SALEM, Ohio – Skepticism washed over the Poland Township police department in Mahoning County when it received an early morning call from a farmer claiming his cattle had been stolen Aug. 12.
Officers figured it was a case of broken fence and were sure the cattle were wandering nearby.
But when they arrived on the scene, the story was confirmed: Township farmer William Hutchko, 80, was a victim of modern-day cattle rustling.
Police have identified two suspects who are expected to be indicted by the Columbiana County grand jury in September.
At the scene. Between 9 p.m. Aug. 11 and 7:15 a.m. the next morning, thieves made away with five Hereford feeder cattle from Hutchko’s farm on Struthers Road.
Clues at the scene showed the vandals used the farmer’s own chute to load the animals into a trailer.
“The way things were set up, these guys could have backed into the barn and closed the doors. Nobody would know they were there,” said Detective Sgt. Tony Sferra.
Gouges mark the spot. Police believe the suspects tried to drive off but realized their load was too heavy. They stopped and released one animal, later found in a neighbor’s pasture.
Still heavy, the trailer pulled onto the road. It gouged the gravel and roadway, leaving a telltale clue as to which direction the thieves headed.
Fast money? Hutchko told detectives he feared the thieves had taken the cattle to a local slaughterhouse or auction.
Hutchko reportedly visited the Damascus Livestock Auction sale barn but couldn’t find the animals there. He feared the animals had been sold earlier in the morning and had already been hauled away.
Receipts proved two of the animals had been sold, bringing $1,158.
The feeders weighed 915 pounds and 1,115 pounds. Hutchko told police he had already sold them through private treaty for $1,000 each, Sferra said.
Hutchko estimated the five cattle’s value at $6,000.
Sferra also said Hutchko isn’t totally convinced the lighter animal was his, thinking all his cattle weighed more than 915 pounds.
Suspects. Sferra’s prime suspect had worked for Hutchko on the farm – a measure that would give him knowledge of the setup and equipment there.
Hutchko said the suspect didn’t last an entire day the first time around but had visited the farm two weeks prior to the incident looking for work again, Sferra said.
With help from another farm employee, detectives followed gouges to a home near Unity in Columbiana County.
Two animals found at that farm have been returned to Hutchko.
The homeowner admitted her stepson had been involved in the heist, Sferra said. The tire tread on a trailer at the residence matched marks found at the scene.
Charges. The two suspects are expected to be charged with felony receiving stolen property, punishable by six to 12 months in jail.
One suspect already has another theft offense on his record and could face a more serious felony charge and up to 18 months in jail.
“He’s already on probation. He’s going straight to prison if he’s convicted,” Sferra said.
Willing to help. Sferra said one of his biggest surprises was the teamwork shown by local farmers the morning of the theft.
“It’s funny how word travels. I’m amazed at the number of guys out there helping look and following tracks within hours” of Hutchko’s discovery, he said.
“In my 25 years here I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s rather peculiar. Cattle rustling happens in Texas, not in Poland, Ohio,” Sferra said.
(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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