MADILL — By all indications, Robert Covington was a capable ranch hand, one who, as it turned out, had a powerful craving for methamphetamine, a costly and illegal drug that harms both body and soul.
Those opposing aspects of his life collided in early April last year when he was found at dawn passed out in his boss’s pickup in a pasture on a neighboring ranch, whose owner came across him and called the sheriff’s office.
Covington that morning, April 2, was arrested for public intoxication and, after the arresting deputy found in the truck’s cab a small amount of the drug, also was charged with “felony possession of a controlled substance,” Marshall County Court Clerk Wanda Pearce said.
Eight days after Covington was arrested, “he was also charged with two counts of larceny of domestic animals,” she said, one for each of two sales of calves he admitted making within days of one another at a sale barn in nearby Atoka.

“When they found him in that pasture, they thought he was dead,” said his boss, Kendall Whitehead, the foreman of Watkins Ranch outside Madill and Covington’s boss at the time. “But he was just passed out. The deputy, rather than have the truck towed, called us, and me and another boy came and got it.

“When we got it back to the ranch, we tore through that truck to make sure there wasn’t any more dope or paraphernalia in it, and that’s when we found the bill of sale for the calves” that Covington in the days prior to his arrest had stolen from his employer and sold at the Atoka livestock market.

The owner of the 11,000-acre ranch, Doc Watkins, called special ranger Bart Perrier, who works for the Fort Worth-based Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association.

Perrier’s jurisdiction encompasses 22 counties in central Oklahoma, running north to south from the Kansas border to the Red River. Perrier, who is based in Bartlesville, immediately drove down to Marshall County, where Covington was still locked up.

“When you’re selling cattle and you don’t own any, that’s a little hard to explain,” Perrier said of the ranch hand. “I had a couple-hours interview with him, and of course he lied and lied before finally admitting what he had done.” Within days, Covington came to the conclusion — his mind perhaps cleared by his time in jail away from meth — that a plea bargain might be his best bet. 

Born of fighting rustlers

The Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, which has roughly 17,500 members, most of them in Oklahoma and Texas, was founded in the horseback days of 1877, primarily to catch rustlers literally in their tracks. Back then, cattle rustling was a capital crime, punishable by hanging from the neck until dead.

Covington got off good bit easier than that. In fact, he got off easy even by today’s more lenient law. Currently, per Oklahoma statutes: “Any person in this state who shall steal any horse, jackass, jennet, mule, cow, hog, or implement of husbandry … shall be guilty of a felony and upon conviction shall be punished by confinement in the State Penitentiary for a term of not less than three years.”

Instead, Covington accepted the plea agreement and a five-year deferred sentence he was offered and spent a total of 90 days in the Marshall County jail last spring into early summer and was ordered to pay restitution for two of the four calves he stole from Watkins that were never recovered.

Slowly, Whitehead said, his former right-hand man has been honoring the court order to make good on the stolen cattle, which he sold at Atoka Livestock LLC’s auction barn.

It’s not common for a cattle thief to show up at a livestock market, but neither is it entirely rare, said Paula Hatridge, who with her husband, Phil, purchased Atoka Livestock in 2003: “I’d say it’s only happened five or six times since we’ve owned the auction.”

At that, she said, it’s all but impossible to prevent such crimes.

“They want us to be the cattle police, and we can’t be,” she said of the 1,200 to 1,600 head the auction handles on a typical Monday, the barn’s sale day. “We write down license tag numbers and ask for the seller’s address, but we don’t ask for identification. It’s time consuming and if we did, we’d never get (the cattle) unloaded.”

One south-central Oklahoma sale barn, Red River Livestock Market, in Overbrook — albeit a smaller auction than that at Atoka, handling on average 300 to 400 head a week, or roughly a fourth of the Marshall County sale barn’s weekly volume — makes a more concerted effort to identify sellers, general manager Eric Walterscheid said.

A sign posted outside the Red River loading pens notes that “the following is required on drive ins: name, address, city, state, zip, social security number, telephone number and time of arrival.”

Moreover, Walterscheid said, “we’ve got a camera set up for our drive ins to record them being brought in.” 

Higher prices, more theft

Last year, the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association’s special rangers who work in Oklahoma and are commissioned by the State Bureau of Investigation investigated 97 cattle-theft cases involving a total of 1,679 head.

About half of the head rustled in 2015 — valued at $701,636 — were recovered and returned to their owners. Last year’s caseload was a sharp increase over the number of thefts suffered by Oklahoma ranchers in 2014, when 77 cases, involving 687 head of livestock, were reported. 

The spike last year followed several years of drought, during which herds were culled statewide, causing beef prices on the hoof and in the grocery to soar.

“Calves last year were bringing $3 a pound and more and cows were bringing $2,000 to $3,000 a head,” said Larry Gray, the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association’s executive director of law enforcement and theft prevention services. “Like any commodity, it’s about supply and demand. We saw at the first part of 2015, 500-, 600-pound (cattle) going for $3.40 a pound. That works out to around $2,000 a head.

“A burglar who steals a flat-screen TV from your home might get 10 to 20 cents on the dollar. With cattle, they get market value.”

Currently, said Hatridge, the co-owner of the Atoka sale barn, a 350-pound calf goes for around $2.25 a pound, which, at last week’s auction, worked out to $794 and change, roughly half of last year’s peak.

That decline, Gray said, is expected to reduce cattle thefts overall in the Sooner State in 2016, although that hope remains uncertain given that rustling increasingly tends to be perpetrated by ranch hands looking for ways to finance illicit drug habits.

“Drugs are the root of almost all crime, in my opinion,” Perrier said. “Some crimes are driven by a gambling addiction; but there’s almost always an addiction involved. There’s always something fueling it.”

Rustlers also tend to know their way around cattle.

“City boys can’t steal cattle, they don’t know how,” said Perrier, who grew up on a 240-acre ranch in Osage County, the heart of cattle country, where he took part in junior rodeo when not helping with the family’s herd. “They don’t know how to get cattle up, they don’t know where to take them.”

As such, said Gray, who oversees the cattle raisers association’s 30 special rangers, “it’s not a crime that’s perpetrated by a novice. They know how to get them up; they know how to pen them.”

Yet, Perrier pointed out: “A true cowboy is not a cattle thief.” 

An ounce of prevention

Oklahoma ranchers, by comparison with those in Texas, tend to be lax in branding their cattle, a shortcoming that frustrates those charged with tracking down stolen or otherwise missing animals.

Texas has a far better livestock registration protocol than does Oklahoma. In the Lone Star state, a sale barn by law, Gray said, “records the seller’s name, the license number of the vehicle, identifies each head of cattle — color, sex, breed, if they’re branded — and that’s all entered into our database. It’s the first thing our rangers check when cattle are stolen.”

There is no similar databank in Oklahoma. Here, “60 to 70 percent of cattle are not branded, and that makes it tough,” Perrier said. “I do this for a living, and I don’t understand why people don’t brand their cattle. It makes them a lot easier to recover. At least brand the factory: the bulls and the reproductive cows. We emphasize that if you value that animal, stick a brand on it.

“We deal with tractor thefts, trailer thefts, livestock, anything agriculture, but I’d say 90 percent of what we deal with is cattle theft. Two of the oldest professions in the world are raising cattle and stealing them.”

The problem “tends to be with mom-and-pop operations that don’t brand their cattle,” Gray said. “They might be retired and have 50 or 60 head they depend on” to supplement their income.

And it’s not just about theft prevention, he said last week: “We just went through the blizzard in the Panhandle, which scattered a lot of cattle, and we were able to get most of them back to their owners because of their brands. Some people might think it’s just another regulation, but it isn’t, it’s not required — it just makes good sense.”

Yet, even if such safeguards were in place in Oklahoma, they wouldn’t necessarily prevent those inclined to steal from doing so.“The boy who stole our calves was doing dope,” Whitehead, the Watkins Ranch foreman, said. “He went and got strung out on it and needed money to keep doing it. Nothing’s going to stop that. He was a good boy, but the dope got to him and turned him. I’m the pastor of a cowboy church and I see it all the time, what it does to a person and to their family.”

And others as well, he said: “I’ve got to have someone working out here that I can trust. It works on a man when you put trust in a fellow and find out he’s stealing from you. 

“You know, I consider these cattle mine. If I don’t take care of them, I’m out of a job. So in a way, if you know what I mean, it was like he was stealing from me, too.”