A tale of modern-day cattle rustling

Last Friday, a Milam County jury found William James Crenan, 59, Burlington, guilty of theft of $100,000 to $200,000 from an elderly person after he stole over 100 head of cattle from an El Paso rancher who was running cattle on Crenan’s pasture in northern Milam County. 

By Curtis Chubb

It was daybreak on a day in May 2013 when Milam County cowboy Ruben Wood and his crew from the Milano Livestock Exchange were rounding-up about 300 cattle and their calves at the Crenan Ranch in northern Milam County. When Wood rode up to the waiting double-decker cattle trucks, he realized that it wasn’t a normal roundup: he saw Milam County Sheriff David Greene and Cattle Raisers Association Special Ranger Marvin Wills sitting on the tailgate of a pickup truck.

The men with the badges were there to provide protection and to count the cattle carrying the Double U brand.

That cattle roundup in May 2013 marked a turning point in this story about modern-day cattle theft that took place in Milam County. The cattle, however, were not stolen by the usual methods. This time the cattle were stolen after their owner delivered them to the thief’s ranch as part of a grazing-lease arrangement. 

The story is based on court documents and testimony provided during last week’s four-day trial conducted on the second floor of the Milam County Courthouse by 20th District Court Judge John Youngblood. The state’s prosecution team was led by Milam County Assistant District Attorney John Graves Redington. 

The defendant, William James Crenan Jr., was represented by Bryan-based attorney Craig Greening. Although Crenan was indicted in August 2013, at least 10 trial dates were postponed due to defense motions.

The story begins in 2008/2009 when 354 cattle were shipped to Crenan’s ranch as part of an agreement for him to graze and care for the cattle at $15/month/head. Crenan’s ranch is northwest of Burlington and consists of open pastures, trees, and brush.

The cattle were owned by Rob Beard and shipped from his 140,000-acre Double U Ranch located 50 miles east of El Paso. Beard had decided that he wanted to expand his herd and wanted to graze some of his best young heifers in Central Texas where grass was more plentiful.

Beard had been introduced to Crenan in 2007 by Ty Jones, the owner of the Ty Jones Cattle Company in Amarillo. Witnesses characterized Jones as one of the “most honest” men in the cattle business. At that time, Crenan worked as a commission-based cattle broker for Jones and had traded cattle with Beard. 

Beard came to consider Crenan as a “good friend.” He said that since Jones and Crenan had a close relationship, Jones must have known Crenan well. This was an important determination since as Beard stated: “Our cattle business is built on trust with millions of dollars of cattle sold with a phone call and a handshake.”

John Robert Hodge of Menard also called Crenan his “friend.” His testimony confirmed what Beard said about the importance of being introduced and vouched for by others in the cattle business. In fact, Beard, Crenan, and the five cattlemen who testified at the trial all had known each other for years.

Hodge said he still regrets introducing Crenan to his friend Charlie Boyd, a cattleman from Lometa (located between Lampasas and San Saba). Hodge said Boyd was an honorable and generous man who helped people get started in the cattle business and also made short-term loans using the purchased cattle as collateral.

In 2004, Boyd loaned Crenan $475, 670 to purchase 964 head of cattle. When Crenan only repaid $239,400 of the loan, Boyd asked Hodge to check on the cattle at Crenan’s ranch. When Hodge couldn’t find all of the cattle, Crenan just said, “They’re down in the brush.” 

On Oct. 12, 2007, Boyd and Crenan signed a Lampasas County District Court approved “Agreed Judgment” which stated that Crenan owed Boyd $342,878. Boyd died two months later at the age of 92. 

Crenan never paid the judgment even to Boyd’s now 100-year-old widow. Though Ranger Wills submitted the case to the Lampasas County District Attorney, the case was never prosecuted.

Two witnesses testified that they also lost cattle at Crenan’s ranch: Smiley Burnett and Andy Rogers. 

Smiley Burnett was general manager of the Hart of Texas Cattle Feeders in Hart (located between Amarillo and Lubbock). The feedlot can handle 30,000 cattle.

In 2012, Burnett had become concerned about cattle that his company had financed and turned out on Crenan’s ranch when bank inspectors reported a cattle shortage. When Crenan and Ranger Wills inventoried the cattle, the agreed-upon count disclosed that Burnett was short 392 head. Burnett said, “I trusted Jim.”

Crenan was indicted for theft of Burnett/Hart of Texas’ cattle in March 2014 and the case is pending in Milam County District Court.

In December 2012, Andy Rogers, owner of Rogers and Sons Custom Cattle Feeders in Dimmitt (located between Amarillo and Lubbock), purchased 212 Mexican cattle using Crenan as a broker. Crenan turned Rogers’ cattle out on his ranch and Rogers sent branding irons for Crenan to brand his cattle. 

When Rogers checked on his cattle in early 2013, he was unable to identify any cattle with his brand. Crenan then quit answering Rogers’ telephone calls.

After consulting with Ranger Wills and Sheriff Greene, Rogers sent a certified letter demanding his cattle or money within ten days. Crenan never picked up that certified letter. 

Rogers decided to file charges and three days later, Greene called and said he was holding two cashier’s checks totaling $163,000 for him. Rogers accepted the checks as full payment and dropped the charges. 

Although Crenan never said what happened to Rogers’ cattle, his attorney Greening asked Rogers if he was aware that his cattle were at another person’s ranch in Falls County. Rogers responded that if he had been told that, he would have checked for his cattle at the other place.

When Beard, the El Paso rancher who shipped 354 cattle to Crenan’s ranch in 2008/2009, heard about the Rogers case, he asked Crenan about the missing cattle report; Crenan responded that it was just a “misunderstanding.” Beard also contacted Ranger Wills.

After those conversations in April 2013, Beard traveled to Milam County to count his cattle and discovered that 80-90 of the cattle he shipped were missing. When he notified Crenan about the low count, Crenan said that the missing cattle were in the brush. The next day, Crenan’s men helped round up Beard’s cattle: the count was still 80-90 short. Crenan never answered Beard’s phone calls after that day.

About that same time, Smiley Burnett contacted Beard and told him that Crenan had shipped some cattle to the Hart of Texas feedlot that looked strikingly similar to Beard’s cattle that Burnett had seen when he was looking for his Mexican steers at Crenan’s ranch. 

Beard drove to Hart, inspected the cattle claimed by Crenan as his own, and told Burnett that he thought 16 black heifers were his. Beard used DNA testing to prove the heifers were his. In a separate proceeding, Crenan lost his legal challenge of the DNA test results. This important evidence was used to support the charge of cattle theft since Crenan was never given permission to take Beard’s cattle to a feedlot.

Beard then decided to remove his cattle from Crenan’s ranch in May 2013. Sheriff Greene and Ranger Wills counted 227 cattle carrying the Double U brand and 183 calves as they were loaded onto the cattle trucks. Although Beard had shipped 354 cattle to Crenan, records indicated that a few cattle had died, some had been sold, and some bulls purchased. At the end of the roundup, Beard determined that he was short 97 cattle and 3 bulls. 

Ranger Wills flew a DPS helicopter after the roundup to survey Crenan’s ranch for stray Double U cattle; only two were seen.

Defense attorney Greening used the fact that the recovered 227 cattle were in good shape as evidence that Crenan was fulfilling his lease agreement.

Although a significant number, the prosecution did not focus on the number of calves that should have been sold while Beard’s cattle were at Crenan’s ranch - probably because it would have been difficult to prove.

However, it was proven that the rounded-up 183 calves were neither branded nor earmarked which Crenan was supposed to have done. In fact, Beard provided his branding irons to Crenan and offered his cowboys to do the branding. Without a brand or earmark, the Rangers testified it is almost impossible to determine cattle ownership.

Beard said that although he should have been more diligent, he trusted Crenan to be a good steward of his cattle and did not want to believe that his cattle were being stolen by someone he considered a friend. “I kept my end of the bargain,” Beard said.

Although defense attorney Greening named other people who could have stolen the cattle, no supporting evidence was presented. He also argued that many people had a key to the ranch. 

Special Ranger Hal Dumas testified ranchers who care for other people’s cattle file a theft report if they suspect theft; Crenan never filed a theft report.

It might have been possible to learn more about what happened to the cattle owned by Beard, Burnett, and Rogers if Crenan had taken the stand; he did not. 

Ranger Dumas offered insight about what happened to Beard’s calves through a brand inspector’s ‘F1 form’ dated Dec. 14, 2012. On that day, two shipments of calves (primarily black steers with similar descriptions) from Crenan’s ranch arrived at the Calvert Livestock Auction. The auction was instructed to make out the checks from the sale of 7 calves to Beard (Double U Ranch) – and to make out the checks for the remaining 42 calves to Crenan (C4 Ranch). 

The defense called one witness, Lloyd Tschirhardt. Tschirhardt is a Castroville rancher who grazed 200 cattle on Crenan’s ranch during 2006 - 2009 and 2013 - 2015. He said that he was aware of Crenan’s difficulties but had not experienced any problems with his cattle grazing on Crenan’s land.

During the closing arguments, Redington focused the jury’s attention on Crenan’s greed evidenced by him taking Beard’s lease payments while simultaneously stealing his cattle. In contrast, Greening concentrated on the legal meaning of ‘fiduciary’ which may have convinced the jury to find Crenan ‘not guilty’ of misapplication of fiduciary property.

The jury of seven women and five men reported their verdicts after about four hours of deliberation on Friday. On the charge of theft of property (cattle), the unanimous decision was “guilty.” On the charge of misapplication of fiduciary property (grazing-lease cash payments), the decision was “not guilty.”

Crenan’s attorney requested a ‘presentence investigation report’ (PSIR) which is defined by Wikipedia as “the investigation into the history of a person convicted of a crime before sentencing to determine if there are extenuating circumstances which should ameliorate the sentence or a history of criminal behavior to increase the harshness of the sentence.” 

Youngblood granted the request which means sentencing will be delayed until the PSIR is completed.

Although a theft of this many cattle is a second degree felony, it was enhanced to a first-degree felony because Beard was older than 65 at the time of the crime. First-degree felonies have a punishment range of 5 to 99 years in state prison and a $10,000 maximum fine.

Crenan will remain free on bail but is restricted to Bell, Falls, and Milam counties unless granted permission by the Milam County Sheriff’s Office to travel elsewhere. 

When asked to comment about the trial, Rob Beard said: “We are very pleased with the verdict. We are thankful that justice has been served and would like to express our gratitude to the entire team for their efforts throughout this three-year process: District Attorney Bill Torrey, Assistant District Attorney John Redington, Milam County Sheriff David Greene and his staff, Texas and Southwest Cattle Raisers Association investigators Marvin Wills and Hal Dumas, and the entire staff of the Milam County Court for ensuring a fair trial. We would especially like to thank the jury that sat through three days of testimony so thoughtfully. In performing their civic duty, those citizens have made Milam County a safer, more just place for its residents.”