Soldiers of Misfortune

Ranch Rescue finds its welcome mat withdrawn

Foote says he craves secrecy not because of debts or taxes, but because "the drug dealers and alien smugglers don't like what we're doing. For my safety and my family's, I don't want them to know where I am."

Early in 2000, when the Y2K riots failed to materialize, Foote began posting his opinions on immigration in several online discussion groups. On May 30, 2000, he announced he was looking for volunteers to form an organization to help him aid a rancher in Cochise County, Arizona, named Roger Barnett, who had begun conducting his own illegal immigrant roundups and getting a lot of news coverage for his effort.

Foote addressed many of his online messages in those days from the "Top Notch Ranch."

Betty Sutton and her husband, Joe, see the 
immigrants as trespassers and want them off their 
Wendi Poole
Betty Sutton and her husband, Joe, see the immigrants as trespassers and want them off their property.
Conner and Nethercott were arrested for their Ranch 
Rescue actions.
Conner and Nethercott were arrested for their Ranch Rescue actions.

His ranch must have been a virtual one, because property records in the Texas counties where Foote has lived show he has never held title to a teacup of Texas land -- ranch, subdivision, suburban or otherwise. That is true, he conceded when asked, although he said his wife does own and board a horse.

In late 2000, Foote picked Kinney County, south of Del Rio, as the site of his first Texas border mission. Six months earlier a 23-year-old Mexican was shot and killed after asking for water at a home, so it was a hot spot for media attention to border issues. Under considerable scrutiny from local police, Foote's group fixed fences on one man's ranch, buddied around with a Republic of Texas contingent that also made a showing for the week and made its debut in the national news.

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.

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 couple has never been accosted or confronted, and when they approach or surprise illegals on their land, the trespassers always scatter and run.

In the spring, during peak border-crossing season, Sutton says, 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."

In suing Ranch Rescue, along with Joe Sutton, Foote, Nethercott and Conner, rights activists have what they hope is a strong shot against a rising tide of vigilantism on the border.

"These people always say they're for property rights and upholding the law," says Morris Dees, founder and lead attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center. "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, Dees says. "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."

Sutton then ordered them to take off their shoes. The men were driven to the ranch's front gate while Sutton put their footwear in another vehicle and drove it to the border patrol station seven miles up the road. The family claims they had stashed $3,000 in the shoes -- money they had to get a start in the country -- and it was missing when the shoes were returned.

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