Out on the Missouri prairies, an odd collection of lawmen hunt modern-day cattle thieves.

Meet the "cow cops."

The lawman watches as a pair of headlights blink on the horizon. He raises his night-vision binoculars above his thick, red mustache. A small, white pickup truck a few hundred yards out kicks up dust as it speeds along the back road. Nothing stands between them but darkness draped over acres of barren fields.

Loren Pope is a detective with the Christian County Sheriff's Department, which patrols a rustic stretch of country just south of Springfield, Missouri. Most folks just call him "Stash," in honor of his Yosemite Sam-style mustache.

In Christian County, more than a third of the local economy is tied to animal production, meaning most honest men's hours are hitched to daylight. But still, many farms like the one Pope is guarding belong to commuter farmers who live elsewhere and often hold full-time jobs.

Angela C. Bond
Police say thieves unload stolen cattle at auction houses like Callaway Livestock Center in Kingdom City.
Angela C. Bond
Police say thieves unload stolen cattle at auction houses like Callaway Livestock Center in Kingdom City.

It's a few hours before daybreak on a frigid night in February 2006. The only sound, aside from the truck, is the crackle of ice on the nearby marsh as it freezes. Stash listens as the truck gets closer. This is the third night that he has shivered against the trunk of a wide tree in this small stand of oaks near the intersection of Snowdrop and Spring Creek roads. He wears camouflage and a hydration backpack. His badge and pistol hang on his left hip. In the grass nearby, he has concealed a sack with toilet paper and granola bars. Among his gear is his weapon of choice, an AR-15 assault rifle.

Pope radios his stakeout team, which consists of another deputy hunkered on the other side of a field, two men in a squad car concealed behind a nearby barn and a deputy cruising in a patrol car about a mile away.

He tells them to hold their position until the truck gets closer. He dusts frost from his fatigues and swivels to check the bait in his trap: a pen of about 10 head of cattle.

Earlier in the week, Pope had received a call from the owner of this farm reporting the unbelievable: An entire herd had somehow ended up in the wrong pen. Overnight, they had migrated from their usual metal-barred warrens to a barbed-wire-lined pasture across the street. Pope figures this wasn't the work of drunken teenagers. It was the first step in a notorious operation hailing from pioneer days: cattle rustling.

Remember those old Westerns in which horse-riding desperados break into barns to drive pilfered livestock across the open plains? They're back, but with a modern twist. Hustlers now use paved roads, heavy-duty trucks and trailers to make cleaner getaways. In 2004 and 2005, there were 82 reports of cattle theft in Missouri. But Cattle Theft Task Force members say some cattle thefts may go unreported in rural areas.

This sting operation is Pope's solution. For four years, he worked for an anti-drug unit called the Combined Ozarks Multi-jurisdictional Enforcement Team (COMET). He had learned that druggies could be shaken down at any hour because they usually kept contraband on them. Cattle thieves were different. You had to catch them in the act. Missouri doesn't require beef haulers to show proof of ownership for their herds or to mark them with brands or radio chips. Thieves simply pull out the animals' ear tags — the cattle equivalent of a license plate — and they can move meat freely on the open market.

Pope watches the truck pull close to the driveway of the farm. But his heart sinks after one of his men radios in the pickup's license plate number: It is the owner of the cattle. The farmer had simply come to check on his herd.

Pope's radio crackles as the deputy across the field radios in, reporting a sighting of another farmer on a nearby parcel marching out to check on his cows. Locals have begun their own vigilante patrols.

Pope's one good lead is blown. It seems the rustlers who moved the herd have been spooked. To catch them red-handed, he would need to canvass thousands of acres of fields. He doesn't have nearly enough men.

This was Pope's first lesson on the year-old Missouri Cattle Theft Task Force, a statewide squad made up of investigators from the Missouri State Highway Patrol, the Missouri State Water Patrol and a half-dozen sheriff's departments. After the failed stakeout, it became clear that drug-bust-style enforcement wouldn't work on cattle thieves.

Pope would need a new attack plan.

Gov. Matt Blunt formed the Cattle Theft Task Force in January 2006 and brought together a city boy and a sailor to lead it. Sgt. Daniel Nash of the Missouri State Highway Patrol grew up in San Francisco. He specialized in homicide investigations and had no experience around farms. Corp. Steve Crain with the Missouri State Water Patrol had mostly answered noise-disturbance and body-recovery calls at Table Rock Lake. Both knew they were short on cowboy cred.

They both had also worked on the COMET drug task force, so they recruited Pope. In high school, after moving to Stone County, just south of Christian County, Pope earned pocket money cutting hay and milking cows. He had hick heritage enough to tell the difference between a Jersey and a Holstein.

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