Episode 583: Cow Noir : Planet Money There is a crime wave in the West right now. Cattle theft, or as they call it in Oklahoma, cattle rustling, is on the rise. The crime is as old as America, and it's making a big comeback.
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Episode 583: Cow Noir

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Episode 583: Cow Noir

Episode 583: Cow Noir

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A couple of months ago, BJ Holloway was robbed.

BJ HOLLOWAY: At the end of my job, I went home and I grabbed a bite to eat.

SMITH: BJ works at Wal-Mart in Spencer, Okla. It's a little town outside of Oklahoma City. BJ's house was fine. His truck was still there. The thieves had gone after something much more valuable to BJ.

HOLLOWAY: Then I went to check on my livestock and feed them and give them a little feed. I take some grain out there sometime.


BJ raises cows. He's been doing it since he was a teenager. He has nine in all. And when he went to feed them, he saw the padlock on the gate was cut.

HOLLOWAY: And I saw that my lock was cut, and I knew then something was wrong.

CHACE: He couldn't find his cows. They were usually right there. They usually came right up to him. Six of them - each weighing around 1,500 pounds - six of them were missing.

HOLLOWAY: And that's when I discovered that they was gone.

SMITH: They were stolen, and BJ loved these cows. He calls them his second family. And they are also a huge investment for him. That's where his money is. Raising cows is a business for BJ, and all of his savings were wrapped up in these cows.

HOLLOWAY: It really hit me that night when I was thinking, and everything is quiet in the house. And I wake up and knowing that your investment has - is gone, you know. If you ever had anything taken away from you that you had worked all your life to try to create and all of a sudden it's gone.

CHACE: BJ looked everywhere. He asked his neighbors, he filed a police report. Around here, when cows are stolen, lots of times you never find the thief. Cows all look alike, and the evidence disappears when they're turned into steaks.

SMITH: But BJ has one thing going for him. He has a sheriff who's taken his case. Special Agent in charge of the law enforcement section for the...

STACEY VANEK SMITH AND ZOE CHACE: Oklahoma Department of Agriculture.

SMITH: Cowboy hat.

CHACE: Handlebar mustache.

SMITH: Gun, leather holster.

CHACE: Who talks like he just walked off a movie set.

JERRY FLOWERS: We will get busier than a one-legged bobcat covering up his own crap on a frozen pond.

CHACE: (Laughter) Did you just make that up?

FLOWERS: Well, yeah, that just comes right out. That's busy right there.

SMITH: Jerry Flowers, cattle cop. Hello and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

CHACE: And I'm Zoe Chace. There is a crime wave in the west right now - cattle theft or, as they call it in Oklahoma, cattle rustling. It is a crime at least as old as America and is making a big comeback.

SMITH: Today on the show, Jerry Flowers chases the bad guys.


CHRIS LEDOUX: (Singing) 'Cause what you going to do with a cowboy when that old rooster crows at dawn?

SMITH: So we met up with Special Agent Jerry Flowers in the parking lot of the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture. And he was there with his team, and they're all dressed alike.

CHACE: And they look just ready for action.

FLOWERS: Starched jeans, starched shirts and wore-out boots, and a clean white hat. Good guys wear white hats.

SMITH: Is that true?

FLOWERS: Oh, it is out here.

SMITH: They've just gotten a break in the case, and Jerry is itching to hit the road.

FLOWERS: You good? You guys ready to go?

CHACE: Yeah.

SMITH: We're ready.

FLOWERS: All right.

CHACE: So we pile into the back of Jerry's big truck.

Stacey, there's so many guns back here.

FLOWERS: (Laughter).

SMITH: Oh, my gosh.

FLOWERS: Hey, we're armed to the hilt.

CHACE: We're on our way to the auction house. The auction house is where cattle are sold. If you stole cattle, that is where you would go in order to sell them.

SMITH: And Jerry tells us the tip he got about the stolen cows came from the auction house owner.

FLOWERS: He had actually received an anonymous phone call from a young lady stating an old boy was going to bring some cattle in to sell them and the cattle were stolen. And the caller explained to him that she was sick of this guy victimizing so many people, stealing the cattle.

CHACE: The caller said there is a cattle rustler on the loose, and she left a name - first initial C, last name Wright (ph). C. Wright.

SMITH: Jerry looked C. Wright up in the auction house records, and here is what he found. The day after six cows were stolen from BJ Holloway's little ranch, C. Wright came into the auction house and sold six cows, and they were the same kind of cows BJ had.

CHACE: So Jerry's been waiting for C. Wright to strike again so that he can catch him in the act.

SMITH: And this morning, he got the call. C. Wright showed up at the auction house last night, and he dropped off three cows. And he will be back at the auction house today, they think, to pick up his money after the cows have sold.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: OK, [****4:47****] five ways, right here, now. (Unintelligible) 230 (unintelligible) 38 (unintelligible).

CHACE: Jerry leads us into the auction, and it is filled with ranchers drinking coffee, tight jeans, cowboy boots, holding calculators.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: No way. Four dollars a pound.

CHACE: A cow thief could make a lot of money here.

FLOWERS: That little bunch right there is going to be bringing in somewhere right around $22,000, $23,000.

CHACE: Twenty-two thousand dollars?

FLOWERS: That's twice what they were worth two years ago.

CHACE: There's been a big drought in the West for a few years now, so less water means less grass, less food for cows. The ranchers can't raise as many cows as they used to. Fewer cows on the market means the price is high, and that's why the ranchers are getting such good money.

SMITH: Jerry Flowers takes us to the back office where we meet the guy who runs the place. And he says C. Wright came in last night to drop off some cows, and they got him on video. Everyone huddles around a computer to watch.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Just looking at the video of when he unloaded the cattle last night.

FLOWERS: Was he by himself?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Appears to be.


SMITH: In the video, a truck pulls up to the auction house pulling a little trailer.

FLOWERS: A black pickup and a black trailer, looks like to me. What is it, Paul, a Chevy?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: I'm not sure.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Tinted windows.

SMITH: A man gets out of the truck, and he's wearing baggy clothes and a wool hat. And the weird thing is what he's doing looks completely normal. He's just another guy in Oklahoma City who is dropping off some cows.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: You'll see him here in a minute. He's, like, looking up at the camera, you know, he poses really good for us.

CHACE: And that is it. Nobody checks any paperwork.

CHACE: He doesn't have any paperwork. He doesn't need to. He doesn't have to prove that he owns the three cows, that those are his. And that is the way that they do business here. It's a handshake. It's based on trust.

SMITH: So Jerry and the guys keep rewinding the footage to watch it again and again, they're leaning in close. And they know this guy's face now, and they know his car, and they also know that he's going to be back to pick up his money later today after his cows have sold at auction.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: OK, we're good on the southeast side...

CHACE: Now the stakeout begins. We're in Jerry's truck in the parking lot of the auction house waiting for C. Wright to show up.

FLOWERS: Yeah, I'm going to just park right in here beside these trucks. He'll never even pay attention to us.

SMITH: We wait. A black truck drives by, but it's a different black truck. It's not our guys.

CHACE: White truck.

SMITH: Black truck.

CHACE: White truck.

SMITH: Another black truck. And then...

FLOWERS: And that's his truck right there. I think he just pulled in the parking lot, pulling right up to the front right now in a black Chevy, no bumper on the back. I'm just near pretty sure it's him - just a second, I'll tell you. Yeah, that's him. Got a white t-shirt on, baggy jeans and a stocking cap. Y'all stay in the car.

CHACE: You want me to duck down?

FLOWERS: 'Cause if he comes out with a gun or something and I have to kill him...

SMITH: Jerry gets out of the truck and he slams the door, hand on his pistol. There are two guys in the truck. There's the guy from the video and another guy. And we watch from inside the car.

CHACE: OK, so there's the thief. There goes Jerry, like, slow sheriff style walking up to the thief with his Stetson on and his handcuffs in his back pocket. Now he's talking to the driver.

SMITH: The guys get out of the car and talk to Jerry Flowers. They're smiling this kind of weird, nervous smile, and the whole thing looks pretty calm. And then Jerry starts to search the car.

Oh, Jerry just pulled a gun out of the car. He's showing it to us. He just put - he's tucked it in his pants.

CHACE: He just put the gun in his own pocket.

SMITH: The three of them get into another cop car and have a little talk.

CHACE: A few minutes later, Jerry steps out. He hurries back over to us and he is excited and throws out one of those twisted animal metaphors that he has.

FLOWERS: I'm as happy as a dead pig in the sun.

SMITH: That doesn't sound happy.

FLOWERS: It is if you're a dead pig.

SMITH: (Laughter).

CHACE: C. Wright and his buddy have confessed to the crime.

You got your confession so fast.

SMITH: Yeah, we were timing you.

FLOWERS: It was quick. That was pretty quick.

SMITH: It was under 20 minutes.

FLOWERS: Well, that was too long. It should've been 10.

SMITH: They got the cows.

CHACE: They got the outlaws.

SMITH: They got the confession.

CHACE: There is still a crucial piece missing. Whose cows are these?

SMITH: Right. Like, who's the victim here? And this is the weird thing about Oklahoma. Some cows have ear tags, some cows don't. Some cows are branded, some cows aren't. There's no formal system for how to mark your cows.

CHACE: And it's hard to pick one of these cows, like, out of a lineup.

SMITH: And that means that catching the criminals is only one half of the equation in a case like this. For the other half, to figure out whose cows these actually are, we have to return to the scene of the crime.

FLOWERS: We're going out into a very rural, isolated area here in what's known as Logan County. This is all rural area, farm. We're on gravel. We're on red dirt gravel road, which is what Oklahoma's all about, red dirt road. And as you can hear, it's rough as a cob.

CHACE: The thieves are up in the lead car with one of Jerry's agents. We're riding with Jerry. There's nobody around. And we pull over by a fence, and this is where the thieves broke in.

SMITH: And we want to talk to them about this whole thing. How do you steal a cow?

CHACE: Multiple cows.

SMITH: How do you pull this off?

CHACE: Jerry checks with them first so they know our recording is not part of the legal proceedings. This is just...

FLOWERS: I told them that you guys were doing a radio show out of the northern part of the United States.

SMITH: Yeah, New York does not play so well around here.

CHACE: The outlaws agree to talk to us.

SMITH: Hi, how are you guys? I'm Stacey. It's nice to meet you.

CHACE: Hi, outlaws.


CHACE: I'm Zoe.

The outlaws are shy at first.

C. WRIGHT: I just stole some cows yesterday - first time.

FLOWERS: Oh, don't lie to that girl there.

FLOWERS: Come on now. Don't make a fool out of yourself now.

CHACE: This is the famous C. Wright, as he likes to be called. His real name will come out at trial. He's clearly the leader of the two guys, even though he looks like more of a kid. Like, he leans way over the hood of the truck in a stocking cap. He has this big sheepish looking grin on his face and a glittering smile. His mouth is full of gold teeth.

SMITH: Both guys are wearing spurs. They both have horses at home, they tell us.

WRIGHT: Yeah, we're cowboys.

SMITH: They're best friends, they say. The other guy says to just call him outlaw number two, and he's bigger and he's built. He's 24. And the way they describe it, cattle rustling - so it's not exactly "Ocean's 11," but on the day of the crime, they drove up north, apparently, to see some ladies. And on their way back, they drove in here to this ranch. They take us down to the hill to this smaller fenced-in area.

CHACE: OK, here it is. Here is how you steal a cow. You get food, put it in a bucket and just walk out into the pasture.

WRIGHT: I was shaking the bucket, and I (whistling).

SMITH: And did the cows just, like, come?

WRIGHT: They looked up and I shook the bucket again, (whistling). And here they come.

CHACE: Even now, just hearing that, some big black cows pop up from over the hill. The outlaws size them up.

SMITH: What kind of cows are those?

WRIGHT: Black Angus, look like.

CHACE: How much does that go for?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: $2,300 a piece.

SMITH: $2,300 a piece? That is basically, like...


SMITH: That is $5,000 walking towards us.

WRIGHT: Yes it is.

CHACE: C. Wright says if the cops weren't here, he could take them right now.

SMITH: But there is one more thing that you need to steal a cow. You need a trailer. C. Wright's got one for his horses, but it works OK for stolen cows. And last night, he backed it up right to the fence on the edge of the field and shooed the cows inside.

WRIGHT: When the cows come in the pen, I backs my truck and trailer up, I make a shoot, and I chase them in. Once they in, I shut my gate, I heads out, put everything back like it was, and I'm gone.

SMITH: That is the...

CHACE: You know how to chase cows into a trailer?

WRIGHT: Yeah. It's harder than it sounds. A rookie couldn't do it.

CHACE: C. Wright says the whole thing took about 30 minutes. Seemed like the perfect crime.

WRIGHT: Look at the chances of getting caught. Look where we at. Do you see any houses? Anybody? So, I mean, I could've been out here all night and took all his cows if I wanted to.

SMITH: As we're walking back to the gate, a truck pulls up. It's the rancher, the guy who owns the cows.

CHACE: He's an older guy. JD Thomason (ph) looks like he's lived his entire life outdoors - lined face, baseball cap. He's talking with the cops.

J. D. THOMASON: All right, well, I'll call you in the morning.


FLOWERS: Sounds good. Thanks, JD.

THOMASON: I appreciate you finding them. Thank you.

FLOWERS: Glad that worked out.

SMITH: The outlaws are really freaked out. They don't want to see the rancher, and they hide on the other side of the truck.

SMITH: Do you feel bad at all, like, I stole this dude's cows?


CHACE: Why not?

OUTLAW #2: It was for the money. When you're doing dirt, you can't think about feeling bad for the person.

SMITH: When you think about why people steal cattle, it seems like everyone's doing this kind of calculation. The outlaws figured the money's good and they wouldn't get caught. And in this case, the cows wouldn't even be missed.

CHACE: And that, in fact, turns out to be true. This crime almost went undiscovered. Even the rancher says they almost got away with it.

THOMASON: One or two, three head, I would've probably never called the law or nothing. I'd've wondered about them if I'd never found them. But, you know, in a pasture like this where I could've maybe been two or three short when I done my count, if that's all it was, I probably would have thought those mooers are laying around out there in a ditch somewhere.

SMITH: Lying in a ditch somewhere. JD says it's normal to lose a couple of cows. Sometimes cows fall and they can't get up, and sometimes coyotes will get them.

CHACE: The rancher was doing his own calculation, too. He could spend extra money on security cameras. He could put sort of RFID chips in the cows. He could just brand every single one of his cows. But cow thefts are still rare enough that it doesn't make economic sense to him, even though he had some other cows stolen a couple of years ago. So what you're left with is lots of cattle theft.

WRIGHT: They make it so easy.

SMITH: There is one stop left to close this case - BJ Holloway's ranch.

FLOWERS: Well, are y'all liking this so far? Better than any ride at Six Flags, ain't it?

SMITH: We drive to BJ's, the guy who did not have hundreds of cattle. He had nine. And he's lost so much, and some reality kind of seems to set in here. It feels more somber. Everyone gets out of the car.

CHACE: And this is where the outlaws seem to lose some swagger. They stare down at the ground. They're both looking at jail time.

SMITH: For his part, Jerry seems to sense that it is lesson-teaching time.

FLOWERS: You didn't - you shouldn't have took from this guy. This guy has nothing. This was it. This was all he had. And y'all put a hurt on him by doing that, all right? So your cattle rustling days are over. Do we all agree on that? All right, got your word on that?


SMITH: Jerry Flowers heads back to the city. It's dark now. It's like he knows this is the end of the story. The case is closed. And it feels like this sort of moment in the movies where the guy in the white hat rides off into the sunset. And Jerry does this funny thing. He pulls out a CD and he puts it in...

CHACE: It's the perfect soundtrack.

SMITH: ...And he delivers this final soliloquy.

FLOWERS: So this is the kind of old music that you can listen to when you're driving down a road. You go a hundred miles just to go another hundred miles. And you get to a ranch, and an old boy walks out that you know in all is life, all he's done is work for everything he's had because of the worn, scarred and tarnished hands that he has.

SMITH: You are getting a little choked up.

FLOWERS: You can't help from getting emotional for helping people out. And today is no exception to that.

CHACE: Jerry flowers says the outlaws will be charged next week - 12 counts larceny of a domestic animal.


CHACE: That's our show for you today. We always want to hear what you think. You can email us - planetmoney@npr.org. And we have a couple things we want to tell you about.

SMITH: First, if you want to see some photos of Jerry and some cows and the auction house where all the action went down, they are at our website, npr.org/money.

CHACE: And - OK, so this is exciting. This is a new thing. Remember what Jerry said about, like, the bobcat with one leg on a pond or whatever? You can now look that up. We have transcripts. We have transcripts of the shows. You can find the transcripts on our website.

SMITH: We have a few people we'd like to thank. Agents Paul Cornett and Donnie Crain, Jeff Jaronek with the Oklahoma Cattlemen's Association, Bill Barnhart, he's the owner of OKC West, the auction house, Rod Hall, the state veterinarian, And a special thanks to Johnnie's Grill in El Reno, Okla.

CHACE: They make an amazing cheeseburger.

SMITH: It's true.

CHACE: If you're looking for more NPR content to listen to, check out Snap Judgment with Glynn Washington, a storytelling show. You'll find it, of course, in iTunes under podcasts.

SMITH: Our show today was produced by Phia Bennin. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

CHACE: And I'm Zoe Chace. Thanks for listening.

FLOWERS: Yeah, it may be raining like a cow pissing on a flat rock in the morning, but it's been dry as a popcorn fart out here. It has. I'm going to tell you what - I'll tell you how sometimes tired and how busy I get. 'Cause last Friday, I got home, and about 8:30, somebody started knocking on my door. And I opened up, there's my ass just getting home.


LEDOUX: (Singing) What you going to do with a cowboy when he don't saddle up and ride away? Yeah, what you going to do with a cowboy when he don't saddle up and ride away?

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