Arizona Is A Cow Thief’s Paradise

Arizona cattle [Photo courtesy Arizona Dept. Of Agriculture]

The brand laws in Arizona and the enforcement of them have collapsed. In the last several years, close to 3000 head of cattle have been stolen from at least 32 individuals. These are conservative numbers. The most recent and noted being the loss of over 400 cows, plus calves and bulls, from noted cowboy Milo Dewitt in Santa Cruz County, as well as an undetermined number from Robert Noon also in Santa Cruz County, and well over a hundred cows with calves from well-known attorney and judge, Tom Kelly, in Yavapai County.

The case of Milo’s missing cattle is a classic example of how these cases are being handled, or not being handled, depending on how you choose to describe them. Milo was told by an independent investigator who is assisting him in the investigation to file a complaint with the Santa Cruz County sheriff’s office. Deputy Pablo Camacho wrote the report. Since then Milo has phoned the sheriff’s office numerous times requesting information, but he has not been able to get any information from them. He also notified Ron Hirsch, the local livestock brand inspector for the state of Arizona who is an employee of the Arizona Department of Agriculture (AZDA). Ron filed a report. Then Milo, on February 24, drove to Casa Grande to meet with Manny Angulo the chief investigator for the Office of Special Investigations for the Department of Agriculture. At this meeting the investigator admitted to Milo that they were not working on the case. Apparently the sheriff’s office isn’t either.

There are good reasons for this collapse of the Arizona brand department and the increase of cattle theft. Some of these reasons are obvious while others are subtle. Here are some comparisons of the obvious: In 1984 there were 50 brand inspectors statewide, many of whom were old cowboys who knew what they were looking at. Onsite visual inspections were required by law for all cattle sales and movement out of state. Today much has changed. According to the AZDA website: “When fully staffed Animal Services Division of the Department of Agriculture employs 20 livestock services field staff throughout the state of Arizona. Of this amount, 9 are fulltime AZPOST certified officers, 6 are fulltime inspectors, and 5 are part-time inspectors”. I was recently told they are not fully staffed.

Let’s look at some comparisons with other states. Currently in Wyoming, there are 78 brand inspectors listed on the department’s website. Any cattle that are sold at the ranch or transported across county lines are required to have an onsite inspection by a state inspector. All cattle leaving a feedlot are required to have an onsite inspection. There are no self-inspection books.

In Nevada the state is cut up into 4 regions. All cattle transported out of a region are required to have an onsite visual inspection made by a brand inspector. All cattle sales are required to have an onsite visual inspection by a brand inspector. All cattle that leave the state are required to have an onsite visual inspection. All cattle leaving a feedlot are required to have an onsite visual inspection by a brand inspector. There are 6 brand inspectors in Elko County alone. There are no self-inspection books given out.

New Mexico is cut up into 26 districts, and all cattle leaving a district are required to have an onsite visual inspection, as well as all cattle that are sold or leaving the state, including cattle leaving a feedlot. There are no self-inspection books issued. Recently the state of New Mexico rescinded the self-inspection rule for dairy cattle, and they are now required to have a visual inspection. New Mexico has 58 fulltime brand inspectors and about the same number of part-time inspectors.

In Colorado a visual inspection done by a brand inspector is required to ship cattle out of a feetlot.

According to the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association’s website, the 30 rangers employed by the ranchers investigate 1000 agriculture crime cases annually and recover an average of $5 million in stolen cattle and assets annually. This organization is funded by Texas cattle ranchers, and they work for the ranchers, and they get results.

The Arizona brand board works for politicians and is underfunded. Results are almost non-existent. In Arizona there hasn’t been $5 million worth of stolen livestock investigated, let alone recovered, by brand inspectors in the last 30 years.

Several years ago, independent agents from outside of Arizona started an investigation into the quagmire of theft and corruption originating in Arizona and overflowing into other states. This investigation has produced a huge volume of evidence that so far has been ignored by Arizona law-enforcement agencies.

Some facts are impossible to ignore. In 2019 Arizona brand inspector Natasja Robbins was accused of stealing a bull that she had actually raised herself. She says she was framed. The case went to criminal court where it was thrown out, but because of the investigation, she lost her job. Buckeye-area resident Bruce Heiden who has been affiliated with the cattle industry and other agriculture endeavors since the 1960s said Natasja was terminated because, “She was doing a good job. She was guilty of catching a thief she wasn’t supposed to catch.” Harquahala rancher Jr. Bryan says, “She was the only good brand inspector we had.” Longtime Arizona rancher and farmer Steve Bales says, “She was a very good inspector. I never had a problem with her. I wish the brand department hadn’t let her go.” Arlington rancher and well-known Arizona cowboy Huck Sandsness worked closely with Natasja on several cases in which they investigated suspected stolen livestock, but Natasja was told by the Phoenix office to ignore these cases. Huck states that, “Natasja was a good honest inspector with a lot of common sense, but she was railroaded out of a job.”

Several major changes have been made in Arizona statutes and policy that actually promote livestock theft. The first and foremost of which is the non-range self-inspection book. Non-range self-inspection enables anyone who has this type of permit to write their own transportation papers on cattle that then can be sold and even transported out of state without being looked at by any law enforcement official of any kind. In October of last year, I phoned the Department of Agriculture in Phoenix and requested an application to be approved to have one of these books. They said they would send me the application. I have five witnesses of this. I don’t want a non-range book, nor do I believe in the process. In my opinion, it is an open invitation for illegal activity. By asking for the application in front of witnesses, including two brand inspectors, I proved that anyone can acquire one. They are widely used.

Cattle held in feedlots are exempt from the same laws and statutes as range cattle and are not required to be inspected at the time of shipment by an Arizona brand inspector. A permit can be acquired from the state for a mere pittance that determines your corral to be a feedlot. The implications of this fact are obvious to any cowboy with a long rope and a barbed-wire corral.

Stolen cattle are being transported out of these feedlots, or sometimes using the non-range self-inspection book, from ranches in 48,000 pound loads going into Texas, Oklahoma, and as far east as cattle auctions in Arkansas, as well as west into Nevada and Texas. Anyone who understands the economics of the cattle industry knows you don’t haul cattle from Arizona to Arkansas sale barns unless you are trying to leave a cold trail that is hard to follow. There are several known thieves who own large semi cattle trucks and other equipment and the expertise to take advantage of these nefarious policies that are endorsed by the AZDA and the Arizona State Legislature. Virtually no one is ever stopped by any law enforcement agency in Arizona and asked to produce hauling papers.

On March 4, I phoned the Arizona Director of Agriculture, Mark Killian, and asked him if he was aware of any ongoing investigations into cattle theft in Arizona. He said, “I’m not aware of any investigations at this time.” I then asked him if he had any plans on investigating cattle theft in the future, and he replied, “I’m out of the business of chasing rumors.” That ended our conversation.

On March 5, I received a call from Lt. Manny Angulo who is the chief investigator for the Department of Agriculture. It was apparent to me that Lt. Angulo had been instructed by Secretary Killian to contact me. I asked Mr. Angulo if he was investigating any cattle theft cases at the present time. He asked me why I wanted this information. I told him that I was writing an article for a major livestock publication. He said he needed to ask Secretary Killian if he could talk to me further, and we ended our conversation there. I never received another call from either Secretary Killian or Lt. Angulo. Both of these calls are documented.

In the old days, anytime a cattle rancher in Arizona was going to sell cattle, a brand inspector would come and look at the cattle and make sure by observation of their brands that, indeed, the cattle to be sold actually belonged to the rancher wanting to sell them. This was an accepted and welcomed practice by all parties. In the last three weeks, I have sold and shipped nine semi loads of yearlings. The brand inspector who showed up did not look at any of the cattle but, instead, just asked what we wanted him to write on the hauling papers, and after the papers were written, he left. Another local rancher told me that this inspector does not come to his ranch when he ships cattle but, instead, asks for the information over the phone and then writes the papers and mails them without any onsite observation. These are not isolated cases. Ranchers in other parts of the state are taking pictures of cattle at their ranches on their Smart phones, and brand inspectors are writing papers based on these pictures and sending the ranchers papers without ever going to the site of shipment. These practices are endorsed by someone on a higher pay scale at the Phoenix office.

In his book The Vision of the Anointed, America’s greatest intellectual Thomas Sowell describes how politicians and self-congratulating leaders promote their personal agendas to the point that, “Evidence becomes irrelevant.” This is an accurate description of current events in Arizona. Evidence of theft, corruption and maleficence is overwhelming, and yet people who walk the halls at the state capitol ignore the message and try to discredit the messenger.

The bottom line is justice is not being served. I’ve been in the cattle business for over 50 years and most of the cowmen I’ve known cared nothing about the antics of the Arizona mafia or the politics in Phoenix. They simply want to ranch and enjoy the art of surviving in a very volatile but, at times, rewarding business and lifestyle. But things have changed in the last several years. Under the present conditions the victim has become the perpetrator. Because of recent changes made by the powers that be in the state capitol, the Arizona Brand Department has become completely dysfunctional. This isn’t the brand inspector’s fault. The problems originate in Phoenix. The state of Arizona has become a literal cow thieves’ paradise, and these activities are now morphing into money laundering and trafficking of illegal drugs. This is widely known, but this type of activity in the cow business is ignored.

On March 5, I discussed these things with Chris Farrell who is affiliated with Judicial Watch in Washington D.C. Chris Farrell assured me that Judicial Watch has an ongoing investigation into the numerous cases of livestock theft, as well as corruption in the various state agencies in Arizona. Chris Farrell promised me that their agents were going to continue working on these issues in Arizona until justice is served and victims’ rights are restored.