Nag, Nag, Nag
Wyoming's Kelly Hamilton looks to the legendary Tom Horn for insight into modern-day rustlers.Scratch and sniff: Alan Duffy never doubts his dogs.Joe Burbach is convinced his horses headed north.Pat Yellow Feather got Wyoming vibes on Burbach's horses, too.Kelly Hamilton: "Have I been reduced to using psychics and dogs? Yeah."
Tom Horn made his name in law enforcement -- even if many of his actions straddled the law. Legal or not, however, they were certainly effective, although not the sort of behavior that inspires most modern law-enforcement agents.
Then again, those agents don't have Kelly Hamilton's job. A few years back, when a naked man was spotted galloping around the Wyoming governor's mansion on a strapping white stallion, declaring the Second Coming of the Lord, Hamilton got the call. He was also the one brought in to deal with the guy who was observed having relations with his neighbor's sheep -- "deviant behavior" was the legal description. And when a teenager decided to hang his horse from a tree just outside of Cheyenne, that was considered Kelly's jurisdiction, too. So it's not surprising that Hamilton, the law-enforcement administrator for the Wyoming Livestock Board, might start looking outside the standard academy training for inspiration. And Horn was a local boy.
At various times in his life, Tom Horn was a railroad worker, a stagecoach driver, an Army scout, an Indian fighter and a world-champion steer roper, but today he's best known for his work as a Pinkerton agent and, later, range detective. Horn joined the Denver office of the Pinkerton Detective Agency in 1890, at the age of thirty, and soon gained a reputation as a fearless (or crazy -- opinions diverge) person who would stop at nothing to get his man.
Horn often relied on a killer's intuition, a feeling that might make no apparent sense but often turned out right. When he finally tracked the notorious and vicious Peg-Leg Watson to the Hole-in-the-Wall hideout, for example, Horn merely called out Watson's name and then began walking toward the cabin, his carbine slung loosely over his arm. Watson, who was well armed with two pistols, simply watched as Horn walked up and handcuffed him. Other arrests were less pacifistic, however, and Horn killed a reported seventeen men during his 24-month career with the Pinkertons. He appeared to enjoy the work more than necessary.
In 1892 Horn contracted with the Wyoming Cattle Growers' Association. Although his official title was horse breaker, his actual job was as a hired gun, the man called when a rustler -- or suspected rustler, or even potential rustler -- needed tracking down and killing. Over time his methods became more unorthodox, and more efficient. His standard technique involved hiding out, generally behind a tree or rock, with a high-powered buffalo gun in hand. When the man came within range, Horn would aim for his head and fire. He got so good at his job that he could kill men from hundreds of yards away. Yet it was this very remoteness from his victims that did him in.
The morning of July 18, 1901, found Tom Horn lying in wait near Powder River Road, north of Cheyenne, for a rancher named Kels Nickell. Horn had been ordered to kill him by another local ranching family that had been feuding with the Nickells. The actual cause of the feud has been forgotten by all but the most obsessed historians; it was the sort of dispute in which neither side was guiltier than the other, and no one was purely innocent.
But none of that was Horn's concern, and so when a familiar man appeared in the distance, he raised his gun and fired. Unfortunately, he was so far away he didn't notice that the man was, in fact, Nickell's fourteen-year-old son, Willie, who'd had the bad fortune to put on his father's coat and hat and drive his wagon out of the yard that morning.
It probably wasn't the first time that Horn had killed an innocent man. But it was surely the first time he'd killed an innocent boy, and this time the law could not look away. On November 20, 1903, Tom Horn was hanged. "Hurry it up. I got nothing more to say," he said, just before the trapdoor dropped.
Today, a circle of rocks marks the supposed location where young Willie Nickell fell from his wagon after being hit by Horn's first shot. The old Nickell homestead lies on private property, and so even livestock investigator Hamilton had to get permission to go there. He drove out to the site several weeks ago to see the spot that had done in the state's most famous cattle cop. He went partly out of historical curiosity -- there remains some debate as to whether Horn was set up -- but Hamilton had other reasons for the visit.
"One time," he explains, "there was this murder that me and my partner solved when I was working as a deputy up in Sheridan. This eight-year-old girl had been kidnapped, raped and thrown off a bridge. And we solved that on nothing more than a hunch -- a gut feeling. And I've had gut feelings since that literally have saved my life -- things that I felt that then have come to pass. So when I went up to visit Tom Horn's site, I wanted to see if I could feel anything -- anything! -- that might help me with this case. After all, I do what Tom Horn did back in the 1880s.
"I felt nothing. I don't necessarily look up to Tom Horn as a hero. With my case, he probably would have grabbed the first person he found and shot him, and word would have gotten around and these horses would have been returned. Of course, we can't do that today...
"But I did find some inspiration to go on. I mean, my people just think I've lost my goddamned mind over this. They think they're working for a crazy person anymore."
Joe Burbach lives in one of those small pockets of place and time that once defined Denver but are now becoming fewer and farther between. The fifty-acre spread of flat pasture was formerly owned by Genetic Engineering, which sold it to International Beef Breeders, which couldn't make a go of it and returned it to Genetic. Now the land is owned by Land Acquisition Partners, a pair of brothers who snatched up the parcel when the encroaching city of Thornton began talk of building an overpass on 136th Avenue across Interstate 25.
The place is a piece of the plains in the middle of the suburbs. The bustle and roar of I-25 borders the property to the west, busy Washington Street lies to the east, and the Thorn Creek Golf Course and a sprawling planned development make up the south boundary. Burbach's house, which he rents, sits in the southeast corner of the property. It is a square, neat one-story surrounded by a chain-link fence that keeps in three diminutive dogs. They share the place with Burbach and his wife, who works at the jewelry counter at a nearby Wal-Mart.
Burbach was raised in Greeley, moved to Calhan for a while, then ended up in Denver. He sold insurance, but he's mostly retired now. A big, loud, profane man who gives the impression of requiring a lot of space around him, he's had a difficult time adjusting to the changes in the neighborhood. "Shit, when we moved here, there was nothin' -- no golf course, no Hunter's Glen," he says, referring to the bordering development. "We used to ride our horses all over this land. Seven years ago, you could buy a house for $60,000. Hell, they'd beg you to take it."
The property on which his home sits remains undeveloped, though, and Land Acquisition Partners seems content to keep it that way until a final decision is made on the overpass. In the meantime, Burbach boards horses in the handful of old stables that line the west edge of the property, closest to I-25. On this summer afternoon, a couple dozen animals stand quietly in the hot sun or cool off in the shade of the stalls.
That's three fewer horses than were there a year ago. It was late on the night of September 18, 1999, or early the following morning that a fifteen-year-old gelding named Riley, a thirteen-year-old palomino named Chism and a five-year-old mare named Zampar Tigger were swiped from the stables. Burbach, who owned the mare, suspects that whoever took the animals scouted the place well, then dropped off the interstate in the quiet of night, quickly pushed the horses into a trailer and was gone.
"One of the guys who's got some horses here went down to feed his horses in the morning," Burbach recalls. "He saw the door was open, but he didn't think nothing about it. But then he walked down to the field and saw my trailer still there, and he started looking around some more. That's when he saw the three were gone, and he called me." In the year since, the theft has more or less occupied Burbach's life.
Rustling is not a crime you hear about much in the New West, but that's not because it is obsolete. It's simply because rustling is invisible to the vast majority of people who live in Colorado. A person who does not think of a live cow as the source of his New York strip steak is also unlikely to consider rustling as a serious theft of property. Add to that the outdated, 1800s sound of the crime, and livestock rustling eludes common modern comprehension.
This is true even among law-enforcement officers, who, despite the urbanization of Colorado, still find themselves confronted with the occasional crime against livestock. "So many deputies aren't country-raised anymore that they don't even recognize basic descriptions of animals," observes Gary Shoun, commissioner of the Colorado Brand Board. "If you say you got a Soler Cross cow missing, they don't even know what color that is. Once, recently, a deputy called me up and said he'd got a report of a blue horse missing. 'The guy must have been drinking,' he told me. 'Whoever's heard of a blue horse?' Well, blue is how you refer to blue roans. But he didn't know that."
In the past couple of years, Shoun has traveled around the state offering basic livestock identification and investigation seminars to local police departments. The instruction ranges in length from four hours to a full two-day remedial course, depending upon the officers' backgrounds. "In the remedial instances," says Shoun, "we start with a slide show: 'This is what a palomino looks like; this is a wet cow; this is a bred cow.'" The second day is spent taking the officers out into the field -- literally -- to show them the animals up close and to familiarize them with the mechanics of brand inspection. Last year Shoun conducted fourteen such seminars.
In Colorado, state brand inspectors must examine livestock when it is sold, transported over 75 miles, or crosses state borders. Although this may sound simple, the sheer logistics are overwhelming. There are more than 37,000 registered brands in Colorado. Between 1999 and mid-2000, the board's 65 brand inspectors reported that they had checked 4.9 million head of livestock. Given the amount of cattle and horses in the state, the number of animals actually stolen is quite low; only several hundred are reported missing each year. "It's a small number," notes Shoun. "Unless, of course, you're the one missing three calves. Then it's a very big deal."
Most cases are small, involving no more than ten to twenty missing animals. (A single head of cattle in today's market is worth about $500; a horse's value can vary widely, from several hundred dollars to many thousands.) But not all incidents are so inconsequential. Three years ago, about 300 dairy cows disappeared from around Greeley over a period of several days; the thieves were never caught. In North Dakota recently, 400 cattle were stolen in a single theft. Last year, Colorado Brand Board inspectors identified more than $17 million worth of "questionably owned" livestock. Although most were strays or lost animals, some were also stolen.
Many of the missing animals end up for sale, either at auctions or in private transactions. Others are sold in a group and then immediately slaughtered for meat. This is true for horses as well as cows, although no one talks about it much. The Equine Protection Network estimates that about 150,000 U.S.-bred horses are killed each year in this country or Canada. The meat generally is sent abroad to countries where horse is considered a legitimate meal. The nearest slaughterhouse to Colorado is in North Platte, Nebraska; another nearby killing plant lies to the south, in Texas. But proximity isn't the only reason a lot of hot Colorado and Wyoming livestock ends up at these plants; the other is that neither Nebraska nor Texas has brand laws. Horses and cows sold for slaughter can be left off without anyone official asking uncomfortable questions.
There's been rustling ever since the West was first used as rangeland, and stealing animals is probably one of history's oldest crimes. Yet even today, rustling crimes are rarely solved. If keeping track of the animals while they are penned up is daunting, trying to track them down when they are stolen can be downright discouraging.
For starters, thieves can get a good, long head start on any legal pursuit. Unlike dry goods, horses and cattle and sheep are stored in desolate pastures, and it can be days or weeks before their owners discover them missing. "Say you turn out 500 cows on your 10,000 acres of pasture on May 15," says Shoun. "And you return at the end of June and discover that you're six short. First of all, you don't know if they've been missing for only a few hours or since May 16. And in a 10,000-acre pasture, where do you start looking for clues?" Up in Wyoming, Kelly Hamilton once conducted a test to see how difficult it would be to swipe an animal. He found that a person could park his trailer, cut a fence, herd several cows or horses into the vehicle and be gone in less than three minutes.
Shoun's office is able to close only about 25 percent of its rustling cases each year, a figure that can easily produce a sense of desperation. "We'd miss three nights and all suppers if we could catch a crook," he says. "Hell, if you got a Ouiji board that looks good, I'll use it." Hamilton says his closure rate in Wyoming is even poorer -- maybe as low as 10 percent of the rustling cases there result in an arrest.
That statistic has been weighing particularly heavy on Hamilton because, for the first time in his law enforcement career, he's on the verge of having to admit to himself that he has failed. "I have always done my job well," he says. "In 1988 and '89, when I worked as a deputy in Sheridan, I had more DUI arrests than any other officer in the state of Wyoming. I've solved murders and burglaries; I've killed a man in the line of duty. When I came on board here, I hired all my own investigators, handpicked them all myself. Our citation rate is up by 500 percent; everything else is wonderful. In many ways, I've improved this office.
"But Christ, here's something I've been at for eight years now, and our closure and arrest rate for livestock theft is as bad as it's ever been. The livestock investigations are shit. I've always been good at what I do, but I'm failing miserably; I don't even calculate the numbers anymore, it's so depressing.
"So, have I been reduced to using psychics and dogs? Yeah, I guess I have. But I like to think that I'm keeping an open mind."
It was grief that first brought Alan Duffy and his dogs together. One summer day in 1978, while camping in northern California, Duffy's brother simply disappeared. In the weeks that followed, Duffy constantly called and pestered the local police for information. But all they would say is, 'Don't worry --somebody will find your brother.' Six weeks later, somebody did: He had been shot in the head and heart. Although the case was never solved, police suspected he had stumbled into a bad drug deal.
Those six weeks of unknowing agony changed Duffy, and he resolved to do something about it. So fifteen years ago, when he moved to Colorado, he began training with his first bloodhound. "I always thought dogs could have been helpful in my brother's case, and I never understood why the police didn't use them," he says.
Duff -- his nickname -- and Susie-Q worked together until six months ago, when she died in her sleep. Today his dogs are named Babes and CD Annie. "You don't train bloodhounds," he explains. "You learn how to read your dogs. People like to think of their relationship with the dog as 'I am the master.' But the dog is the master of the tracker, not the other way around."
In the past decade, Duff's hobby has become a passion, and when he is not on the job as a surgical assistant, he can usually be found working his dogs. He has traveled around the West, offering his services for free or simply for travel costs. He's worked a number of high-profile cases with success, he says, although he admits that none of the cases has actually been solved directly because of his dogs.
Duff first heard about Joe Burbach last October, when a local newspaper described the theft of the three horses from the Thornton stables. One day soon after that, nearly four weeks after the horses' disappearance, he brought his dogs out to Burbach's property unannounced and led them around. Despite the length of time that had passed, they picked up a scent immediately.
All dog trackers are enormously confident in the ability of their animals to follow a scent through the most difficult of circumstances. Yogi, a bloodhound brought in to find a missing Englewood girl named Alie Berrelez several years ago, made a believer out of more than one skeptical police officer when he tracked Alie's scent over six miles to where her body had been dumped, southwest of Denver. Making the accomplishment more amazing was the fact that the bloodhound was able to find the girl even though her body had been transported in the trunk of a car.
Yet even amid such stunning performances, Duff believes his dogs stand out. Anyone with reason for feeling anxiety or fear -- horse rustlers, for example -- generates a particular scent; this is the scent that Duff says his dogs picked up from door handles and other objects in Burbach's stable. From there, Duff says, the scent swirls about and is deposited wherever the thieves go. In this instance, it rushed out of their getaway vehicles -- through open windows or the air conditioning vents or holes -- and landed in the vegetation alongside the road. Thus, Duff explains, he and his dogs were able to follow the rustlers up I-25, across the Colorado border into Wyoming, then east along I-80, and finally into east Cheyenne.
Time after time since that first track, Duff's dogs have ended up in Wyoming. So far, Burbach estimates, they've followed the thieves' path north along the interstate, and into Cheyenne -- or, on occasion, into Laramie -- more than a dozen times. These repeated forays have had several cascading consequences. The first is that Burbach is convinced beyond a doubt that the missing horses are -- or at one time were -- in Wyoming. "We absolutely know that they're there," he says. "There is no question."
That certainty, in turn, has inspired Burbach's belief that people are not working as hard as they should be to find the animals. On at least four occasions, he has called Wyoming's governor, and then the state attorney general's office, to share this view. "You got guys comin' down here and stealin' my goddamn horses, and I'm goddamn tired of it," he remembers saying.
"I chewed their butt," he adds.
"Joe's semi-retired, and so he's got a little more time to put into it," notes Shoun.
Although it's unclear whether Burbach actually reached Wyoming's governor or attorney general, representatives of their offices have contacted Hamilton several times and recommended that he pay serious attention to the case. "Kelly, your friend from Colorado called again," he recalls one gubernatorial staffer saying. "Please get on this and get him the hell out of Wyoming."
But Burbach's not about to get out of Wyoming -- not without the horses -- and in the past months, he and Duff, separately and together, have traveled north nearly three dozen times. The two men and the dogs can get so keen on following a scent that they're distracted into forgetting details such as property rights. "Alan knows no bounds," sighs Hamilton. "Once his dogs start going, he just follows along." Burbach tells many anecdotes about the bloodhounds that contain the phrase, "Well, there was no 'No Trespassing' signs posted, so..."
In at least one instance, a person fingered by the dogs called the local police to complain. The Laramie County deputy, in turn, contacted Duffy and threatened to arrest him and Burbach for harassing the good citizens of Wyoming. "They were acting like they were in some official capacity," recalls Deputy Corey Jacobson, who made the call. "If he goes there again without permission, I'll arrest him for criminal trespass."
Burbach found the deputy's furious response slightly incriminating. "We hit a hot button somewhere," he says. "I just figure if he wants to come down here, let him have at it. He won't leave with anyone, 'cause we'll kick the shit out of him."
Increasingly, Hamilton has found himself the man in the middle. As the person in charge of finding lost livestock in Wyoming, he's often lassoed into accompanying Burbach, Duff and the dogs as they sniff around. More than once, he has had to apologize to people he recognizes from his long work in the community. "And sometimes the calls go out over the radio," he says, "so the deputies razz me when they see me, too."
Although that behavior doesn't usually get to him, Hamilton takes advantage of any opportunities that offer some measure of reprisal. Last fall, for instance, on one of Duff's tracking expeditions, the dogs locked onto a scent and followed it to a particular townhouse near an old polo field on the outskirts of Cheyenne. Duffy was worked up, and not about to stop just because of a door. "I'm going in," he insisted, and this time Hamilton readily agreed. What Duff didn't know was that the townhouse belonged to a friend of Kelly's, a state patrolman.
"Kelly," the cop inquired as the two men and the dogs burst in, "what in the fuck are you doing here?"
Indeed, it has not escaped the notice of Wyoming's livestock cops that Duff's dogs have identified many suspects and suspicious locations. Some have been plausible places where illicit horse trading might take place -- barns, stockyards, the old polo field, a field belonging to a horse trader of dubious reputation.
Other targets identified by the bloodhounds, however, have been less obvious: Laramie County Community College (which, to be fair, does have a large rodeo program and facility) and the University of Wyoming; a number of private residences and apartments; the Colorado Brand Board office in Greeley, as well as several police and brand officers individually; a large dude ranch; a bison spread; some horse trailers; and a few assorted migrant workers.
Many of Hamilton's colleagues have taken this as evidence that Burbach and Duff -- not to mention Babes and CD Annie and, increasingly, Hamilton himself -- are completely out of their minds. Naturally, Burbach's take is different. "All these people are involved," he insists. "The cops are probably involved, the brand inspectors are probably involved. It's a big ring up there."
But at least that ring -- if, indeed, it exists at all -- is up there, not here. "There's some things that Mr. Duffy claims that other people with bloodhounds might dispute," Shoun says tactfully. But Hamilton points out that Shoun's office was only too ready to believe the dogs when it meant the rustling case would end up in Wyoming -- Hamilton's territory rather than Shoun's.
"Colorado said, 'Well, the horses went to Wyoming, so it's Wyoming's problem,'" Hamilton says. "But apart from the dogs, we have no reason to believe that they are in Wyoming."
Hamilton has been forced to walk a fine line between intense skepticism ("I just have a hard time believing they could pick up the scent off a gate handle touched by dozens of people up the interstate"), personal revulsion ("I hate dogs," he says. "Cats, too. Never liked 'em") and investigative diligence. And so it was that two months ago, Hamilton stood in front of a district court judge struggling to argue that he should be granted a search warrant. He needed the calling records of two pay phones at a gas station in east Cheyenne, he heard himself saying, because Alan Duffy's dogs had identified it as a place the horse thieves had stopped.
"Kelly," he recalls the judge responding. "This is a pretty far-fetched story. You'd better make it work." Incredibly, the judge issued the warrant, although nothing has come of it yet.
"The only 'suspects' we've found are based on the dogs. And I can't say they're suspects," Hamilton concludes.
"They're movin' a lot of horses through Cheyenne, Wyoming," responds Burbach. "I don't care what anybody says."
The first psychic to be consulted in the case of Joe Burbach's missing horses was a friend of Kelly Hamilton's father, a woman out of Texas. "She's more of an animal psychic than a people psychic," Hamilton says. "But she's been helpful to me in the past. When someone in my family loses something -- a checkbook, keys or something like that -- we'll call her, and she'll say something like, 'Look behind the couch.' And there it'll be.
"And then a year ago last spring, I applied for the chief of police job in Milliken, Colorado, and she told me, 'You'll get it.' And, by God, I did get it! I declined it, but it got me thinking about Joe's case, and so I thought, 'What could it hurt?'
The psychic concluded that Hamilton and his officers were close to finding the stolen horses, and that whoever had swiped them was in some way affiliated with the Laramie County Community College.
"And it is true that one of the guys the dogs have hit fairly frequently is related to the rodeo coach at LCCC," admits Hamilton. He sighs, then adds, "It's always just enough to keep you going."
The second psychic to be consulted in the case of Joe Burbach's missing horses arrived in Cheyenne with Burbach on July 6. The two met with Hamilton and another brand investigator over lunch at the Armadillo. "I grabbed a new colleague and told him where we were going," Hamilton recalls. "He said, 'You want me to go have lunch with a psychic about a horse?' I said, 'Yup.' And he said, 'Damn. This job is going to be more interesting than I thought.'"
"Psychometry is whenever you can touch or hold something and you know where it's been," explains that second psychic, Pat "Yellow Feather" Parrott. "Like antiques. I use a lot of feeling instead of just seeing. It's more than intuition. It's a knowing. My family has always been like that.
"I always knew I had it, too; I just thought it was normal. It's a gift, although sometimes it's scary to use it. For example, I got to learn to be more tactful. This lady called up a few days ago and said, 'What's gonna happen to my father?' And I told her that her father was going to die by August 9, or get real bad. She got scared. So you see, it's not always good to see things."
Burbach had called Yellow Feather early this summer, after seeing her advertisement in a local newspaper. She came to Burbach's place a couple of days later and gave him a reading. He was impressed. "She was describing places and the people and that," he remembers. "She told me the geldings went in one direction and the mare went in another." What she described seemed uncannily close to what Burbach had already seen in his work with Duff's dogs, so the two teamed up.
"He's brought her up here a couple times, and we worked with her," says Hamilton. "She's an interesting lady. And...I don't know. When I first met Pat, her parting comment was, 'I hope you feel better.' Well, it turns out that my arm has been bothering me. I'm actually going to have surgery on it next week. And it did hurt, and I do hope it feels better. So I thought, 'What could this hurt to give it a shot?'
"I want you to know that we aren't just running a nuthouse up here," he adds.
On a scorching summer afternoon, Joe Burbach throws open the gate to the outdoor stall where his mare was last seen. Pat Yellow Feather slowly walks in. She wanders the perimeter, running her hand carefully along the fence. Toward one end of the stall she stoops and picks up a few stalks of straw. She holds her right hand in front of her, like she is prepared to pat a large dog, then holds her left hand in front of her. Joe follows at a respectful distance.
"I think she's not eatin'," she announces after a few moments. "She's sick. She hasn't had her medicine. I think the food's there. She's just not eatin'."
A few minutes later Burbach and Yellow Feather pile into his huge, well-appointed pickup and head north to Cheyenne. Duff was supposed to come with a bloodhound, but he backed out earlier in the day. ("I don't want to work too close with the psychic," he explains later. "When we come up with something, I don't want some cynical lawyer to say, 'Well, was it the dogs or the psychic?'")
The first stop is in Milliken, where a ten-year-old boy's horse was stolen recently. Burbach heard about it during one of his many talks with brand officers in Colorado and Wyoming, and he took it upon himself to call the boy's mother, Marti, and offer the services of his bloodhounds and psychic. This is not the first time Burbach has volunteered his crew: Burbach and Duff and now Yellow Feather have joined the search for at least seven more horses that have gone missing from northeast Colorado in the past year. Although none have been found, Burbach believes they're not far behind the crooks.
Duff stopped by Marti's place a few days ago to work his dogs. Now Burbach whips out a small notebook and begins asking questions. Meanwhile, Yellow Feather walks over to a fence near where the horse was kept. She leans against it, lowering her head onto the top rail. "They got another male with her," she soon says. "A gelding. They're together."
Marti hands Yellow Feather a halter from the missing horse to see if she can get any feelings off it. "She's fine," the psychic says.
"We just gotta find her," Burbach adds. "We're gettin' pretty close."
As the big truck races toward Cheyenne, Yellow Feather speaks. "I think they're putting ads in papers to sell these horses," she says. "Not the big papers. Smaller papers. With wide columns. I see wide columns."
An hour or so later, she and Burbach meet up with Kelly Hamilton at a busy gas station. The next several hours are spent convoying around Cheyenne, stopping at various locations -- houses, barns, pastures -- so that the psychic can get a read off the sites.
At one large ranch, Hamilton pulls over and waits while Yellow Feather gets a feeling off the property. After a minute she motions him over and asks, "Have you talked to anyone out there? 'Cause there's somebody out there who knows something."
"Hmmm. I'll be damned," Hamilton replies. "I'll have to ponder that."
"I see a young kid, twelve or thirteen years old, leaning on a fence," she adds a little later. "The wind is blowing his hair. He's got blue jeans. His father put an ad in the paper, and these people answered it."
"I'll be damned," Hamilton says.
He waits in his state truck several hundred yards up the road while Yellow Feather and Burbach check out the home of one of his acquaintances. "I wish they'd hurry up," he says. "I'd just as soon she didn't come barreling over the hill and find my psychic checking out her house."
Tom Horn was a complicated man, and most knowledgeable historians recognize that it's impossible to label him a genuine hero or pure outlaw. Several years ago, some old West buffs staged a mock trial, during which Horn was acquitted of the murder of Willie Nickells. Most who've studied the matter agree that Horn did what he had to. He was just one of many men changed by the conditions he found in the West -- a man who adapted as best he could.
Hamilton hopes he can get the same consideration. "When I tell my friends I'm going out with my psychic friends and dogs, they say, 'We pay you for this?'" he says. "And I kind of think we are goin' in circles. But I also think it's fascinating. To an extent."
Besides, what else can he do? The governor's office is on his back, and Burbach and Duffy are relentless. Truth is, over the past four years, there has been a minor rash of horse rustling along the Front Range corridor from Denver to the border. "We know the horses are gone, we know they've been stolen -- and I suppose they might be coming to Wyoming," Hamilton says.
There are whiffs of truth to even Burbach's wildest claims. Several of the people hit by the bloodhounds have had trouble with the law. Hamilton cited one of them, a woman, several weeks ago for abusing her animals.
And, Hamilton adds, it would be wrong to say that nothing good has come from all the headaches caused by Burbach and Duff and the dogs and the psychics. "All this forces me to get out of the office and pay attention," he says. "You tend to get isolated in an office."
And last month, Hamilton introduced a new toll-free number (1-877-WYO-STOCK) for reporting livestock theft in Wyoming -- a tool he convinced his bosses that the office needed by citing the peculiar case of the missing Burbach horses. Hamilton also has hired a new undercover investigator, a man selected specifically for his ability to blend in with cowboys and ranchers and to spot any questionable activities in their world.
"We are just so unsuccessful about investigating and solving livestock crime these days, there's got to be something out there -- some tool we're not thinking of," Hamilton says. "It's frustrating, because when I was with the sheriff's office or police department, we were always developing new methods to catch criminals. And since the mid-1970s, we haven't changed anything about how we deal with livestock theft. I mean, this is the third-largest industry in the state of Wyoming, but brand inspection and livestock tracking just hasn't kept up.
"Wouldn't you hate to live in a society where people didn't consider new ways of doing things?"
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.
- Is the Word "Marijuana" Offensive?
Wed., Dec. 9, 7:00pm
Wed., Dec. 9, 8:00pm
Fri., Dec. 11, 7:00pm
Fri., Dec. 11, 7:35pm
- Reader: I Can't Go Home for Two Years Over One Gram of Pot
- Ten Best Denver-Area Coffeehouses That Also Serve Liquor