ROBERT SIEGEL, host: While Bernard Madoff was trapping big-money investors in his Ponzi scheme, in tiny Howard County, Missouri, another crook was swindling farmers. His Ponzi scheme involved cows. From Harvest Public Media, Jessica Naudziunas has the story of one wily Midwestern rancher.
JESSICA NAUDZIUNAS: For two years, mustachioed and smooth-talking Kevin Ray Asbury ran a racket that went a little something like this: He lured customers with top-shelf Angus cattle. They would buy into the herd or sell their own for breeding. The only problem was Asbury kept using the same cows, telling multiple investors they were theirs. With their money, he moved on up: built a million-dollar home, drove around in a Mercedes. Everyone in town just thought he was doing really well, that is, at least, until the scheme cracked. All at once, 27 people across several states - some as far away as California - began raising the alarm. They all came to one person first: small-town sheriff Charlie Polson.
CHARLIE POLSON: All in that week, I had 19 to 20 individuals within probably a two-week period that had called my office.
NAUDZIUNAS: Polson runs a bare-bones police force in Fayette, Missouri, a town where you trust your neighbor and your neighbor's neighbor.
POLSON: You know, and evidently, he had a good line that people believed in, so you see where it gets you. And several of the victims said, you know, I just took him for his word and, you know, I wrote him a check for $90,000.
NAUDZIUNAS: He went over to the ranch. And if you are near a place with that many cattle, you can tell with your eyes shut. But there was nothing there. Now, Polson knew this case was bigger than any other in his county, and the victims were getting restless, some threatening to ride into town with guns blazing. Then came a complaint from a couple nearby who reported a bad check from Asbury for $32,000. He wanted to arrest Asbury right there on a felony charge, but Asbury's brother Randy, who is now a state legislator, paid less than a fourth of the bad check to keep his brother Kevin out of Howard County's jail.
POLSON: I felt, you know, that possibly, I could've maybe brought some justice to some of these individuals if I could've went ahead and arrested him, put him in jail and started the first criminal proceedings on him that I had.
NAUDZIUNAS: Polson urged the couple to decline the payoff, but they were out tens of thousands of dollars and wanted to pay their bills. They ended up being some of the only victims to get any restitution. The others were like Jim Steinmetz, who was a successful farmer long before he got caught up with Asbury.
Today, Steinmetz is parked at the end of a rocky driveway off a rural road about 40 minutes from his home. He gets out of his black flatbed pickup truck, leans against it and looks down. Out here, standing on the parched grass, it's well over 100 degrees, and flies are buzzing in the heavy air.
(SOUNDBITE OF FLIES BUZZING)
NAUDZIUNAS: Behind him is a huge new house that seems out of place.
JIM STEINMETZ: That's the house that they built, and I know he was just getting moved into it when everything kind of started to happen.
NAUDZIUNAS: In 2008, Steinmetz invested over a half million dollars in what he thought was a good opportunity. He expected a strong return from owning the high-quality Angus cattle. Right now in Missouri, the going price for the type of cow Asbury offered could fetch over a thousand dollars each. It was fine for a few months. The ranch was full of cows, and then just three months after the money changed hands, the pricey Angus cattle disappeared. Squinting into the midday sun, he can hardly bring himself to look at this house, because he's one of the people who helped to pay for it.
STEINMETZ: This is the first time I've been back. You know, I didn't want to torture myself. I mean, the only thing you can possibly do is get yourself in trouble if you come back over here. And it's - that's why you don't come by: bad memories.
NAUDZIUNAS: The money, trust and cattle were gone. To this day, no one who was scammed could tell you where their cows ended up or if they ever really had any. In the summer of 2008, Kevin Asbury was getting nervous; he knew what everyone else now knows too. So he fled to Florida, his victims out more than $5 million. The drama crested when officials at the oldest bank in Missouri, the Callaway Bank, realized they'd been hit. They had provided Asbury with a $4 million line of credit, almost sight unseen, after he showed their agriculture specialists some cattle that, it turns out, were on someone else's land.
The FBI was called in. Later, the bank ended up losing more than $2 million. Asbury and his lawyers declined to comment for this story. So thousands of nonexistent cows and a local boy rolls around in luxury out of nowhere, but no one asked any questions. Were these victims or fools taken in by rural America's Bernie Madoff of cows?
JEFF LANZA: You can be a victim and a fool.
NAUDZIUNAS: Jeff Lanza has seen it all. He's a retired FBI agent and spent 20 years investigating corruption and fraud in Kansas City.
LANZA: You know, I can say, and I've said many times, if it sounds too good to be true, till I'm blue in the face, but there are still going to be willing victims out there and people who just don't listen.
NAUDZIUNAS: That's little consolation back in Howard County, where you might say Sheriff Charlie Polson is Kevin Asbury's last victim, though he didn't lose money or cattle. This was actually the second cattle rustling Ponzi-type scheme in Howard County in the last five years. Kevin Ray Asbury pled guilty this summer to three counts of fraud and now awaits his sentence from a federal judge. At the most, it's expected he'll serve nine years in prison, that's about as long as it took him to turn from cattle rancher to Ponzi scheme rustler. For NPR News, I'm Jessica Naudziunas in Columbia, Missouri.
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