If you thought the days of Texas cattle rustling ended long ago, think again.
Authorities say it remains alive and well and the case of a Hill County man proves it.
The National Cattlemen's Beef Association calls cattle raising a more than $67 million a year business.
So it's no wonder investigators say they think 47-year-old William "Willie" Rittenbaugh saw an opportunity.
"We had a situation where a guy was renting a pasture, sub-leasing it and he got locked out of the pasture and when we went over there, his cows were gone," said Chief Deputy Rick White of the Hill County Sheriff's Department.
When investigators learned who'd rented the pasture they found a familiar name.
"We had dealt with him before," said White.
In fact, Rittenbaugh was already out on bond, on a similar charge. That's when detectives learned the Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association had tied him to almost identical cases in McLennan, Limestone and Navarro Counties, in addition to the case in Hill County.
"He would contract with people to pasture their animals, and so, maybe that owner would come up and find 'hey I don't see all my cows here,'” said White.
Investigators believe he'd sell the cattle, pocket the profit and find more victims with more cows.
Rittenbaugh's victims don't want to tell their stories of deception for fear of hurting the case against him. As one victim told me, they won't feel right about what happened until a judge puts Willie Rittenbaugh in prison for a long time.
That's one reason a judge recently increased his bail to more than $4.5 million.
While investigators marvel at Rittenbaugh's nerve, they say their suspect had no chance of getting away with it.
”Well, I thought it was pretty amazing. I mean, you know, it's pretty rare in this day and time, where you have thefts alleged to be in the seven digits,” White said.
Rare, but not unheard of. So, his advice, to potential victims is if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Chief White says he believes more of Rittenbaugh's victims are out there. If you have information that could help, call the Hill County Sheriff's Department (254-582-5313) or the Southwest Cattle Raisers Association (800-242-7820).
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