By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Over the past several years, a small movement of "citizens' patrols" has taken shape along the U.S.-Mexico border, groups such as the Arizona-based Civil Homeland Defense and the American Border Patrol. They either keep watch on foot or have developed private surveillance systems to detect border crossers who get past the feds.
Sometimes they work in concert with the border patrol. Others 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.
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, Ranch Rescue 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 backseat 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.
Ranch Rescue's critics say the group's militant style is a reflection of its leader, Jack Foote, whose voluminous Web postings over the years have left something of a road map to his thinking.
In some ways it resembles the playbook of the Republic of Texas -- strong anti-government sentiments, claims of "Socialist" media conspiracies, off-the-grid secret identities and the like -- and that is no accident. In 2001 Foote posted a recruiting notice on the Internet for the Texas Reserve, a "public service branch of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Texas." In it, Foote wrote, "You don't need to be a [Republic of Texas] Citizen to join. But it sure feels good being a Citizen."
On his Web site today, Foote makes a point of saying his group operates "regardless of race, color, creed or religion," but in one of his early postings he was far less politic. In a 2000 Web discussion, in responding to a man with a Hispanic name, he said: "You and the vast majority of your fellow dog turds are ignorant, uneducated and desperate for a life in a decent nation because the one that you live in is nothing but a pile of dog shit, made up of millions of little dog turds like you."
Although Foote declined to discuss his personal history, public records in Texas and California show he lived in Silicon Valley in the early and mid-1990s, frequently switching jobs in the IT industry, before moving to Texas in 1997 -- first to Houston, then Arlington, then to his present home, a small house on a rural road in Hamby, northeast of Abilene. In a résumé he posted on the Web in 1997, he listed extensive knowledge of computer programming and a long history of service in the Army Reserve, although he provided no unit names or other details. Over the years, he has used the names Jack Foote, John Foote and Torre John Foote, which he used to obtain a Texas identification card in 1998.
His given name, he says now, is John Torre Foote.
For at least the past four years, he has used postal drops as his address and put his phone service in something other than his own name. Records show there are two state tax liens pending against him in California courts.