded, Dalrymple said.
The value of the cows Cantone took has not been determined, but he has been ordered to pay restitution and a $200 fine. Cantone also was sentenced to 90 days in jail, which he is scheduled to begin serving April 18. Then he'll be on probation for three years, the maximum punishment for cattle theft.
The sentence, the money and the theft mean less to Dalrymple than the lies, she said.
"He stole cows the day my father was buried instead of being a pallbearer," she said.
Bee staff writer Eve Hightower can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2382.