By ANN ALLEN
ARGOS, Ind. — In the past 18 months rustlers have stolen as many as 80 head of cattle with an estimated value of $120,000 from Hal Sullivan’s Argos area farm. To some, removing 80 animals from a 1,400-head herd may seem insignificant. For Sullivan and his wife, Jeanne, it represents a major dent in their cash flow.
“We like to pay our bills as they come due,” Hal said. “We rely on weekly livestock sales to do that. The problem is, the perpetrators have an eye for good cattle. They always take the animals we plan to market. That makes us late with our payments. Jeanne can’t sleep for worrying about it because that’s not the way we operate.”
And the way modern cattle rustlers operate isn’t the way it was in the days of the Old West, when they might be immediately caught. Using pickup trucks pulling gooseneck trailers, today’s thieves can be in and out of a farm without anyone paying attention to them.
That happened to the Sullivans on July 4, 2011. They were baling hay on another part of the farm when neighbors saw a truck and trailer loading cattle. They weren’t concerned; the Sullivans sell cattle every week, and they thought it was a routine load.
It wasn’t. It was rustling, 21st century style – right out in the open.
On another occasion, the rustler removed ear tags from the stolen cattle and took them to the Topeka Sale Barn, where employees noticed one of Sullivan’s tags the thief had failed to destroy. When the suspect learned authorities were coming after him, he re-stole the cattle and dumped them near the Ohio state line.
The Sullivans were able to get the cattle back, but not before Hal and his cousin, Vaughn Kepler, talked to the Topeka town marshal (who did some quick research in which he learned that the last rustler, circa 1900, was hanged).
Rustling sounds like a chapter from the Old West, when those caught were often hanged and justice was declared done. Joe Moore, executive vice president of the Indiana Beef Cattle Assoc. and Indiana Beef Council, said, “While we don’t advocate having rustlers strung up on the nearest cottonwood tree without the formality of a trial today, we do want to impress on our officials that stealing another man’s cattle is still a serious crime in this country.
“As an industry, we see the theft of beef cattle increasing as the value of the animal does the same. Cattle numbers in the U.S. today are very low and the value per head has never been higher.
“Certainly, that increases the temptation to steal someone’s livestock, and these thefts pose a huge threat not only to the individual farmer’s future, but to the future of the beef industry as a whole,” he explained.
To that, Hal Sullivan would say a hearty “amen.” To date, his insurance company has paid him $17,000, more than $100,000 less than the loss he sustained. He wants full restitution. And he wants to see the thieves in jail.
Right now, Joe Miller, a 36-year-old Shipshewana-Topeka area resident and the only alleged rustler arrested, is out on bail. His attorney, William Carlin Jr. of Auburn, Ind., said he did not know the amount of bail.
Carlin has entered a not-guilty plea on Miller’s behalf. He declined to comment further on the case for this article.
Miller would have been sentenced to house arrest had not Marshall County Judge Robert Bowen felt it was too light; also, at a second hearing, a plea agreement was thrown out when Miller refused to name alleged accomplices. So, a June trial date has been set.
“That’s not right,” Sullivan said of house arrest. “Stealing 80 head of cattle should merit more of a penalty than an ankle bracelet. I want him to serve jail time and tell us who else was involved. I hope the judge will make him talk.”
Another question he would like answered by the perpetrator(s) is: “When you’ve been caught with our tags and you sold the cattle in your name, why do we have to go to trial?”
The second generation of his family to raise cattle, Hal is assisted by Jeanne, their son, Charlie, and two hired helpers. The couple’s daughter, Jennifer, is a freshman at Purdue University. The family farms a total of 1,300 acres, some of which is rented. And of course, they raise cattle – 400 Angus and crossbred brood cows and their calves. In addition, they buy hundreds of 3- to 4-day-old dairy beef calves they bottle feed.
“Jeanne and I put in 12-hour days,” Hal said. “We feed 20 round bales of hay a day and pull 17 feed wagons. Charlie mixes feed 6 1/2 hours a day. We work hard. It’s a blow when someone steals the result of our work. Joe Miller showed up at the court hearings in a shiny new Ford pickup; Jeanne and I drove our 1995 Buick.”
The Sullivans have seen Miller only at the hearings. “He couldn’t have a grudge against us,” Hal said. “We don’t know him. He bought some calves from people down the road and saw our cattle. He must have decided they looked like easy picking. I want him – and whoever else is helping him – put out of business.”
Rumors the Sullivans might go out of business have stirred area agribusinesses. “We can’t let that happen,” said William M. Wohead, president of Mentone Feed and Grain.
Calling himself the cheerleader for those demanding stricter sentencing for Miller, if convicted, Wohead listed two dozen businesses in Marshall, Kosciusko and Fulton counties that would be affected if the Sullivans end their beef operation.
In a letter to Mary Jane Walsworth, Marshall County probation officer, Wohead wrote: “The Sullivans do several million dollars’ of business annually in the Marshall County area. If something is not done to curtail cattle thefts, this process will continue and put the Sullivans out of business.
“That would cause a loss of revenue for me, machinery dealers, fuel companies, veterinarians and local vendors. It would trigger a ripple effect from lost business and the people they employ.”
Hal Sullivan is grateful for their backing. “I don’t want to give up cattle,” he said. “We’re cattle people, but our livelihood is threatened by rustlers.”