Drivers passing by Alabama farms see cattle in fields and equipment in sheds, while criminals may view those scenes as opportunities.
The Alabama Agricultural and Rural Crime Unit (ARCU), formed in June 2013, is cracking down on those who prey on rural residents. The unit assists local law enforcement agencies and helps investigate crimes connected to farms and rural areas, said ARCU’s Jay Whitehead.
“The biggest crime that happens in agriculture is theft,” said Whitehead, ARCU supervisory special agent. “Other agencies have investigators, but everyone in our unit has some type of expertise relating to agriculture. Even though agriculture is Alabama’s largest industry—valued at about $70 billion—it’s also small because less than 2 percent of the population farms.”
The unit has seven divisions with eight to 10 counties per division. Most divisions are assigned two agents, said Whitehead, who serves as one of two area supervisors.
Whitehead, along with ARCU Special Agent Tim Mathews and Etowah County Sheriff’s Department investigator Robin Grant, recently recovered eight heifers valued at $20,000 for Brodie Pack, a 28-year old farmer from DeKalb County. The cattle were among 11 head stolen almost a year earlier.
“Tim and Robin kept in contact with me the whole way,” Pack said. “They cared about the case as much as I did, and if it weren’t for them I’d be swallowing a $20,000 loss right now. I can’t say enough for them and what they did for me and my family.”
Alabama Farmers Federation President Jimmy Parnell said ARCU is a valuable asset to Alabama citizens.
“The Agricultural and Rural Crime Unit is one of government’s success stories,” Parnell said. “The recovery of stolen equipment and livestock helps farmers and property owners, and the active investigation of rural crimes discourages thieves and vandals. ARCU shows what can happen when local and state officials work together to solve problems and meet the needs of taxpayers.”
Mathews, a former horseshoer turned law enforcement officer, said Pack’s peace of mind is more than enough motivation to catch criminals.
While training and personal development are always important, Mathews said growing up and working in agriculture provided life experiences and contacts crucial to serve the public and Alabama farmers.
“Rarely do you solve a case sitting behind a desk,” Mathews said. “Especially in a rural county, everybody knows what’s going on — who’s doing what, who’s spending money they don’t have, who’s hanging out where they don’t belong. That’s how you solve cases.”
Mathews said a clear memory, and preferably photos, of equipment and livestock help investigators recover stolen property.
“A lot of things that get stolen don’t have VIN numbers,” he said. “You need to know your livestock; it takes seconds to cut the tag out of an ear. If something was stolen yesterday, I have a good chance at recovering it. If it was a month ago and it’s rained three times, it’s going to be difficult.”
Agents have recovered about $3 million in stolen property, worked 461 cases and made close to 100 arrests since ARCU was formed.
To report rural crime, contact ARCU at 855-75-CRIME or visit arcu.alabama.gov.