Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Star-Telegram | 06/09/2004 | Vigilante faces assault trial in South Texas

Star-Telegram | 06/09/2004 | Vigilante faces assault trial in South Texas

Posted on Wed, Jun. 09, 2004



Vigilante faces assault trial in South Texas

By Karen Brooks

Star-Telegram Border Bureau

HEBBRONVILLE - A member of a border-vigilante group who is accused of pistol-whipping an undocumented immigrant went on trial Tuesday, with prosecutors accusing him of "playing cop" and his attorney calling it a case of mistaken identity.

Casey Nethercott, 35, of Douglas, Ariz., faces charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and unlawful possession of a weapon. The case has focused international attention on armed citizens groups that take immigration law into their own hands.

If convicted, Nethercott faces five to 20 years in prison.

Nethercott was a volunteer with Ranch Rescue, an Arizona-based group with offices in several states, including Texas. The group was formed to help border-area ranchers deal with the increasing number of undocumented immigrants who cross their land in hopes of evading the U.S. Border Patrol.

In some cases, "dealing with" the immigrants means searching for them and stopping them long enough for immigration officials to find them.

In Nethercott's case, prosecutors say, it meant forcing two Salvadoran immigrants caught on a local ranch last year to kneel on the ground and answer questions about whether they were smuggling drugs, then smacking one of them on the head with the butt of his handgun.

To border crossers, Nethercott and other volunteers appeared to be soldiers who were wearing camouflage, carrying weapons and conducting interrogations, Jim Hogg County Assistant District Attorney Rudy Gutierrez told a jury of five women and seven men -- at least two of whom are ranchers.

"They thought they were being apprehended by soldiers or law enforcement that was out there," Gutierrez said.

Nethercott had been called to a Jim Hogg County ranch in March 2003 by owners Joe and Betty Lou Sutton, who complained that immigrants had been crossing their land, trashing property and stealing chickens.

Officials say the Suttons do not allow Border Patrol agents on their land, a relatively common practice by ranchers who believe the patrols infringe on their privacy.

Police found the immigrants, Fatima Leiva and Edwin Mancia, walking along Texas 16 at 1 a.m. March 19, 2003.

They said they had been assaulted about midnight and described how a bald, overweight man had hit them. They later picked Nethercott out of a lineup.

Nethercott's attorney, Joseph L. Jacobson, said that the lineup was "clearly unconstitutional" and that Nethercott was wrongly identified.

"It was absolutely impossible for my client to have committed these crimes," Jacobson, former legal director of the Texas branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, told the jury. "It simply didn't happen."

Witnesses expected to be called during the trial include members of Ranch Rescue, the two immigrants, several Border Patrol agents and the Suttons.

The trial in a lawsuit against the Suttons and Ranch Rescue is expected to begin this summer.


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