Rustler steals more than calves

(This article ran in the Capital Press 30.July 2004)

Freelance Writer

ANTELOPE, Ore. – Between the time he was hired in May 2000 and fired in September 2003, Damian Herrera stole at least 70 calves from the Maurer Ranch. Law enforcement and legal authorities have documented that much.

For first-degree theft, a Class C felony under Oregon law, Wheeler County Circuit Judge Bernard L. Smith ordered the 41-year-old cattle rustler from Fossil to serve 30 days behind bars and pay almost $26,000 in restitution. When Herrera pleaded guilty to a single count of theft, District Attorney Thomas Cutsforth dropped assorted other charges, including first-degree aggravated theft and second-degree theft.

Those same authorities, however, fall short when it comes to documenting how it was that Herrera stole the ranch owner’s confidence and ability to trust others. Criminal laws don’t much account for that sort of thing. Not that it isn’t real: The owner of the Maurer Ranch is still afraid of Herrera, refuses to be specifically identified in print (the limitations, stubbornly set out at the beginning of the interview, were to use the terms “owner” and/or “victim”) and won’t sit still for a photograph – not even in silhouette.

What’s left, then, is a legal picture of what happened, a whole lot of hindsight and the sobering reality that rustling happens all the time, to just about anybody who owns livestock.

“It’s easy looking back to see what was wrong,” said the ranch owner, whose spread covers 32,000 acres – 23,000 in the hills midway between the town of Antelope and the John Day River at  Clarno, and 9,000 acres on the river, a winding 20-plus-minute drive down a long grade from the main ranch house. It was near the river and in the hidden draws of the ranch that Herrera committed his crimes.

Jo Ann Everhart, who with her husband Mike runs the sheep end of the Maurer operation from their neighboring ranch on the river, said they’d seen things they thought were “a bit funny” at the corrals, but the notion that rustling was going on didn’t come clearly to mind until after the crime was discovered by others.

From the time he came on, said the ranch owner, the 6-foot, 175-pound Herrera had his problems. He was in a pair of car wrecks soon after he was hired to manage the cattle operation; a hay baler caught on fire, destroying the baler and the tractor it was hitched to, and he had a habit of leaving gates unlocked. Even so, “I thought he was really trustworthy,” the ranch owner said. “He acted real nice … but he was kind of bossy.”

Herrera not only left gates unlocked – making it easier, the ranch owner thinks, for those who might have helped him pass through – but also turned back offers of help in the corrals and with fences. Branding happened late, cattle were herded into draws even after forage was scant and sometimes the animals didn’t look as healthy as they should have.

“He was so busy rounding up cows (for rustling) that he didn’t have time to take care of them,” Everhart said. “The guy was a walking disaster – and a crook.“

According to Everhart and the crime victim, minor disasters and a bit of bossiness extended to spending ranch money on a deck expansion for the house that was provided for Herrera and purchasing or charging other items, without permission.

That all pales to September 2003 news brought in person by Pete Sturza, the owner of the Hermiston feed lot where Herrera tried to sell calves belonging to the Maurer ranch. That news led state brand inspectors and local law enforcement through what turned out to be a fairly simple investigation.

“It didn’t take too long,” said Wheeler County Sheriff David Rouse. “We obtained records from the sale yard, picked Damian up and interrogated him. He basically confessed.”

By the standards of major crimes, the wheels of justice turned swiftly. Herrera was indicted in October 2003; he admitted guilt in a March 4, 2004, plea bargain and immediately paid $19,500 of the restitution he owes; less than two weeks later he was sentenced to 30 days behind bars; and a June 11 hearing set out another $6,442.15 to be paid to the crime victim to cover the value of the stolen calves. Herrera will serve his time in 10-day increments and be on probation for two years; he has found work and bought a house near Fossil.

Rouse said Herrera told him the crimes were remarkably easy to carry out – all it took was a dog and a trailer and the cover of isolation from prying eyes.

No one else has been charged in the crime, though Rouse noted that while being interrogated, Herrera said he “didn’t want to get anybody else in trouble.” Rouse said the case is closed “concerning the cattle we know about.” A few years ago, though, Rouse says some 54 head of cattle went missing in the steep remote canyons and John Day River flood plain that form the backbone of the region’s cattle country – mostly two to three at a time, with reporting of losses trickling in after the rustlers were, in theory, long gone.

While the Maurer Ranch actually received compensation for the stolen calves, far from a universal event in the world of criminal prosecution, undocumented material losses will probably never be recovered, the ranch owner said.

Herrera’s sentence, too, is a little galling to those most closely involved in the investigation. Rouse figures that a theft running into the tens of thousands of dollars normally should have led to 13 months behind bars – but that the plea bargain took into account the importance of collecting restitution for the victim and avoiding entanglements with the Mexican Consulate over Herrera, a resident alien. While Rouse said he understands the realities of the legal system, the sentence leaves him frustrated.

Herrera was trusted by the ranch owner and treated well – paid $1,700 a month and provided with a three-bedroom, two-bath house near the corrals where the crimes took place. In turn, Rouse said, Herrera violated that trust. The ranch owner, he said, “was abused, basically.”

“It was really funny – everybody really liked him,” the ranch owner said. “This should be a warning for everybody that’s looking to be hiring.”

Stopping rustling: Keep your eyes open, take good notes

While rustling can take on many different forms, the keys to solving livestock theft can be as simple as a neighbor pulling a notepad from the glove compartment and writing down the license number of a vehicle that doesn’t seem to belong.

In Union and Baker counties, that simplicity takes the form of a two-part form that allows neighbors who see something amiss to write it down and mail part of the form to the sheriff’s office.

“The little needles in the haystack of opportunity often are the things that we need to make our case,” said Jack Noble, field operations manager for animal health and identification with the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

For owners, branding animals as early as possible is the best prevention tip. Once branded, Noble said, a cow has “prima facie proof of ownership” burned into its hide. In the case of Damian Herrera, a system that requires proof of ownership for sales to happen worked – and led to a quick resolution of the case once it was discovered.

In remote areas such as Wheeler County, it’s not unusual for a ranch to cover 50 or 100 square miles and calves can go months without being branded, leaving opportunities for rustlers to pick off a couple at a time without even pulling their rig off the main road.  Sheriff David Rouse noted that oftentimes calves will wander across ranch borders and be assimilated into someone else’s herd. Keeping complete and up-to-date records, he said, is crucial for ranchers who want to minimize losses.

Rouse said neighbors can watch for strange vehicles, tracks in the field, open gates and downed fences. “A lot of the tips are just common sense,” Rouse said. He said just one person making note of something amiss could be the clue that makes a case.

“There’s a lot of fence out there, and there’s not a lot of people around,” Rouse said.