The lawman and the outlaw: How cattle rustling and drugs are roiling rural America

This is a story of two men – a lawman and an outlaw – and of promising lives shattered, of families betrayed, and, maybe, just maybe, of redemption. It is a story of a crime as old as the country (cattle rustling) and of a scourge as new as last night’s news (methamphetamine use).

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
‘I PUT MY OWN STEPSON IN JAIL AND IT SAVED HIS LIFE.’ – Jerry Flowers, chief of an Oklahoma law enforcement unit that investigates agricultural crimes.

The first time Scout Thrasher stole two cows and hauled them across a state line and sold them, he was 17 years old. After he pocketed the cash and drove home, his stomach-churning fear of being caught in the act turned to euphoria. “After you make that much money that quick, [there’s] really no other way to do it,” he says.

Over time, Mr. Thrasher became convinced that he was invincible – that the law enforcement officials devoted to tracking down cattle rustlers in this state of farms and feedlots and ranches would never get him. Not Scout Thrasher. “I had that mentality that I was bulletproof,” says Thrasher. “They couldn’t catch me.”

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
Convicted cattle rustler Scout Trasher leans on a fence on the ranch where he lives in Texhoma, Okla. He is on five years of probation.

Jerry Flowers thought otherwise. Mr. Flowers is a veteran city police detective turned “cattle cop” who looks as if he just stepped out of a Louis L’Amour novel: He wears a bone-colored cowboy hat, cowboy boots, bluejeans, and a pinstriped vest with a badge pinned to it. His belt buckle is the size of a small hubcap. His white mustache droops from his upper lip like a horseshoe.

Flowers spent 36 years at the Oklahoma City Police Department battling every conceivable form of crime, including gang violence. In April 1995, he was one of the first officers to rush into the wreckage of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, where 168 people died in a truck bomb attack by Timothy McVeigh. Later he took a job as an investigator in a special state agricultural crimes unit. Working with eight field agents, he drives thousands of miles across Oklahoma each year probing reports of farm thefts and break-ins. That means trying to stop things like cattle rustling. That means trying to stop people like Scout Thrasher.

The trails of Flowers and Thrasher would eventually intersect at, of all places, a ranch owned by Thrasher’s grandfather. The younger Thrasher, desperate to raise money to support a drug habit, stole cattle from his grandfather Dean, the man who had raised him and taught him how to handle livestock, how to be a cowboy, how to be a man. 

“Once you get so far gone on drugs, it doesn’t make a difference to you anymore,” Thrasher says.

When Flowers finally arrested Thrasher for that heist in August 2014, it seemed like an open-and-shut case. But Thrasher’s outlaw career didn’t end there, nor did Flowers’s pursuit of him. 

This is a story of two men – a lawman and an outlaw – and of promising lives shattered, of families betrayed, and, maybe, just maybe, of redemption. It is a story of a crime as old as the country (cattle rustling) and of a scourge as new as last night’s news (methamphetamine use). More than anything, it is a story of two men on opposite sides of an often overlooked drug epidemic that is roiling rural America. 

To cross the Mississippi River going west is to cross a continental divide between towns hit by the opioid crisis and those where meth is the No. 1 drug threat. While opioid addiction and its dark trail of overdoses has preoccupied much of America – and understandably so – meth remains the drug of choice in large swaths of the rural heartland.

In popular culture, methamphetamine is portrayed as a backcountry drug, a homemade stimulant used by mostly white, working-class Americans. That socioeconomic status still applies, but the “Breaking Bad” era of mass production is over. A decade ago, states began to restrict the over-the-counter sale of cold medicines used to cook meth – starting with Oklahoma in 2004 – which resulted in a precipitous decline in backyard labs.

But even though the garage cook shops disappeared, the demand for meth didn’t. Mexican cartels began producing crystal meth in bulk and supplying existing networks of dealers and users. Nearly all the meth trafficked across the United States can be traced to Mexican superlabs run by criminal organizations.

In 27 states, meth offenders now make up the largest number of drug offenders in federal prisons. Of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s 21 mainland US field divisions, half reported in 2017 that meth was their greatest drug threat. “We’re saturated in methamphetamine,” says Richard Salter, the DEA’s assistant special agent in charge in Oklahoma. 

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
Special agent Paul Cornett (l.) and chief agent Jerry Flowers, part of an investigative unit with the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food, and Forestry, discuss a cattle rustling case with prosecutors.

Along with meth use goes crime to pay for the next fix. In rural towns like Texhoma in Oklahoma’s arid panhandle, that means agricultural theft, above all livestock. Every year, thousands of beef cattle are reported stolen, largely because rustling is so simple and lucrative. A stolen cow sold at the market price at an auction house is a big payoff for thieves.

“If they break into your house and steal your box of jewelry or your TV or your gun, they get pennies on the dollar,” says Flowers, who is now chief of the Investigative Services Unit at the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food, and Forestry (ODAFF).

Flowers joined the unit in 2008, just as it was being overhauled to address a gap in law enforcement. Sheriffs and local police departments didn’t have sufficient time or resources to devote to agricultural crimes. Missing, too, was a deep familiarity with the industry, something that Flowers and his field agents, who all raise their own livestock and work as cowboys, have embedded in their DNA. 

“These guys aren’t all hat and no cattle,” says Flowers, who talks in folksy clichés. He jokes about them, then spits out another. “When they walk onto a ranch or meet a livestock owner, they know how to walk the walk and talk the talk.”

While Flowers and his agents have helped break up multistate theft rings that traffic in stolen farm equipment – tractors, trailers, trucks – much of their time is spent trying to recover pilfered cows. “In the 1800s, you’d catch a cattle rustler out on the plains, [find] a good strong rope and a horse to set him on – and that problem is handled,” he says.

Now it takes longer to put thieves away, and the wheels of justice don’t always turn smoothly.

Thrasher was 16 when he first smoked meth. A friend told him the stimulant would give him more energy – and it did.

He played tackle for the Red Devils, the high school football team in Texhoma, a town of 1,000 people and 10 churches that sits astride the state line with Texas, where the tallest building is a pockmarked grain elevator.

Thrasher was a middling student but took a particular interest in farming and ranching. He would travel with his agricultural science teacher, Ashley Harrison, to livestock shows on class field trips, and Mr. Harrison was impressed by Thrasher’s knowledge and passion. “Scout was a hardworking kid,” he says. “He was a good kid to have around.”

But as time went on Harrison noticed the teen growing more distant.

Thrasher at first was spending $100 a week on his habit, but soon it became much more. What he didn’t put toward gas for his truck and feed for his horses went for meth. Eventually the horses went, too. 

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
‘I GREW UP AROUND CATTLE. I KNOW CATTLE. I KNOW HOW TO LOAD AND HAUL THEM, WHERE TO TAKE THEM. YOU GET A LOT MORE MONEY THAN ROBBING CONVENIENCE STORES.’ – Scout Thrasher, who stole cattle to support a drug habit, with his wife, Morghin, and their newborn daughter, Stetson

Going into his senior year, Thrasher was struggling with poor grades and asked Harrison for advice on how he might graduate. That was before the Thanksgiving break. Thrasher never came back to school, says Harrison. 

Thrasher drifted between casual jobs at ranches and feedlots in Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas. Caught up in his addiction, he turned to cattle rustling to pay for his drugs. “I grew up around cattle. I know cattle. I know how to load and haul them, where to take them,” he says. “You get a lot more money than robbing convenience stores.”

In cattle country, livestock and land are king, and the Thrasher family had both, giving Scout an advantage that poorer kids didn’t have. “He’s a smart, good-looking kid,” says Flowers. “He’s healthy and could work to make a living. At some point in his life, his grandfather could set him up.”

Instead, Thrasher fell in with other meth users, including a girl he was dating, and began involving more people in his heists. 

On Aug. 16, 2014, Thrasher pulled a trailer of cows up to a small livestock auction in Geary, a four-hour drive from Texhoma. He unloaded 13 head of cattle, worth $21,000, and registered them as his own. After Thrasher left, the auction owner called an ODAFF agent to report her suspicions about the bona fides of the seller.

“There were red flags all over this,” recalls Flowers. 

It wasn’t just that Thrasher had driven so far to sell the cattle. The auction house had earlier received a specific warning by phone. “If Scout Thrasher showed up at the sale barn to sell cattle, they were stolen,” the caller had said. The tip came from Linda Pollock, a local rancher – and the grandmother of Thrasher’s girlfriend. 

Flowers drove to Geary to check the sale documents and inspect the cattle. Branding isn’t mandatory in Oklahoma, but these cows had a distinctive T on their hips, which Flowers checked against a livestock database and came up with a name: Dean Thrasher. 

The ODAFF agent, Paul Cornett, confirmed that the cattle had vanished the night before. And that wasn’t all that was missing: Scout Thrasher and two buddies were suspected of breaking into a house on the ranch rented to a family friend and taking off with his TV and guns. Within days, agents had recovered the stolen items and had Thrasher in custody after local police had pulled him over for a license plate violation. 

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
Black Angus graze on Doug Barnes’s ranch in Okeene, Okla., one of many places hit by cattle rustlers in the state.

At the jailhouse, Flowers and Mr. Cornett grilled Thrasher, who they figured was the ringleader. He claimed his grandfather had told him to sell the cattle on his behalf. But they pressed him on why he had the check from the auction house made out in his name and why he had picked up the cows at 2 a.m.

Flowers then told him he had full confessions from his accomplices and showed him pictures of the stolen goods in their homes. “When Scout looked at the photographs ... he dropped his head and began to confess,” according to Cornett’s investigation report.

Facing felony charges, Thrasher was released on bail. He then went on the run. It would be another year, and another string of cattle thefts in Oklahoma, before Flowers was back on the outlaw’s scent. In the fall of 2014, Thrasher spent four months at two drug treatment centers in Texas, getting clean. He says it worked, and in early 2015 he found steady work on a ranch near Lubbock, Texas, before getting hired on a gas-line crew. 

“Then I fell off and started using drugs again,” he says. 

Thrasher’s experience isn’t unusual. In one study of a 90-day residential program in California, 80 percent of patients who finished the treatment went back to using meth within six months. Even in well-designed programs that address underlying behavioral problems, the risk of relapse with meth is high, says Richard Rawson, a professor emeritus of psychiatry and expert on substance abuse at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Part of the challenge for meth users is their social networks. “You need to have an alternative that doesn’t involve your old drug-using friends,” he says. 

Thrasher couldn’t lay off his old friends. By the summer of 2015, he was back in Oklahoma and getting high with his buddies. And he began rustling again, looking for more easy targets in cattle country. 

One of those, say investigators, was Doug Barnes, an older rancher. That summer he had hired a local teenager to mind his herd while he recuperated at home from surgery. Months later, he ran into a neighbor who said 10 of his cows had disappeared, so Mr. Barnes drove out to his own ranch. “I had a sinking feeling in my heart,” he says. 

Sure enough, 20 cows were missing, a third of his herd. When ODAFF agents eventually cracked the case, they determined that 63 cattle worth $69,000 had been stolen from properties in three counties. One of the victims was Ms. Pollock, who had called in the tip about Thrasher. Her daughter, Khristie Taylor, and granddaughter, Thrasher’s 17-year-old girlfriend, were among seven arrested.

Thrasher himself was caught in October 2015 driving a stolen trailer through the same town where he’d been arrested the previous year. He was eventually convicted of five criminal felonies, including animal larceny and drug possession.

In jail, inmates would ask him how to steal cattle. He would tell them it’s easy if you know the ropes. “Everybody’s got a different way to do it,” he says. But you have to watch your accomplices because they will let you down – “that’s how I got caught,” he says.

Rustlers need to worry about more than unreliable co-
conspirators. As cattle theft has persisted, fueled in part by the meth epidemic, ranchers have become more savvy about protecting their livestock.

On a recent morning, Barnes shows Flowers the security cameras he’s rigged up to monitor the gate at his 800-acre ranch. It’s nearly winter, and the grass is stubbled. While it’s impossible to secure the open land on which Oklahoma’s 2 million beef cattle roam, Flowers encourages ranchers to install cameras and reinforce locks on gates and pens to make it harder for rustlers. 

Flowers lingers on the dirt road, swapping livestock lore with Barnes. Flowers raises his own cattle and loves to hunt deer – he shows off photos of his two young granddaughters on their first hunt – as well as feral hogs. He looks at ease, his thumbs tucked into his belt, hat tilted against the sun. 

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
‘I HAD A SINKING FEELING IN MY HEART.’ – Doug Barnes, an Oklahoma rancher who lost cattle to rustlers.

In past years, ODAFF has reported as many as 3,000 head of cattle stolen in Oklahoma, but Flowers reckons that number may fall to 1,400 for 2017, which could be a sign of farmers’ increased vigilance and declining prices for livestock. It may not hurt that Oklahoma lawmakers have tripled the amount of money that convicted rustlers must pay in restitution to owners. The Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, a private organization that has its own law enforcement agents in Texas and Oklahoma, says cattle thefts peaked in 2014, a year of record-high auction prices. 

Still, it doesn’t take many stolen cows to mar the bank accounts of the people with calloused hands and sun-creased faces who work the area’s ranch lands. The thievery takes an emotional toll, too. Barnes suspects a former ranch hand tipped off the rustlers who took his livestock.

“It hurts to know someone that close to you would steal from you,” he says.

The sun slides behind low hills as Thrasher, now out of prison, drives along an unpaved road on his grandfather’s ranch. He pulls up at a dun-colored house, where two young girls, bundled in fleece jackets and wearing hats, are playing inside a fenced-off yard along with a limping goat. “Daddy! Daddy!” the girls chant, hopscotching toward the fence. 

Thrasher is stocky and six feet tall. He has short brown hair and a goatee, and wears a green western shirt and jeans, along with a baseball cap, which he swaps for another when he goes inside. “That other one smelled too much of pig,” he says. In conversation, he’s polite and attentive, and open about his crimes, though vague on some details, in part because of ongoing civil litigation (Barnes is suing him and other gang members for allegedly stealing his cattle. Thrasher denies being involved in that heist.)

On Jan. 18, 2017, Thrasher was released from prison, after 15 months behind bars, and now faces five years of probation for his crimes. Since then, he’s gotten married, had a baby, found a full-time job at a pig farm, and turned 22. “I’ve got some years to put it back together again,” he says.

The two-bedroom house he’s living in on his grandfather’s ranch is the one he helped burglarize in 2014 during the late-night cattle theft. Now he lives there with his wife, Morghin, two stepdaughters, and Stetson, their baby, who was born in November.

He’s made amends with his family, including his father, who lives in another property on the ranch, and with Dean. Thrasher does volunteer work with a youth group at church, where Dean is an elder. He knows some people crack jokes about his criminal past. But that’s not who he is today, he insists. “You make some bad choices. It doesn’t make you a bad person.”

“He just got with the wrong people,” says Dean of his grandson. “I ain’t given up on him yet.”

Morghin, herself a former meth addict who quit a year ago, began visiting Thrasher in jail, while she was divorcing her previous husband. Two months after his release, they got married. 

“I gained two stepdaughters. They call me ‘Dad’ now, and that’s pretty special to me,” says Thrasher, as he cradles Stetson on a dark leather sofa under a large painting of a bull. 

Outside, the howls of coyotes echo in the night. Thrasher tells Rhylie, his older stepdaughter, to help her sister put away their toys. “We can’t. The coyotes are out there,” she replies. Thrasher keeps his voice low. “How are the coyotes going to stop you from cleaning your playroom? Come on, honey.”

Thrasher is saving money with the hope of buying a few head of cattle of his own so he can one day help pay for his children’s education. He also wants to acquaint them with the cowboy lifestyle. Perhaps they’ll want to rodeo, he muses. More than anything, he wants them to learn from his errors – stay away from drugs.

Thrasher says he sometimes thinks about meth; he knows it’s easy to score in town. When temptation beckons, he tries to focus on his new family. “I know if I ever got in trouble again it would be a long time [in jail] and the kids don’t deserve that,” he says. 

Flowers knows what addiction does to a family, too. His stepson Cody became a meth user after college while working on an oil rig. He lost his home, his job, and his wife, and stole from his mother and Flowers. “It totally destroyed him,” says the lawman. “That’s what meth does.” 

One day, Flowers caught Cody raiding his medicine cabinet and called the cops. It was Christmas Eve. “I put my own stepson in jail and it saved his life,” he says. Today his stepson is clean and recently moved out of their house.

While Flowers considers addiction a disease, he doesn’t think that absolves drug users like Cody or Scout of responsibility for their actions. In his eyes, they’re not victims. A victim is a rancher whose cows are stolen while he recuperates from surgery. “They made their choices, and you have to live with those choices,” he says.

Flowers’s role in this morality tale on the wind-swept plains of Oklahoma is simple: Put the bad guys in jail – a role he relishes. One evening he and Cornett slide into a booth at a Tex-Mex steakhouse in Guymon. They are in town for a court hearing for one of Thrasher’s accomplices who also went on the run after the 2014 theft.

Flowers keeps his cellphone on the table. His team is on a sting operation in southeastern Oklahoma, waiting to catch a suspect in the act of stealing 24 cows for a buyer who is actually an ODAFF agent, and he’s awaiting updates. It’s another inside job: a ranch hand rustling his employer’s cattle. Flowers devours his steak, bristling with anticipation.

At 8:36, his phone buzzes. “IT’S FIXIN TO GO DOWN,” reads the message. An hour later, the suspect is in custody. Two days later, Flowers and the sting operation are on the evening news in Oklahoma City.

Another accused rustler is behind bars.

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