The Case of the Poisoned Calves

A newborn calf
(William Campbell / Corbis via Getty Images)

In Longview, Texas, someone poisoned eighteen of the Birdsong family’s calves, killing them one at a time over the course of four years by feeding them a mysterious grain. But who? And why? Texas Monthly writer-at-large Leif Reigstad digs into a confounding true-crime cold case with no leads, no motive, no patterns, and no suspects.

In more than two thousand investigations over a twenty-year career as a special ranger with the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, Scott Williamson, who now serves as the executive director of law enforcement and theft prevention, has never seen a case like Buck’s. “Typically, anything we saw was either small numbers or ended up tying back to more of a prussic acid poisoning, which is just a natural poisoning of grasses that come under awful [drought or frost] conditions and can kill cattle in a short period of time,” said Williamson. “It’s just an act of God through a natural process. But I have personally never worked a case of intentional poisoning.”

After a fourth calf died, in 2014, Buck took a pair of night vision goggles that Becky had bought him for Christmas and went out into the pasture after dark, hoping to catch the perpetrator in the act. For four nights, he sat on a bucket behind the cover of the trees along his fence line, so that he could see almost the entire pasture, staking out his land through the night with a cooler full of water and Gatorade beside him. He was alone with his thoughts, and all the possible scenarios and unanswered questions began running through his head again and again. But by the time the sun came up, he’d be no closer to catching the killer than he was the first day he heard the terrible wailing of the mother cow.

Everyone had a theory or a quick fix. Put up game cameras, one suggested. (Buck had.) Was it blackleg? one commenter asked. (None of the calves exhibited symptoms of the fatal disease.) Leptospirosis? No. White snakeroot? Bad bull semen? Larkspur? Nightshade? Hemlock? No, no, no, no, and no. Get a Great Pyrenees guard dog. Get a Doberman. Buck has had dogs on his ranch, and they’ve never done much good. I’d sit out there all night with night vision goggles, someone said. Of course, Buck had done that too.

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