Nearly six years after 10 bred heifers were stolen from them, Glenn and Christine Strube still feel the lingering stress of the long, drawn-out court process that ended with a guilty verdict. Most disturbing is knowing that the crime wasn’t committed by a fly-by-night thief, but by a neighbour who blatantly lied about it.
Little could Glenn have known what the years ahead would bring when he set out down the road to check the bred-heifer pasture that late-fall day of 2009. It wasn’t odd that he didn’t see all of the cattle. Pastures are big with lots of bush in this area bordering the boreal forest north of Shellbrook, Sask. When the same 10 heifers failed to show up the next day, his first thought was that he had a fence to fix somewhere, not theft.
What was unusual was that after a couple of days looking and asking around, not one of their neighbours had seen the missing heifers. Families in this neck of the woods are tight with bonds that go back to the first generation on the land, he says. Someone would have called had they noticed cattle wandering at large.
Strube had notified the local RCMP detachment but couldn’t give them much to go on at the time except the description of the cattle and that they had yellow dangle management tags in their left ears and the required Canadian Cattle Identification Agency (CCIA) radio frequency identification buttons in their right ears. The Strubes normally brand their cattle, but the timing didn’t work out for branding the 2008-born heifer group.
Sure enough, a neighbour, Sigurd Skarsgard, contacted them a few days later with pertinent information.
Calling around to auction markets to find out whether any farmers from the area had delivered cattle, Strube learned that the farmer with pasture across the road from their heifer pasture had sold cattle at Saskatoon Livestock Sales on October 13, 2009.
“If it hadn’t been for Les Tipton, the brand inspector (now retired) at Saskatoon, stepping up, nothing more would have happened,” Strube says. He described the cattle to Tipton, but Tipton didn’t let on at the time that the neighbour had indeed sold an unusual group of cattle with 10 animals that matched Strube’s description more than they matched the other cattle in the group. Following through the sales and manifest records, Tipton traced nine of the bred heifers to a feedlot in Saskatchewan and the other to an Alberta feedlot.
The Strubes suggested DNA testing to prove their rightful ownership. The couple runs a purebred Simmental operation and has up-to-date parentage records for every animal. Six of the bred heifers were purebred and the others were commercial Simmental-crosses.
As far as the Strubes were told, DNA testing had never before been used to crack a cattle theft case, but on the afternoon of December 31, 2009, a cavalcade of RCMP members made the trip to the farm to take hair samples from the dams and remaining sires of the stolen heifers. The Strubes’ bill came to a little over $1,000 for the on-farm tests and the RCMP paid for DNA testing the nine heifers found at the Saskatchewan feedlot.
The testing paid off because the stolen heifers proved to be from the Strube herd.
The suspect was subsequently charged with three Criminal Code offences: theft of the cattle, fraudulently keeping them in his possession, and making a false or counterfeit mark on them (removing Strube’s RFID tags and replacing them with his own).
Glenn underwent questioning on the stand for 2-1/2 hours during the preliminary hearing in October 2010, and another four hours of interrogation during the four-day court case in December 2012.
At the end of it all, Kelly Robin Deck was found guilty on the counts of stealing the heifers and making the counterfeit mark on them. He was ordered to pay restitution to the Strubes of $800 for each of the nine DNA-tested heifers and given a six-month conditional sentence with a curfew from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m.
Needless to say, the Strubes were pleased with the verdict, but couldn’t hide their deep disappointment with the sentence. What it boiled down to was that the thief had to pay back the money he had made from selling the cattle!
That could hardly be considered a monetary penalty and certainly didn’t compensate the Strubes for the value of the heifers as productive females in the herd over their lifetimes.
They are extremely discouraged that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) failed to follow up on the conviction for switching out the CCIA tags. Two CFIA officials who had visited the farm early on had told them there would be big trouble to pay if the accused was found guilty of tampering with tags.
The CFIA is responsible for administering and enforcing the Health of Animals Act, which requires animals have unique identification tags. The animal identification regulations under Part XV of the act explain that, except upon death or slaughter of an animal, no person shall remove, or cause the removal of, an approved tag from an animal or carcass.
“Farmers have to go to all the trouble and expense with these tags and even in a case like this, someone who removes them and steals the animals gets nothing,” Glenn says.
The CFIA declined to comment on our questions related to the maximum penalty for tampering with tags and following through on enforcement on the grounds that the case was a Criminal Code investigation led by the RCMP and Saskatchewan Livestock Inspection Service.
The Criminal Code on the Government of Canada’s justice laws website covers the penalties for the crimes cited in the case. According to Section 338 (1) (b) (ii), everyone who without consent of the owner fraudulently, in whole or part, makes a false or counterfeit brand or mark on cattle is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years. Part 2 of the same section states that the maximum sentence for theft of cattle is a term not exceeding 10 years.
Christine says she gets it that no jail time was ordered because the system is filled with the most dangerous criminals, but the couple feels that the six-month conditional sentence was little more than a slap on the wrist for theft and tampering with the tags, let alone a deterrent to cattle rustlers.
The judge told them the reason for not handing down a stiffer penalty on either count was because Deck suffered an additional punishment of having to live in his community with this conviction hanging over his head, and recommended that the Strubes follow up with a civil suit to claim the full value of the breeding heifers.
They didn’t see why after going through two court cases, the thief being proven guilty, expertise available to help the court determine the real cost of losing 10 animals from the breeding herd and, when all was said and done, they still had to go through civil court to get the rest of the money.
It turned out that they had lots of time to consider whether filing a civil suit would be worth the cost and stress because Deck launched an appeal. It was heard in the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal on April 15, 2014. The judgment handed down nine days later upheld the trial judge’s verdicts and the appeal was dismissed.
Court decisions are public documents housed on the Canadian Legal Information Institute’s website (www.canlii.org). According to the court document (R. v. Deck,  SKCA 44), the Appeal Court is required to show great deference to a trial judge’s findings of credibility and the trial judge had made adverse findings in relation to Deck’s credibility.
Deck never denied to the court that the Strube heifers had been in his yard and acknowledged that he had sold them, but claimed that he thought the heifers were his even though he knew the Strubes were looking for cattle at the time he sold the animals. The trial judge didn’t accept Deck’s evidence that he was so unfamiliar with his cattle operation that he didn’t notice Strube’s yearlings among his own animals. The appeal judge found that Deck was able to give quite detailed evidence about the composition of his herd at the time.
Deck’s initial statement that he had no idea how to remove tags didn’t hold water either. The appeal judge agreed with the trial judge’s conclusion that, while some of the Strube tags “could have fallen out by the fall of 2009, it was not ‘within the realm of possibility’ that all of those tags could have fallen out or been lost by that time” and that Deck had removed the tags and replaced them with his own before selling the animals.
The Strubes did follow through with a civil suit, which was settled out of court in May of last year.
The couple came forward with their story in the hope that it will help create awareness among ranchers across Canada that cattle rustling can happen anywhere, any time.
“This happens more often than we hear about to ranchers, but they don’t have a lead on who did it or can’t prove it. We were lucky to have the evidence and felt we were willing to go through this to represent other ranchers in sending a message to cattle rustlers that they cannot keep getting away with this,” Christine says.
They for one will make sure their brand is on each and every animal from now on and will continue to diligently check their cattle and keep good herd records.