When you think about special agents in law enforcement, you might not immediately imagine a team bringing down a ring of cattle thieves, but that is just the type of crime Tennessee’s Agricultural Crime Unit (ACU) might undertake.

In addition to enforcing state laws, rules and regulations regarding the import of animals, animal diseases and use of state forests, the ACU investigates everything from wildland arson to livestock theft.

“The ACU is made up of eight special agents who investigate crime scenes related to wildland, hay or barn arson; livestock theft; crimes against persons or property; and other agricultural criminal activity,” Captain Greg Whitehead explains. “Our agents gather important information such as witness statements, fingerprints and other physical evidence. Our purpose is to protect all farming activities and agricultural practices from criminal activity in the state of Tennessee.”

ag crime unit

Special Agent Morris Rogers investigates a potential ag crime; Photo credit: Samanta Jean

Understanding Agricultural Crime

The eight special agents with the ACU handle an average of 200 cases per year, affecting approximately 5,300 acres of privately owned woodland and 43,500 head of livestock.
“Seventy percent of the cases we’ve received since 2016 have been forestry related,” Whitehead says. “Twenty-one percent involved animal health, and the remaining 9% pertained to other agricultural matters.”

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Whitehead and his team investigate everything from the intentional killing of livestock to timber and crop theft. It’s a demanding job that not only protects the citizens but ensures the state’s No. 1 industry will continue to thrive and grow.

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“Agricultural and forestry operations contribute an estimated $81 billion to Tennessee’s economy each year,” Whitehead says. “The Agricultural Crime Unit is a special unit trained to protect this great industry within our state and help all agricultural industries within Tennessee operate more safely and efficiently.”

Agents use investigation kits to gather physical evidence; Photo credit: Photo credit: Samanta Jean

Cases Closed

Among the many cases handled within the ACU each year, there are a few that stand out.
“We arrested one arsonist who had been setting wildland fires across eight counties,” Whitehead recalls. “The fires varied from small roadside sets to major forest fires, costing our citizens tens of thousands of dollars.”

The team collected and analyzed evidence that led to a court-issued subpoena on the suspect’s residence. After uncovering critical evidence, the suspect was arrested and later confessed to years of setting forest fires in a large area of Tennessee.

“We also worked a case involving $672,000 worth of stolen Tennessee livestock,” Whitehead says. “The animals were sold through various livestock markets across the country. Because there were multiple states and jurisdictions, the U.S. Marshals Service got involved. After more than four months of investigative work, the suspect was charged with 12 felony counts.”

The hard work of ACU agents helped stop this large theft ring and protected Tennessee’s livestock producers from future crimes.

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When to Make the Call

It may be impossible to measure the total amount of money the ACU has saved Tennesseans through the apprehension of woodland arsonists and livestock and farm equipment thieves, but Whitehead and his team are proud to continue defending the state’s agricultural community.

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To report an agricultural crime, call (844) AG-CRIME or you can report it online at tn.gov/agriculture/consumers/ag-crime-unit.

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