By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The two young Salvadorans had paid a coyote $200 for the crossing and a truck ride up state Highway 16, a main artery for undocumented immigrants heading out of the Valley. Their last hurdle lay ahead, the U.S. Border Patrol station in Hebbronville, 55 miles north.
Once they cleared the sleepy ranching town, they planned to continue on to San Antonio. Mancia, who saved for the last part of the trip while working at a laundry in Mexico City, was to catch a bus to Los Angeles. Leiva was on her way to Dallas.
First, though, to get past the Border Patrol, there would be miles of overland hiking through mesquite and thorny chaparral, which grows high, thick and unbroken in this part of South Texas.
Climbing out of the truck around 11 p.m., Leiva and Mancia scaled an 8-foot fence about seven miles south of the checkpoint, hoping to cut north and east around Hebbronville, a town of 4,654 residents.
They didn't know as they entered the 5,000-acre Sutton Ranch that they were about to confront Ranch Rescue, the most controversial group to emerge in the state since the mid-1990s and Richard McLaren's Republic of Texas militia. Joe Sutton, the ranch's owner, had invited Ranch Rescue to patrol his property and stop and detain the scores of immigrants who use it as a detour around Hebbronville. "I just want these trespassers to stay the hell off my ranch," says Sutton, who bought his place six years ago and transformed it into a trophy property, complete with a massive stone ranch house, miles of paved roads and large stocks of deer, African antelope and other exotic game. The 64-year-old small businessman says he is fed up with the "mojados," the wetbacks, and the littering, petty theft, damaged fences and other annoyances that go along with their constant intrusions.
"They say it's a 200-year-old tradition. That they've been passing through here like pack rats. That we should shut up and leave them water and food. I disagree," says his wife, Betty. "They scare me."
State and federal authorities have failed to seal the border and stem the flow, Sutton says, so he turned to Ranch Rescue and its leader, Jack Foote, who formed the group in Arlington three years ago. Foote claims his outfit aims merely to protect ranchers like Sutton from "criminal trespassers and smugglers," but his rhetoric at times has been harshly anti-immigrant, anti-Mexican and anti-government.
About 20 Ranch Rescue members, outfitted with night vision equipment and military-style rifles, were patrolling Sutton's land on March 18 when one of the volunteers spotted Mancia and Leiva.
The two ducked for cover as several other illegals who'd arrived on the same truck scattered into the brush.
To flush them out, Casey Nethercott, a former bounty hunter and recent Ranch Rescue recruit, put his 120-pound rottweiler to work. Within minutes the dog was nipping at Mancia's sweatshirt.
As Mancia told authorities later, someone then tried to speak to him in Spanish--ordering him to stand, then kneel down--but he didn't understand what they wanted him to do. He wanted to comply because he thought they were soldiers, on account of their camouflage uniforms. But when he hesitated, he said, Nethercott pistol-whipped him on the back of the head.
Later, Sutton released the couple at his gate, chewed them out and called the Border Patrol to pick them up. Texas Ranger Doyle Holdridge, who found them on the empty highway, reported that Mancia had a knot on the back of his head "about half the size of your fist."
The incident, which resulted in Nethercott's arrest and indictment in Jim Hogg County on aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and two other felony charges, appears to have been a watershed moment for Ranch Rescue and Foote, a 45-year-old former Web designer now living outside Abilene.
In March, as began what was to be several weeks of patrols in Hebbronville, Foote's outfit was riding high. It had begun as a glib man with a Web site and had grown to include chapters in eight states. The group hummed with talk of new "missions" on ranches in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.
That month, Soldier of Fortunemagazine had begun running a two-part series in praise of Ranch Rescue's Operation Hawk, staged last year in the Arizona desert. During that patrol, the group encountered a small caravan of drug mules who dropped their 270-pound load of marijuana and ran. It turned out that the property's owner, The Nature Conservancy, had not given Ranch Rescue permission to be there, but that was merely a detail.
In the Soldier of Fortune account, the membership, heavily populated with men who claim to be veterans of elite police and military units, appeared to be having a mercenary's ball. They talked in the lingo of "Romeo 1" and "Romeo Base Camp," clipped their drum magazines into their AR-15 assault rifles "ready to lay down some serious fire" and field-tested an armory of products provided by Soldier of Fortune advertisers: the 17-inch Randall's Training and Adventure knives "used by the Peruvian Air Force Jungle Survival School," the ARKTIS 1604 Long Range Patrol Vest, referred to as "a superior piece of load-bearing gear," and Soldier of Fortune logo T-shirts. "After a few days humping around the Canelo Hills it was nice to have clean duds," the magazine's field tester enthused.