By Adam Kemp
MOUNTAIN VIEW, Okla. -- Cattle bones litter the dusty field next to a hay barn. Glare from the hot sun makes them glint against the red dirt and sparse patches of green grass.
Chief special agent Jerry Flowers surveys the scene searching for any clues that might lead him to the outlaws. A knocked down fence. A broken gate lock. Tire tracks. Even a discarded cigarette.
"Do you know anyone that would do this to you?" Flowers asks Randall Stephens. "Family, farmhands... enemies?"
Just two days prior, Stephens' herd of beef cattle numbered 127.
Now, standing in his pasture with a dazed look, Stephens, 65, who has ranched in this rural area about 100 miles west of Oklahoma City all his life, tells Flowers he's missing eleven. He hasn't a clue as to 'whodunit.' He mentions a few boys from town. Flowers recognizes the names. Known cattle thieves.
"He was a good boy," Stephens said of one of the possible suspects. "But he got into that meth and it's just ruined him."
Flowers asks Stephens a few more questions before packing up to leave.
"Rack your brain trying to think of anyone that would've done this," Flowers says. "We'll be in touch. We'll find em."
Stephens, dressed in overalls and wearing a baseball cap. shakes his head and then asks a last question before Flowers and his two partners depart.
"Who are you guys with? Sheriff's office?" Stephens asks.
"We're with the Department of Ag, sir," Flowers says. "Cattle cops."
Across the country, a modern-day crime more typically associated with the Old West -- cattle rustling -- is plaguing the livestock industry. In Oklahoma, a record number of cattle thefts were reported in 2013 -- 830 cases, according to the Oklahoma Cattlemen's Association.
"This is the highest I've ever seen it," said Richard Gebhart, president of the association which represents 5,500 of the state's farmers and ranchers. "It is a horrendous deal and everyone is trying to double down on their efforts to prevent it."
Part of that effort is Flowers, who heads up a small posse of law enforcement agents in the Department of Agriculture. Their job is to track down cattle thieves, who Flowers says annually cost the state's farmers and ranchers about 1,000 cattle and property damage and other losses totaling about $2 million.
With current drought conditions yielding a poor wheat crop around the state, beef prices are sky high; a 500-pound steer now sells for about a $1,000, Flowers said.
Flowers and nine other agents are responsible for policing all of Oklahoma's 77 counties. Agents are stationed around the state so they can be familiar with their territory.
Last year, the unit worked more than 220 cattle-theft cases and recovered nearly $1 million in stolen cattle and farming equipment.
The pace isn't letting up. Through the first three months of 2014, Flowers and his crew already have worked almost 60 cases, including an investigation that led to the discovery in March of a meth lab in Creek County and the recovery of about 70 stolen livestock and about $1 million worth of farm equipment stolen from Kansas. Flowers said his agents recover about 40 percent of all cattle reported missing to their office and that their program has become a model for others states.
"Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico ... they all look to what we do," Flowers said.
A hot tip
Flowers had been looking over maps in his Oklahoma City office not far from the Capitol early one morning last week when the phone rang with first word of the cattle theft in Mountain View.
He'd leaned back in his chair and took mental notes.
--Big brand of a backward S on the cows' right hips.
--Taken sometime within the past 48 hours.
--Southern edge of Kiowa county.
Flowers pulled out his cell phone and summoned to his office some of his fellow agents, including Paul Cornett, a former game warden in Kiowa County. Flowers knows the next step for stolen cattle is often a sale barn where thieves try to unload their ill-gotten gains.
"We are heading west," Flowers told the agents. "Figure out when they were stolen and who is selling today. Let's roll on this one quick."
Looking at Flowers, you'd never guess he's patrolled Oklahoma City's streets as a member of the police gang unit for 25 years.
He sports a tall, white cowboy hat that nearly matches the color of his close-cropped hair and drooping handlebar mustache. His starched white shirt with a bull-riding print across the back is tucked into his Wranglers. A hazelnut-colored leather gun belt, boots and an oversized belt buckle complete the cowboy look.
As he climbed into a Ford Expedition, outfitted with police lights, siren and Kevlar run-flat tires, he did a quick inventory check: AR-15 rifle between the seats, 12-gauge shotgun behind him, and two small cans of franks and beans.
"You never know when you can get something to eat when you are in the middle of nowhere," Flowers explained. "Same reason we have all the firepower. If we get into a sticky situation, backup is going to be a while."
For Flowers' unit, eight-hour days can quickly turn into overnight stays when on the trail of an outlaw. Each agent drives, on average, more than 3,000 miles per month.
Despite the long hours and constant travel, Flowers says he loves his job. He's able to see parts of Oklahoma he never knew existed; from the flat plains to the mountains, the deserts to the wetlands. More....