PHOENIX — An Arizona ranch once owned by a member of an armed group accused by civil rights organizations of terrorizing illegal immigrants has been turned over to two of the very people the owner had tried keep out of the country.
The land transfer was done to satisfy a judgment against Casey Nethercott, a member of a self-styled border-watch group who is serving a five-year prison term for firearms possession.
Morris Dees Jr., chief trial counsel of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which represented the immigrants, said this week he hoped the ruling would be a cautionary tale to anyone considering hostile measures against border crossers.
"When we got into this case, ranchers all along the border were allowing these types to come on their property," Dees said. "Now, they're very leery of it, especially when they see someone losing their ranch because of it."
Nethercott was a member of the group Ranch Rescue, which works to protect private property along the southern U.S. border. He was accused of pistol-whipping Edwin Alfredo Mancia Gonzales, 26, in March 2003 at a Hebbronville, Texas, ranch near the Mexico border.
A jury deadlocked on the assault charge but convicted him of being a felon in possession of a firearm.
Mancia and another immigrant traveling with him from El Salvador, Fatima del Socorro Leiva Medina, filed a civil lawsuit last year saying they were harmed while being held by Ranch Rescue members.
Named in the suit were Nethercott; Jack Foote, the founder of Ranch Rescue; and the owners of the Hebbronville ranch, Joe and Betty Sutton. The Suttons settled for $100,000. Nethercott and Foote did not defend themselves, and a Texas judge issued default judgments in April of $850,000 against Nethercott and $500,000 against Foote.
Nethercott transferred ownership of his 70-acre Douglas ranch to his sister. But the sister gave up ownership to settle the judgment when challenged by the immigrants' lawyers.
The transfer of the ranch outraged border-watch groups.
"If the federal government was doing its job, ranchers would not be living in fear," said Chris Simcox, president of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, a group that watches for illegal immigrant crossings and reports them to the U.S. Border Patrol.
Simcox said his group had a policy against touching immigrants and used video to document its patrols.
Messages left for Nethercott's family and his attorney were not returned Friday.
Dees said his clients planned to eventually sell the property, which Nethercott bought for $120,000, but might allow humanitarian border groups offering aid to immigrants to use it for now.
Mancia and Leiva declined through Dees to speak to the media.