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Rural Areas Offer Thieves Possibilities
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Thieves often find abundant opportunities in rural areas where lower populations and seclusion mean home contents, livestock and farm equipment are all easier targets.
When livestock, equipment or timber is missing, a little-known Mississippi investigative agency moves into action to recover the property. The Mississippi Agricultural and Livestock Theft Bureau within the Department of Agriculture and Commerce is responsible for working all agriculture-related crimes. It has a statewide recovery rate of about 50 percent.
The department has nine investigators, all certified police officers. These officers have statewide jurisdiction to investigate agricultural-related crimes and arrest violators. Joey Gonce, bureau director, said livestock and equipment are the most frequently reported items stolen.
According to Mississippi Agricultural and Livestock Theft Bureau statistics, there were 159 cattle stolen, 130 recovered and nine related arrests in fiscal year 1998-99. That same year, 34 horses were reported stolen and two arrests were made for horse theft.
Equipment valued at nearly $195,000 was reported stolen in fiscal year 1999, of which $69,000 has been recovered. Mississippians reported $275,639 worth of stolen timber. The agricultural and livestock theft bureau has recovered $55,177 of this.
"Statistics don't tell the whole story because there are many ongoing cases," Gonce said. "Arrests have not yet been made in many cases, but the grand jury is working on indictments."
Livestock theft is a felony punishable by up to five years in the state penitentiary, a fine and restitution. A second offense can lead to a 20-year prison sentence, plus the fine and restitution. Any livestock theft is a felony, regardless of the animal's current market price.
Timber theft is a felony if it is valued at $25 or more. Stealing all other items valued at $250 or more is a felony. These thefts can be reported to either the local law enforcement officials or the Agricultural and Livestock Theft Bureau.
"Report the crimes that happen," Gonce said. "Records show that not all crimes are solved right away, but we need a record of the cases down the road so when we may get more information in, we'll be able to solve earlier cases."
Blair McKinley, Mississippi State University Extension Service beef specialist, said cattle's tendency to wander looking for food can be limited by providing plenty of food and water.
"Most cattle that come up missing aren't stolen, they're just lost," McKinley said.
Measures producers can take to reduce the chance cattle will be stolen include displaying posted signs that offer a reward for crimes reported, checking cattle regularly and not putting catch pens close to roads. Brands registered with the Livestock Theft Bureau can also help prevent thefts and identify recovered livestock.
Gonce said producers should be sure they hire trustworthy employees, as some thefts are internal. Neighborhood watches are important in the country, and gates should be kept locked.
Herb Willcutt, Extension agriculture engineering specialist, said farm machinery left unsecured is highly mobile and easily stolen. A large parts market exists for stolen farm items, such as batteries, tires or fuel. Tractors are popular with thieves, as these can be loaded easily onto trucks and sold at auction in other states.
"Unless auction houses are alerted that they need to look for stolen property, they don't look up serial numbers on equipment," Willcutt said. "Tractors don't carry titles, so the only identification an owner may have is the bill of sale they get when they purchase the tractor. Many don't have this, especially if the tractor has changed owners before."
Willcutt said farm machinery theft fluctuates with the economy, as the better the economy, the higher the thefts. Tractors are the most popular item with thieves, as other pieces of farm equipment are hard to load, difficult to transport or not as valuable.
"Tractors are big dollar items, but when the farm economy is depressed, the risk and effort to steal tractors is not as profitable," Willcutt said. "Park equipment out of sight from major roads, or next to neighbors' houses whom you know and trust. Always lock the tractor cab and take the key. Leave large implements attached to the tractor, making it harder to load and steal."
Lock gates leading to the property and park equipment across a natural barrier, such as a ditch or creek. Block entrances with less valuable, large pieces of equipment. Anything that increases the time needed to load equipment decreases the chances it will be stolen.