MOUNT VERNON, Mo. (AP) - A woman pulls off a road near Golden City and starts photographing cattle in a field. Just a pretty picture, she tells the owner - and nothing seems suspicious until the woman is gone and the owner notices a short strip of masking tape placed on the fence gate.
That woman was no casual passerby with a camera, says southwest Missouri cattleman David Brown; she was a scout for a rustling operation, and the 4-inch piece of tape she left on the gate marked the field for thieves who would come along later.
Brown, of Miller, recounted to producers, prosecutors, county commissioners and law enforcement officials at a recent meeting about the rustling problem that several southwestern Missouri counties have had to deal with for several months, The Monett Times reported (http://bit.ly/Xoq85a).
Lawrence County Sheriff Brad DeLay said the thieves are traveling in a circuit, hitting cattle producers in Greene, Lawrence, Dade, Newton and Jasper counties.
"There are some we might not know about yet," DeLay said. "It may take a few weeks for someone to realize (cattle) are missing."
The summit, which was held at the Lawrence County Historic Courthouse, gave producers a chance to share their frustration over the stealthy crime as well as ideas for thwarting rustlers.
Some in attendance said the criminal justice system seems to treat cattle theft lightly.
But Lawrence County prosecutor Don Trotter said he goes for the maximum penalties when thieves are caught. A first offense is punishable by up to seven years in prison, and a second offense by up to 15 years, Trotter said.
"I have as many cattle as anyone in this room, and I take this very seriously," Trotter said. "The one plea deal I offered was to a 17-year-old. He knows he is going to have to testify or he goes to jail, too. There are no deals."
DeLay urged vigilance when something seems unusual.
"If you see someone or something, grab a license plate number," DeLay said. "We're seeing people, probably meth heads, that could be armed. Don't confront them. If you see something suspicious, call it in. The information is added to the database, and it helps solve cases."
The thieves aren't amateurs who randomly decide to steal cattle, the producers and law enforcement officials agreed. Many work at cattle operations and know when and where to strike.
Trotter said a typical theft may involve "two or three cowboys hopped up on meth."
"They're doing the same thing they do during the day, but they're doing it at night," Trotter said. "They work at large ranches or other livestock organizations and know what they're doing."
Dade County cattleman Keith Hankins described what happened to his cattle.
"They planned it out," Hankins said. "They had people watching the road. They attended to the details. There were no double tracks through the field.
"Once, they picked 13 of the biggest to take," he added. "They're cutting fences, staging trailers and backing onto the lot. You worry about the meth heads, but the organized thieves are the bigger problem."
Mark Harmon, a field representative for Joplin Regional Stockyards, said law enforcement needs to take the matter more seriously.
"I've had 60-year-old men in my office crying, because they lost $60,000 and that was what they were going to use to pay the mortgage," Harmon said.
Brown suggested producers invest in wildlife cameras and place them where thieves aren't likely to see them.
"I have one that is infrared; it takes photos at night," Brown said, "clear enough that you can get a picture of the person. I actually caught four people on camera."
"Trail cameras are good investments," DeLay added. "They (generally) take very clear pictures."