DNA helps solve cattle murder mystery

Cattle Market & Farm Reports, Editorials
Sep 13, 2004
by WLJ
By Sarah L. Swenson
WLJ Associate Editor

DNA testing is becoming more and more familiar to the beef industry for use as a selection tool. But, what about as a means to solve crimes?
Thanks to the efforts of a Montana sheriff department, this tool can and will now be used to solve heinous crimes involving livestock.
Ken and Dawn Overcast were able to see first hand how effective DNA testing can be when four of their pregnant Angus cattle were maliciously shot and killed on their ranch in Chinook, MT. The Overcasts later recalled hearing shots fired the night before, but just thought it was their neighbors sighting in a riffle or target practicing. The next morning Dawn discovered that those shots came from someone target practicing on their cattle.
The perpetrators had also taken a knife to two of the four cows. One cow was cut down her back and had her backstrap cutout. A second cow was only slashed down her back, but no meat had been removed. Overcast's theory is that someone was coming down the road and scared the assassins away. He said they live about a mile and half outside of town and the road is well traveled. Regardless, the Overcasts are certain the crime was not committed for meat since there are several other areas that are less traveled where cattle could have been killed less conspicuously.
The other aspect which struck the Overcasts as being odd is that the suspects used a 9mm rifle, which was to small too kill the cattle, and they were shot in the bellies.
Because bullets were left behind in the animals, law enforcement officials were able to use them to trace them back to the killer.
"Killing something for the sheer joy of watching it die is a behavior that no one with a shred of decency can comprehend," said Overcast. "When I found out that DNA testing would be done, to hopefully find out who was responsible, I was optimistic there would be justice."
DNA testing was able to play a significant role in this investigation because the cattle were slashed and obviously their DNA was transferred to the persons committing the crime. It was Blaine Country Deputy Sherif, Pat Pyette, who decided to use this method. The next step was to find a laboratory to perform the DNA testing. Overcast said this was difficult even though using DNA testing in human crimes is common practice. Many of the crime laboratories were uncertain about working with cattle blood. The Blaine County sherif's department was able to employ the University of California-Davis, Veterinary genetics Laboratory, School of Veterinary Medicine, to perform the testing since the school is proficient at performing other DNA testing.
Pyette took samples from the cowhide of each of the cows that were slain and sent them in for DNA testing. The sample included hair and eight-inch sections of the rib bones.
"The trend for DNA testing of animals was originally designed to keep the breeding records accurate, but with today's advanced technology, we can connect the animal's DNA to a weapon that may have been used at the crime scene," said Beth Holcomb, University of California Veterinary Genetics Laboratory.
The Blaine County Sherif's Department was able to do just that—link the knife that was used to cut the cows to a knife in a local resident's possession. This was key in solving the crime since the most powerful tool used in a courtroom is linking a suspect to a crime, and the knife was one of the links.
When law enforcement officials began asking around and questioning, they received an anonymous tip about who the suspect might be. Since they had DNA evidence to connect any weapons found, they were granted a search warrant to search a suspect's property for any items that may have been used in the crime. Sure enough, Overcast says the sheriff's department found and seized a pair of Sketcher work boots, a package of meat in the freezer, and a hunting knife from the home of the person they received the tip about. Sheriff Pyette sent these items to the Davis laboratory for analysis.
When the results came back, the DNA profile indicated the blood on the defendant's boots matched the hide samples submitted from the first cow at every marker. In terms of the knife, the laboratory found the blood on the knife was a mixture of two or more cattle. The report further indicated that the package of meat in the freezer was venison, and not beef, but Overcast speculates the meat from his cow was probably already eaten.
Without the DNA evidence, the Blaine County Sherif's Department and the Overcasts don't believe that they ever would have been able to see justice. Now, the Overcasts suspect that the defendant did not act alone, and believe that there is still another perpetrator out there, but are relieved that at least one of them has been caught.
The defendant, Wesley J. Anderson, was brought up on four charges of felony counts of criminal mischief and one misdemeanor count of theft. Anderson pled guilty to a lesser charge of one felony count of Criminal Mischief by Common Scheme and was sentenced to 75 days in jail, plus restitution totaling $6,243.49 to pay for the cattle, the DNA testing, and court costs.
The court determined $4,000 was the value of the Overcasts' cattle.
"The financial loss to us was significant, but the bigger issue was that he learns he can't just run around shooting stuff and get away with it," said Overcast.
The University of California-Davis veterinary laboratory was pleased with the role they could play in solving the case. Holcomb added, "From this day forward, DNA evidence will play an increasingly important role in solving malicious crimes against animals."
Steve Pilcher, executive director of the Montana Stockgrowers Association was pleased with what this means to livestock producers in general. "Previously ranchers were not as successful at catching perpetrators involved in cattle killing incidents because there simply would not be enough evidence to prove who committed the crime," said Pilcher. "But the success of DNA testing during this case will now help prevent this horrible incident from happening again. It is setting a new standard for solving future animal cruelty cases." — WLJ