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The theft of a dozen John Deere tractors in the past 10 months has led investigators to say a sophisticated ring of farm-implement rustlers may be operating in the northern Rockies.

The large tractors taken in the thefts are usually "stolen to order," said Craig Beek, manager of corporate security for the Moline, Ill.-based Deere & Co., the maker of John Deere tractors."You're not going to steal something like that unless you have a buyer lined up - it's too big to drag around for long," he said. "This is a specialist - someone with the knowledge to start them up and the equipment to move them from point A to point B."

The latest in the string of thefts happened in Powell.

With at least 30 green John Deere tractors on the lot of Powell Equipment Inc., owner Ed Sessions says it can be easy to overlook one or two - "way too easy."

Late Jan. 28 or during the next two days, someone drove two used John Deere tractors off the farm dealership's brightly lit lot along U.S. Highway 14A. Police suspect the rustlers loaded the Deeres, valued at nearly $75,000, onto a waiting flatbed truck and disappeared.

Those two tractors are now among almost a dozen, worth close to $500,000, taken in a series of heists from farms and dealerships in Montana, western Wyoming, eastern Idaho and northern Utah in the past 10 months.

Two South Dakota thefts during the same period could also be related. Others may still be unreported.

"If you look at the circumstances, a connection seems like a real possibility," said Powell Police Chief John Cox.

With no registration requirements, tractors are also easier to fence - and worth much more - than most automobiles. And Deere tractors, which are started with a common key and are often left unattended in rural areas, are prime poaching prospects.

"We assume these crimes were planned out in advance by experienced people," said Sheriff Charley Johnson in Park County, Mont., where three John Deeres were taken last summer - two from a dealer in Livingston and one from a farmer's field next to I-90.

"It's kind of like stealing a damn house," Johnson said.

Tractor rustling has been on the rise in recent years, Beek said, with hundreds of Deeres reported stolen. Criminal rings have operated in the Midwest and Canada, where tractors are numerous, but this is the first sign of one in the northern Rockies.

"When we see patterns like this develop, you've obviously got a fence or a ring operating in the area," said Wesley Eller, an analyst who tracks such thefts from Deere's headquarters. "Somebody's developed a market for themselves."

Starting with a utility tractor stolen near Helena, Mont., in April of last year, at least 10 of the valuable machines have disappeared regularly in the region.

According to Deere & Co. and local law enforcement agencies, each theft has targeted John Deeres, a sought-after brand easy for criminals to sell.

All those stolen were large tractors, many from Deere's top-flight 4000 series, worth around $40,000 or more apiece. All were used, thus harder to trace and less apt to draw stares. All were taken near major highways and apparently hauled away on a flatbed.

And all the cases remain unsolved.

Several stolen serial number plates, often used by professional thieves to mask purloined tractors, have also been reported.

In January 1992, three months before the Helena heist, six plates vanished off tractors at a dealer in Ashton, Idaho, south of West Yellowstone, Mont. They were the same type of Deere tractors as were later stolen.

And Deere officials say many tractor owners never notice missing serial plates. So other serial plate thefts and even other tractor thefts may remain undiscovered.