A Bozeman man has been sentenced to two and a half years in prison and is expected to pay $450,993 restitution for a cattle-rustling scheme.
Joshua James Chappa, 45, pleaded guilty on Jan. 21 to conversion of secured property and to wire fraud.
Chappa worked as a ranch manager for Hayes Ranch in Wilsall, about 25 miles north of Livingston, from 2008 until 2017. Chappa also formed his own cattle company Cold Smoke Cattle in 2015.
While working for Hayes Ranch, he had access to cattle and embryos. Prosecutors say when the owners of the ranch were out of the country, Chappa began dealing in cattle, including stealing cattle from the Hayes Ranch and selling them as if they were his own.
In 2015, Chappa signed two security agreements with Northwest Farm Credit Services, which is a member of the Farm Credit System. Chappa pledged his cattle as collateral. Prosecutors say between 2015 and 2017, Chappa intended to defraud Northwest by selling cattle in which Northwest had a security interest without remitting the proceeds as promised. He defaulted on the loan and Northwest suffered a loss.
Chappa also partnered with Willers Mitten Brand, in Norfolk, Nebraska, in various cattle ventures and failed to remit payment to Willers Mitten Brand when selling the cattle.
In a cattle sale at Billings Livestock Commission in January 2017, Chappa requested that payment of $41,262 be made to his company claiming that Willers Mitten Brand had “already signed the brand release for that to happen.” When questioned by Willers Mitten Brand about the payment, Chappa lied about it, failing to split the proceeds.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Ryan G. Weldon prosecuted the case, which was investigated by the FBI and the Montana Department of Livestock.