The Last Rustler

Roddy Dean Pippin was a polite young cowboy who loved Louis L’Amour novels and dreamed about life on the open range. He said he was in the cattle business—but he actually led an unlikely gang of thieves who hit countless ranches across North Texas. And, just like in the stories from the Old West, he couldn’t outrun the law forever.

May 2006By Comments

In 2003, A YOUNG MAN NAMED RODDY DEAN PIPPIN moved into a two-bedroom frame house in the tiny community of Odell, just south of the Red River in far North Texas. It was a nice little house with a front porch that didn’t sag too much. Behind the house were a stable and a corral for Roddy’s horse, and the driveway was long enough for his Dodge four-by-four pickup and his fourteen-foot cattle trailer.

Roddy was a handsome fellow, lean as a fence post, with tousled brown hair and piercing brown eyes. Whenever he drove into the nearby towns of Vernon or Quanah, he wore starched Wranglers held up by a hand-tooled belt with a trophy buckle, Justin cowboy boots, a pearl-button Western shirt, and a gray beaver Resistol  that must have set him back at least $500. He was invariably polite, never failing to raise his Resistol upon meeting a lady. He’d drop by the Medicine Mound Depot, Quanah’s best restaurant, and order a medium-rare steak, fried okra, a baked potato with all the trimmings, a garden salad with ranch dressing, and a glass of milk with ice, and he’d talk in an almost courtly manner to the waitress about the weather and country music and the cattle business.

If the waitress asked him what he did for a living, Roddy would smile and say that he dabbled in cattle himself. He’d throw down a generous tip and head out the door. “Vaya con Dios,” he’d tell the waitress. “God willing that the creek don’t rise, we’ll meet again soon.” Then he would get into his pickup and drive up and down the back highways that ran alongside some of the state’s most prosperous ranches.

Roddy was indeed in the cattle business. But he didn’t exactly buy and sell cows. He was a professional cattle rustler, and he was as good as they come. In an eighteen-month spree, he slipped onto ranches in North Texas at least 25 times, hauling away more than 130 head of cattle, their total worth reportedly around $100,000. Like the great rustlers from the Old West, he used broken limbs from mesquite trees to cover his tracks (his tire tracks, that is, not horse tracks). In the bed of his pickup, he carried an iron to brand the cows he stole (actually, an electric brand heated with a twelve-volt battery, not an old-fashioned brand heated over a campfire), as well as portable fencing, which he used to erect temporary pens on back pastures to corral cattle. He went so far as to put together what he described as a “rustling gang”; according to the police, his was made up of two rather dim-witted twin brothers and their girlfriends.

In August 2004, when Roddy was finally cornered, law enforcement officers were stunned to discover that he was not a hardened renegade cowboy. He was barely an adult, only twenty years old, with no ranching background and no criminal record whatsoever. He was also a severe diabetic who injected himself up to six times a day with insulin to avoid debilitating seizures—hardly the kind of condition associated with a Texas outlaw.

What was perhaps most surprising about Roddy, however, was his personality. “In all the talks I had with him after his arrest, he was completely well mannered and courteous, never using one word of profanity,” said Scott Williamson, a respected field inspector for the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association (TSCRA) who works throughout northwest Texas investigating livestock theft. “He didn’t have tattoos. He didn’t have a drinking or drug problem. He looked me in the eye, and he was strictly ‘yes sir, no sir.’ I couldn’t help but think, ‘Why would a kid with such nice qualities want to turn himself into a no-good cattle thief?’”

When I got my first look at Roddy, in a visitors room at the state prison in Huntsville, I asked myself the very same question. We were separated by a wall of safety glass, and he apologized for not being able to shake my hand. “Sir, I always believe a good handshake is important to begin a friendship,” he said, his voice gentle, with a soft country lilt. He remained standing, waiting for me to sit first. Then I noticed him looking over my shoulder toward an open door.

“Sir, is it a nice day out there, the sunlight coming through the trees?” Roddy asked. I stared at him, not sure what to say. Roddy paused and swallowed. “I can’t tell you how much I miss those afternoons riding my horse through the backcountry, breathing the pure Texas air and feeling that sun on my face.”

BEFORE I HEARD ABOUT RODDY, I had assumed that there was no such thing as a modern-day cattle rustler. Every now and then, I’d read a brief story in one of the state’s newspapers about a down-on-his-luck blue-collar worker who had swiped a few cows from someone else’s ranch and tried to sell them at a nearby sale barn. (With cattle worth more than $1 a pound, a six-hundred-pound steer now sells for more than $600.)

Occasionally, I’d come across a story about some men who had formed what the newspapers would describe as a “cattle theft ring.” But they too seemed to be mostly amateurs who had gotten together to pull off a single heist and then gone their separate ways. A while back, for instance, there was a story about a group of Texas Department of Criminal Justice employees, apparently unhappy with their low pay, who had decided to steal some cows off their own prison’s farm. I’d also read about some teenagers and young men who had devised a plan to steal cattle off the Santa Rosa Ranch, in South Texas, to pay for a spring break vacation. “You don’t exactly come across anyone these days who studies all his career options and then announces, ‘By God, I’m going to start a cattle rustling operation,’” said Dan Mike Bird, the burly district attorney of Hardeman and Wilbarger counties, where Roddy did most of his rustling. “There will always be someone who will give cattle rustling a try, especially when he learns the kind of money he can make. But he usually doesn’t last very long at it. He finds out in a hurry that it’s just a hell of a lot easier to steal other things.”

Indeed, trying to get away with one cow from a ranch can be backbreaking work, especially if you have little idea what you’re doing. Over the years, law enforcement officers have driven up on out-of-breath good old boys struggling to push wailing cows into the backs of their pickups (or, in one case, the backseat of a car). They’ve pulled over wild-eyed plumbers and air-conditioning repairmen who had been able to get a cow or two into their trucks but who then could not stop weaving back and forth across the highway during their getaways due to the cows constantly shifting their weight around.

What’s more, a Texas cattle rustler has to worry about not only the county sheriff but also the powerful TSCRA, an organization begun in 1877 by ranchers who were plagued by large-scale rustling. Today, whenever a rancher reports to the TSCRA that some of his cattle are missing, one of the association’s 29 field inspectors is immediately put on the case. The field inspectors, who literally wear white cowboy hats when they come to work, are genuine lawmen, still specially commissioned by the state, as they were a century ago, to carry guns and make arrests. Throughout rural Texas they are known as “the cattle rangers,” and they are famous for their ability to hunt down cattle thieves. At ranches, they study pastures, hoof prints, tire tracks, and broken fences like CSI detectives, and if necessary, they will take DNA samples from mother cows to see if they can be matched to stolen calves. Then, when they come across someone who they believe is stealing cattle, they will stake out his home, tail him day and night, and even put a GPS locator on his pickup to see where he goes.

When I spent a day this spring with Scott Williamson, he was at his office in the small town of Seymour by six in the morning, and for the next nine hours he drove more than two hundred miles, from one ranch to another and then on to county courthouses and small-town police departments. Williamson, who’s 43, is the field inspector for District Eight, an area of seventeen counties south and east of the Panhandle that is home to some of the state’s most historic ranches: the Pitchfork, the Four Sixes, the Matador, the Morehouse, the Swenson, and the Waggoner, which, at 520,000 acres, is the largest contiguous ranch in Texas. Every year he receives around 80 calls from ranchers in his district who believe they have suffered some sort of theft. (Statewide, the TSCRA receives between 1,100 and 1,700 calls annually from ranchers reporting potential theft.) Although most of his investigations go nowhere—he concludes that the missing cattle have either died, gotten lost, or wandered onto another ranch and been accidentally sold by another rancher—he still arrests about twenty individuals every year for theft of livestock or livestock equipment. He has not only nabbed the run-of-the-mill rural criminals, but he has also arrested small ranchers who have taken a few of their neighbor’s cows and rebranded them in an attempt to increase the size of their own herds. He has even brought down country con artists who lease out pastures to other ranchers, promising to watch over those ranchers’ cattle, but then sell the cattle instead, disappearing with the profits.

“A few of these thieves might get away from me once or twice, but if they stay around here, I’ll get them,” Williamson told me when he was back at his office, the walls of which were covered with photos of legendary field inspectors from years past along with crayon drawings of cattle brands that his young daughter had done for an elementary-school history project. “You can count on that.”

Yet not even Williamson could have imagined the kind of thief he was about to confront. “Sir, this is hard to explain, but I never felt like I belonged in the twentieth century,” Roddy told me when we finally sat down late last fall. “I romanticized about living a different life, about being someone else … And, well, I guess it’s obvious I got a little carried away.”

RODDY WAS RAISED IN A SMALL town near Denton, north of Dallas. His father, Reggie Dean Pippin, traveled throughout the Southwest helping design factories and petrochemical plants. His mother, Holly, stayed at home with Roddy. “He was a quiet boy,” she said about her only child, whom she homeschooled for several years when he was younger. “He didn’t play much with other boys because we lived out in the country. And I also think he didn’t want them to see him go through one of his diabetic attacks. The doctors told me he was a ‘brittle diabetic,’ because his blood sugars would drop without any warning, and his jaw would lock up and he’d collapse to the ground.”

Roddy would spend many evenings in his room, lying on his bed, leafing through picture books about the Old West. “And I watched all the westerns, all the old John Wayne movies,” Roddy said. “When I got older, I read a Louis L’Amour book. If you haven’t read him, sir, he’s a very fine writer. I thought I’d someday like to write books like that.”

When Roddy was in junior high school, his father moved the family to Gordon, between Fort Worth and Abilene. Soon afterward, his parents divorced and his father moved away. Roddy returned to public school, where he was determined to prove that he was as athletic as the other boys. He ran track and played on the six-man football team. He also loved acting like a cowboy. He wore Western clothes when he went to school. He rode horses on some property his father owned, and he taught himself how to rope by studying the professional actors who appeared in westerns. When he finished high school, he enrolled at Sul Ross State University, in Alpine. There, he tried to earn a place on the school’s well-regarded rodeo team as a bull rider. But he was woefully unprepared—his prior bullriding experience mostly consisted of some sessions on a mechanical bull at a country-western nightclub—and within weeks he’d hurt his knee. Discouraged, he dropped out before his freshman year was over. “I don’t know,” his father told me. “Maybe if I had forced him to stay in school, this whole story would have turned out to be so different. Maybe he would have gotten into business. Or maybe he would have become a writer after all.”

Roddy moved to Decatur, north of Fort Worth, where he found a low-paying job doing farmwork. Then he got another job, making $12 an hour hauling fifty-gallon drums of hazardous waste for a chemical company. But he told me he was fired when his boss watched him suffer an insulin reaction while on the job.

“I had a twenty-dollar bill in my pocket, a fourth of a tank of gas, and a thirty-thousand-dollar debt that I owed on my pickup,” Roddy recalled. “I had roughly a couple of days of insulin left, five hand-rolled cigarettes, and a five-dollar bill stuffed in the toe of my boot, just in case of an emergency. I was desperate and owed a number of hospital bills, along with such other bills as rent and normal utilities.” Driving back to a tiny house he was renting, he turned on the radio and listened to a Marty Robbins song, “The Master’s Call.” Then the announcer came on to give the livestock report and commented on the rising price of cattle.

It was early 2003. Roddy said he started to flip through some of his old books. “I read about the old rustlers and how they eluded the posses. And I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to give it a go.’”

He built a wooden crate that fit into the bed of his pickup. He then persuaded a high school friend to follow him to a ranch owned by a wealthy man who rarely set foot on the place. The friend brought along a small four-wheeler. While the friend drove, Roddy stood in the back of the four-wheeler and lassoed calves, using the roping skills he had learned as a boy. He and his friend loaded three calves into the crate that night, and the next day Roddy took them to a nearby auction barn, telling the employees that the calves’ mothers had died in a snowstorm. Because the calves had no brands on their flanks—ranchers sometimes don’t brand their calves until they are older—there was no way of telling who owned them, and Roddy received a check for $257.

A few nights later they got some more calves. This time, Roddy branded all of the cattle, and the stamp on the brand read “DP,” for Dean Pippin. On a computer, he typed up a document showing that he owned them. The next morning, he put on what he described to me as “the most stunning apparel that a cowboy of my style could afford,” and he drove to an auction barn in another county, where he sat with all the other cowboys and ranchers in the bleachers as his calves were auctioned off for $559.20.

“Sir,” he said, “I knew what I was doing was wrong. But I will admit to you, right then I felt like I had stepped back into another time. I felt like I was someone different.”

BY APRIL 2003, however, Roddy’s friend had decided that he had had enough of four-wheeler rustling. Roddy told me that he too tried to go straight, doing pipeline work for an oil field company. But within days, he said, he was let go because of his diabetes. He went to visit his mother in Gordon. One day, sitting in the kitchen, he watched some cattle grazing in the distance. Roddy couldn’t help himself. That night, after his mother had gone to bed, he slipped out of the house, stuck his homemade crate back in his pickup, drove toward the cattle, and wrestled a calf into his crate.

Not long after that, Roddy paid a visit to his buddies David and Darrell Malone, whom he had first gotten to know when he was in kindergarten. The twins were rough-looking characters, with droopy eyes and stooped shoulders. According to Roddy, they usually wore tennis shoes and T-shirts without sleeves, and when they finished their work each day as oil rig roustabouts, they liked to drink Wild Turkey.

Neither Darrell nor David, who are both 22 years old, would comment for this story, but they had to have been stunned at the transformation that had taken place in Roddy. “I was wearing my best cowboy clothes,” Roddy said, “and I asked them if they were ready to join up with me and live the life of a rustler. They looked at me and said, ‘What’s a rustler?’”

Roddy said that the brothers eventually agreed to become part of his gang as long as he promised to evenly split the proceeds of each cattle sale with them. He also agreed to their demands that they occasionally be able to bring along their girlfriends—two young country women named Windy Brunson and Melissa Marshall—whenever they went out on their various rustling adventures. (Darrell, who has been convicted of felony theft of livestock charges and sentenced to two years in prison, has admitted in court that he helped Roddy rustle cattle. David, who has been indicted on the same charges but not yet tried, continues to maintain his innocence. Both Windy and Melissa have been indicted on the same charges but not yet tried. They too have pleaded not guilty.)

Roddy began scouting ranches. He told me that he wanted to become the Robin Hood of rustlers. His standing rule was that he would never rustle from poor ranchers. He wanted to rustle only from ranches owned by corporations or by wealthy Dallas or Fort Worth residents who kept what he described as “hobby herds” or by any big rancher who was already making plenty of money through his oil and gas leases and who probably had bought insurance to cover any cattle loss.

In fact, Roddy said, when he took David out for his first rustling job—he always used David one night, Darrell the next—he drove to the ranch of a millionaire whom David and Darrell despised. They all said that the man had a reputation around the county for treating his ranch hands poorly, particularly after they had been injured on the job.

At the ranch, David, wearing tennis shoes, stood by the pickup and held a spotlight while Roddy, wearing his cowboy clothes—new leather chaps and leather gloves—grabbed a few calves. Roddy later went back with Darrell and grabbed a few more. The money wasn’t bad, and the revenge was sweet. But Roddy still wasn’t satisfied. “I was ready to go for the big cattle,” he said.

IN THE FRONTIER DAYS, a rustler and his gang would simply ride onto the back forty of a ranch in broad daylight, surround a big herd of cattle, and start shooting their pistols in the air, causing the cattle to stampede right off the ranch.

In the twenty-first century, however, it was pointless to use a horse to rustle cattle. With fences everywhere, the rustler would have no place to go. To get away with the “big cattle”—the large heifers and steers—his best tool was a cattle trailer hitched to the back of a pickup. But that was complicated in itself. The rustler had to drive the trailer onto a pasture in the dark of night, figure out how to lure the cattle into the trailer, slip away without being seen, and then hope that the employees at the sale barn did not recognize the brands on the cattle he was trying to sell.

But Roddy was undeterred. He stole a cattle trailer and headed out to another ranch with Darrell. There, Roddy approached a mother cow and her calf. The mother cow, sensing danger, suddenly rushed at Roddy, pushing him into a barbed-wire fence before running away.

A few nights later Roddy tried again, this time with David. “I stepped toward a big Brangus, swung my rope over my head, let it go, and watched it land perfectly over the cow’s head,” Roddy said. “I pulled the rope tight, and that old girl took off. I flew off my feet behind her and found myself being dragged along the ground. I held on for at least a minute, until I thought my innards were going to get torn out of my body.”

Needless to say, David and Darrell were not impressed. “Darrell said to me, ‘Roddy Dean, you ain’t no cowboy. You’re just a diabetic.’ I got pretty peeved, to be honest with you. I said, ‘Boys, I’ll be back. As soon as my injuries heal, I’ll be riding again across the purple sage.’”

“Excuse me,” I said. “The purple sage?”

“Sir, I apologize. That’s an expression old cowboys use,” Roddy said. “I wanted to let it be known that I would be back, making my mark, riding across the great plains of Texas.”

OF COURSE, RODDY knew that if he was going to make his mark as one of the great rustlers of the American West, he was going to have to move farther away from his mother, who was beginning to suspect that he was up to no good. In the late summer of 2003, he decided to head north to the cattle-laden Red River Valley, just south of the Texas-Oklahoma border. Initially, he lived with a family who knew his mother, then he rented a little house from his uncle in the town of Vernon (known, according to a highway sign erected by the chamber of commerce, as “Rodeopia—Cowboy Utopia!”). He bought a used cattle trailer and a horse, and he eventually made a down payment on a home in nearby Odell. “It was at the end of a dirt road, the perfect hideout,” he said.

To soothe his mother, who was urging him to find steady work, he got a part-time job in the oil fields and he attended a horse-shoeing school. He also attended the Baptist church in Odell on Sundays. But whenever he had free time, he’d slip onto a ranch, either driving his truck or riding his horse, and he’d head for the back pastures, far from the highways. He’d find a group of cattle and literally sit near the herd so the lead cows could get to know him. He’d bring along a sack of cow cake (manufactured cow food) to whet the cows’ appetites—he also brought along a snack for himself to keep his blood sugar in check—and he’d talk to them in a soft tone of voice. “I’d sit there for hours, sometimes all night,” Roddy said. “I knew that to get those cattle into my trailer, I had to get them to trust me.”

Before leaving a pasture, he’d put a stick behind the main gate. Then he’d return every few days to visit again with the cattle and see if the stick had been knocked over—his way of finding out how often the ranch hands came by.

He eventually called David and Darrell, telling them he was ready to rustle again. Darrell and Melissa were the first to arrive. Late that night, while Melissa stayed behind, Roddy took Darrell to a ranch he had already scouted just across the Red River, in Oklahoma. Using cow cake, Roddy was able to cajole a dozen cows to follow him across the pasture and into a cattle pen, one of the many skills he had been practicing. Then, with the help of cattle prods, Roddy and Darrell loaded the twelve cows, worth about $7,600, into Roddy’s trailer, which was backed up to the pen. “I slammed the trailer door, and Darrell looked at me and said, ‘Roddy Dean, I take back what I said. You’ve gotten good.’”

Roddy estimated that on his own he rustled cattle from four or five ranches in the Red River Valley during the first six months of 2004 and that he and one of the twins hit at least ten more ranches. Like any gang of outlaws, they had a few missteps along the way. One evening, Roddy and Darrell were chased down the highway by an angry ranch hand who had seen Roddy backing his trailer toward a cattle pen next to a highway. “Not my smartest decision, rustling in such a public place,” Roddy said. “I’m lucky my truck was fast. The man who was after me had his rifle out the window.”

On another evening, Roddy came across a couple hundred cattle that were penned in order to be sold the next day. Overjoyed, Roddy got his trailer in position and then opened one of the gates to the pen. Suddenly, a bull bolted forward, slammed Roddy to the ground, and raced through the open gate into the empty pasture. The rest of the herd followed. “The hooves of those cows ripped up my Wranglers, shredded my nice shirt, and just tore up my beautiful Resistol,” Roddy told me. “Just tore it all up. But, sir, I must tell you, as those cows stampeded over me, the thought did occur to me that if I was going to go down as a rustler, this was the perfect way to die.”

And then there was the morning that Roddy began to feel woozy from low blood sugar as he was taking his trailer full of stolen cattle to a livestock sale barn. A state trooper noticed his erratic driving and pulled him over. But he never thought that the polite young man in the truck was rustling cattle. The trooper quickly called for paramedics, who rushed to the scene to give Roddy some glucose.

BY THE SUMMER OF 2004, a few ranchers had called Scott Williamson to say that they were missing cattle; a couple of other ranchers had called to say that their trailers or saddles had been stolen. Williamson also received a phone call from a woman who had seen a pickup carrying a trailer full of cattle racing past her home in the middle of the night. Following behind the trailer was another pickup. The woman was convinced she had seen some rustlers making a getaway.

But Williamson had no idea who was committing the thefts. (Williamson told me that he refuses to call a cattle thief a “rustler” because he doesn’t want to “glamorize” the thief’s activities.) Nor did he have any idea just how many ranches were being plundered. The reason was that Roddy had come up with a plan to foil Williamson. He rarely stole more than half a dozen cattle at a time from the back section of a ranch, correctly figuring the odds were high that a rancher wouldn’t learn that those cows were missing until weeks or months later. “I admit, the kid knew what he was doing,” said one of Roddy’s victims, Butch Tabor, a successful Hardeman County rancher and part owner of a bank in Quanah. “He drove his truck and trailer to places on the ranch I didn’t think anyone would go. And he was also very good at the way he disguised his rustling. We found a hole in one of the fences that led us to believe that some cows had gotten loose and wandered off into the brush. I didn’t call Williamson to report a theft, because it didn’t occur to me that a rustler had shown up and taken the cows and then deliberately knocked the hole in the fence himself just to mislead us.”

What’s more, Roddy always took his stolen cattle to a livestock auction barn that was at least a couple of counties away, where there was almost no chance the brands on the cattle would be recognized. (With more than 100,000 registered brands in Texas, many of which look alike, it is impossible for anyone to keep up with all of them.) Before pulling up to the barn, he also made sure to replace the tag in each cow’s ear with one that showed he owned that cow, and sometimes, he’d get out his electric branding iron and stamp his DP brand on the cow. (Some cows are sold and resold so often that they have multiple brands.) The one thing he did not do was use a fake driver’s license when he listed his name on the barn’s sales sheet. His thinking was that if an employee suspected him of using false identification, the word would get back to Williamson.

Williamson did finally learn about Roddy around July 2004. He got a call from a TSCRA field inspector who worked in Weatherford, east of Gordon. He was looking into the theft of some saddles, and he had been told by an informant that he should investigate someone named Roddy Pippin, who was now living in Odell. Did Williamson know anything about him?

Williamson drove by Roddy’s house and saw him on the porch. “I could see him looking at me, and my instincts kicked in,” Williamson said. “What, I wondered, was this young man doing way out in this little community, and how was he really making a living?”

The TSCRA headquarters, in Fort Worth, ran Roddy’s name through its computers, which keep records of everyone who has sold cattle at any auction barn in Texas. But the name typed into the computer was spelled “Pippen.” A clerk called Williamson to say that there was no record that the young man in Odell had made any cattle sales at all. “So at that point, there was still little for me to investigate,” Williamson said. “For me, Roddy was just one more suspicious character I needed to keep my eyes on.”

RODDY TOLD ME he had seen Williamson drive past his home. “I gave him a wave,” he said, “and then I walked inside and said to myself, ‘Roddy, the posse is getting close.’”

“So why didn’t you give up rustling right then?” I asked.

“Sir, I was a foolish young man, a very foolish young man,” he said. “But I believed I could pull off one last big rustle and then get out of the business for good.”

Roddy’s plan was to steal an eighteen-wheeler filled with several dozen steers. Near Odell was a rest stop where these trucks pulled over for the night so the cattle could be fed and watered. Roddy said he had been studying the rest stop for a year. “I had everything planned out to the detail,” he said. “I was going to take the truck to St. Louis or maybe Kansas City and sell the cattle there.”

But, he said, he decided to do one more job with David and Darrell. According to Roddy, the brothers were calling him regularly that summer, pressing him to bring them along on new rustling jobs. Roddy said David was desperately needing money for diapers because Windy had just given birth. Darrell too was wanting money because Melissa was eight months pregnant.

Although Roddy was not feeling well—he had spent a few days at a hospital in Chillicothe recovering from another diabetic episode—he told the twins he was ready. One morning in early August, Darrell arrived with Melissa, and the three of them spent the day looking for cattle. That night, while the very pregnant Melissa stayed at Roddy’s home, relaxing on the couch, Roddy and Darrell grabbed eight head of cattle from a pen on a ranch near Quanah belonging to Joe Lindsey.

They returned to Odell to pick up Melissa, and at about two in the morning, they headed off for the sale barn in Decatur, Roddy driving his pickup with the trailer full of cattle and Darrell and Melissa behind him in their pickup. It wasn’t long before they realized they were being followed by another pickup. In that truck was the same woman who had seen the pickup and cattle trailer racing down the highway earlier that summer. The woman, Shawn Wise, the 29-year-old daughter of a retired county farm agent, had decided that this time she was going to find out who was behind the wheel.

Roddy and Darrell, talking on their cell phones, tried to outrun her. They roared down one farm-to-market road after another. Inside Roddy’s trailer, dizzy from the wild getaway ride, the cattle mooed and mooed. Roddy and Darrell then split up, Roddy heading toward the Oklahoma border and Darrell and Melissa heading toward Vernon. Sticking with Roddy, Wise pulled out her cell phone and called Larry Lee, who was then the chief sheriff’s deputy of Wilbarger County. Lee threw on his clothes and caught up with Roddy, while the Vernon police caught up with Darrell and Melissa. When Roddy, Darrell, and Melissa were taken to jail, Lee looked at them and said to himself, “These people are cattle rustlers?”

The next morning, after attending church services at the First Baptist Church in Seymour, where his son was being baptized, Williamson arrived at the county jail to interrogate Roddy. Roddy insisted that he had purchased the cows in Oklahoma. But by then Lindsey, the rancher, had called Williamson to say he couldn’t find some cattle he had just penned the night before. The brand on the cattle, he said, was Lazy J, which happened to be the same brand on the cattle in Roddy’s trailer.

Roddy suddenly had no defense. Despite all his plans to evade detection, he had been brought down, like cattle rustlers of old, by the simple branding iron.

IF, AT THAT POINT, Roddy had kept his mouth shut, he probably would have been booked on a single charge: theft of livestock under ten head, a fourth-degree felony. And because he had no prior criminal record, it was likely he would get probation. But a day after he was arrested, Roddy talked with his father. “My dad said to me, ‘Son, we raised you to be better than this,’” Roddy recalled. “‘If there’s anything else you need to get off your chest, you need to do it. Your game is over, acting like a rustler. You need to stand up and take your punishment like a real man.’”

Roddy nodded, shook his father’s hand, and over the next few days told Williamson about dozens of thefts, from cattle to trailers to saddles. “I told him that I was sorry, but that the rustling had gotten into my blood,” Roddy said.

Williamson and district attorney Dan Mike Bird, who knew most of the ranchers who had been robbed, made it clear that they were not going to show Roddy any mercy. “Out here, our opinions about cattle rustlers haven’t changed since the frontier days, when cattle thieves were hanged,” Bird told me. “We don’t take kindly to any cattle rustler, no matter how pleasant he may be.” A plea bargain was arranged in which Roddy received four consecutive two-year sentences with no chance of parole. Roddy gave interviews to a few newspaper reporters—“One hundred years ago, I would have gotten the rope,” he told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, explaining his decision to accept such a harsh sentence—and then off he went to state prison.

THAT’S WHEN RODDY and I began corresponding. “I would be honored to tell a few of my stories and intrigue the Texas Public,” he wrote in his first letter. “God willing that the creek don’t rise, I’ll hear back from you soon.”

Then, over the next few months, he began sending me short stories he had written in his prison cell that were based on his days as a rustler—the first stories, he said, he had ever written. In one of the stories, titled “The Red River Herd,” he wrote about two hundred head of cattle nearly trampling him to death in a stampede. (Roddy always served as the narrator and main character in his stories.) In another, “Twister on the Red River,” he wrote about a tornado descending from the sky just as he was rounding up some stolen cattle. He began “Russeling from the Hyson Well Road” (Roddy always spelled “rustling” as “russeling”) with a scene of himself awakening in bed with his girlfriend. “The white satin curtain drapes blew in the window as I twisted in my blue silk sheet and rolled to my left to find Alexcia’s warm body compressed against mine,” he wrote.

But, Roddy continued, as much as he wanted to stay next to her, “cattle ran through my mind.” He slipped out of bed, put on his cowboy clothes, and drove out Hyson Well Road, where he knew cattle were grazing—“large, hairy, horned, hooved animals known as the last true legacy to me of the west. … I could hear the sound of two red tailed hawks screeching as they circled over the herd. … In the smell of manure drifting in the fresh air, I could smell money. And in my mind that particular odor was the sweetest scent a man could and ever would have the pleasure of smelling.”

In the last scene of the story, Roddy walked out of the sale barn with a check in his hand. “My spur rolls rattled on the pavement below my feet, and I walked with my head held highly tilted toward the sky,” Roddy wrote. “I knew that I had once again successfully accomplished another cattle russeling, and would live to russel again, from Hyson Well Road.”

When I went to see Roddy in prison, I told him that maybe he was on his way to becoming the next Louis L’Amour. “Sir, it would be an honor if I could become a writer and pass on my love of the Western life to others,” he replied.

By then, Roddy had been incarcerated for nearly a year and a half. Because of his diabetes, he didn’t look good at all; his blood sugar levels had been fluctuating wildly, and he had suffered a number of life-threatening seizures. Although he had been transferred to Huntsville’s W. J. Estelle Unit, which contained a 136-bed medical facility, two Huntsville lawyers who had learned of his deteriorating condition, David O’Neill and Scott Pawgan, were asking the state’s parole board to grant Roddy an early release, claiming that he needed to be treated by qualified doctors at a hospital. O’Neill went so far as to say that because of the prison’s limited resources to treat severe diabetes, Roddy could very well lose some limbs and perhaps die in prison before completing his sentence.

“All I want is one more chance to be outside,” Roddy told me. “I dream of sitting beneath an oak tree, fully dressed in my cowboy apparel, with my felt cowboy hat arched toward the heavens on a beautiful spring morning.”

“But wouldn’t you be tempted to rustle again?” I asked him.

He looked me right in the eye and said, “If people knew how I felt now, they would know that I would never go back,” he said. “Sir, I promise you, that is in my past. I truly hope that someday I can visit churches and schools and speak to children about the temptations of rustling and of the outlaw life in general.”

RODDY’S APPLICATION for a medical release was turned down by the state parole board. His lawyers then filed a motion for “shock probation,” which argued that Roddy had been so changed by going to prison that he was no longer a criminal threat. The hearing was held in Quanah in early March, in the court where Roddy had received his original sentence. A few of the ranchers who had lost their cattle to Roddy were in the courtroom. Out of respect for the proceedings, they had removed their cowboy hats and held them in their hands. Williamson testified about the extent of Roddy’s career as a rustler (as always, he referred to Roddy only as a “thief”), and the head of the Estelle Unit’s medical facility testified that Roddy was receiving the “best care under the circumstances.” He said that the nurses were checking his glucose levels every day and that a doctor was always on call in case Roddy suffered a seizure.

Roddy’s lawyers had his mother testify. She said that if her son was given probation, “I will be his ball and chain. He will not be a reoffender.” She paused. “He will be the boy he used to be.”

When Roddy took the stand, he looked toward the ranchers and in a halting voice said, “If I could take it all back, if I could pay you all back, I would.” And then the young man who had turned himself into one of Texas’s great cattle rustlers burst into tears.

Though there were plenty of people in the courtroom who believed that Roddy was genuinely sorry, he had no chance, of course. The judge, who lives outside Vernon, denied the motion for probation. I watched as a sheriff’s deputy escorted Roddy out the main door of the courthouse and across the street to the county jail, where he would spend the night before being taken back to Huntsville. It was a beautiful spring morning. The sun was out, shining right down on Roddy’s face, and in the distance, just past downtown, were some pastures dotted with cattle.

It was exactly the kind of morning that Roddy liked to write about in his stories. I thought I saw him lift his head and look around. But if he did, he had only a moment to take everything in. “Come on, boy,” the sheriff’s deputy said, and Roddy lowered his head and walked away.

Related Content