U.S. marshals arrest suspected Levy cattle thief
Published: Wednesday, July 11, 2012 at 10:34 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, July 11, 2012 at 10:34 a.m.
Like a scene from an old TV western, authorities say the cattle rustler grabbed the loot and lit out for Mexico, with the U.S. Marshals hot on his trail.
Ronald Ryan Shepard Jr.'s two months on the run south of the border came to an end Tuesday when Mexican officials handed the man accused of stealing more than $180,000 from hundreds of North Florida children back to the marshals.
Shepard, 36, who listed Trenton as his address in the past, also was wanted in four other states in connection with the theft of cattle sold for amounts totaling $4 million to $6 million, and in Illinois for bank fraud, authorities said.
"It's a case of good old-fashioned cattle rustling, with a modern twist," said Deputy U.S. Marshal Bryon Carroll.
Shepard left a trail of stunned children and furious adults in his dust, as well as a local community fair board that now is $150,000 in debt because of him, officials said.
"I'm happy they got him," Loran Brookins, president of the Suwannee River Fair board, said Wednesday. "I hope he's got our money, but I got my doubts."
Brookins said many in the community still are seething about the theft because it targeted their children.
"Steal from us, that's one thing, but you steal from kids, that changes everything," he said. "I hope they bring Mr. Shepard back to this part of the country. We'll take care of him."
The story began in March when nearly 400 youngsters in Dixie, Levy and Gilchrist counties participated in the Suwannee River Fair livestock auction in Fanning Springs. This year, the auction raised a record $688,549 from the sale of both steer and swine, with $181,000 coming from the sale of cattle.
The money ultimately was to be distributed 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.
Brookins explained that the fair board sold the cattle to the Lindsey Cattle Co. in Trenton, which then sold the animals to United Producers Inc. in Illinois. The fair board and the youngsters would get their money after Lindsey was paid.
Enter Shepard and Jeremy Pierce, 41, who also has used a Trenton address in recent years.
Shepard, who is known in the local agricultural community as the operator of Brookfield Cattle, a cattle transport company, picked up 146 cows from the fairgrounds on March 21 to be delivered to UPI in Illinois. Shepard and Pierce made the delivery in Illinois, the Levy County Sheriff's Office said. But somehow Shepard got the company to make the check for $200,000 out to his company instead of Lindsey, Investigator Jimmy Anderson said.
Shepard then disappeared.
Pierce surrendered to Illinois authorities in April and reported that Shepard was missing.
Brookins said the board did not deal directly with Shepard and had no idea what had happened until he heard from Lindsey about the rip-off. "We had never even heard of Ron Shepard," he said.
The fair board immediately determined that the children somehow would get paid, Brookins said. The board took some of its own money and secured a $150,000 loan from Perkins State Bank, which the board must pay back over five years.
"We had some mad parents when they first heard," Brookins said, noting that the children were on the hook financially at first. "The kids took out loans to get credit from the feed companies," he explained.
But using the bank loan, the board made sure the youngsters were paid in May.
Shepard is a suspect in cattle thefts around the country, authorities said. Investigators in Arkansas, Missouri, Kentucky and Texas all want to question him and Pierce.
"This scheme to steal cattle in Levy County matched a string of cattle thefts across the nation," Carroll said.
For that reason, Brookins said he doesn't expect to see any restitution from Shepard. Noting that the thefts reach into the millions of dollars, he said, "We're low on the totem pole with our $180,000."
The marshals found out Shepard briefly had returned to the Gainesville area in April but then fled. Carroll said that last month they found out he was in Mexico hiding in a northern town.
Shepard is now in federal custody and has charges pending in multiple jurisdictions, including Levy County.
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.
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