1492163207562 - Why is it so hard to catch stock thieves?

Why is it so hard to catch stock thieves?

The farmer first became suspicious in January 2013 when he took a phone call from someone telling him that the people who managed his South Island farm were selling his stock for cash.

He was worried. He hired a private investigator and learned that the previous year, 300 lambs worth more than $24,000 were transported from the farm by truck on two separate dates. No money was ever deposited into the company account. Later that year, a casual worker noticed a stock truck at the property from a transport company the farm didn’t often use. Hoggets were being loaded on board. He saw the farm manager and another worker there and stopped for a chat. The manager, normally an amiable character, seemed “quiet and nervous”, he remembered. The other worker recalled the farm manager was reserved, “almost as if he didn’t want to talk”. Later, over dinner at the pub, the two workers discussed what they had seen. They agreed it looked like the farm manager was stealing sheep. One of them rang the farmer to tell him of their concerns. Those phone calls were the start of two years of protracted legal proceedings that ultimately amounted to nothing. Police laid 46 theft-related charges against the farm manager and his wife alleging that $160,000 worth of sheep, cattle and wool had been taken over three years only to eventually concede they had little evidence to prove that anything had been stolen at all. The charges were dropped.

READ MORE: * Police search property over Ashburton cow thefts * Three dozen dairy cows vanish from Mayfield farm * Stock rustling costing up to $120m a year * Farmers angry as stock rustling grows * Quarter of farmers report stock being stolen The lack of evidence, normally a straightforward invalidation of a case, was more nuanced here. No-one disputed that thousands of animals had left the property. It was a matter of the circumstances. The farm manager and his wife said they owned them. The farmer said he did. As the complainant, that meant he found himself in the unlikely position of having to prove the animals on his farm, which he said were his, were actually his.

“It couldn’t happen,” he said, “Unless I could find some [farms] that they’d been sold to. We really tried hard with everybody, but there was not one left which had our earmark on it. Everything had been to the works and had its head cut off.”

It’s only one example, one where no theft has ever been proven, but it speaks to a wider problem. In 2014, Federated Farmers estimated stock theft cost the country about $120 million a year. Last year, the organisation surveyed more than 1000 farmers on the subject. 26 per cent of them said they had had stock stolen in the last five years and 3 per cent had been hit at least five times. More than half of all stock thefts were not reported to police. “Common reasons cited included that farmers didn’t think police would be interested, that police resources were too stretched, or that the theft was discovered days or weeks after it happened,” a Federated Farmers statement said.

The same statement urged farmers to come forward. More reported crime boosted the chances of more police resources to fight it. You could understand farmers’ reluctance. Why report a crime you didn’t think could be solved? And there was another deterrent: nearly three-quarters of the survey thefts were not covered by insurance. Of those that were, farmers said they still didn’t bother making a claim about half the time, usually because of the excess. Stock theft was the crime you couldn’t fight or protect yourself against. In this sense, farm animals are almost out on their own. No other commodity is as valuable and vulnerable. “The only other thing I can liken it to is copper scrap metal theft,” Senior Constable Tony Beaumont, of Darfield police in central Canterbury, said. “People going around churches, places with copper spouting, and ripping it off and hammering it down into a blob of copper and then selling it through some of the less reputable scrap metal yards.” In both cases, unless a thief is caught in the act or implicated by someone in the know, they are very hard to catch. Few cases of stock theft cases are solved, Beaumont said. Animal identification and sale and purchase paperwork are the biggest hurdles: A smart thief would immediately scatter stolen animals through paddocks full of legitimate ones. They would be sold a handful at a time. Animal declaration forms used in sales are “normally vague”, Beaumont said, giving culprits plausible deniability if they do come under suspicion and the sheer volume of the stock trade makes it the equivalent of a laundering operation for anyone who needs it.

“If you’ve got thousands of sheep going through saleyards every week, and you put 10 or 20 in every time, it’s pretty hard for anyone to notice that a few dodgy ones are going through,” Beaumont said. “The police have to work on evidence, not supposition, and evidence is extremely difficult to gain in stock theft.” In the case of the farm manager and his wife, police went to some lengths to build a case. They trawled through more than three years of stock movement records to amass 46 cases of suspected theft. PricewaterhouseCoopers prepared financial records for the farm. An accountant examined the numbers and, using objective lambing and calving percentages, found what he considered to be a conspicuous deficit: “In both cattle and sheep numbers there appears to be a significant difference between the numbers recorded and those that could be achieved by a reasonable farm manager.” The accountant estimated the “unexplained shortfall” at 4457 sheep and 104 cattle over five years. “I thought, ‘Maybe he’d got away with $30,000,’” the farmer said, “But when it totted up to $160,000 I was just flabbergasted. Absolutely flabbergasted.” The case inched forward. The farm manager and his wife were granted name suppression (which still stands) and their lawyers, through submissions, chipped away at the prosecution case. Early on, there was no allegation of stock decreases and the evidence the police did have could be explained by the defendants’ assertion that the stock was their own. When the accountant’s report emerged, the defence submitted that its own expert “[did] not support” its conclusions. Prosecutors were late filing a memorandum detailing their evidence. The defence responded by noting the merry-go-round of case managers handling the file and pushed for dismissal. By this point the accountant’s report had surfaced and the trial was adjourned while the defence engaged an expert and further delayed while it applied for costs to pay for his services. “The matter has been allowed to drift,” a judge finally noted. “Prosecution to provide briefs of evidence to show there is an evidential basis for these charges.” The last entry in the court file is a memorandum from police, conceding that, upon review, they have no case: “Whilst it can be a strong suspicion that the large numbers and value indicate instances of Failing to Account the prosecution file does not specifically identify the stock involved in a movement.

“For this reason it cannot be said that there is a reasonable prospect of conviction.”

The charges were dropped. If the animals had been stolen, there was no way to prove it. The problem, according to the farmer, was that police took too long investigating the two cases involving the 300 lambs that he reported. Some urgency would have helped their chances of tracking the stock and identifying them as his through ear markings. “The first hours are critical when you’re faced with stock theft,” Federated Farmers rural security spokesman Rick Powdrell​ said, “It’s a bit like a murder.” “[Stock] can move a great distance in a very short time. If you can intercept them before they get a chance to get tags changed or be put through another transaction, it’s just so critical.”

Powdrell, a sheep and beef farmer from the Bay of Plenty, has had his own run-ins with rustlers. He was tormented – losing sleep and worrying his family – as his asset was slowly picked off by thieves. He eventually caught two men red-handed taking sheep from a paddock.

“They were only taking one or two. They got 40 hours community service. That doesn’t send a message to anyone.”

National MP Ian McKelvie has a private members bill in the ballot pushing for stiffer sentences. “If you steal an ice cream from a corner shop, effectively you’re liable to have a more serious punishment than if you steal a $2000 cow from a dairy farm,” he said. “[You’d be in a] lot more trouble for robbing that amount from a bank. Especially if you had a shotgun under the seat.” Of course, McKelvie’s bill would only apply to the fraction of stock thieves who get caught. Like the case against the farm manager and his wife, even getting to court can be hard. “If you want to have a successful prosecution you’ve got to have evidence that is beyond reasonable doubt,” Beaumont said, “That becomes difficult when we’re talking about stock because the only way to do that realistically is through DNA testing.” Darfield police pursued such a line of inquiry last year when 290 lambs were stolen from a paddock on the outskirts of town. The complainant tracked down what they thought was the culprit (“They’re in the business, they have the contacts,” Beaumont said) and organised for a handful of animals to be tested. Some were a match, but it was in vain. “Say you’ve got 200 sheep, you pick ten out to DNA-test and four of them come back as being linked DNA-wise to the ones that were stolen,” Beaumont said. “All that proves is that out of those 200 sheep, four were related. It doesn’t prove that 196 are related because they look the same. Unless they’re DNA-tested and there’s proof they are the same then the presumption is that they’re not. “We’ve got a fairly good idea what we think happened. But having a good idea what happened and having the proof to take to court is two different things.” Which puts police in a bind. They are unlikely to get the funding to DNA-test hundreds of animals to build stock theft cases. “We struggle to get money for DNA testing for people,” Beaumont said. Advances in animal identification make such investigative tools seem within reach. The NAIT (National Animal Identification and Tracing) ear-tagging scheme became mandatory in 2011. From then, all cattle and deer had to be tagged by the time they were six months old, or when they went off-farm. All capital stock had to be tagged from last year. The tags have an RFID (radio frequency identification) chip which, when scanned, will show where an animal is registered to – the owner, or the farm – and any others it has been registered to in the past. The scheme is intended as a traceability tool, but not in the crime-fighting sense. More against biosecurity or food safety threats where proof of origin could ensure continued market access. That hasn’t stopped the expectation in some quarters that OSPRI, the company that runs the scheme, might become a sort of farm flying squad, swooping in to track stolen livestock and chase down rustlers.

“We can’t just jump into the database and start tracking animals by satellite,” OSPRI chief executive Michelle Edge said.

“Usually we need a report to identify it. We’ve got ten million animals in the database, we’re not looking at them every day unless there’s a trigger.”

RFID is not the same as GPS. Looking up a tag in the system won’t tell where the animal attached to it is. Unless you have a stolen animal right in front of you and a scanner to read its ear tag you cannot prove its provenance. That situation can happen, though. Cattle reported stolen have turned up in the herds of farmers who thought they bought them legitimately. Edge said OSPRI has provided stock information to police in about a dozen theft cases. But there is an easy way around this for criminals: just take the tags out. “The tags are not that hard to remove,” Federated Farmers OSPRI spokeswoman Katie Milne said. “If someone’s going to be dishonest in rustling or stock theft they would just take the tags out and get a replacement tag.” Replacements aren’t too big of a hassle either, Milne said. Most farmers have a stock of spare NAIT tags, so unless someone placed a conspicuously large order, stolen animals could easily be diluted into another herd. By then, there is almost zero chance they will be found. “If the animals are taken to pasture and the tags are removed and they’re kept at pasture for some time, it’s unlikely, unless a neighbour dobs them in, that they would be recognised,” Edge said.

Vanished. Into the wind. Untraceable by electronic ear tag or any other means. Unlikely to be found unless police get an almighty tip-off. The situation is even tougher for sheep, which aren’t required to have NAIT tags. But whatever the animal, once it is stolen, farmers are unlikely to be compensated for it – it is almost impossible to fully insure stock against theft.

There are good reasons for this. Farm animals standing in a paddock are about as vulnerable as an asset can be. Out of sight and accessible to anyone jumping a fence or opening a gate. There’s also the issue of scale: if 20 sheep out of a mob of 1000 go missing, how do you prove it? As with the police, there’s almost no way to identify the individual animals, leaving an insurance assessor having to take your word for it on the before and after head counts.

Rural insurers say a farmer could get coverage for animals in the paddock, but given the risks the premiums would be astronomical. There are two types of theft policy that are more realistic: Specified Livestock Cover, for valuable, individual animals, such as stud stock, and the more common Unspecified Livestock Cover which covers a large group of animals while they are in a building, such as covered yards or a dairy shed. That still leaves most animals uninsured most of the time.

“We appreciate and fully acknowledge the challenge farmers have in trying to protect stock from thieves,” FMG chief operations officer Conrad Wilkshire​ said.

“The fact, however that stock are generally out in the open make them an easy target and therefore a high risk for all insurers.”

In the last five years FMG, our largest rural insurer, has paid out around $22.4m in theft and burglary claims. Going by the Federated Farmers crime survey, the theft portion of that would account for a fraction of all stolen animals.

The farmer in the collapsed court case hasn’t seen a compensatory cent, though he faces the obvious hurdle of proving anything was stolen. The farm itself is leased now. He has sold all his stock.

“I’m pleased about that,” he said.

“It has been, yeah, interesting.”

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