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.

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

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