For Bob Holley, agriculture and law enforcement have been a team since he was 6-years-old and standing on a street corner in downtown Opelika.
It’s been nearly half a century, but he’s never forgotten the morning he wore a little uniform bought for him by members of the Opelika Police Department.
In his right hand was a whistle which he blew with great gusto as traffic approached him.
His older brother, Clarence, served many years as an officer in Opelika. So did another relative. His father ran a restaurant that became a regular stop with local officers.
"It’s just about all I’ve done," said Holley, 54, who is chief investigator for Alabama’s Department of Agriculture and Industries. "I started as a dispatcher and moved on up from there."
Holley, who has worked for the past three agriculture commissioners, retired in 2003, but it didn’t last long. He returned two years later in a part-time capacity and then came back in 2007 to reclaim a position that had never been filled.
"You could say I’m a little bit of a workaholic," he said, as he relaxed in a little office in the basement of a big building on Coliseum Boulevard where he directs a staff of nine. "I enjoy what I do and that’s why I came back."
The thieves who steal tractors, trucks and cattle or break into cabins in rural Alabama didn’t welcome him back because, when Holley’s hot on their trail, he never lets up.
Several weeks ago, he helped nail two Macon County men who were charged with several break-ins of hunting lodges there. He’s also working to corral cattle rustlers who have grown bolder by the month in Alabama.
Law enforcement’s gain is horse shoeing’s loss because Holley considered going into that line of work full-time before settling on a criminal justice career.
"I’ve always had horses and did some roping at rodeos," he said. "Then, I went to a horse shoeing school in Texas and did that for many years."
He didn’t have much money back in those days, so he sold his car to get enough to go to the shoeing school in Mineral Wells, Texas.
When he returned to Opelika, he used his horse shoeing ability to help augment his $425 monthly salary as a police officer when he joined the force.
During the early 1970s, Holley said the Opelika Police Department only had about 20 officers and much was expected from a few men.
After his stint as a police dispatcher, Holley became a patrol officer who often spent part of his day testifying in traffic court. Eventually, he moved up to handling felony cases and court appearances in circuit court.
His first felony arrest involved a man driving a Volkswagen filled with marijuana plants. When the case came up for trial, the defense attorney was one of his best friends, a man who had just finished law school.
"I won, too," Holley said, breaking into a big smile over a slam dunk case with condemning evidence surrounding the guilty party. "You could say the guy didn’t have much of a defense."
He also became involved in his share of homicide investigations, but one stands out above most of the others because of the unusual nature of the case.
Holley said a woman became particularly upset with her husband after a year or so of marriage and waited for him to come home to give him more than a piece of her mind.
"She sat in a rocking chair and when the door opened and her husband came in, she let him have it with a shotgun," said Holley. "He fell to the floor near where she rocked."
A couple of days later, when police were notified by neighbors that they had not seen the woman’s husband for awhile, Holley and other officers went to her house.
"The best we could figure, she had been rocking in that chair for two days," he said. "She did get up to let us in, then went back to rocking. His body was still on the floor where she shot him."
Holley said the woman tried an insanity plea, "but it didn’t work and she was convicted."
Bachelorhood ended for Holley at the age of 35 and he settled down. Instead of working for police colleagues on Christmas, he took time off to be with his wife, Deanna. She had two sons from a previous marriage and they then had a daughter, who is now19 and a student at Auburn University.
Deanna operates a day care center in Opelika and he helps her as much as he can when he’s not commuting to Montgomery to supervise the agriculture department’s investigative unit.
In 2001, Holley, who also put in a brief stint as an investigator with the Lafayette Police Department, got the biggest physical jolt of his life — a quadruple bypass operation.
"I never smoked, but I guess it’s just a genetic thing," said Holley, who wasn’t out of work very long. "I was in the hospital three days and back at work in three weeks."
That experience was one reason Deanna urged her husband to retire, but it took a more forceful "request" to get the job done.
"I came back from work and she asked me if I had retired and when I said ‘No,’ she told me: ‘You need to turn around, go back and retire.’"
It was too late in the day for him to do that, but he made sure he followed her "advice" the following day. Of course, retirement didn’t last very long and he eventually returned to the agriculture department as chief investigator.
Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries Commissioner Ron Sparks was delighted with Holley’s decision to come back to the department full-time and once again lead the investigative unit.
"We had built a great team of investigators and I knew with Bob leading the exceptional group we already have, we could take the division even farther than we have in the past," Sparks said. "We all work together very well and share the same vision."
Sparks cited Holley’s ability to work well with the public and other law enforcement agencies and called him "a tremendous asset to the department."
Holley’s duties involve enforcing 14 basic laws and numerous regulations relating to the livestock and poultry industries in Alabama. Included are laws related to livestock hauling and humane treatment of animals.
He and the investigators who work under his supervision also handle cases involving unfair and deceptive trade practice against consumers, theft and related crimes against the agricultural industry and food safety.
Holley’s investigators also inspect shipments of agriculture, horticultural, aquacultural and livestock commodities on Alabama highways.
In addition to enforcement of state laws, the unit also works with the U.S. Department of Agri-culture’s National Detector Dog Training Center to protect Alabama’s fresh food supply.
As criminal activity involving Alabama agriculture increases, so have the size and scope of the department’s responsibilities.
"When I first came on board, we’d have about 110 cases to investigate each year," he said. "We had a caseload of about 600 last year. Cattle and farm equipment thefts continue to grow."
Holley said one of his unit’s biggest busts involved an organized equipment theft ring about seven years ago. He said thieves brazenly stole tractors, trailers and heavy equipment in broad daylight.
"They had keys to start the equipment and when troopers or other law enforcement officers would drive by, they thought these guys were working at the highway sites and didn’t think anything about it," Holley said. "Quite often they’d just haul the stuff out of state to sell."
Holley said a stolen tractor valued at $50,000 was sold to a farmer for $20,000. He said it was returned to its rightful owner, along with other equipment — valued at about $500,000 — stolen by the ring.
An informant helped bust the ring, said Holley, whose career has involved working with informants "because they are very important in investigative work."
Law enforcement is a pressure-packed profession, but there are moments of levity and Holley has his share of funny stories.
There was the time, for instance, when he was with the Opelika Police Department and lent a friend his Pontiac Bonneville.
"I got a call the next day from the office telling me my car had been stolen," said Holley. "I told him that couldn’t be because I had just loaned it to my friend."
His friend, who owned a laundry, had gone inside to retrieve coins from the machines and left the keys in the ignition. A fugitive looked inside, saw the keys and stole the car.
Not long after, Holley heard over a police radio a fellow officer had spotted the stolen car while on patrol.
"I’m fixin’ to ram it," the officer said.
"No, not my car," Holley yelled back into his police radio.
After the car was stopped and the driver was arrested, Holley got it back in good condition, but his job wasn’t through.
One of his jobs was to present cases to Lee County grand juries and the docket that day contained a familiar theft investigation.
"I reported to the grand jury that Robert Holley’s car had been stolen," he said. "Then, the DA told me to make sure they knew who Robert Holley was."
On another occasion, Holley arrested a friend on a cattle theft charge. He took him to jail, but went an extra step — one police officers rarely take.
"He didn’t have any money for bond so I lent him some to get out of jail," he said. "He paid a fine, paid me back and also gave the cattle back to the people he stole them from."
If you need investigative help from Bob Holley’s unit, you can contact him at (334) 240-7208.
Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.