Cattle-rustling scheme was inside job, deputies say. But suspects were foiled by DNA

Kristin M. Kraemer
Tri-City Herald (Kennewick, Wash.)

The lead man at a north Franklin County, Washington, dairy farm, his brother and father are accused of rustling at least 178 cattle over a couple of years and selling them for cash.

Mizael O. Mendoza-Ramos, Christian Mendoza and Jose Mendoza-Rivera made about $194,000 at livestock auctions, according to sales records from the Washington State Department of Agriculture.

Mendoza-Ramos, who worked for Double T Dairy, told his boss and an investigator with the Toppenish Livestock Commission that the cattle he sold belonged to him, and he only stole the ear tags from his employer.

Investigators claim they have DNA evidence proving that several cattle retrieved from an auction house were born to cows at the Mesa dairy farm.

Mendoza-Ramos, 34, Mendoza, 22, and Mendoza-Rivera, 63, are charged in Franklin County Superior Court with first-degree trafficking in stolen property and two counts of first-degree livestock theft.

On Feb. 19, they agreed to move their trials to Aug. 7. All three are out of custody on their personal recognizance.

Mendoza-Ramos and his father, Mendoza-Rivera, both live in Pasco. His brother, Mendoza, lives in Mesa.

Owner recognized cattle at auction

The suspected theft was discovered in early November 2016 when dairy owner, Travis Thomasson, returned from a four-day out-of-town trip and went to the Toppenish Livestock Auction to replenish his stock.

Thomasson noticed some cows that looked like his own Holstein and Holstein/Jersey crossbreeds.

Only some of the cows had ear tags, and none of them were branded, so Thomasson asked the auctioneer who they belonged to, court documents said. He was told they had come from Mendoza Cattle out of Franklin County.

The haul slip turned in to the Toppenish Livestock Commission showed the owners as Mendoza-Rivera and Mendoza. The paperwork said that Mendoza-Ramos, Thomasson’s lead man, had transported the cattle, documents said.

The lead man’s father and brother reportedly once worked for Thomasson.

Three of the 10 cattle that Thomasson suspected as belonging to him were sold during the auction. However, they ended up being returned to the Toppenish Livestock Auction after a dispute of ownership was started, court documents said.

Suspect was dairy farm’s lead man

Franklin County sheriff’s Deputy Shane Thorson was contacted the following day and went to the Juniper Road dairy to meet with the owner. Thomasson informed the deputy that while he was out of town, lead man Mendoza-Ramos had been in charge.

A dairy worker spoke with Thorson and said that while the boss was away, he was ordered to move 15 heifers into a certain area. He thought it was unusual because the order didn’t follow protocol, and he’d worked at the dairy for more than a year, but he did as told.

The worker learned the order came from Mendoza-Ramos, documents said. He said he noticed all 15 cows were gone the next day.

While at the auction, Thomasson said he could identify which cattle belonged to him because his initials and the birth cow’s identification are on their ear tags.

The tags had been removed from some cattle, and they couldn’t be recovered during the investigation because they already were sold and shipped to Utah, court documents said.

Thorson was able to seize eight cows in Toppenish, and return them to Double T Dairy.

DNA testing confirms ownership

The cattle were separated and isolated from Thomasson’s other stock while Thorson applied for a search warrant to have hairs collected from the tails of the suspected stolen cows, documents said. Hair samples also were collected from the mothers.

The hair was sent to University of California, Davis’ Veterinary Genetics Laboratory for testing in the forensics unit.

Thorson was awaiting those results when he heard from employees of the Toppenish Livestock Commission that Mendoza-Ramos kept calling to get his check for the cattle he’d sold to the commission, court documents said.

The 10 head of cattle were sold to the commission by the father and two sons for a total $6,741.

A month later, the DNA testing confirmed that the cattle sold by Mendoza-Ramos, Mendoza and Mendoza-Rivera actually belonged to Thomasson with Double T Dairy, documents said.

Three of the four cows were positively identified as being parents and one cow was identified as a sibling. The only cow that did not come back as a positive was one that had already died, Thorson said.

Thomasson did an inventory of his stock after uncovering the alleged thefts, and found another 168 had been stolen from his property over two years.

That loss of nearly $200,000 is consistent with the amount the three men were paid in auction sales per state records, said Thorson.