In the News
|Alabama Agriculture Commissioner John McMillan, left, chats with Gene Wiggins, director of the new Agriculture Rural Crimes Unit at the organization’s headquarters in Montgomery.
Part of new Agriculture Rural Crimes Unit
by Alvin Benn
Gene Wiggins is a criminal investigator who never gives up on a case and, just to make sure, he keeps a famous football photograph in his office for inspiration.
It’s a picture showing Auburn University’s Bill Newton and David Langner combining on two blocked punts in the closing minutes to score touchdowns in one of the most dramatic, improbable finishes in college football history.
Few gave Auburn a chance to even come close in that game because the clock was rapidly running out against a powerhouse opponent coached by the legendary Paul (Bear) Bryant.
||Alabama Rural Crime Unit Director Gene Wiggins, foreground, stands with Scott Lee, left, and Slaton Jemison at the new organization’s headquarters near Garrett Coliseum in Montgomery.
More than 40 years after that amazing football turnaround, "Punt, Bama, Punt" posters and bumper stickers still abound in Tiger Auburn Country.
"I keep that picture up there for a reason whenever I’m involved in a particularly tough investigation because it tells me that no case or cause is lost if you work hard," said Wiggins, director of the newly created Agriculture Rural Crimes Unit. "You just might win, too."
Organized to intensify criminal investigations in rural regions of Alabama, it will employ the latest crime-fighting techniques to nail thieves who steal cattle, farm equipment and other items of value in homes and businesses.
The unit was recently announced by Gov. Robert Bentley and Spencer Collier who was named secretary of the newly created Alabama State Law Enforcement Agency.
|Gene Wiggins relies on computers as well as law books when he’s not out in the field directing the newly formed Agriculture Rural Crime Unit.
"Theft creates a huge burden for our hard-working farmers," Bentley said. "Every day, they live at the mercy of the land and the weather. They have little room for financial loss. Farmers are small business owners, and theft is a major setback to their businesses. We put this (unit) together to make sure our farmers are protected."
The Legislature approved the agency, anticipating it to become a large umbrella organization utilizing the expertise of several law enforcement departments. It is to be officially funded by the state in 2015.
For that reason, those who are assigned as investigators will continue to be paid by their parent agencies that now employ them, eliminating the need to hire new officers. Once the new group is official, it will have its own budget.
Collier emphasized that ARCU investigators won’t supplant local sheriffs or other authorities. Instead, they will be available to help supplement those activities if called on to help.
|Rural Crime Unit Created
|Gov. Robert Bentley officially announced creation of the Agricultural and Rural Crimes Unit July 11 at Trotman Cattle Co. in Montgomery County. The unit specializes in rural crime investigations including equipment and livestock theft, fraud and agroterrorism. In the first six weeks after the unit had been formed on June 4, they were responsible for 14 felony arrests with recovery of $500,000 in stolen equipment, much of which had been returned to the rightful owners.
From left are Alabama Poultry and Egg Association Executive Director Johnny Adams, Alabama Cattlemen’s Association Executive Vice President Dr. Billy Powell, Alabama Farmers Federation President Jimmy Parnell, Bentley, Alabama State Law Enforcement Agency Secretary Spencer Collier and Alabama Agribusiness Council Executive Director Leigha Cauthen. Also gathered for the announcement were other state agricultural leaders from the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries, Alabama Farmers Cooperative, First South Farm Credit, Alabama Cooperative Extension System and Alabama Rural Electric Association.
A key to the new unit has been the naming of experienced law-enforcement investigators to track down the guilty parties.
That’s why those in charge of the fledgling unit picked the best, starting at the top and adding more experienced law enforcement officers to assist Wiggins.
A State Trooper lieutenant born and raised in Monroe County, Wiggins was one of the first to be considered as ARCU director and he didn’t back away from his latest challenge. In fact, he’s looking forward to it.
"I’m confident this new organization will succeed," he said, during an interview with AFC Cooperative Farming News at his office near Garrett Coliseum in Montgomery. "We have a fine group of experienced investigators and I don’t have any doubts that we’ll do the job."
Someone who has no doubts about that is John McMillan, Alabama’s commissioner of agriculture and a man who has known and admired Wiggins for many years.
"Gene will be outstanding in his new job because of his diverse background in law enforcement and personal commitment to make this new organization work," McMillan said. "I was thrilled when he was chosen to head up this division."
A former Marine who worked for sheriff’s departments in Monroe and Clarke counties before becoming a trooper, Wiggins is relentless when it comes to criminal investigations.
Growing up in a rural setting where his dad was a hard-working logger, he learned the importance of responsibility at a young age, especially when it involved personal property.
"To lose what you’ve worked so hard to obtain can be devastating and recovering what’s been stolen is something I’ve always enjoyed," he said.
Other investigators transferred to the rural crime fighting unit were assured they would have the full support of their superiors.
That was welcome news not only for the investigators but farm families as well, especially those involved in the cattle industry, according to Wiggins.
"Today’s beef prices are pretty high," he said. "Just take a look at the price of ground round and it’s easy to see why some people are stealing cattle. And, it’s our job to catch ’em."
Lauderdale County appears to be a favorite target of cattle rustlers. Wiggins said thieves stole cows and other property four times in a brief period in May.
"It appeared they did it late at night," he said. "One time they even used the victim’s catch pen to round up the cattle they stole."
According to the Times Daily in Florence, 30 Angus cattle were stolen from a pasture in the Murphy’s Chapel community of Lauderdale County.
Local law enforcement agencies such as sheriff’s and police departments have had their hands full trying to round up cattle rustlers and those who steal tractors and other expensive pieces of equipment.
The latest rural crime fighting incarnation follows one that had been active under the aegis of the state Department of Agriculture.
It only lasted a couple of years before it had to be curtailed because of statewide funding shortages, according to Brett Hall, deputy commissioner of the agriculture department.
"It was doing well, but we had to lay off everybody except the chief because we didn’t have the money to pay them," Hall said. "Proration didn’t help either and we were sorry to see the investigative unit being disbanded."
As the new organization was being announced, another group of rural investigators completed a probe leading to the arrests of five men in a multi-county burglary ring.
U.S. Attorney Kenyon Brown of Mobile announced in June at the Clarke County Courthouse that five men had been arrested and charged with a string of burglaries.
The federal official said an investigation into the thefts started nearly 2 years ago. Those charged were accused of stealing farm machinery, cars, trucks and other items.
Clarke County Sheriff Ray Norris said a task force composed of federal, state and local investigators was organized to deal with the burglaries. Wiggins was among that group of investigators.
A self-described "good ol’ boy," Wiggins, 47, once was a third-shift patrol officer with the Montgomery Police Department.
"We worked a lot of domestic violence cases," he said, adding he’d rather work rural crime cases because it reminds him of home. "I was raised in the country and I know the people who live there."
Since being named director of the new investigative unit, Wiggins has been busy juggling one development after another during long days at work.
His cell phone informs him of incoming calls with a cow’s loud mooing sound - alerting him that something needs to be addressed as soon as possible.
"When it rings, I know who it is right away," said Wiggins. "I know it’s something really important and that’s why I don’t wait for more than a couple of rings."
He said his investigative unit is using "good, old-fashioned" methods of detection along with modern electronic equipment to help track down thieves including helicopters that can spot stolen farm equipment from the air.
Now, about that "Punt, Bama, Punt" photo on Wiggins’ office wall, it’s a daily reminder that the impossible may not be so impossible after all … if you just refuse to give up.
That’s the way it was for the Auburn Tigers at Legion Field in Birmingham Dec. 2, 1972, when the Crimson Tide led 16-0 with the clock about to run out at the annual Iron Bowl game.
Within a few minutes, it all changed. Newton - who is one of Wiggins’ friends - blocked two punts and Langer ran both back for touchdowns - an instant replay of sorts that sealed the Tide’s bid for an unbeaten season.
Auburn’s sensational comeback is, in Wiggins’ mind, a good example and an inspiration for anyone facing a dilemma - whether it involves sports or challenges of daily life.
If he’s tackling a particularly tough case in the coming months, he might just take a look at that picture on his wall and use it for inspiration as he leads Alabama’s brand new rural crime fighting unit - a team of which he is the head coach.
Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.