Soldiers of Misfortune

Betty Sutton and her husband, Joe, see the immigrants as trespassers and want them off their property.
Wendi Poole

Fatima Leiva and Edwin Mancia had forded the Rio Grande into Texas only hours earlier -- so recently, Mancia's wallet was still wet.

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 ranching town, they planned to continue on to San Antonio, where one would head to Los Angeles, the other 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 eight-foot fence 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 (see "Trespassers Will Be Persecuted," by Brad Tyer, March 1, 2001). Joe Sutton, the property owner, had invited Ranch Rescue to patrol his land 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 house, miles of paved roads and large stocks of deer, African antelope and other exotic game. The 64-year-old small-business man says he is fed up with the mojados ("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 a 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. But when he hesitated, he said, Nethercott pistol-whipped him on the back of the head.

Later, Sutton released the couple at his gate and called the border patrol to come and pick them up. Texas Ranger Doyle Holdridge, who found them on the empty highway, reported that Mancia had a knot of the back of his head "about half the size of your fist."

The incident, which resulted in Nethercott's arrest and his 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 it 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 host chapters in eight states.

That month, Soldier of Fortune magazine 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 the property's owner, The Nature Conservancy, had not given Ranch Rescue permission to be there, but that was merely a detail.

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 their lives threatened 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, David Cheney, leveling various accusations against Foote about his leadership and management of Ranch Rescue's finances. "Nearly everyone has left him," says Cheney. Ranch Rescue had developed a reputation as "a bunch of rednecks chasing Mexicans around in the desert for sport," he says.

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.

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."

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.

The law center hopes the suit will have a chilling effect on ranchers such as Sutton who might invite Ranch Rescue onto their land. "The aspect of this that has been little noticed is our naming the rancher. I think it has the potential of ending vigilantism on the border," says Mark Potok, editor of the poverty center's Intelligence Report. "What we're saying is that if you bring Ranch Rescue onto your land, you're gonna lose it."

The point is not lost on Sutton, who says the obvious aim of the suit "is to bankrupt me," and he sent Ranch Rescue home soon after the arrests.

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