The Washington Post
September 8, 1974
By Jim Ivey
Special to The Washington Post
OMAHA, Neb. - There is angry - and serious - talk among Nebraska ranchers and farmers about helicopter-equipped devil cultists and fertility ritualism.
As a precaution, the Army National Guard has ordered its helicopters to fly at 1,000 feet or higher rather than the usual 500 feet.
The Guard action - taken after a commercial pilot checking a power line near Grand Island was shot at - comes in the wake of a series of weird cow and horse mutilations that have enraged local residents.
Since spring, 21 cases of cow or horse mutilations have been authenticated in a five-county area and some observers think the number should really be about 50. But it is difficult to determine the cause of death of a yearling after five or six days in open country.
However Pierce County rancher Eugene Scott last week found a calf which had been dead only five hours, according to the examining veterinarian. Its sex organs had been removed and the body drained of blood. State Patrol investigator E.M. Hastreiter said no blood or tracks were found on the scene.
Mutilation stories began in May and at first authorities attributed the acts to varmints, mostly coyotes. But then a veterinarian called to examine the dismembering and draining of a cow near Madison in June said he was convinced "that a human element was involved."
In most cases blood has been drained and reproductive organs removed. A helicopter frequently has been seen hovering over the area about the time of the mutilation. A copter with a spotlight was seen over the Lancaster County farm of Richard Benes the night of a confirmed mutilation there.
Knox County Sheriff Herbert Thompson, who is investigating seven mutilations, also reports the simultaneous sighting of unidentified helicopters in that area.
Dr. Richard Thill, Germanic professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, who also teaches noncredit witchcraft courses, has been reviewing the reports and calls them "ritualistic."
"It could be someone setting up a fertility cult of some kind or it could be someone putting you on. If they are putting you on, they are pretty sick," he said.
But there is also an economic theory in this country where many stockmen consider the U.S. Department of Agriculture more predatory than the coyote. Beef prices in the supermarkets are high and the stockman doesn't think he has been getting his share, with feed prices up and imported beef flooding the country. A recent drought is expected to increase his feed costs.
Last March, as beef prices soared, in Sarpy County in more populated eastern Nebraska there was a wave of cattle rustling - accompanied by a rash of helicopter sighting. The coincidence was enough to induce Sheriff Thomas Paton to call out additional patrols and to check with aviation officials for authorized flights. There were supposed to be no helicopters in the area.
"We felt since there were no vehicle tracks near the rustling scenes, a chopper might have been able to sling the cattle out to hard roads where trucks pick them up. There were no mutilations," he said.
Helicopter sightings stopped when newspapers wrote about the incidents and "so did the rustling," said Ernest Peterson, a stockman who lost 12 cattle in 30 days.
The helicopter factor in both the Sarpy County thefts and the mutilations is mystifying, although there is one theory. In cowboy lore, said Dr. Thill, wilder range cattle supposedly are attracted by the smell of blood and organs of other cattle.
Because of the erratic beef market, more stockmen are keeping animals on the range to fatten this fall. Some think the mutilators could be gathering lure for later rustling on the open range.
Whatever is happening has nerves on edge. Nightly, cowboys in trucks with citizen's Band radios and rifles patrol the prairies.
Patrols are made almost nightly in the counties of Knox, Cedar, Antelope, Madison and Burt.
Ranchers frequently stop cars with out-of-state license plates on their property to check them but there have been no incidents.
One stockman, Gordon Bruber of Hartington, said he noticed a yellowish bar of light several miles away from him during a patrol, and identified it as a helicopter.
"I spent four years in the Air Force and I'm sure of what I saw," he said.
This led the Omaha World Herald to caution: Those not involved should avoid mutilation areas because the combination of curiosity and nervousness "could produce a tragedy far greater than the deaths of a few cattle."
The National Guard was more blunt. It ordered its 31 helicopters to fly at 1,000 feet altitude instead of the standard 500 to avoid any mistaken gunfire from the irate ranchers below.