When a local farmer reported the theft of around 20 round bales of hay from a field early last year, Tillman County, OK, Sheriff Bobby Whittington knew the odds of solving the case were against him.

“A big problem in these kinds of cases is that one hay bale pretty much looks like every other hay bale,” says Whittington. “You can stop someone with a pickup truck carrying a bale that you suspect might be stolen. But how do you prove it’s not theirs?”

He wasn’t about to give up. His office started researching GPS units and eventually bought one for about $600. The unit interfaced with Google Earth. It could be programmed so that, when a piece of property, in this case a hay bale, moved a certain distance, a text-message alert would be sent to Whittington’s cell phone.

He went back to the farm where the theft had taken place and inserted the GPS in another bale. Choosing the bale was a guessing game, he says.

“We know that people often act out of habit. With this kind of thing, they tend to take a bale that’s sitting close to the road. So we chose one that looked like it would be the next one up.”

About a month later, he got a text message late in the evening telling him the bale was on the move. Working with a deputy who was tracking the bale’s movement on his home computer, Whittington tracked the bale to a house. He watched two men drop off the bale behind the house, then followed them when they returned to the farmer’s field to snatch another bale.

At that point, Whittington arrested them. “They tried to tell me it was their hay,” he says. “I told them, ‘The GPS says differently.’ ”

The two men were charged with concealing and withholding stolen property, a felony that carries a three- to five-year prison term. They eventually pled out to the charges and received three-year suspended sentences.

Whittington reports that his office hasn’t used the GPS unit since that incident. “Once the word got out, this kind of activity came to a screeching halt. We still have it on hand if we need it.”