Colorado woman loses cattle to modern day rustler | TheFencePost.com

Colorado woman loses cattle to modern day rustler

Erin McIntyre
for The Daily Sentinel, Grand Junction, Colo.

Editors note: We apologize for the recent technical problems with this story.

Kelley Sanburg still dreams of the horses she last saw more than five years ago.

There was a gray paint and two buckskin mules named Chip and Dale, who worked together as a driving team. A black colt, a red gelding and another beautiful young buckskin were also among the herd.

It makes her sick to think about what became of them.

"To this day, I can still see every single one of those horses in my mind," she said. "And it drives me crazy to think what happened to them and it makes me feel awful."

The majority of these 28 horses, she believes, met a gruesome end after being sold for meat in Mexico, the fate she expressly tried to avoid. It was all the result of her handshake deal with a man named Douglas Hammack, who had made a complicated deal to train some of the animals and keep others in exchange for pasturing 37 cattle. After months of attempting to recover her livestock, Sanburg was only able to find 14 cows. None of the horses were ever recovered.

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In a complicated criminal case, Hammack was investigated, arrested and convicted of theft of the livestock. But Sanburg's efforts to recoup more than $100,000 in restitution, a debt left sitting in limbo by Mesa County courts, have stalled. Mesa County's justice system lacked the expertise in agricultural matters to effectively prosecute the case. Her attempt to bring a civil case to trial in Montrose County against Hammack and his father has been postponed by Hammack's filing for bankruptcy, an 11th-hour tactic he admits he knew would halt the proceedings.

For Sanburg, the trial's delay is just the latest in a series of problems that have reared their ugly heads since she first met Hammack back in 2012.

A DEAL GONE BAD

It started with an ad on Craigslist, which Sanburg placed to find pasture for her animals. As many folks in the agriculture community can attest, arranging space and feed for livestock can be a matter of shuffling around when animals are retrieved in the early fall from public lands where they've grazed all summer. This situation was all the more dire in the fall of 2012, after drought conditions spiked the cost of feed for livestock.

Sanburg was interested in arranging to trade some horses for pasturing her cattle over the winter. She had 37 yearling heifers she wanted to pasture.

Initially she had interest from a man who came to her place in Montrose and looked at her horses. He wanted to buy the horses outright, offering her 17 cents a pound, and she declined.

"I don't sell my horses to killer-buyers," she said, using the term for people who purchase animals and transport them to Mexico for slaughter.

Her herd included some older dude horses, some she had used for her hunting outfitting business in Cimarron, Colo., horses that would have been suitable for families with kids, mixed in with a bunch of younger horses that needed to be trained. In total, there were 28 horses, and she turned the first inquiry away.

Sanburg then met Hammack, who seemed eager to make a deal and said he was interested in training some of the unbroken horses and keeping them in exchange for the pasture fees.

"I asked him three times, 'You are not a killer-buyer, these are going to good homes, right? I don't want anything to happen to them,'" Sanburg said, adding that she was assured that nothing like that would happen.

Hammack and his father, Wayne, loaded up the horses and took them, and came back later for the cows.

NAGGING FEELING

Soon after Hammack had picked up the horses and cattle, Sanburg had trouble getting in touch with him.

She began to have a nagging feeling that her trust was misplaced, and the dread deepened when she started receiving email responses from Hammack attempting to strike more complicated deals, asking for a portion of the calves born to the heifers in the spring, and eventually threatening her with legal action for demanding her animals back.

He threatened to contact a "friend in the governor's office and make this a huge explosion" and attempted to bully her into agreeing that he would get 70 percent of the calves born to the heifers he was supposedly pasturing for her. "You are going to get your heifers back Kelly (sic), its just a matter of if you want a lien against them and a civil case at the end of this or not," he wrote in a July 2013 email, threatening to collect money for feed costs.

About four months after Hammack took the cows, Sanburg tracked down part of the herd at a pasture behind a rental Hammack was being evicted from on the Redlands. The 14 heifers were emaciated and hadn't been regularly fed or watered. A neighbor told her she had called authorities to report animal cruelty and neglect. Sanburg had no idea her animals had been left in this state, and she loaded them up and took them home to nurse them back to health. The 23 other cattle were still missing.

Around the same time Sanburg found her abandoned cows, she received word that a gray heifer, belonging to her neighbor and pastured with her animals through the deal with Hammack, had been identified at the Western Slope Cattlemen's Auction in Loma, Colo. In a strange twist, the man who initially inquired about buying Sanburg's horses for meat claimed the cow and took it to a property near Fruita, Colo. By the time Sanburg arrived to retrieve the gray heifer, it was gone.

Investigators later talked to the horse buyer and he confirmed he acquired horses from Hammack in January 2013, matching the description of Sanburg's herd. He told the investigator those horses were taken to Mexico and sold for slaughter.

THE CRIMINAL CASE

The Mesa County Sheriff's Office acquired the case in July 2013, after Sanburg made a report to brand inspectors. In subsequent interviews with Hammack, the investigator documented a web of lies Hammack told, including claims that he had taken the horses to a feedlot he owned in Nebraska and sold them, though he could not produce bills of sale for any of those alleged transactions, and the investigator found no evidence that Hammack owned a feedlot there. However, "Doug did make a comment that he was sure most of them ended up in Mexico," the investigator wrote in the affidavit for his arrest.

He claimed he had taken the cattle to graze on Baxter Pass, and led the investigator on a wild goose chase looking for the cows, but no evidence of grazing in the area was found.

Hammack had no viable explanation for what happened to the animals and was arrested in October 2013 for felony theft and other charges related to failing to have livestock inspected by a brand inspector prior to transporting them.

The criminal case was slow to move forward, though, and wasn't resolved until two and a half years later. To say Sanburg was unsatisfied with the resolution would be a massive understatement.

She's still frustrated at the outcome of the case in Mesa County District Court, especially the lack of knowledge displayed by the prosecutor and judge who handled the case.

"They didn't put one tiny smidgen of effort into prosecuting this kid," Sanburg said, calling Hammack a "con artist."

She thought the case was going to trial, until a last-minute plea deal Sanburg didn't approve gave Hammack the opportunity to plead guilty to theft of agricultural animals and transporting animals without a brand inspection, dismissing the other charges against him.

The deal also gave Hammack the chance to avoid having the felony conviction on his record, as the agreement called for a deferred judgment if he completed three years of probation and 160 hours of community service. He had been previously convicted of theft in 2009 and received a deferred judgment in that case, as well, but had no other criminal record.

Mesa County District Judge David Bottger, who had spent more than 30 years on the bench, confessed to the court that he'd never dealt with charges like these and was unfamiliar with the case. According to the transcript of the hearing, he hadn't even read the affidavit prior to the hearing and said he didn't know he needed to do so.

NO AG EXPERTISE

The prosecutor who handled the case, an attorney named Jason Conley who no longer works for the district attorney's office, explained the situation with Sanburg and Hammack's deal was complicated and said he didn't think he could prove Hammack's intent to deprive her of her property if the case went to trial. He also told the court he didn't have the expertise to deal with the agricultural nature of the case.

"I think that I'm not capable of dealing with it in the sense that I don't have the familiarity with the subject matter…," he said, and admitted that Sanburg's attorney, Rufus Wilderson of Gunnison, Colo., was right in accusing the prosecution of passing the buck on handling restitution.

"I think to a certain extent, Mr. Wilderson is … correct in that the prosecution is more or less punting on the issue of restitution in this case, and I take responsibility for that," Conley told the court.

Sanburg maintains that if the case had involved $100,000 in property the court was more familiar with, such as cars or jewelry, it likely would have been handled better.

In the end, Bottger accepted the plea agreement and even was somewhat apologetic to Hammack during the sentencing.

"I think coming to court is punishment in itself, frankly, unless you're paid to be here, and Mr. Hammack's not," he said, noting that he could impose a jail sentence but he felt that would hinder Hammack's ability to pay restitution. "Deferred judgment and sentence is punishment."

Bottger, who has since retired from the bench, also left the question of restitution unanswered, ordering Hammack to pay whatever was determined in a civil case. Since then, the attempt to take Hammack and his father to civil court to obtain that restitution has been delayed twice, most recently by Hammack's filing for bankruptcy days prior to the trial scheduled in Montrose County District Court last month.

HAMMACK'S BACKGROUND

According to Colorado secretary of state records, Hammack formed the Hammack Land & Cattle Co. in 2012 and used a Kimball, Neb., mailing address at the time. Less than a year later, he registered the business' address in Fruita. He also used the business name Hammack Equine, business records show. Most of his business dealings appear to be connected to his father, Wayne, who was also present when the horses were picked up from Sanburg's place in Montrose and has been named in the civil suit.

It's not clear how many clients he had during the first few years of his business, but Sanburg's experience with lost livestock and Hammack not keeping his word was not an isolated incident. Another cattle company based in Kansas, the Pertl Ranch, obtained a judgment against him in Utah civil court in 2014 for more than $47,000. In that case, according to court documents, Hammack had agreed to take 46 of the ranch's cows and pasture them in Carbon County, Utah. Thirteen of the cows, bred heifers due to birth calves in the spring, went missing.

Mindy Montgomery, one of the owners of the Kansas ranch, told an investigator with the Mesa County Sheriff's Office in 2013 that Hammack pocketed approximately $15,000 intended to pay for pasturing the cows, according to the affidavit for Hammack's arrest in the case involving Sanburg.

The Pertl Ranch hasn't received a dime of restitution from Hammack since the 2014 judgment, co-owner Shane Pertl confirmed last month.

When asked if he intended to comply with the Utah court's order and pay the Kansas company, Hammack said "that I can't really disclose." He also accused the Kansas cattle owners of "trying to piggyback" off the case involving Sanburg. He didn't fight the case.

Hammack said he has apologized for what happened with Sanburg's livestock, called the case a "one-sided deal" and accused brand inspectors of being overzealous and making a civil matter into a criminal case.

"We've accepted liability and we've offered them all that they've asked for in damages and they rejected it," he said, explaining that he offered to pay Sanburg back in installments, 25 percent of his income per year. But when asked how long that would take or how much that amounted to, he refused to answer. Sanburg's attorney said he got the same answer when he asked the same question.

"We've asked for copies of his tax returns, and Hammack has never revealed his annual income," Wilderson said.

Hammack declined to say what he has performed for his community service and said he's not finished with his hours yet.

When asked what happened to Sanburg's cattle and horses, Hammack maintains he took the cows up on Baxter Pass, a remote area of Garfield County, but did not elaborate on what happened to the horses.

Hammack, who is now 31, said he got into the livestock business after having a "childhood dream" of becoming a cowboy. He said he continues to work in event management but no longer works in the livestock business.

"They've kind of ended all that for me," he said.

NO RESTITUTION

Regarding his petition for bankruptcy, Hammack claims he had no other choice and said he knew the filing would halt the civil proceedings.

Any attempt to collect from someone who has filed for bankruptcy is against federal law, and as it is, it's hard to tell if Hammack has any assets that could be used to pay restitution, Wilderson said.

"His bankruptcy could drag on for years," Wilderson said. "I don't care, then we can have a civil trial."

But ultimately, Wilderson admitted this is a tough situation and it might be a while before his client sees a dime of restitution.

"You can't make somebody work and you can't make somebody pay their debt," he said. "But his obligation, as part of the plea agreement, was to pay restitution to Kelley."

Wilderson said he and Sanburg have no intention of letting Hammack off the hook or letting him drag this out so long that it somehow just disappears.

"A judgment will be entered against him and that civil judgment will not be dischargeable, so in essence, you can hound him for life," Wilderson said.

For Sanburg, the case continues to haunt her, and it's not just about the money. It's about those horses being slaughtered, it's about the violation of the trust that she had for someone else in the livestock community. She's old school, someone who takes people at their word, who assumes good intentions. And Hammack ruined that for her.

"This cattle rustling thing is alive and well, and it's a thriving business. I think this all goes a lot deeper than we all realize," she said.

"I have never personally encountered anyone in my lifetime being this cruel and dishonest and just, flat, conniving," she said. "It's unbelievable."

— This story first appeared in The Daily Sentinel in Grand Junction, Colo.

Brand Inspectors

Some of the oldest laws on the books in Colorado deal with the sale and transport of livestock, and the people charged with enforcing those laws are brand inspectors.

Brand inspectors’ jobs remain the same as they have for 150 years — to make sure livestock is in the rightful owner’s possession.

In Colorado, cows and horses are considered livestock and any time they change hands, an inspection is required, even if the animal is a gift. An inspection is also required if an animal is transported across state lines or more than 70 miles and is not headed to a sale barn.

Cattle owners register their brands with the state, and there are more than 35,000 different brands used across Colorado. Horses are not usually branded, though horses used for recreation are sometimes microchipped by their owners. Working horses are not usually microchipped.

Brand inspectors also receive reports of missing or stolen livestock across Colorado. In the past six months, 265 missing or stolen cows and horses were reported in Colorado, according to the state.