Affidavit: Cushing man, friend used backhoe to dig up $1.6K cattle guard, sold it for scrap

Jeffrey vela (Source: Nacogdoches County Jail)
Jeffrey vela (Source: Nacogdoches County Jail)

CUSHING, TX (KTRE) - Nacogdoches County's Precinct 1 Constable arrested a man for felony theft Tuesday in connection to a Dec. 16, 2013 incident in which he and a friend allegedly stole an entire metal cattle guard from a cemetery and sold it for scrap.

Jeffrey Scott Vela, 48, of Cushing, is still being held in the Nacogdoches County Jail on a state-jail felony charge of theft between $1,500 and $20,000. No bail has been set at this time.

The other suspect in the case, Michael Benjamin Birdwell, 35, of Cushing, was arrested on Jan. 17. He was released on Jan. 20 after he posted at $10,000 bail.

According to the arrest affidavit, Pct. 1 Constable William Sowell was contacted by the caretaker of the Pine Grove Cemetery, which is located off of County Road 857. The caretaker told the constable that someone had stolen the cattle guard from the entrance of the cemetery and that the cattle guard was valued at $1,600.

Then on Jan. 6, Sowell was contacted by a Nacogdoches County Sheriff's Office investigator who told him that he had been working in the Cushing area the previous day on an unrelated case when he received information on the cattle guard case. He identified Birdwell and Vela as possible suspects.

When Sowell and a deputy constable went to Birdwell's house on Jan. 8, Birdwell allegedly admitted to taking the cattle guard and said that Vela helped him with the theft. Birdwell told the law officers that an acquaintance told him that he knew the owner of the property and said Birdwell could have the cattle guard.

Birdwell said he went to the property in early December, and he was able to get the cattle guard out of the ground. However, he was unable to load it onto his trailer, so he called his friend, Vela. According to the affidavit, Vela came to the location with his backhoe and helped Birdwell load the cattle guard on his trailer.

According to the affidavit, Birdwell told Sowell and his deputy that he took the cattle guard to a scrap yard in Cushing and sold it. He claimed that he kept all of the money. When authorities contacted Vela, he gave them a story similar to Birdwell's version.

In addition, officers located the man that Birdwell claimed told him he could take the cattle guard. The man said he didn't know anything about the cattle guard and said he barely knew Birdwell.

A week later, Sowell went back to talk to the caretaker of the cemetery. When the constable asked some follow-up questions, the complainant told him that getting the cattle guard out of the ground without machinery would be nearly impossible because it weighed at least 1,000 pounds and had been in the ground for numerous years.

The cemetery caretaker told the constable that the ground around where the cattle guard had minimal damage and it looked as though the cattle guard had been pulled straight up out of the ground.

Then on Jan. 16, Sowell and one of his deputies returned to Birdwell's house. He allegedly told them that he was completely truthful with them the first time they spoke to him. He allegedly said that he and Vela were equal partners in the theft.

According to the affidavit, Birdwell said that Vela contacted him about the cattle guard "way out in the woods" and said if Birdwell helped him transport the cattle guard to the scrap yard, he would split the profits with him.

Birdwell allegedly told the law enforcement officers that he went to the location and saw Vela digging up the cattle guard with a backhoe. After they loaded the cattle guard onto the trailer, they took it to a scrap yard in Cushing, where they sold it and split the money.

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