Cowboy Cops: Oklahoma investigative services outride the outlaws

“While I was in the gang unit and working a drive-by shooting, usually that day’s victims were tomorrow’s suspects,” said Jerry Flowers, chief agent of Investigative Services with the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry. “Additionally, law enforcement were often unappreciated by most of the people they tried to help with those types of crimes.”

However, working agriculture crime is a different story now that Flowers has retired from the Oklahoma City Police Department and now heads investigative services for ODAFF.

“I drive up to a farm or ranch because of a theft and meet an old boy in a pickup truck with five months’ worth of dirt and grime on it. There are feed sacks on the bed, sorting sticks on the dash and the floorboards are covered with cubes. He steps out in bib overalls—dirty from head to toe—and reaches out to shake my hand with a dip of Skoal in his mouth. I notice his hands are worn, dirty and calloused, but they’re strong. He thanks me for being there and the satisfaction is overwhelming because this man has worked hard all his life and I am bound by duty to work just as hard to help him resolve his problem.”

Rustling with the wrong lawmen

“Agriculture in Oklahoma is a 60 billion dollar-a-year business and rural crime is huge,” Flowers said. “It’s not anything new and no one anywhere in any corner of this state is immune to it.”

ODAFF Investigative Services probes agriculture crimes such as cattle theft, equipment theft, arson wildfires and timber theft. Cattle theft is a major problem in the United States and particularly in Oklahoma because it is not a brand law state.

“Ever since cattle were introduced into the U.S. in the 1400s, people have been stealing them,” Flowers said. “We will investigate an average of 1,500 head of reported stolen cattle each year in our unit alone. At times, we have gone up to 3,000 head a year.”

In fact, ODAFF had gotten to a point where cattle theft was such a problem, it chose to enhance the restitution portion of the penalty phase for those convicted of cattle theft. Convicted cattle rustlers now have to pay back three times the value of the animal to the owner if investigative services is not able to recover them.

The most obvious, yet vital, piece of advice Flowers can give cattle owners is to brand their cattle.

“A brand on your cow is like a tag on your car,” he explained.

He says some ranchers do not take the time to brand but hope an ear tag will be able to identify their animals in the event they are stolen or lost.

“Ear tags in your cattle are for you, the owner,” Flowers said. “If outlaws steal your cattle, the first thing they remove is that ear tag. But they’re not going to peel a brand off.”

He also recommends ranchers register their brand with the Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association to make it easy to recognize and trace back to the owner if cattle are lost or stolen.

Additionally, he recommends ranchers check cattle often because the sooner animals are reported missing the easier they are to locate.

Breaking latches and lighting matches

Theft of agriculture equipment is a problem Flowers sees all too often. He says Oklahoma is in the top five states for equipment theft. This includes any type of equipment used by a farmer or rancher in the agriculture industry. It could be anything from trailers to four-wheelers to bulldozers to trucks.

“We probably deal with equipment theft more than cattle theft because equipment is so easy to steal. With cattle you have to know what you are doing and be a little more experienced.”

Flowers encourages farmers and ranchers to write down serial numbers on all equipment so if it is stolen it might be identified if found. He says for his own equipment, he takes a video diary of everything he owns and the associated serial numbers. However, sometimes just having the serial number is not enough.

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“Oftentimes, the first thing a thief will do is grind the serial numbers off,” Flowers said. “I recommend you take an etching tool or paint and go to an area on the equipment that is not easily visible and mark your property with a specific indicator of numbers or letters that will allow you to identify it without a doubt if it is later recovered and the serial numbers are not legible.”

Although thefts are the most common form of agriculture crime, arson wildfires can cause loss of large amounts of damage to property, crops, livestock and even people.

However, not every wildfire arson is investigated by Flowers’ team. The fire has to be an arson that started in a field. If it is a fire that started in a barn or a home and then the fire spreads to a field, it is considered a structure fire, which falls under the jurisdiction of the state fire marshal.

Flowers says his unit includes two of the best wildfire arson investigators in the country.

“They are called on nationally and will travel in off-seasons to other states to help investigate wildfire arson cases. They are a real asset to Oklahoma.”

One crime without a lot of publicity is timber theft. Although Oklahoma is known for flat plains and lack of trees, Oklahoma’s logging industry in the eastern part of the state is tremendous—and so is the theft problem. Additionally, trees cannot be branded like cattle so identifying the lumber is extremely difficult.

“People go in and log the property and sell the trees before the land owner even knows they are missing,” Flowers explained. “They may never even visit their property except through Google Earth and all of a sudden their forest will be an open lot.”

Think like a cowboy cop

Unfortunately, becoming a victim of rural crime is not always preventable. Flowers says criminals often cruise country roads just looking for items to steal.

“They find a piece of equipment or livestock and lock it into a GPS location so they can return for it later.”

In those cases, all a farmer or rancher can do is not make it easy for them and always be cognizant of individuals who do not belong. Flowers also recommends game cameras as a perfect way to identify suspects if items start disappearing or strange people are lurking in the vicinity.

“Be nosy, if you see people driving around your area and have no reason to be there, call 911 or the sheriff’s department and insist the sheriff check into who they are. If you see someone driving around, take a photo because if a theft occurs, that picture could give law enforcement a big lead as to who might have done it.”

However, be cautious of unfamiliar people because approaching them could be dangerous. Flowers says a large number of the individuals he arrests during an investigation are users of illegal narcotics including opioids like Hydrocodone, OxyContin and Oxycodone. He says heroine is also on the rise, but the main choice of drug for criminals is methamphetamine.

“Meth is estimated to be behind 75 to 80 percent of all the outlaws we come in contact with.”

Because the people involved with this type of illegal drug activity try to keep a low profile and avoid detection of their habits or their business, they often see the appeal of rural areas because of the sparse population. They also view less populated regions as the perfect place to commit crimes such as theft because of the scant number of witnesses and law enforcement. But with Flowers and his agents on the trail, the likelihood of them robbing the family farmer and not getting caught decreases. And the farmers and ranchers keeping this country fed, clothed and happy, thank him for his efforts.

“Every morning I get up and look in the mirror and I have a sense of satisfaction of all the years I’ve been doing this,” Flowers explained. “I’ve been able to stand on that thin blue line to protect those who can’t protect themselves. The appreciation from the farmers and ranchers of this state is a star in my crown that I will wear forever and it makes me proud to carry this badge.”

Lacey Newlin can be reached at [email protected].