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Group's activities spur talk, complaint; Ranch Rescue leader says group aids Border Patrol

By Nate Searing -- 12/14/03


DOUGLAS -- In a move to curb what he calls "extreme border vigilantism at its most racist," St. David resident and Humane Borders member James Cooper is leading the charge against citizen border patrols in a new way -- by targeting their property. ['Humane Borders' is run by this creep]

In a complaint filed with the Cochise County Planning and Zoning Commission last month, Cooper set his sights on Ranch Rescue, the newest citizen border patrolling group in the county which has set up shop on a private ranch in Douglas.

Cooper's complaint, which he said was spurred by two Douglas residents who also oppose the border group's activities but feared retaliation, contends the property owners are in violation of residential zoning restrictions by building a watchtower and barracks, and not providing the proper sanitation systems on the site.

All of the facilities in question have been constructed within the last two months, part of a Ranch Rescue project known as Operation Thunderbird.

But if the zoning complaint sticks, the site, which started as a collection of tents but appears to be turning into a more permanent base camp for sustained operations, will have to be removed.

"Using the zoning rules is a legitimate way to start the discussion and make people take up sides about whether they think it's right to carry semi-automatic weapons and threaten to kill border crossers," Cooper said.

According to the Ranch Rescue's Web site, volunteers from the Missouri Militia and other groups based out of Texas and California are at work during Operation Thunderbird with continuous armed patrols of the U.S.-Mexico border region around Douglas, as well as the construction of physical obstacles on the private property to deter Mexican traffic. While armed, they do not purport to engage in violent confrontations with border crossers.

Their goal, the site says, is to protect private ranchers' properties and apprehend undocumented aliens before they can ravage the land.

Despite the nature of the complaint and the growing presence of Ranch Rescue on the outskirts of Douglas, the discussion Cooper hoped to provoke hasn't taken place so far.

In all, two complaints have been filed with the Cochise County Planning and Zoning Department, one by Cooper on Nov. 25 and an earlier complaint filed by the Sheriff's Department on Nov. 3, said Rick Corley, a county zoning enforcement officer.

Corley said both complaints are not being investigated at this time at the request of the Sheriff's Department.

"We've been asked specifically to hold off for a little while and wait for word from deputies," Corley said.

Sheriff Larry Dever, however, said that while the department is aware of possible resident concerns regarding the Ranch Rescue construction projects, it has not filed any complaints and is not investigating the group.

"Rumors are flying, but the truth is I have been approached about what looks like a business being constructed on residential property," Dever said. "That information was passed along to zoning enforcement and my deputies are otherwise not involved."

He said despite the information provided by Corley, the Sheriff's Department has not filed a formal complaint and has no plans to do so.

Further compounding the issue is concerns over who owns the 70-acre ranch the border group is building upon.

County records show that the land is owned by Richard and Rene Puzzi, Corley said.

Shanna Puzzi, daughter-in-law and neighbor to the property in question, said the land was recently purchased from her relatives by Casey Nethercott, a Ranch Rescue member from Texas.

Nethercott has since been apprehended in Douglas in connection with the assault and false imprisonment of an El Salvadoran couple found by Ranch Rescue in Texas earlier this year. According to a civil lawsuit filed against Ranch Rescue, Nethercott allegedly pistol-whipped the two individuals and let his dog to attack them.

Ranch Rescue President Jack Foote, who is currently overseeing Operation Thunderbird, also confirmed that Nethercott owned the property, but said the group's station in Douglas is not because Nethercott is a member.

"He is a victimized rancher who invited us on the property to help with his criminal problem. ... We are guests," Foote said.

As for the possible zoning violations, Foote deferred comment to Nethercott, who could not be reached. Foote said he felt the complaints were unfounded as the towers have been in place for about 50 years and the barracks are simply other buildings on site that are being remodeled.

"The tower in question used to hold a water tank, we didn't construct anything," Foot said. "We just took down the tank."

Despite the outcome of the complaints, Foote said Ranch Rescue is in Douglas permanently, with rotating operations planned through April.

Amid growing confusion about who owns the land and the legality of new construction at the site, the question being raised by many local residents is just what type of activities are taking place on the ranch.

"A lot of people are worried, a lot of people want to know exactly what's going on," said Douglas Mayor Ray Borane. "We don't have any formal complaints, but that doesn't mean that everything is on the up and up."

From Foote, the description of Ranch Rescue operations is tame. The group intercepts trespassers on Nethercott's property and escorts them off or contacts local law enforcement. He would not say how many Ranch Rescue members are present for Operation Thunderbird or how many trespassers they have detained since coming to Douglas two months ago.

In many cases, Foote said, these trespassers are illegal immigrants. Oftentimes, however, the group encounters U.S. Border Patrol on the property that Foote said are violating individual property rights.

"No one has a right to enter a private property, unless invited, without a warrant," Foote said. "That's Border Patrol, that's Mexican nationals, all criminals. We are stopping that abuse right here and now because the government has failed in its duty and contributes to the abuse."

Cooper said that what started as a simple citizen border patrolling operation has quickly blossomed into a paramilitary militia-style operation that is scaring local residents with increased threats of violence.

"It's like they're trying to pick a fight with the legitimate (United States) Border Patrol, arming themselves for some type of battle ... like another Ruby Ridge or Waco," Cooper said,

Foote denies the claim, saying the group is targeted by leftist groups who would like to see the border open completely to illegal immigrants at the expense of individual ranchers along the border.

"If it was just about Mexico, if we were all racists, why do we have an operation in Colorado right now?" Foote said, referring to a Ranch Rescue outfit Operation Foxbat, which is currently guarding a privately owned animal sanctuary from illegal hunting. "We're not a hate group. We're not targeting Mexicans. We are not out there to help Border Patrol. God knows they don't help us. We just hate crime."

While the Ranch Rescue president repeatedly said the group is providing a needed service to individual ranchers in the area and the community as a whole, he said he doesn't care if locals are threatened by the group's militant persona.

"I have a right to carry guns, as many guns as I damn well please. I have a right to dress in funny clothing," Foote said, referring to the group's standard issue semi-automatic weaponry and military-style fatigue uniforms. "And if you thought I was extreme, wait until this weekend."

While Foote would not elaborate on Ranch Rescue's weekend plans, he said the group is planning a major operation that is sure to "turn some heads and rattle some feathers" with the locals and Border Patrol.

"We'll be out in force and those that are scared of us, those that don't understand us I should say, they'll see what there's to be scared of," he said.

Despite harsh words on both sides, Dever said he is not concerned about the perceived tensions outside Douglas.

"It will all die down soon enough. The problem is that people think this operation (Ranch Rescue) is much bigger than it is, full of people armed to the teeth. It is not," Dever said. "It's like I said before, the rumors are tough to get a hold on."