August 7, 2022

This Land: Texas Still Has Its Rustlers, and Men in White Hats Chasing Them

This was not the handiwork of some crack addict, risking a kick to the addled head for the low yield of a heifer or two. This was a cow whisperer, cattle people told themselves. One of us.

The reports started piling up across South and East Texas. On March 15, for example, 26 calves vanished from a sale barn in the Houston County town of Crockett — the same night that a livestock trailer was stolen in neighboring Walker County. On May 3, 18 head of cattle disappeared from a sale barn in Milam County. Two nights later and 160 miles away, 28 head went missing from a sale barn in Nacogdoches County.

Enough was enough; these cattle didn’t just wander off to take in the night air. On May 6, Hal Dumas, a special ranger for the unique Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association — part industry advocate, part law enforcement agency — joined the Milam County sheriff in sending out a be-on-the-lookout alert, telling ranching communities everywhere of the rustler among them:

Locations are being hit in the early morning hours. … Suspects will probably be hauling a long goose-neck trailer between midnight and 3:30 a.m. … The stolen cattle are generally calves weighing between 350 and 500 pounds. …

Though the vigilante, string-’em-up response to cattle rustling has faded into the sepia-toned past, livestock theft still carries the whiff of the low-down cur. In the last decade, special rangers for the cattle raisers association investigated more than 11,000 cases of livestock-related thefts, and recovered or accounted for more than 37,500 head of cattle.

Stealing a cow is like stealing a factory, ranchers say, given that a healthy, breeding cow can return dividends for years. Some ranchers even grow fond of the animals they raise, no matter how abruptly these relationships may end at the stockyard gate.

Most of all, livestock are living bonds of communal trust — precious things of value, grazing close to the road. And when ranchers are ready to sell, they often unload their cattle into the easily accessible pens of sale barns a day or two before auction. The barn might have a security camera or a night watchman; then again, it might not.

Still, you can trust your mother, but cut the cards. That is why the 15,000-member cattle raisers association, founded in 1877 by a band of rustler-weary ranchers, has 29 special rangers, including Mr. Dumas, all with the power of arrest, all wearing guns and white hats. Using sophisticated databases (including a file of more than 100,000 registered brands) and plain common sense (checking cow pies for tire tracks), these rangers investigate thefts of livestock and property and inspect millions of cattle a year.

The rangers have the respect of cattle rustlers; they know this because a rustler said so. A few years ago, they helped to pen Jerome Heath Novak, a clever, clean-cut cattle rustler from a proud ranching family in Brazoria County who was so audacious in his nighttime thefts that he even stole livestock from Nolan Ryan, the baseball legend and Texas icon. He was caught only after taking to auction a stolen calf with a distinctive barbed-wire scar, which someone noticed.

Before being sent to prison, a remorseful Mr. Novak, then 27, sat down with rangers to help them understand the mind of the cattle rustler. He confessed to not liking sale barns with motion lights or people living on site, and said he avoided ranches and sale barns that had the cattle raisers association’s blue membership sign on display.

“I tried to keep away from that because it’s a band of members that will hold together and push the issue,” said Mr. Novak, who goes by Heath. “Someone else is there, behind them, backing them up.”

When he was done explaining, one of the rangers asked the larger question: “Why? Why, Heath?”

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