Arms held high, they walk backward in the dark past the giant gray fenders of Heller's '92 Dodge, past the trailer crowded with cattle. The seven cows and three calves shift uneasily, having been roused from their early morning slumber, lured with the promise of grain and then harassed into the trailer.
With deputies' guns pointing at them, Rakestraw and Heller pirouette slowly to show they carry no weapons. They lie facedown at the edge of Ridgeview Road just north of 175th Street. It's not raining yet, but a storm is roiling in the west -- a couple of hours ago it whipped up a tornado that cut through Leavenworth and Wyandotte counties. (That same tornado led to the death of a girl in Tonganoxie during the next day's cleanup.) Rakestraw and Heller reach behind their backs and hear the chatter of handcuffs.
"I didn't know really what we was getting pulled over for," Rakestraw says later from the Johnson County jail.
But he and Heller were towing a stolen trailer filled with stolen cattle. In Johnson County, cattle rustling long ago went the way of the ranch in Ranchmart, the mission of Mission Hills and the Indians of Indian Creek -- which is why the spate of thefts last winter and spring was notable. At least 468 head of cattle came up missing from Kansas farms last year, according to the Kansas Animal Health Department, but those numbers don't distinguish between thefts and cattle that just wandered off their pastures. Rakestraw's and Heller's May 12 arrests could lead to more charges involving nearly 100 purloined animals in Johnson and Miami counties between October 1999 and May 2000.
Rakestraw swears he didn't know that the cattle, valued at more than $25,000, were stolen. Yet he's already pleaded guilty to stealing them. On January 5, Judge Thomas H. Bornholdt sentenced the 30-year-old Rakestraw to 27 months in prison.
Prosecutors charged Heller, 22, with stealing the same cattle and the trailer, which was taken from Sims Farms in Miami County. He has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.
Neither is expected to earn more charges -- instead, Johnson County lawmen have their sights on two others they think were with Rakestraw and Heller that night.
One, Nancy Delaval, shows up for a split second on a tape from the cruiser's video camera, they say. Just after the truck and trailer come to a stop, a figure with long hair jumps from the truck and makes off into the darkness.
The other, well, the other is special. William Wards Jr., 25, is Johnson County's most notorious livestock thief.
Wards and Delaval face identical charges: theft of cattle worth more than $25,000 from Susan Mackey's Spring Hill farm on May 12; theft of cattle with a value of $500 to $25,000 from Charles Pretz's Olathe farm April 26; and theft of a John Deere all-terrain vehicle and trailer from Dunnick Brothers Inc. on May 5.
Wards denies it, but deputies believe he was in Heller's truck that night: By the time Delaval made her dash, Wards had slipped through the truck's back window and rolled from its bed as Heller made a turn.
Rakestraw says the last thing he heard Wards say was "'I can't go back to prison.' I thought maybe he had some dope on him, you know what I mean?"
David Rakestraw met William Wards Jr. last fall at Packaging Systems Inc. in Olathe, where they worked as welders, assembling deburring machines for galvanized pipe and other heavy equipment. They were an ironic match -- Rakestraw a long-haired Sioux and Wards a cowboy who tucked his jeans into his lace-up ropers and occasionally donned a big black hat. "It looked kind of funny on him, I always thought," Rakestraw says.
They had two things in common.
Both had served time. Wards had been sent up for horse theft; Rakestraw had done seven and a half years for manslaughter because of his participation in a 1991 Kansas City, Kansas, trailer-park beating death. ("Me and a couple buddies was out there drinking and stuff, and this guy come up and started shitting and everything," he says. "I got into it with him.")
And they shared a particular hankering. Away from work, they cruised the back roads of northeast Kansas, listening to Pantera and smoking methamphetamine. Rakestraw was content to watch the barbed wire fences and faded farmhouses drift by. He would let Wards drive. "That way I could smoke dope more than him."
Wards kept telling Rakestraw he was looking for land to plant his hay. "We'd drive for hours and hours. My old lady would get mad at me," Rakestraw says.
Mixed in with the music, the sound of the engine and the tires on gravel was the constant sound of Wards' voice. "He acts like he's 50 years old telling stories," Rakestraw says. "He's always talking about back in the old days. He's only in his 20s. He can't have many of the old days."
Wards talked so much, it became background noise. "All I hear is 'duh-duh-duh-duh-duh,'" Rakestraw says. "I should have listened."
Though it is within a chip shot or two of Smiley's Golf Course, the Wards farm feels isolated. While the collection of longhorn cattle atop the hill enjoy a view of the horizon, the two-story house huddles in a valley obscured from the rutted gravel of Monticello Road by trees and brush.
Life on the Wards farm wasn't happy. When Wards was 9 years old, his father was charged with two counts of aggravated incest; prosecutors later dismissed the charges because they couldn't find the alleged victims, Wards' twin sisters. Five years later, William Wards Sr. threatened a man with a handgun before pleading guilty to attempted aggravated assault and earning probation.
"His dad was an asshole, meaner than hell to his kids," remembers Steve Mackey, who has a farm in the area and whose sister is Susan Mackey, one of Wards' suspected theft victims. "I always kind of felt sorry for the kid and always talked to him."
As kids go, Wards was a nice one, Mackey remembers. He asked Wards to help wean calves, and Wards bottle-fed them until they should have been able to survive on their own. But too many of the calves died, Mackey says. Wards' adventures riding in youth rodeos in Osawatomie, Wellsville and Topeka were similarly unsuccessful.
"Normally I got the shit kicked out of me," Wards says of his bull-riding experiences. He quit after he broke his collarbone for the seventh time and a doctor told him one more break would mean a plastic replacement.
Wards got Bs and Cs at Olathe North High School before learning to weld at Johnson County Community College. He lived with two strippers from Tangos and Bonitas. One was skanky, but the other was real good-looking, with $2,000 in fake tits. He later married another woman, and he and Amy Wards had a son, though the two have since split up. Wards had dreams of becoming an underwater welder.
He became a horse thief instead.
Wards has no deep explanation for the calling. It was fun. It was easy. "It was just in me, I guess," he says.
The first thefts he'll admit to were supposedly his sister's idea. Diana Anderson later would help Olathe police track her brother down.
"I'm at her house smoking dope," Wards says. "She said, 'Hook your truck up.'" It was March 1995. Wards backed up the trailer to a fence near Harold and Iowa streets and had fifteen horses rounded up within ten minutes. But the animals wouldn't get in the trailer. "They were stupid," he says. "I had to beat the shit out of them to try to get them in there."
With four horses finally loaded, Wards and Anderson drove 100 miles to an auction in Marshall, Missouri, only to find they were seven days early. The auction was scheduled for the next week. Not having a better idea, Wards drove back to Olathe and returned the animals to their suburban pasture. "I opened the fucking gate, run them out on the road and drove off."
A week later, a similar scene played out at Anderson's. "I looked at my sister. I said, 'Marshall is tonight.' She said, 'Yeah.' I said, 'You want to go steal the horses again?'"
Wards sold the three horses for $1,864 to slaughterhouse buyers. One of the stolen animals was Shadow, a dappled gray pony that had belonged to Teresa Lippert's 12-year-old son. "He was so attached to her; it broke his heart," Lippert says. "She was like a part of our family."
Lippert and the other owners made appeals through the media for their beloved horses' safe return; Wards says the story tweaked his conscience. "I won't even listen to the news or the radio or read the paper," he says. "I don't want to hear stuff like that."
On March 28, 1996, two days after his 21st birthday, Wards lit out for Texas -- a trip that had become a habit. "I was putting on new tires every four or five months. I'd just go. I'd drive around and find some horses," he says. "[The authorities] knew it back then. They just couldn't prove it."
This particular expedition included a girlfriend and another couple. Wards drove a gray 1991 Ford pickup with double dooley wheels in the back and towed a 24-foot gooseneck trailer. The quartet's destination was a motel south of Fort Worth -- more specifically, a nearby field where a dozen horses grazed. Wards had sized up the field several months earlier, riding the horses bareback in the dark of night as a sort of test run.
"I knew these horses," he says. "They were going to come right to me."
Wards' friends dropped him off at the field around 10 p.m. with a halter, 6 feet of rope, wire cutters and a bucket of oats. The plan was to empty the field, but Wards set his sights instead on two prizes, quarter horses crossed with Morgans. One was a sorrel, red with a white blaze on its face. The other was a line back dun, piss yellow with a black stripe down its back.
Wards mounted the sorrel and led the other to the fence. He remembers a full moon, nearby security guards and lights at a plant of some kind. After cutting the wire fence, Wards rode beneath an interstate overpass. "There were probably twenty cars," he brags, "waving at me."
Wards called his friends on a cell phone he retrieved from its hiding place in a pile of old tires along the road. ("You never carry nothing with you you could lose," he says, offering a rustling tip. "Always go with empty pockets.") The friends grumbled when they found Wards with just two horses. "They were kind of pissed off," he says. But Wards defended his selections: "They were worth a whole load of horses. They were broke good."
Because of the animals' quality, Wards decided against a quick sale at a horse auction. He stored them at the Olathe Lake home of his grandfather, Eugene Wards, who was in the hospital with pneumonia. A couple of weeks later, Wards swapped the animals for $4,500.
That was about the same time Johnson County Sheriff's Detective Dennis Davis' phone rang. The woman on the other end of the line said she was involved with one of Wards' "running partners."
Davis' detective work took some time, but it wasn't hard. "Too many people with too much knowledge about what's going on," Davis says. "Wards likes to boast about what he steals."
The investigation turned up a Miami County horse Wards had taken to Oklahoma to sell; Wards served probation for the theft. Davis also uncovered the Texas horses, and the owner came and got them. Wards dodged the charges in those thefts -- he says he got off because he admitted to stealing the Olathe horses. Davis, however, was surprised Wards went free. "We thought Texas authorities would charge Mr. Wards with those thefts," Davis says. "He walked on those."
But Wards couldn't hide from Olathe lawmen. He pleaded guilty to two of three theft counts and initially got probation. He proceeded to fail drug tests and miss restitution payments, which earned him eight months in prison.
Detective Davis didn't have time to think too hard when Charles Pretz called the sheriff's office last April 26 to report a livestock theft. "You don't have a lot of people out here stealing horses," Davis says. "Say you have five incidents and Wards is responsible for four. Chances are he was involved in the fifth one too."
Pretz could hardly have been more helpful to the thieves. A few days earlier, he'd dumped a pile of temporary fence sections in a pasture at 142nd and Moonlight Road in Olathe, where he planned to tag and immunize some calves. But on April 26, Pretz saw that the sections were assembled as a loading chute and about ten animals, most of them calves, were missing.
"The way they laid it out, they knew how to handle cattle. They sure did," Pretz remembers. "This is not any kid that came out and did this."
As a dairy farmer, Pretz is subject to the most demanding of chores. He milks his Holsteins twice a day, every day. When he is not milking, the 67-year-old works his 450 acres, some of which his family has owned since just after the Civil War. Pretz, who has no wife or children, plants row crops. He harvests hay. And he tends beef cattle, breaking ice from water and rolling out bales on the coldest of winter days. Forget vacations in Maui -- Pretz hasn't spent a night at the Wichita Holidome or even left the farm for more than a day since 1957.
Two days later, on Friday, April 28, the veterinarian came to castrate and immunize the remaining cattle, and Pretz took the fence sections back to his house, about a mile away. But on Sunday night, somebody stole more cattle. This time, the rustlers used fence sections Pretz had been keeping at some property he owned nearby. Davis believes the thieves used two trailers to make off with about twenty head.
Pretz has dealt with vandals -- they burned the barn and the house where his father was born. More than a few times thieves have stolen his equipment -- the price of farming on the fringe of the suburbs. But cattle theft brings out the frontier mentality in Pretz.
"I would have shot and hung this kid if I'd caught him."
Davis figures the thieves split up Pretz's cattle and trucked them to auctions around the region. Some of them probably ended up at the Overbrook, Kansas, Livestock Commission Company, owned and run by John and Joyce Dillon. Last year, buyers bought 45,000 head of cattle at Overbrook auctions.
Each Monday morning, trucks pulling trailers line up early, exhaust from diesel engines mixing with steam from the cattle. Handlers tally the animals as they stumble from their trailers into the mazelike, 75-pen holding barn. At 10:30 a.m., the bidding starts when the knotty pine door to the auction room swings open.
"J-27," the auctioneer says as a cow enters.
On the giant, wiggling scale that is the auction pen, two men prod the animal to show its profile to the buyers in their tiers of worn theater seats. On the walls hang cutouts of painted farm animals and posters advertising such businesses as Buzzard's Pizza in Pomona and Topeka's Boss Hawg's Barbeque, which has been "Horrifying vegetarians since 1955."
A video monitor registers the animal's weight as the auctioneer mumbles the numbers. The price climbs while buyers wave thick fingers as if they're shooing flies from a sandwich. When the shooing stops, so does the bidding.
"Sold, 37 and a quarter," the auctioneer announces. The cow has sold for a little more than 37 cents per pound. The exit door swings open, and a new animal enters.
The Dillons keep careful track of weights and sale prices, but what security there is comes from John Dillon's own instincts. Kansas and Missouri don't have laws requiring proof of ownership; locally, brands and ear tags are strictly for the owner's use. Having run his auction for more than a decade, Dillon knows most every farmer who comes through the door. And three or four times a year, somebody triggers his suspicions.
"If somebody seems a little strange, we'll get his license," Dillon says, and he or his wife will call the Livestock Marketing Association to see whether there have been any problems. But it's a relatively empty gesture. "We've never turned anybody away," Dillon says.
And even though Dillon's horse sense wasn't sharp enough to catch him, Wards says Dillon is one of the more attentive auction owners. Many ask no questions at all, he says. "They don't care. I know lots of sale barns like that."
Because Dillon had known his father, Wards' visits last winter triggered no extra attention. Wards dropped off cattle. Sometimes he had a woman along. He would leave and come back later in the day to pick up his check. Young and talkative, Wards didn't blend in with the other farmers in their layers and rubber boots. Wards rambled on to Dillon, asking whether Dillon could supply young animals for a roping arena Wards planned to start.
"I thought, 'You're kind of windy,'" Dillon says. "I didn't say it, but I thought it."
Rakestraw ought to have been suspicious of the "favor" Wards asked of him that night in May. Instead, Rakestraw says, "I thought everything was legit."
How a midnight cattle run could seem legit is something Rakestraw has tried to explain to detectives. Late hours were the norm for Wards.
"I delivered hay at 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning," Rakestraw says. "The time didn't matter."
Wards takes pride in the hours he worked, particularly when he was on meth. "My tractors run 24 hours. My trucks don't stop," he says.
Wards and Rakestraw began working together at the Wards farm in November or December 1999, after Wards was fired from his welding job. Wards says he lost the job while juggling it, hospital visits to see his father (who had suffered a debilitating stroke) and upkeep on the farm. Wards' father was leasing almost 700 acres for planting hay and raising about fifty head of cattle.
"I was trying to do what my dad had been doing," Wards says. "It was about killing me."
Wards and his brother-in-law, Richard Snyder, alternated between working for Snyder's painting company and cutting wood at the farm. Wards recruited Rakestraw to help, offering him $100 a day, cash.
"I thought I hit a gold mine," Rakestraw says.
For about a month, the pair cut as many as eight cords of wood a day. Wards sold it through a newspaper ad for $100 a cord, pocketing $6,000 from wood sales in December.
Soon, however, the pair found themselves forgoing lunch for dope. Meth makes you feel like you have ants in your hair. It makes you horny. It makes you feel like you and your buddy could take your girlfriends, drive to Texas and in 36 hours return with a load of the prettiest, brokest horses you've ever seen. And it gives you the energy to cut a hell of a lot of wood. "Well, we need more meth to stay up and do this work," Rakestraw says. "So we needed more money. It ended up, the works were just for the drugs."
Rakestraw says they were smoking more than an eight ball (3.5 grams) in a day. Wards says he was paying $300 for three eight balls or $500 for an ounce.
Somewhere along the line Wards stopped paying Rakestraw. Or Rakestraw stopped showing up, depending on who you ask.
Flat broke, Rakestraw was evicted from the Bonner Springs home he shared with his girlfriend and her three children. He moved his family to the American Motel off Interstate 70 at 78th Street, but he needed a place to put his stuff.
Though his friendship with Rakestraw was souring, Wards thought of a couple solutions. He'd let Rakestraw borrow a trailer to move his things. Most of his shit could go in an old barn Wards knew of that no one was using, he told Rakestraw.
Rakestraw set up camp at the weathered red barn on Ridgeview Road just south of Kansas Highway 10.
"All the kids' toys were in there, all our Christmas stuff, washer, dryer, the whole house," Rakestraw says. "We set up a couch and everything so the kids could play."
The offer was less than charitable. "It is better than having him live in my goddamn house," Wards says.
But in Rakestraw's suspicious moments, he believes Wards set him up. The barn became one more link between Rakestraw and the stolen cattle.
The night before the deputies caught up with Rakestraw, he and his girlfriend had gone to the Olathe duplex Wards shared with Nancy Delaval. Rakestraw had to call his parole officer once a month to check in, and he needed a phone set up for long distance. Using Wards' phone was one way to get back a tiny bit of what Wards owed Rakestraw.
Wards agrees that Rakestraw came over to make a call. But that's where the two versions of what happened part ways.
Wards says he waited for his estranged wife, Amy, to get off work and collect their son, who had spent the day with Wards. About 10:30 p.m., Wards says, he left the house to visit a friend in Seneca, Kansas. "I ain't saying I knew about it. I ain't saying I didn't know about it," Wards says of the thefts. "I'm just saying that I know I wasn't there."
Wards can understand why his friends might want to do a little cattle rustling of their own after they'd heard all about it from him. "I would sit back and talk about the old days. They were like, 'Let's go do it.'"
He was having none of it, Wards says, mainly because as the area's most notorious rustler, he would be the main suspect. "Some cows come up missing, who the hell do they come after?"
But in Rakestraw's version of the story -- the one investigators believe -- Rakestraw was doing Wards a favor, hoping to earn some extra money. That and he was eager to get away from his girlfriend. The two were fighting that night. "I just got tired of hearing her mouth," Rakestraw says.
Rakestraw says he, Wards, Delaval and Heller drove to the field near Spring Hill. They dropped off Wards and Delaval with a bag of cattle feed. Then Heller and Rakestraw retrieved Heller's 1992 Dodge 4-by-4 pickup. The trailer Rakestraw had used to move his furniture to the barn was already hooked up to Heller's truck. Meanwhile, Delaval and Wards lured the cattle into a pen.
They weren't very sneaky. With headlights shining, they backed the trailer up to the pen. Wards told Rakestraw to hold open the trailer door while he and Delaval prodded the animals into it. The startled cattle slammed into the door, knocking Rakestraw down. "I don't know nothing about cattle," Rakestraw says. "I was just trying to make some ends meet for my family and get away from my old lady. I sure did that."
Wards wasn't happy. Rakestraw says Wards was cussing: "He said, 'Man, I was hoping to get so many cows in this trailer.' I wondered, 'Well, why not come back and get them?'"
In hindsight, Rakestraw says there were plenty of signs that this wasn't a normal farm chore. And after pulling away with the trailer loaded, Wards was anything but relaxed.
"He and his old lady were getting nervous. They kept looking back, kept looking back. I thought they were just paranoid from doing dope," Rakestraw says. "Five minutes later, there was cherries behind us."
The rustlers picked the wrong cattle to steal. Susan Mackey was sleeping lightly because she'd heard about the thefts at Pretz's place. Hearing first one truck drive by and then a second before 4 a.m. was enough to send her running for her cell phone and car keys.
Pulling up behind Heller in her car, Mackey could see the ear tags identifying animals from her farm. Mackey called the Johnson County Sheriff's Department.
Davis arrives at the scene of the arrest about 4:45 a.m. Even with the help of a dog borrowed from Lenexa police, deputies have no luck finding the person they saw running from the pickup. And they don't know to look for anyone in the weedy ditch near the last turn.
They do get a lead, however. Heller spins a tale about delivering cattle to a barn on Ridgeview Road just south of Kansas Highway 10. Davis sends deputies, who find another trailer's worth of Susan Mackey's cattle and three of Pretz's calves. And Rakestraw's furniture.
Davis suspects at least one more person drove another truck and trailer that morning and unloaded the animals at the barn before deputies arrived. That would explain the first truck Mackey heard and a second set of tire tracks backed up to her field.
"We still have not identified who was in the first truck and trailer," Davis says.
Wards might be willing to help them figure it out, but only if Delaval goes free. "They let her go, and I'll squeal on myself," Wards says. "I'll go back five years. I don't give a shit if I go to prison. I'm partial to that girl."
Wards hints there is plenty to tell. At the same time, he says pinning the thefts on him will be difficult without a confession. He sold a lot of cattle from his father's place, and there's no way to tell whether the animals were from there or someone else's farm. "I know a lot about everybody. Myself and everybody else," he says.
On May 20, a week after Heller's and Rakestraw's arrests, Davis hauls in Wards and Delaval.
It doesn't take a posse. Davis just happens to run across Wards at the Kicks 66 convenience store at 15855 W. 87th Street in Lenexa. Davis sees Delaval first -- he holds the door open for her to enter the store.
Wards is outside, sitting in Delaval's 1998 Buick Skylark.
Davis calls for backup and approaches Wards when he gets out to use the pay phone. In the car, the deputies find a paper bag with five glass pipes, a straw and five Q-tips covered with what looks like drug residue. In Delaval's purse, they find a pipe and some marijuana.
Wards stays out of jail on bond until August 7, when he starts serving time on drug charges from Davis' gas-station bust; on February 2, 2001, Johnson County District Attorney Paul Morrison charges him with stealing cattle.
Wards says he is innocent. But since his arrest, Johnson County authorities haven't seen any reports of stolen horses or cows -- except for one. Just before Christmas, stroke victim William Wards Sr., who has been laid up at his farm and unable to check on his cattle, told Davis that someone had stolen fifty head between June and December 2000.