By Andrew J. Nelson
The thieves would roll into a rural feedlot in the dead of night, driving a Chevrolet pickup and towing a stolen trailer.
Parking next to a pen, they could open the gate and easily load a few of the confined animals.
Then the kidnapped cattle were whisked off to sale barns in towns like Massena and Dunlap in Iowa and Palmyra in Nebraska, and sold to unwitting buyers.
“They just literally, in the middle of the night, backed up with a trailer, loaded three or four cattle and took off,” said Sheriff Darby McLaren of Cass County, Iowa.
It’s a modern-day twist on an Old West crime: Cattle rustling.
Over the past nine months, at least 17 cattle in Nebraska and Iowa were taken in a series of thefts that investigators believe are connected. Authorities have charged three Omahans with some of the crimes — specifically those in Lewis, Iowa, about 50 miles east of Omaha.
The trio also is being investigated in several thefts in Cuming County, Nebraska, about 85 miles northwest of Omaha. And officials are investigating the possibility that they may be behind cattle thefts elsewhere in Nebraska.
Last week, Ervin John Jacob, 57, of Omaha was charged with three counts of second-degree theft and one count of ongoing criminal conduct in the Iowa thefts. Jacob admitted to stealing cattle during an interview with investigators, according to court documents.
Also charged in warrants are James Michael Brunzo, 49, on two counts of second-degree theft, and Amy Louise Springer, 42, on one count of second-degree theft. Both also are Omaha residents.
Brunzo — who is being held in the Pottawattamie County Jail on separate theft and burglary charges, plus a federal warrant — is charged in two of the cattle thefts, according to the Cass County Sheriff’s Office. Springer, who has not been located, is charged with one theft.
Meanwhile, the Cuming County Sheriff’s Office said it has identified the three as “people of interest” in thefts there, but the agency is not yet ready to make arrests.
“We’re still in the investigative process,” said Sgt. Dave Brown of Cuming County.
Investigators believe the series of cattle thefts began in Nebraska on May 4 when a trailer and two cows were taken from a farm near West Point, Brown said.
Six days later, he said, Wisner Feedlots reported that five cattle had been taken from the sick pen on its property.
Soon, two farms operated by the same family near Lewis, Iowa, were victimized: Two cattle were reported stolen on May 28 from Freund Brothers Farms, and four cattle were reported stolen on June 9 from J.W. Freund Farms.
McLaren said his office put the word out through local media about the cattle thefts, leading to a series of tips. Some locals had seen the trailer being pulled along back roads in the middle of the night. Others realized that they had unwittingly purchased stolen cattle and notified police.
A key breakthrough came last month after the cattle thieves struck again at Wisner Feedlots, taking two head of cattle. The feedlot had installed video cameras after the first theft, and the video images from the Dec. 27 incident helped identify suspects, authorities said. Said Brown: “Having those pictures makes a world of difference.”
On Jan. 6, Freund Brothers Farms in Iowa reported that two more cattle had been stolen overnight.
Ten days later, Omaha police officers helped execute a search warrant at Jacob’s home near Hanscom Park in Omaha. Evidence was found linking him to the thefts, including a shoe that matched a footprint at one of the scenes.
The stolen trailer, which is believed to be the one used in the cattle thefts, has been found in Iowa’s Mills County.
John Freund, a co-owner of J.W. Freund Farms, said his feedlot installed video cameras after last June’s theft.
He thinks the thefts are motivated by the rising price of beef. The cattle were valued at about $2,000 a head.
Freund’s father and an uncle opened the feedlot in 1965. Nothing like this has ever happened before, he said. He described Lewis as the kind of small town where everybody knows everybody else, and people leave their doors unlocked.
“We’ve got so many neighbors and so many people going by,” Freund said. “I didn’t think it could happen here.”