Soldiers of Misfortune

Ranch Rescue’s paramilitary posse may have guns and camo gear to keep the border safe, but what they need is a good lawyer

Two years later, after several more trips to Arizona and the big splash in Soldier of Fortune, Ranch Rescue was back on the Texas border, bigger, "more capable," as Foote puts it, and armed to the teeth.


Whether illegal border crossers are causing ranchers urgent problems in Jim Hogg County is a matter of opinion. There are the Suttons' opinions and those of most everyone else.

In their recently completed home--equipped with security cameras and remote-controlled steel window shutters and surrounded by an inner stone-and-steel fence designed to keep out even the area's abundant rattlesnakes--the couple enumerated their many complaints with immigrant trespassers.

Betty Sutton and her husband, Joe, have no tolerance for illegal immigrants who use their Jim Hogg County ranch as a detour around a Border Patrol checkpoint. Above: Oliver Trevino, a Border Patrol officer, talks to Sutton about a group of border-crossers who recently jumped her fence.
Wendi Poole
Betty Sutton and her husband, Joe, have no tolerance for illegal immigrants who use their Jim Hogg County ranch as a detour around a Border Patrol checkpoint. Above: Oliver Trevino, a Border Patrol officer, talks to Sutton about a group of border-crossers who recently jumped her fence.
Top: Erasmo Alarcon, the Jim Hogg County sheriff who investigated the alleged assault on two Salvadorans by a Ranch Rescue patrol this spring, says the group does not respect law enforcement. Ranch Rescue members Casey Nethercott, bottom left, and Henry Mark Conner Jr., bottom right, were arrested in the case.
Wendi Poole
Top: Erasmo Alarcon, the Jim Hogg County sheriff who investigated the alleged assault on two Salvadorans by a Ranch Rescue patrol this spring, says the group does not respect law enforcement. Ranch Rescue members Casey Nethercott, bottom left, and Henry Mark Conner Jr., bottom right, were arrested in the case.

Their list includes serial littering; the building of flimsy, temporary shelters in the brush; lightly damaged fences; water pipes left running; and the theft of some chickens and foodstuffs from their workers' cabins.

The Suttons have never been accosted or confronted, and when they approach or surprise illegals on their land, they always scatter and run. "You can't catch 'em," says Joe Sutton. "The bottom line is, they're not welcome here. Anybody who jumps my fence is not welcome. Period. End of story."

In the spring, during peak border-crossing season, he said as many as 150 a night pass through. "You can see them in night vision equipment," he says. Now in the summer, "it's hundreds a week."

Other ranchers in the county say those numbers strike them as inflated, and none said they considered the passers-through to be more than an annoyance.

"We have lots come through, and from time to time there are little troubles, like leaving gates open--more of a nuisance," says Bill Holbein, whose family has been ranching the same land since 1900. "I don't know what Sutton's experiences are, but from the way he describes them, they aren't like mine."

Robert Fulbright, who owns several ranches in the area, is more blunt: "If you ask me, that man is paranoid."

Fulbright says the number of border crossers has been constant for as long as he can remember. "Like drought and irregular cattle prices, you deal with it...There's a little deterioration in the quality of people passing through. Your peones out of the agrarian, rural areas are good, good people." He keeps the main house in his ranch camp unlocked, he says, so his canned goods usually disappear. "Spoons, you can't keep those suckers. You buy them by the gross." At another ranch, he says, he keeps "some old cow dogs, bean hounds" around the headquarters. "They go to raising hell, and that always scares 'em away."

For Fulbright, who has been ranching in the area his entire life, these are not serious concerns.

Alarcon, the sheriff, says most trespassing goes unreported. "Unless there's any kind of damage or a hunting truck left out on the property gets stolen, which happens from time to time, ranchers just deal with it," he says.

Fulbright and Holbein and many other landowners give the Border Patrol and the sheriff's office keys and unfettered access to their land so they can chase smugglers and aliens as they like.

Sutton says he does not and will not turn over keys or the pass code to his gate. "They have access as long as I know they're here," he says.

"It's a long story with Mr. Sutton," says Alarcon. "We've done our part in trying to help him. You can only go so far if he isn't willing to let you help. At one point we weren't allowed on his property at all. But even after the Ranch Rescue incident, we've done our part. He asked us last week to come out and pick up someone, and we did. We charged the man with trespassing."

On the border, though, a misdemeanor trespassing charge against an undocumented immigrant doesn't accomplish much, Gutierrez says. Inevitably, he or she will receive probation, be turned over to the Border Patrol and get deported. It's just a brief delay on that road.


In suing Ranch Rescue, along with Joe Sutton, Foote, Nethercott and Conner, rights activists have let fly what they hope is a strong shot against a rising tide of vigilantism on the border. It's essentially the same tactic the Southern Poverty Law Center used to stop white supremacist Louis Beam and his Ku Klux Klan militia from harassing Vietnamese fishermen in Galveston Bay in 1981.

"These people always say they're for property rights and upholding the law," says Morris Dees, the center's founder and lead attorney. "It's smoke. What they want to do is play soldier and pick on innocent people who come here seeking jobs."

Landowners certainly have a right to detain trespassers and turn them in to the authorities. "They don't have the right to terrorize them, threaten to kill them, hit them on the head...and they never turned any of our clients over to the authorities," Dees says.

The suit for damages covers the alleged attack on the Salvadorans and another on a group of Mexicans--Mario Rodriguez, his two young sons and a teenage nephew--who allege they were assaulted on Sutton's land on March 7.

The four, who were hiking overland on their way to Houston, say a uniformed man held them at gunpoint while Sutton questioned them. Amid a barrage of shouted insults, the suit claims, Sutton "loaded a magazine cartridge into his gun, held it in his hand and informed [the family] that he could kill them without their murders ever being discovered by the authorities."

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