Youth farmers learn a life lesson: Look out for cattle rustlers

Published: Tuesday, May 1, 2012 at 8:47 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, May 1, 2012 at 1:01 p.m.

FANNING SPRINGS — Hundreds of children and teenagers in North Florida are getting a difficult lesson in economics this week, along with an introduction to the criminal justice system.

The lesson: Cattle rustling is very much alive in rural North Florida.

Investigators have identified two local men they say absconded with the proceeds from the sale of steer that the youngsters, 4-H and FFA club members, raised in Dixie, Gilchrist and Levy counties over the past school year. Federal officials have named the pair as suspects in similar scams in several other states.

The scam ultimately could cost a private, nonprofit fair board more than $180,000 — the amount the young farmers are owed from the cattle sales.

"We know we are going to have to borrow it, but we are hoping that someway, somehow we will be able to get the money back," from the suspects, said Loran Brookins, president of the Suwannee River Fair board.

"The kids are going to get their checks. We do know that," Brookins said.

The sad tale began in March, when the youngsters exhibited about 400 animals at the annual fair in Fanning Springs. At the end of the fair, as is customary, the animals were sold at auction, with buyers bidding per pound on each animal.

The winning bids typically are double, triple or even quadruple what the animals would bring at a standard livestock market, explained organizers of the more than 50-year-old fair. That's because the bidders are local merchants, businesses and others who attend the auction to support the youngsters with what amounts to charitable contributions.

The buyers don't actually get the animals. Instead, they get a thank you letter from the child who raised the animal and often a token of appreciation such as a batch of home-baked cookies.

Before the fair auction begins, the board conducts a separate auction among wholesale livestock companies. The local bidders then pay the difference per pound between what the wholesale buyer will be paying and the top local bid. For example, if the wholesale bid is $1.50 a pound, and the winning bid at the fair is $5 a pound, the local bidder would pay $3.50 a pound. The child selling the animal would receive $5 a pound, less a commission charged by the fair board to cover expenses.

This year's auction raised a record-setting $688,549 from the sale of both steer and swine, with $181,000 coming from the sale of cattle. The money was to be distributed this week to the 4-H and FFA members, with the youngsters first paying their feed suppliers and covering other expenses before getting the remainder for themselves.

According to the Levy County Sheriff's Office, Ronald Ryan Shepard Jr., 36, who has listed Trenton as a residence in the past, was contracted to haul 146 head of cattle from the fairgrounds to United Producers Inc. in Illinois.

Shepard, who is known in the local agricultural community as the operator of Brookfield Cattle, a cattle transport company, was supposed to bring back $181,000 that United had agreed to pay for the steer.

"All seemed to be going fine until Shepard did not return with the money," Lt. Scott Tummond said in a news release about the incident.

Investigator Jimmy Anderson determined that Shepard made the delivery but had United make out a check to Brookfield Cattle instead of to the fair board.

He then disappeared.

Tummond said Shepard's business partner, Jeremy Pierce, 41, who also has used a Trenton address in recent years, contacted law enforcement officials in Illinois and reported that Shepard was missing.

Anderson said investigators in Arkansas, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky and Texas all want to question Shepard and Pierce about cattle thefts in their areas.

Anderson was able to link Pierce to the scheme through surveillance video from a bank in Illinois that appears to show Pierce depositing a check that should have gone to the fair board into an account for a business called the Brookport Cattle Company.

Working with the FBI and investigators from the Florida Department of Agriculture, Anderson came up with enough evidence to persuade Circuit Court Judge David Glant to sign arrest warrants for Shepard and Pierce. The warrants accuse the men with scheming to defraud and sets each of their bonds at $1 million.

On Monday, Tummond said Pierce surrendered to authorities in Illinois, but Shepard remained at large.

Stockyards administrators who work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture have been notifying farm and ranch organizations about the allegations against Shepard. Officials are asking livestock buyers and sellers who believe they may have had recent transactions with Shepard to contact their regional office in Des Moines, Iowa, at 515-323-2579.

Federal Bureau of Prison records show Shepard was released from prison in February 2009. He was sentenced to prison in 2004 after being convicted of wire fraud involving cattle transactions.

Now federal probation officials have joined the list of people looking for Shepard. Anyone with information on where Shepard might be found is asked to contact his probation officer, Christopher Origliosso, who is working out of the U.S. Probation Office for the Southern District of Illinois at 618-439-7903.

Back in Levy County, Brookins said the fair board will meet this week to arrange a loan so the checks can be sent to the youngsters.

"It's going to be another week or two until we can get those checks out because we are going to have to borrow the money," Brookins said.

The families contacted by The Sun about the situation were adamant about not wanting their children's names published but were willing to allow the youngsters to vent their feelings.

"How mean do you have to be to steal from us kids?" asked a middle school exhibitor. "When my grandpa told me what happened, I thought he was teasing me, but there wasn't any punch line, so I knew it wasn't a joke."

A high school exhibitor said she planned to use her check to help pay for a younger sibling to attend camp for a week.

"But I will probably miss the deadline for getting that all paid for, so I hope they (camp officials) understand and still let him in this year," the teen said.

One parent voiced disappointment for the banks that gave the children loans to buy and raise an animal and the feed stores that provided lines of credit to pay for hundreds of dollars worth of feed for each animal and are now being told they will have to wait to be paid, too.

"It wasn't just the kids — it was a lot of people in these small towns that have been ripped off," the parent said. "What a shame that our kids have to learn about these kinds of bad guys in what should have been a positive experience — raising a fair animal."

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