CACTUS COPS WERE STICKLERS SUCCULENT SLEUTHES' POSTS ELIMINATED

You may not remember their names, but almost everyone has heard of Arizona's cactus cops and what they did: bust cactus rustlers.

Perhaps the most famed (and feared) cactus protector was Richard Countryman, the original native-plant-compliance chief for what was then known as the Arizona Commission of Agriculture and Horticulture. But there's also Larry Richards, the last cactus cop, who has been in on some highly publicized busts involving the rare crested saguaro.

Countryman retired in 1989. Richards was shifted to another division at the commission--which was renamed the Arizona Department of Agriculture in 1991--when his position was cut last fall.

There are no full-time cactus cops left. But while they were on duty, they enforced strict native-plant laws. Those laws made it illegal to move protected plants, such as saguaros, from their native settings without first getting a permit from the state. Any plant transported with a permit had to be specially tagged. Except in a few circumstances, removing plants from state or federal land is prohibited.

Until September 1991, penalties for violating the law were weak: Violations were previously Class 2 misdemeanors, carrying a maximum fine of $5,000. Under the new law, the theft of an average 15-foot saguaro--worth about $640--is a Class 6 felony that can land the thieves in jail for up to a year and a half. In court, however, thieves rarely ended up paying more than a few hundred dollars in fines. Still, the cactus cops recovered stolen saguaros valued at as much as $15,000 and shipped as far away as Kansas.

The need for the cactus cops began as Arizona's urban population shot up in the 1960s. As the state grew, so did the market for illegally uprooted native plants. Black-market-saguaro prices skyrocketed from $85 for a healthy, two-armed cactus in 1969 to the current prices of $35 per foot and $100 per arm. Prices are even higher for saguaros shipped out of state.

And like today, a good thief could then uproot a 30-foot saguaro in 15 minutes and haul it out on a flatbed truck. It wasn't difficult to stash the goods; uprooted saguaros can live for three to four months.

Countryman, a seed inspector for the commission at the time, realized thieves would tear up the desert if laws protecting native plants weren't strengthened. So in 1967, he helped write new laws, and in 1971, he became head of the native-plant-compliance division.

The cactus rustlers, accustomed to a free-for-all in the vast Arizona desert, were hit with high-tech police power.

Once Countryman got a tip from someone who had witnessed men uprooting saguaros on state property near Tucson. Countryman traced the suspected vehicle to a local nursery. Officers at the scene of the crime found remains of cactus roots.

The two cactuses weren't at the suspected nursery, so Countryman subpoenaed the nursery's bank records. Deposited the day of the incident were two checks from residents in the Valley. At each check-writer's home, Countryman found newly planted saguaros. He took a root sample from one of the cactuses and compared it to the sample from the desert. The samples, like fingerprints, matched perfectly. The nursery was later fined.

In the late 70s and early 80s, the compliance division of the commission numbered seven officers, and their collective busts numbered from 90 to 100 every year.

"Those were the days," says Countryman, a zealous enforcer. He busted a federal official who had a stolen plant, despite political pressure not to. Countryman even arrested a close neighbor of his in Glendale.

To the national and international media, Countryman's exploits became legendary. Newsweek magazine, the New York Times, Reader's Digest and People magazine, among others, chronicled his story.

Journalist after journalist went on patrol with Countryman, hoping to witness a cactus heist in progress. Most were disappointed; tracking down stolen cactus is often a dreary process of checking permit tags or comparing root samples. But the reporters still got good stories. Countryman says the British Broadcasting Corporation begged him to fake a cactus heist for the cameras. He refused, so the BBC found a downstate police agency to do it. "They got sunburned to all hell," Countryman says. A freelance reporter took it a step further: He arranged a heist, and then went along with the actual cactus thief. Countryman busted the rustler and the reporter.

Countryman was even featured in the "Ripley's Believe It or Not" comic strip. The strip was reprinted as far away as Saudi Arabia.

Countryman also shipped specimens around the world for those who had heard of but never seen saguaros. He still has a picture of four saguaros sitting in the White House. He sent them at the request of former Egyptian prime minister Anwar Sadat, who was visiting the U.S. Countryman also sent saguaros to Phoenix's sister city, Himeji, Japan.

Larry Richards, now a seed inspector, was the last commission employee to work full-time enforcing the native-plant laws. His position was cut last September. He has been featured in Sports Illustrated and People magazines.

Richards helped coordinate the successful search for a rare crested saguaro named "Old Granddad," which was stolen from public land in western Arizona.

As state budget cuts hit the commission, Countryman and Richards sought outside help. At Countryman's request, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service orchestrated a four-year undercover investigation of Arizona nurseries. In 1990, it arrested and convicted 19 people for cactus rustling, including the theft of about 152 saguaros. Those rustlers were prosecuted under the Lacey Act--aimed at stemming interstate trafficking of stolen plants--and laws prohibiting theft of government property. The federal laws carry much harsher penalties than state statutes: up to ten years in prison and fines of up to $250,000. The toughest sentence went to a leader of a group of thieves, John Yates, who was sentenced to 46 months in jail and ordered to pay $64,000 in restitution.

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