Complaining to FBI isn't just a lot of bull White House follies? Try rancher's case

July 07, 1996|By Jeff Stein

THIS IS THE STORY of a man and his bull. And the White House and the FBI.

The FBI has been in the news only a little less than the White House lately. Of course the Republicans are comparing the Fiasco of the FBI Files to Watergate, with the idea that Craig Livingstone, a blubbery former bartender who headed the White House security office, was another Gordon Liddy. The Republicans, who know better, should apologize to Liddy, a former FBI agent. Does anyone seriously believe that the Clintonistas could manage a massive spying and dirty tricks operation like Richard Nixon's?

The blame for The File Affair, it seems to me, should be shared at least equally by the FBI, which, 20 years after Watergate, was still too eager to please the boss, in this case, a political hack at the White House -- which still counts for something inside the Beltway, if not outside it -- who ordered the Bureau to hand over hundreds of confidential files.

And it did -- wrongly -- shipping about 400 confidential dossiers on important Republicans, among others, down Pennsylvania Avenue without so much as a slip of paper explaining why the White House needed them. When the flap hit the fan, FBI Director Louis Freeh declared it would never happen again. Too late, of course, another case of the FBI's closing the barn door after the horse escaped. And which brings us back to our story.

In March 1993, one James Horn, a small-time rancher in Soledad, Calif., noticed one of his prize bulls missing, one of 45 registered Angus cattle. Horn, a slow-talking, vague man in his mid-40s, reported the crime to a local magistrate in the central California farmland.

"They sent a very nice lady out to talk to me, who took a report, but that was all I heard from them," he said. Miffed, Horn then hired a private investigator to look into the case, a retired Army detective by the name of Dan White.

White developed information that the bull might have been taken across state lines to Oregon, which made it a federal case, Horn said. This was good news of a sort, because Horn had run out of money and couldn't pay White to pursue his leads.

So Horn called the FBI office in Monterey, a Pacific Coast town about 40 miles northwest of Soledad, and got an agent on the phone.

"First he told me it had to be worth $20,000. [And then] they told me they were too busy looking for IBM's computer chips," Horn said. "And I told 'em, I said, 'Look, IBM is a big company, and if they lose $100 million worth of computer chips, that's one thing. But I'm a small rancher, and my bull is worth as much to me in my business as IBM's computer chips are to theirs. And you ought to take me just as serious.' "

Fat chance. Horn, of course, did not work at the White House.

Horn was suffering from a variety of ailments then, including cancer, which had weakened his back and often left him tired and confused. Still, he was determined to retrieve his bull. He called the FBI in Washington.

"They hung up on me," Horn said on the phone from Willow Springs, in southeast Missouri, where he now lives with his remaining bulls on 80 acres his father willed him. "They told me they didn't deal with that kind of thing and hung up."

Horn called again, and again was brushed off. When he called the FBI the last time he was put on hold until a telephone company tape came on telling him to hang up.

Despite his ailments, Horn was determined. He called the White House, which referred him to the Justice Department. The Justice Department referred him to the FBI.

Back to Square One.

On July 1, 1994, Jim Horn sat down and scratched out a two-page letter to the President of the United States, Bill Clinton, on a lined pad of paper.

"I realize no one will probably read this and the system will overlook my breeding bull, but at least I have tried, something the Washington FBI won't do," Horn wrote after summarizing his case. "It was wrong for the FBI not to listen, not to do their job for a cattle rancher."

Washington, of course, is a place where everything is possible, or impossible, depending on who's talking. And now it was the White House. To the FBI.

On November 23, 1994, an official-looking letter arrived in Horn's mailbox from Washington. It was a very polite letter from John E. Collingwood, Inspector in Charge, Office of Public and Congressional Affairs, the FBI.

"Your July 1st communication to the President was referred to the FBI for reply," Collingwood wrote. "I am sorry for the delay in responding and any rudeness you may have experienced during your phone call to FBI headquarters."

So nice. None of those brush offs and hang ups now. Horn soon got a call from Richard Lack, a FBI special agent in Monterey, Calif. Also very nice. The agent took a statement from Horn, who turned over the names of his suspects to the FBI. Finally, he had hope.

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