By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Jasper Baccus couldn't help thinking to himself how sweet life was beginning to look as the pencil-nosed, chartered Lear 35 lifted from Dallas' Love Field and headed west. It was early last November, and the 68-year-old owner of Baccus 50-Minute Cleaners in South Dallas was thinking about his future. He was on his way to owning his own bank, he thought. He'd already picked out a building and toured its vaults, which were to be filled with hundreds of millions of dollars, plus a sizable stash of silver and gold.
So long, pressed pants and lost claim tickets. Hello strong boxes and shrink-wrapped bundles of cash.
Sinking into his leather seat on the private plane, Baccus told one of his friends on the flight, "This is first class. One of these days, I'd like to own one of these."
No reason to think it couldn't happen.
The flight originated at the Jet East Inc. hangar at the south end of Love Field and touched down on a little airstrip in Alpine, near the Davis Mountains in scenic West Texas. At 550 mph, it took about an hour.
Baccus and about a half-dozen other passengers returned east on the Lear that same day, landing in Monroe, Louisiana. From there, several associates continued on to Puerto Rico, where so-called warrants--which look like cashier's checks--with face values totaling $1.7 billion were to be deposited in a branch of a major Spanish bank in a suburb of San Juan.
It was a jaw-dropping sum. And this would be an unbelievable story if its central points were not spelled out in multi-count federal indictments handed up in Puerto Rico last December and in Dallas last May.
Beginning in April 1996, Baccus and four friends--three black men and a Latino--joined forces with the Republic of Texas, a separatist group that claims Texas is a sovereign nation and they are its legitimate government. Within months, these five Dallas-area men were moving in the Republic's top ranks, huddling with de facto leader Richard McLaren at his headquarters outside Fort Davis and chairing its well-attended public meetings. Mostly rural in membership and style, the Republic attracted a crowd you don't find very often in South Dallas: right-wing militiamen, self-styled "patriots," tax protectors, hate-group adherents, and the like.
"When I first heard of them, I thought they were a bunch of bubbas running around in the woods with shotguns," says Steve Crear, a 37-year-old former security guard and self-styled minister who became the Republic's vice president and only black officer. "Once I got into it, they treated me fine, even if it's 99.9 percent white," he says.
How these strange bedfellows slipped between the sheets, how the Republic of Texas went on to join forces with an oddball black separatist group in Louisiana called the Washitaw Empire, and how Crear and company began living large on private jets and plastic money--buying more than $150,000 worth of computers, clothes, guns, and such--are part of a wild, to-date-unexplored chapter in the history of the Republic of Texas.
It is a story whose general outlines are clear, although some details will become more sharply drawn next month, when Baccus, Crear, and company are expected to go to trial before U.S. District Judge A. Joe Fish.
Crear and Baccus, who have forsworn lawyers and are representing themselves, and codefendant Mark Hernandez, who has a court-appointed attorney, spoke at length several times with the Dallas Observer about their adventures in the Republic. They admit passing the bogus warrants, but say they believed the checks were legitimate and backed by various trusts--including an alleged lien that claimed to confiscate all of Texas' assets.
Their use of the warrants and participation in the smuggling trip to Puerto Rico are listed in a federal indictment charging Baccus, Crear, and Hernandez with conspiracy, mail fraud, and aiding and abetting. Baccus is charged with bank fraud as well. The three, along with alleged co-conspirators Joe Reece and Erwin Brown, were released on personal recognizance after their indictment was unsealed in early May.
McLaren, who with his wife, Evelyn, tops the 25-count federal charge, was at the center of the bogus checks scheme, authorities allege. He surrendered to Texas Rangers on May 3 and has remained in state custody in Marfa following his arrest on kidnapping charges at the conclusion of a six-day stand-off with state troopers. McLaren and six others--none of them Dallas men--had taken two neighbors hostage and held them for 12 hours as "prisoners of war."
The gist of the Dallas group's defense, which they mix with huge doses of the Republic's anti-government cant and charges of racism, is that they didn't know that what they were doing was a crime. "I thought this was all backed up," says Crear, referring to the phony warrants that all five are accused of passing to either banks or credit card companies. "They had documents that showed there was money behind them."
Says Baccus, chuckling at his own words, "I guess we were brainwashed." He insists his only goal was to open a bank to give interest-free loans to South Dallas' legions of poor--which he went about doing in a very public way.