Chief (Lt.) Gene Wiggins, right and Special Agent Slaton Jemison Agriculture Rural Crime Unit

Wilsonville farmer Bill Johnson got a call no farmer ever wants to get. His neighbor called to say some of his cattle in a nearby pasture had been shot.

Johnson couldn’t believe it. The neighbor heard the calves bawling for their moms and knew something was wrong. Sure enough, five of Johnson’s cows had been shot. The next week five more of his cows were shot. All the cows had calves that were still nursing and were bred to have another calf next year.

Johnson, who has a cow-calf operation in Shelby County, reported the loss to the local authorities, but didn’t hold out much hope.

“Who would have ever thought someone would come in and do that?” Johnson says. “I didn’t know a motive. Was it drugs or alcohol, who knows?”

The case was turned over to the new Agriculture and Rural Crime Unit (ARCU), authorized earlier in 2013 by the Alabama Legislature as part of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency.

Members of the unit were selected for their extensive law enforcement training and experience, and their passion for rural Alabama. The unit enhances current law enforcement efforts and focuses on crimes such as cattle and farm equipment theft.

The unit, which covers the state’s 67 counties and has eight agents in the field, started in June 2013, and since then has recovered more than $1 million in tractors, trailers and agricultural equipment.

“We set it up like a task force with agents from different state agencies – many had been laid off as the result of budget cuts,” says Lt. Gene Wiggins, ARCU chief investigator. “The good thing is we all work under one roof instead of all of us being in different agencies, so we can share information.

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Detail of badge. Agriculture Rural Crime Unit

“When we started this, agriculture thefts were on the rise,” Wiggins says. “The first week we opened, we had a couple of cattle rustling cases. The current cattle market is attractive because the demand for beef is high and prices are high. FBI stats say the average a guy gets from robbing a bank is $7,500. You can steal six cows and get more than that. You steal a tractor and it may be worth anywhere from $20,000 to $100,000.”

The unit has recovered lawn mowers, all-terrain vehicles, tractors, cattle and irrigation equipment.

“We’ve worked a lot of cases and had a lot of success,” Wiggins says. “We’re not the primary responder – folks still call the sheriff’s office first, then they call us if we can help. But a sheriff’s office may be investigating a murder, drug case and a stolen tractor. Guess what’s top of the list? The murder gets the focus, so they call us to help. We’re committed to agriculture.”

In one case, a center pivot irrigation had been vandalized and all the copper tubing stolen. The unit put a $10,000 reward on the case. Wiggins says an individual came forward with information that led to the arrest of a suspect in the irrigation case who was also linked to three burglaries in three counties.

In another case involving a zero-turn lawn mower that had been stolen, two agents returned to the area of the crime and saw a car matching a given description pulling in and out of rural driveways. They arrested the suspect on an adjacent state highway and solved the crimes.

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“What we’re trying to do is make farms so they’re not easy prey,” Wiggins says. “We tell farmers not to leave equipment on the side of the road – to take those extra steps to secure everything.”

And about those cows?

“They came in, took my case and within two days made the arrests,” Johnson says. “It was a wonderful thing. I can’t say enough about the job they do.”

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