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Published November 28, 2011, 04:55 PM

They went which way? Rosholt, SD, man offers $50,000 reward for stolen cattle

Reward: $50,000. There’s a kind of Old West flavor to a local newspaper ad in which James A. Larsen appeals to the public to bring his cattle back.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

ROSHOLT, S.D. — Reward: $50,000.

There’s a kind of Old West flavor to a local newspaper ad in which James A. Larsen appeals to the public to bring his cattle back. It’s intriguing further that Larsen is making the appeal after Riley Braaten, 33, already was convicted of aggravated grand theft in the case. Braaten and Larsen had been in a crop share partnership when Larsen says his entire herd disappeared — 175 beef cows, 156 calves from the 2008 crop, plus 32 yearlings from 2007.

Braaten owes Larsen $365,730.14, in a judgment and is paying Larsen $100 to $200 a month. At that rate, it would take more than 200 years to pay off the debt.

“I figure something should be done different, because I’m not going to live that long,” says Larsen, 60.

Braaten declined to be interviewed by Agweek about the case at length, except to imply that at least some of the cattle “never existed.”

He says the case is in the past, after he’s done his time.

“Ask around,” Braaten says. “You’re going to find very few people who are going to agree with Jim.”

Braaten says he somehow pleaded guilty to a theft charge so Larsen “could get his insurance check” and that Braaten didn’t expect to do any time. Larsen says it galls him that Braaten never has “come clean” on where the cattle or money actually went.

In August, Larsen raised eyebrows when he ran an advertisement in the Rosholt and Sisseton, S.D., newspapers, offering a $25,000 reward for information leading to recovery of the herd. In September, he ran the ads again and increased the reward to $50,000.

“That’s still out there,” Braaten says seriously.

Cows and accounts

Larsen grew up in Rosholt. His father was a trucker; his mother ran a local restaurant. Larsen, a high school athlete, graduated in 1969 and started college in Aberdeen, S.D., but quit school at age 18 when the Rosholt Community Bank president offered him a job as a teller. In 1971, he married Ruby, his high school sweetheart. Starting in 1973, Larsen and his wife’s brother started a beef herd, each owning five cows. Larsen worked as a loan officer in the bank until 1976, when he started farming full-time on a farm he bought. He and the brother-in-law together had cattle, hogs and 1,000 acres of cropland. In 1988, Larsen was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The condition didn’t hamper him at first, but in 1993, he leased out his farm share to the brother-in-law and went to work as a loan officer for State Bank of Wheaton, about 15 miles away in Minnesota.

The two divided the cattle herd and Larsen started a series of agreements with area cattlemen to care for them in share-crop deals. By 2000, the MS started affecting Larsen’s ability to get around. He’d officiated high school basketball in the tri-state area, but was forced to quit. Meanwhile, he sold a 40-acre building and crop site but retained nearly 600 acres in owned or rented land. With his health in decline, Jim and Ruby built a handicapped-accessible house on an 80-acre parcel along South Dakota Highway 127, a half-mile west of Rosholt. The Larsens made their living from Ruby’s nursing career, his banking salary, crop/hail commissions, crop-sharing with his brother-in-law, cattle sales and some government farm subsidies. He’s also run a private tax accounting business out of his home, which he says has more than 100 clients.

Helping hand up

In 2003, he “split terms” with a previous cattle partner and started a new deal with Braaten. Then in his early 20s, Braaten had grown up a half a mile west and six miles south of the Larsen home. He graduated high school with one of Larsen’s daughters. The two families both went to Rosholt Lutheran Church.

“I knew him his entire life,” Larsen says.

As with previous partners, Larsen proposed a 40/60 sharecrop arrangement with young Braaten. Larsen would get 40 percent of the calf crop. Braaten would get 60 percent, in exchange for caring for the cow herd through the year. Larsen would continue to own the herd and would furnish bulls. Larsen saw the deal as mutually beneficial — even generous.

“I told him, I said, ‘Granted, the first year, until you get your feet underneath you, it will be hard. But I says I’ll help you where I can,’ and I guess that was the way I started,” Larsen says. “I was helped, so I did help.”

Larsen says sale barn people told him this was ordinary, even generous because some cow herd owners insisted on a 50-50 split, he says. Under the deal’s terms Braaten would look after the cattle in their summer pastures. In some cases, he’d pay a pasture rental to Larsen for running cattle on Larsen’s land. Braaten would move the cattle to a winter feedlot or pen system on the Braaten farmstead. It was Braaten’s responsibility to furnish the feed.

A good deal at first

Larsen delivered 93 bred cows in spring 2003. There were various purchases and replacements always with the goal at keeping the herd at Braaten’s desired capacity of 175 cows. Larsen provided bulls for the herd sires.

Braaten pastured the cattle at various places in summers. They’d come home to pens on his place from about Nov. 1 to about May 1. Sometimes, they’d graze on a neighbor’s cornstalks and then would be fed hay and silage after snow fell. Calving ran from early March to mid-May. Other than selling decisions, Braaten was free to make most other decisions. He decided where the herd would be grazed and when they would move. For a time, it seemed like the deal was working.

Larsen, who no longer could walk through a pasture, remembers driving to the pasture in spring with his visiting granddaughters from the Fargo, N.D., Moorhead, Minn., area. Braaten would host the tours when they were calving in spring.

“Riley was proud,” Larsen says. “He would take us in and we’d drive through the herd and look at the calves. It was good.”

Before this arrangement, Braaten separately had borrowed some money from State Bank of Wheaton. Larsen, a vice president since around 2000, had been Braaten’s loan officer. Sometime in 2006, Larsen says he transferred responsibility for Braaten’s loans to Roger Schmidt because Larsen saw it as a conflict of interest. On Nov. 1, 2007, Maynard Hoium of Alexandria, Minn., a retired banker and inventory officer, visited the Braaten farm and did a physical inventory of the herd, both involving bank loans and Larsen loans.

Everything was in order, Larsen says. There are photographs of the cattle on that date — “colored cattle,” as Larsen describes them. “They were anything from Angus, Simmental cross basically, and Hereford,” he says. Unauthorized sales In late May or early June 2008, Larsen says he was surprised to learn that Braaten had sold some of his 2007 crop calves to Braaten’s brother-in-law, Casey Steffens of Fairmount, N.D.

“I did not know they were going to be sold there. I thought they were going to be headed for the (sale) barn in Aberdeen,” Larsen told a lawyer in a later examination in an insurance case.

Braaten told Larsen that Steffens didn’t want all of them. Larsen says Braaten agreed that any unsold cattle would be taken home and then to Britton, S.D., to be sold at the sale barn. But instead of taking the yearlings to Britton, Braaten told Larsen he’d instead taken them to a rented, 250-acre pasture southeast of Rosholt, about eight miles away. Larsen went to the pasture and couldn’t see them. In July 2008, Larsen, Braaten and two others — Layne Moeller and Moeller’s hired man — went to the pasture. They spent two hours on ATVs searching the pasture for the 32 yearlings, to no avail. Larsen became convinced the calves never were there. He estimated their value at the time at about $35,200. Larsen says Braaten told him he’d calved out 156 calves in the 2008 crop. On the week of Oct. 27, 2008, the calves were weaned at Braaten’s place. Trucker Lowell Severson told Larsen he’d hauled four loads of cows to Larsen’s pasture for Braaten, with four loads of 40 head each — nearly 160 head. On Dec. 1, 2008, Larsen says a neighbor, Eddie Madsen, says he helped move the cows to Braaten’s place in two or three horse trailers.

Calf conundrum

On Jan. 19, 2009, Larsen drove onto the Braaten place and parked his pickup, and the two agreed they’d sell the calves. On Jan. 26, 2009, Larsen says he’d arranged to meet with Glenn Gaikowski, a field man from the Aberdeen Livestock sale barn, at Braaten’s place at 8 a.m. When Larsen arrived, Braaten was alone in the yard.

“Riley comes up to the pickup and he says, ‘No calves here,’” Larsen remembers. “I say, ‘Where are they.’” (Braaten) “says, ‘I sold them to (a cattle buyer) on Dec. 5 in Watertown, S.D. He paid us. He would give us $88,000 for the 156 head.’”

Larsen says he quickly calculated that the gross price was fair. The 32 yearlings from 2007 would have weighed 800 pounds, just off of grass. The market price at the time was 80 to 90 cents a pound.

“I said, ‘That’s a fair price,’” Larsen recalls. “‘Have you got any receipts?’” “He said, ‘Nope, Randy filed bankruptcy.’” Larsen says.

Larsen became upset when he says Braaten claimed he hadn’t gotten any receipts from truckers, or any weigh tickets and couldn’t name the trucker. He later learned that neither he nor Braaten were listed as creditors in the cattle buyer’s bankruptcy.

And then the cows

Larsen decided to switch cattle partners. On Jan. 28, 2009, Larsen says, Larsen went to the Braaten farm with neighbors Derrick and Dusty Laurence. He wanted to give the Laurences the opportunity to sharecrop his 175-head cow herd or buy it on a contract-for-deed. At the time, Larsen figured the value of the 175 cows and three bulls at about $181,000. Braaten wasn’t there when they arrived. Larsen watched from his pickup as the Laurence brothers looked through the herd.

As Larsen watched, it occurred to him the cattle weren’t his.

“Derrick comes back and he looks at me and he goes, ‘Jim, those aren’t your cattle.’ And I said ‘No, they aren’t.’ And how can I tell? I’ve been a cattleman.”

Essentially, they were the wrong age, color and condition from the last time he’d seen them two months before. On Jan. 30, 2009, Larsen convened a “kitchen table” meeting at the Larsen home. Braaten was there, backed by a friend, Todd Dahlman. Larsen brought insurance agent Bruce Barker and Larry Englund, a local highway patrolman. Someone called Rev. David Pieper from Rosholt Lutheran Church.

Braaten repeated that he’d taken the cattle “sold them to (a buyer), who’d gone bankrupt, and that he’d pay Larsen back. “He was pretty shook,” Larsen says. The same day, Larsen reported the theft to the Roberts County (S.D.) Sheriff’s office. Reporting the crime The sheriff reported the crime to the South Dakota Department of Criminal Investigation. Larsen says the DCI questioned two people — Larsen and Braaten, Larsen says. The department said it checked all of the area cattle barns to see whether any cattle were sold in Braaten’s name, but Larsen thinks that’s odd.

“I know that if I was stealing cattle from someone and didn’t want to be caught I wouldn’t sell them in my own name,” he says. Larsen’s cattle activities were financed by a loan at the State Bank of Wheaton, secured by the livestock. So his loan payments continue, even as the cattle are gone. On Aug. 20, 2009, the State Bank of Wheaton obtained a judgment against Braaten totaling $167,767.14 “plus interest until fully satisfied.” On Sept. 17, 2009, Braaten was arraigned and initially pled not guilty to the theft. In early January 2010, Larsen left his position at the State Bank of Wheaton, “because of my disability,” Larsen says. He remained as a bank director and still works for the insurance agency. On Jan. 11, 2010, Braaten changed his plea to guilty. On Feb. 1, 2010, Larsen received a judgment against Braaten for $332,224.83, with an additional $33,505.31 already accrued in interest. The total judgment of nearly $366,000 is to be paid “plus interest at legal rate until fully satisfied,” according to the statement. In addition to the cattle value, Larsen told lawyers Braaten had owed him another $100,000 in unpaid personal loans — 61 checks totaling some $70,000 plus interest. There also was unpaid hayland and pasture rent, for total debt of more than $100,000. (Unbeknownst to either Larsen or Braaten, the amount was included in the judgment.) On Feb. 12, 2010, Fifth Judicial Circuit Judge Jon S. Flemmer ordered Braaten to be held in the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls for a 10-year sentence, but said he might suspend the sentence if Braaten would make a “full, honest and complete debrief as to the crime and who was involved,” in the next 30 days. On April 8, 2010, Roberts County State’s Attorney Kerry M. Cameron argued against modifying the prison sentence. Flemmer ordered Braaten to begin serving the prison sentence, which continued April 15, 2010, to July 3, 2011. after only 16 months. 196-year payout? Life goes on at Rosholt. Braaten, out of the penitentiary after 16 months, now works for a neighboring farm. Through a parole officer, Braaten pays restitution to Larsen, sometimes $100 a month, and recently $200. Separately, Larsen acknowledges he received an insurance settlement of some undisclosed amount, because of a confidentiality clause.

“I had theft insurance on the cattle since the 1970s,” he says. Still, Larsen says he wants his herd back. “Different law enforcement officials tell me that in order to plead guilty and get a reduced sentence, you have to come “‘full and true.’” Larsen says. “And I do not believe that he’s come full and true. To me, you should be able to finish a case and find out where in the world they went.”

The way Larsen looks at it, the value of the cattle has increased and he’s lost another calf crop. Initially, the herd would have been worth $225,000 to $250,000. Today, the value would be $350,000 to $450,000. Larsen says whoever purchased the cattle may want to keep them, but can’t.

“There was a lien against those cattle, both by the bank and by myself,” Larsen says. Larsen testified that the average age of his own cows were 3 to 7 years old, which is prime breeding age for producing calves. “I feel that those cattle never went to slaughter. I realize that the calves and yearlings are gone. They were sold someplace. But I have never seen any receipts.”

It isn’t clear what more can be done legally. The South Dakota Attorney General’s office has told Larsen that its work was done “the minute he pled guilty” and was convicted, Larsen says. “As far as they’re concerned, the case is closed.” Former Sheriff Vince Owen resigned in May 2009 without explanation. Jay Tasa was appointed sheriff in August 2009, took his post in September 2009 and was elected to the position in November 2010.

“I have been working well with Roberts County at this point,” Larsen says. “We have been working with county commissioners,” he says, adding, “They’re concerned that there are things happening in Roberts County that need to be taken care of.” On his reward advertisement, another farmer from New Effington, S.D., also is listed as having lost cattle. Larsen says he’s been getting some responses to the advertisement. He has offered the sheriff names of people to talk to in the case.

“I don’t think they’re very far at all,” he says of the location of his cattle.