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Reconquista Democrat harassing border watchdogs


Foes use zoning against patrollers

Residents along Cochise County-Mexico border want to run an armed citizen group out of the area and have filed complaints over a watchtower and sanitation.

LUKE TURF Tucson Citizen

Residents are trying to use zoning laws to fight Cochise County's newest group of armed citizens who patrol the Mexican border.

Two complaints filed Nov. 25 with the county Planning and Zoning Commission allege members of the Texas-based Ranch Rescue are violating zoning rules by building a watchtower without permits and training and deploying armed patrols in an area not zoned for it.

The complaints also say there are inadequate sewage facilities on the property.

"The land is not zoned for the purposes Ranch Rescue is using it for," said Jim Cooper, chair of the county's Democratic Party and a member of Humane Borders. "When you have armed people running around on night patrols, that's not a very safe neighborhood."

Cooper filed the complaint along with two people who live near the Douglas property where Ranch Rescue operates.

Ranch Rescue President Jack Foote said his men are working for the ranch owner, Casey Nethercott, building barracks for volunteers.

Nethercott bought the 600-acre ranch in the past six months to raise cattle, Foote said. But according to Foote, Nethercott, a Ranch Rescue member, ran into such a problem with illegal immigrants on the property that Ranch Rescue is setting up shop to deter the border crossings.

Ranch Rescue conducts "operations" on private properties along the border where illegal immigration is often a problem. Patrols are often armed. The group has been called the most extreme of civilian border patrollers by human-rights activists.

Nethercott's ownership of the land couldn't be immediately verified. According to Kevin Schaeler of the Cochise County zoning department, the registered landowner is Renee Puzzi, who couldn't be reached for comment. Schaeler said it's possible Nethercott, 36, bought the land and the paperwork hasn't been completed.

"It may have changed hands ... but that's all we have on it," Schaeler said.

Nethercott was on his way to finalize the paperwork when he was arrested Nov. 25, Foote said. FBI agents arrested Nethercott on a charge of unlawful flight to avoid prosecution in a Texas case in which he is alleged to have detained a Salvadoran couple and pistol-whipped at least one of them.

Nethercott failed to appear in a Texas court Oct. 27 for a hearing on the unlawful detention and assault charges. He was also to be arraigned on a third charge, possession of a firearm by a felon, according to Jim Hogg County Assistant District Attorney Rudy Gutierrez.

Nethercott's felony record stems from an assault with a firearm conviction in Riverside County, Calif., in 1996, Gutierrez said.

According to Cochise County Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Carol Capas, Richard Puzzi, whose relationship to Renee Puzzi could not immediately be determined, reported a confrontation with five armed men Oct. 18. One of them turned out to be Nethercott, Capas said. No charges were filed.

Cooper's main complaint is based on morality. He belongs to two human-rights groups, Humane Borders and Citizens for Border Solutions, based in Bisbee.

"I don't think (Ranch Rescue's operations are) something that's conducive to family values," Cooper said. Nethercott's hearing earlier this week was continued until tomorrow, when a motion to dismiss the unlawful flight to avoid prosecution charges is expected, said Harriet Bernick, spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney in Phoenix. At that time, Nethercott is expected to be taken into custody by Jim Hogg County officials to face charges there, she said.

Schaeler said no paperwork to transfer ownership of the land has been received by the county recorder or assessor. He said the zoning complaint process is usually long and that considerable time is given to landowners to make adjustments when violations are confirmed.

When adjustments can't be made, it's up to landowners to get variances, which Schaeler said is unlikely in this case because residents in the area don't agree with the operations being conducted.

"If they can't get a permit, we're going to ask them to remove whatever it is," Schaeler said.

The maximum penalty for not making corrections to zoning violations is $750, and $50 per day after a hearing on the issue until the department is called out to the site to verify changes.

Douglas Mayor Ray Borane said Ranch Rescue isn't wanted by Douglas residents. He cited a resolution the City Council passed a year ago condemning the group's activities.

"These people are here. God knows where they've come from or what they've done before," Borane said. "That type of activity is ultimately a recipe for disaster."

And according to Ranch Rescue's former Arizona coordinator, David Cheney, 11 former state coordinators of Ranch Rescue have split from the organization and formed the American Border Alliance, which he says will carry out the original Ranch Rescue mission of cleaning up after and repairing damage caused by illegal border crossers. The new group will also take on political issues such as opposing drivers licenses for illegal immigrants.

Ranch Rescue's Web site is recruiting members for security, support and construction during its ongoing Arizona operations at Camp Thunderbird, which is what Foote calls the Douglas base. Foote said the charges won't affect Ranch Rescue.

"The charges pending against Mr. Nethercott are not pending against the organization." he said.