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Vigilante or Minuteman? Rancher goes high-tech to nab immigrants, smugglers

By BILL HESS - 7/28/02 -- Sierra Vista Herald/Review

DOUGLAS -- Plans of a Californian to introduce a private citizen's border patrol into Cochise County are not new.

One area rancher who is already patrolling the border on his own says he welcomes the newcomers and thinks they are needed.

Some think Roger Barnett is a vigilante, handing out justice without the benefit of law.

Others see the man as a modern Minuteman, defending family, friends and property against intruders -- hundreds of would-be illegal immigrants and dozens of drug smugglers trying to use his ranch as an avenue north.

Barnett shrugs off being called a vigilante. "It doesn't apply to me. From what I've learned a vigilante goes out and captures them, has a trial and executes them."

Barnett's 22,000-acre ranch is just two miles from the U.S.-Mexico border -- a perfect pathway for those seeking to enter the United States illegally. He owns about 7,000 acres of the ranch and leases the rest from the State Land Department for grazing his 250 head of cattle.

Barnett actively seeks out trespassers on his property and then holds them for the U.S. Border Patrol.

In the past, he has been accused of threatening illegal immigrants with weapons. He has been investigated by county and federal officials, but no charges have been filed.

He also has been praised by county and federal officials for saving the lives of illegal immigrants by giving them water and food.

A soft-spoken man, who easily laughs and jokes, Barnett said he knows not to cross the line between legally protecting his property and taking the law into his own hands.

"From what I understand there is a special FBI investigator up in Phoenix waiting for me to do something to jump on me." Laughing, he added, "He's going to sit up there a long time."

Last year, Barnett said he and his family were responsible for turning over more than 2,100 illegal immigrants to the federal government. Since the first of this year, the number is 1,644. In the past couple of years, more than a ton of marijuana has been found on the ranch and turned over to the government, Barnett said.

The largest group of illegal immigrants he has held and turned over to the U.S. Border Patrol included 86 people and the largest number of drug smugglers was 18.

He combines the ways of the Old West and modern technology to patrol his property.

Born and raised in Bisbee, Barnett traces his family's connection to Cochise County to the late 1800s.

An experienced tracker, Barnett will spend hours following the footprints of trespassers. He learned some of his tracking skills from U.S. Border Patrol agents, he said.

Instead of a horse, Barnett is more apt to patrol the ranch on weekends in a pickup truck, with an all-terrain vehicle in the truck's bed to get into the more rugged land. A businessman with offices in Sierra Vista, Benson, Willcox, Tucson and Phoenix, Barnett said during the weekdays he stays at his Sierra Vista residence.

Even though he's away from the ranch, the search for trespassers doesn't stop. He has installed high-tech sensors along paths he knows smugglers and would-be immigrants use to make their way north.

Saturday, while riding along one of the many dirt roads that crisscross his property, a monitor in the truck would go off now and then.

Pointing out the driver's side window, Barnett would indicate where one of the 11 sensors is buried. An antenna that blends into the landscape extends from each sensor to send the alarm. The alert also goes off at the main ranch house.

The system provides a digital message telling Barnett which alarm was triggered and why.

"It's picked us up," Barnett said as the truck alarm sounded.

When a vehicle goes by a sensor, a number two appears. If it is people setting off the devices, the number one appears.

The 2-year-old system cost Barnett about $25,000 to install.

He decided to set up his own surveillance system when he came to believe the federal government just wasn't going to do the job. Most of the Border Patrol agents want to do their jobs but the agency's leadership won't let them, Barnett claims.

Barnett believes the United States should use troops to safeguard the border.

He is convinced that while most people living along the border understand the problem, the rest of the country has no idea what is happening.

Barnett supports Glenn Spencer's plan for an American Border Patrol. The Sherman Oaks, Calif., man is planning on moving to Cochise County in the next few weeks and establishing the patrol along the border.

Barnett said the organization will provide information to the people of the United States on what is really happening on the border.

Spencer will be bringing in a lot of high-tech equipment to be used in providing real time video of border incursions and will gather other information for the American people and law enforcement agencies, he said.

The Southern Poverty Law Center -- a well-known civil rights organization headquartered in Alabama -- lists Spencer's Voice of Citizens Together and American Patrol as hate groups.

The American Border Patrol is not listed. A new group, Spencer has stressed it is separate from his other enterprises. At the same time, Spencer is accepting contributions to the American Border Patrol through the American Patrol.

The Southern Poverty Law Center publication calls Spencer, "one of the hardest line anti-immigrant ideologues now operating."

Barnett said the Southern Poverty Law Center "probably considers me a hate group. What they come up with wouldn't surprise me a bit and I don't care. They are so far left of center it is unreal as far as I'm concerned."

Barnett said he hopes the people of Cochise County will give Spencer the opportunity to prove his value in controlling the border.

Barnett said he will support Spencer giving him the right to install hidden cameras on his property "as I believe all the ranchers will do."

"I think it might take a little while but it (the American Border Patrol) will go over. They (country residents) are still unsure, unclear of what he (Spencer) is going to do. But after they find out what will happen they will support it," Barnett said.

There are many who are "champing at the bit" waiting for Spencer to show up and start his operation on Sept. 1, he added.