The great cattle heist: Modern rustlers organize like drug cartels

True Crime

(KELO) – It may sound like something out of a John Wayne movie, but the Wild West is alive and well in South Dakota when it comes to cattle rustling.

Stealing cattle was once punishable by hanging in Dakota Territory. Today, it is a highly organized and highly profitable endeavor, a crime likened to how a drug cartel operates.

Politics plays a role in a state divided over how to keep track of cattle as cases involving hundreds of missing livestock go unsolved.

Since 1985, Dan Kubal has been tending to hundreds of cattle on his 700-acre family farm near Lesterville, South Dakota. He uses a four-wheeler to check on his cattle up to three times a day.

Yankton County Farmer, Dan Kubal, has 330 plus head of cattle on his 700 acre farm

But with the vast expanse of his pastureland, he may not have picked up right away on the crime that occurred here in July.

“I came back in the morning and I noticed this corner post was leaned over. Well, I didn’t think much of it. I figured the cows piled up in there,” Kubal said.

Then he realized something wasn’t right with his gate.

“And I got to looking over the top of it and I could see that somebody unwired it and wired it back with just a little tie. Well. then I started seeing tire tracks and foot tracks,” Kubal said.

His neighbors helped him round up the cattle, and Kubal discovered that 17 of them were missing. He called the Yankton County Sheriff’s office.

“We collected photographs, tire tracks. We collected DNA off the gate up that way. We’re waiting for results,” Yankton Chief Deputy Sheriff Mike Rothschadl said.

Investigators believe someone removed the gate in order to back in a trailer. The thieves rounded up the cattle and took off, knocking down a post in the process.

Yankton County Farmer Dan Kubal shows the fence post knocked over by cattle thieves

Kubal’s case is far from an isolated one. In 2019, four producers in remote areas of McPherson County in northern South Dakota reported 111 cattle missing.

The missing cattle weren’t discovered until they were rounded up in the fall, making it a tougher crime to solve.

“A timeline as far as when the cattle were taken is really quite open, but yes, the numbers are just staggering,” McPherson County Sheriff Dave Ackerman said.

Ackerman believes it was a highly organized operation.

“Somebody has to know something. In order to take 20, 30, 40 head, I don’t believe that’s done by one individual. And they have to go somewhere with this product as well. Where that is? I’m not sure. Is it to another pasture? Is it to a place of sale? That remains to be seen,” said Ackerman

Finding missing cattle is complicated. South Dakota has a brand inspection rule for the western part of the state, meaning when livestock are sold or transported, a state Brand Board inspector determines that the owner is in lawful possession of the livestock.

But get those cattle across the Missouri River into the eastern side of the state and it’s a different story.

“As long as they get across that area, they’re free and clear, because there’s no inspection past that,” said former South Dakota State Representative and western South Dakota Rancher Liz May.

May has been pushing for a statewide brand law for years. She is also the only woman leader in the South Dakota Stockgrower’s Association.

She says her family’s ranch near Kyle on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation loses cattle to theft every year.

“It’s a big business. Cattle rustling is a big business. There is a reason they hung cattle rustlers back in the early day, to stop it, because it is so easy to do. When you’re talking 40 head, that’s not an easy thing. And to move those cattle … moving them and getting them out of here, that’s a well-coordinated effort, just like the drug cartel,” May said.

The South Dakota Brand Board is the state agency that investigates cattle rustling. It is funded by ranchers who pay a fee to register their brands. A full-time livestock investigator is responsible for looking into reports of missing and stolen cattle.

KELO looked through all of the missing or stolen reports from January 2017 through July 2020 and counted 164 reports, involving hundreds of missing cattle or horses. Only 32 cases, just under 20% of those animals, were ever recovered.

“We see very, very little for the money we put in. We’re not getting any bang for our buck. You report it, they put it in the statistics, they watch, but nothing ever gets resolved,” says May.

Dan Kubal’s case has more evidence than most and a reward of more than $12,000 is available for anyone with information leading to an arrest. Still, the likelihood of that happening lessens by the day.

“It’s sickening is what it is. You’d think you’re safe in your own surroundings, and you just want to be and do your thing. Then something like this happens, you just feel icky about yourself and the whole thing. You don’t even feel safe anymore,” Kubal said.

Following the theft, Kubal installed some 14 cameras to the entrances to his 700 acres of pastureland. Now he can see what’s happening out here, right on his phone.

“Never even dreamed about something like this, but it is what it is, and that’s what we had to do,” Kubal said.

Cattle average about $1,000 per head. Rustlers often settle for half of that amount just to get them sold, no questions asked.

The South Dakota Brand Board declined to be interviewed for this story.

In addition to no brand inspection rule east of the Missouri River, South Dakota’s reservations are also sovereign from brand inspections, which complicates the matter for ranchers in the western part of the state.

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