By Barton Deiters
GRAND RAPIDS, MI – An Ada man can at least take comfort in the fact that he lives in Michigan in the 21st century and not the Old West where cattle rustling was a hanging offense.
Gregory Dee Wheeler will spend two to 20 years in prison after he admitted to stealing at least 39 cows from a northern Kent County farm where he worked as the main farm hand.
Between July and January, 54-year-old Wheeler was secreting cows away from the Egypt Valley Angus beef farm, 9371 Five Mile Road NE in Cannon Township, using the farm’s own equipment.
Egypt Valley Angus is a producer of high-end, grass-fed, pasture-raised beef cattle on a 150-acre farm owned in part by prominent attorney, Democratic politician and entrepreneur David LaGrand.
Wheeler would transport the cattle to the Wayland Hopkins Auction house in Allegan County, where they would be sold to the highest bidder.
There, Wheeler would get about $500 per head for cattle LaGrand says are worth more than $2,000.
“This is top-end organic yuppie food and he sold them for sausage,” LaGrand said.
According to court records, LaGrand came to police with recorded confessions from Wheeler regarding the cattle thefts.
Kent County Sheriff’s investigators then obtained checks from the auction house made out to Wheeler.
LaGrand said the thefts were gradual and because the farm covers 150 acres, some of it wooded. Wheeler was able to claim whenever questioned that cows missing from the 100-head herd were just off on another part of the ranch.
LaGrand said the loss of more than a third of his herd has set back the business. He started the operation about three years ago as a way to provide healthier, non-processed beef free of chemicals and pesticides.
“It’s a fun thing to be in if you’re a foodie,” LaGrand said.
LaGrand was providing a second chance for Wheeler, a convicted felon with a history of petty larceny, bad check writing and false pretenses.
“You have a criminal record that tends to show you up as a flim-flam man,” Kent County Circuit Court Judge Donald Johnston told the defendant during his sentence hearing on Tuesday, Feb. 17.
Wheeler inherited the land known as VanDriel Farms through his wife, but later sold it.
Wheeler told the judge he felt “unjustly prosecuted” and that what he really needs is mental health counselling.
Wheeler was on parole at the time of his arrest in November and he pleaded guilty on Jan. 15 to larceny of $20,000 or more. In addition to his prison time, Wheeler is ordered to pay $78,000 in restitution.
LaGrand says he has no expectation of ever seeing his loss recouped.
LaGrand, an admitted city dweller who says he has a limited grasp of farming, said he has hired a new person to work the farm and is rebuilding the business, which sells the beef online in lots no smaller than a quarter cow.
LaGrand said the cattle all have a “radio chip” in their ears, but he was amazed to find out that cattle auction houses have no obligation to check ownership for the cattle they sell.
LaGrand is a member of the Grand Rapids Public Schools Board of Education and Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church, where he leads in a prison ministry.