Photo by U.S. Department of Agriculture, Flickr

In the California Sunday Magazine, Tessa Stuart writes the gripping story of a criminal who worked the people who work the fields in California’s rural interior, and the detective agency who raced to catch him. The story has all the markings of a Netflix original series, except in place of drugs or gold, the loot is cattle and farmers’ money.

The last deal they did together was far and away the biggest — to the tune of about $450,000. Arno bought 185 head of cattle and wrote Jamie a check for the total. But instead of taking them to his cattlemen clients, Arno drove down to the Tulare County Stockyards and put the cows up at the public auction, where they fetched a price that was $300 less per head than the check he’d written Jamie. It bounced.

Jamie, Rocky eventually learned, wasn’t the first or last dairyman Arno scammed. Arno was buying cows from different cattlemen, taking the money he made at the auction and using it to buy more, or accepting payment for a certain number of cows from a farmer and delivering only a fraction of those promised. “It was a giant Ponzi scheme,” Rocky says. “These guys would start calling him, ‘Hey, dude, where’s the rest of my cows?’ and he’d say, ‘Oh, they’re coming. The truck broke down in Texas or New Mexico or … ’ He’d come up with some cock-and-bull story.”

Rocky found that even as Arno was failing to deliver the dairymen’s cows, he was flying the same dairymen around in private planes on trips up to Oregon or over to Las Vegas on a lark, with fuel and piloting services he also hadn’t paid for. At the time, the dairymen weren’t talking about Arno among themselves; the fear was that if they exposed Arno’s fraud to one dairyman, Arno wouldn’t be able to extract money from that person to pay back the others.

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