Ranch Rescue was riding high. The Texas-based "border watch" group, which uses vigilante tactics to "defend" private ranches along the U.S.-Mexico border, had garnered its 15 minutes of local fame last October with an armed marijuana bust in the Arizona desert. Soldier of Fortune magazine was plugging Ranch Rescue's well-armed efforts in a two-part series. The group's international roster of volunteers, many of them ex-law officers and mercenaries, had supposedly grown to 250.
Some ranchers in Arizona and Texas, fed up with illegal immigrants trooping across their lands, were starting to see Ranch Rescue as a possible solution to their problems.
But the law began to catch up with Ranch Rescue in March, when two members were arrested on allegations of illegally detaining and assaulting a Salvadoran couple they'd nabbed on a border ranch in Jim Hogg County, Texas.
"These two trespassers were treated with the utmost of kindness and respect," insisted Ranch Rescue leader Jack Foote, who has called Mexican citizens "dog turds" in the past. But 35-year-old Casey Nethercott of La Mirada, Calif., and 62-year-old Henry "Hank" Conner of Lafayette, La., were charged with holding the immigrants at gunpoint and beating one of them with the butt-end of a gun.
In May, the Salvadoran couple was joined by four other plaintiffs in a civil suit that aims to effectively shut down Ranch Rescue's paramilitary operations. The six migrants claim they were assaulted, falsely imprisoned, robbed and threatened with death by members of Ranch Rescue and their host in Jim Hogg County, rancher Joe Sutton. One of the Salvadorans was allegedly pistol-whipped by Nethercott and attacked by Nethercott's dog.
The suit, filed by two Texas law firms in partnership with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), seeks monetary damages from Ranch Rescue, Foote, Sutton and several others.
Foote angrily told the San Antonio Express-News that the SPLC's purpose was "to promote a criminal status quo on the border."
"We see this as an important case to stop this violent paramilitary activity along our border with Mexico," responded Morris Dees, the SPLC's chief trial counsel. "If these groups and the ranchers who conspire with them have to pay through their pockets, they will think twice before attacking peaceful migrants."