By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Today, though, the desert fun appears to be all but over.
In May, with the help of the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the two Salvadorans sued Ranch Rescue and the Suttons for damages. They were joined by four Mexicans who say they, too, were held at gunpoint and threatened with their lives on Sutton's ranch.
In June, the group's 65-member Arizona chapter, its largest and most active, announced it had disbanded, with its leader leveling various accusations against Foote about his leadership and management of Ranch Rescue's finances. "Nearly everyone has left him," says David Cheney. Ranch Rescue had developed a reputation as "a bunch of rednecks chasing Mexicans around in the desert for sport," he said.
On its Web site, Ranch Rescue says it is organizing another field mission in Arizona this fall, but other operations that have been advertised this summer appear to have been canceled or postponed.
"It doesn't sound so bad to say you're for private property rights. You can go along with that," says Ricardo de Anda, a Laredo attorney and border rancher who is leading the legal team suing Ranch Rescue. "But then your group begins beating people up, and Jack Foote begins showing his face in terms of his anti-government rhetoric. People start falling away. Some people want to be armchair politicians. Fewer want to be right-wing radical gun nuts."
Sometimes they work in concert with the Border Patrol. Other times, they appear more intent on embarrassing authorities and showing them up.
Of the known groups, none is more secretive, more paramilitary and more potentially dangerous, critics say, than Ranch Rescue.
In Jim Hogg County, they went out of their way to make sure nobody knew they were on the Sutton Ranch, says District Attorney Rudy Gutierrez. "Border Patrol and our deputies go out in the brush chasing smugglers all the time. What happens when they run into someone who is armed and camouflaged and we don't know who they are, they don't know who we are? Someone can get killed."
Similarly, when the criminal allegations surfaced, Ranch Rescue members did nothing to cooperate with the official investigation. "Foote and the rest [who were at the Sutton Ranch] have never talked to us, never been in our office," Gutierrez says. "If they had any evidence or statements to make, they never made them to us."
Says county Sheriff Erasmo Alarcon, "If you ask me, they show a lot of disdain for law enforcement."
Foote instead took to his Web site, blasting Gutierrez and Alarcon as a corrupt "Texas Taliban" in league with the Texas Department of Public Safety and Border Patrol to frame his group. "Why aren't there any white people in the [Jim Hogg County] sheriff's department?" Foote asked rhetorically in a recent interview. "That tells you something. That county has been ethnically cleansed."
Actually, Jim Hogg County is more than 90 percent Hispanic and has been so as long as anyone there can remember.
Instead of dealing with the authorities directly, the group filed a homespun "writ" attempting to free Nethercott, who eventually posted $50,000 bail after a month in jail. In March, a grand jury indicted the 36-year-old La Mirada, California, resident for assault and unlawful restraint and last month added a third felony to the list: unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon.
In 1997, Nethercott had pleaded guilty to aggravated assault for detaining two high school students at gunpoint while searching for a fugitive in Orange County, California. Press accounts say the 270-pound bounty hunter dressed like a police officer and outfitted his Chevrolet Caprice to look like an unmarked squad car with emergency lights, siren and a back-seat cage. Nethercott's probation ended less than five years ago, making it illegal for him to carry a gun in Texas.
A second Ranch Rescue member, 62-year-old Henry M. Conner Jr. of Lafayette, Louisiana, was also arrested and held in the case, but those charges were later dropped.
Gutierrez and de Anda say they have evidence that Ranch Rescue members talked among themselves after the arrests in their organization's chat room about not repeating the mistake they made in Hebbronville. Instead of going into town--as Nethercott did when he was picked up at the local Dairy Queen, questioned and then charged--they would stay put in their camp and force the sheriff to go in and get them. "Nethercott kept telling us, 'Don't go out there. They're waiting for you,'" Gutierrez says. "I don't know if it's true or not. But that's the kind of talk we're dealing with."