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Mixed verdict for rancher in migrant case

Roger Barnett of Arizona must pay $73,000 to four immigrants after holding them at gunpoint, a jury finds, but he's cleared of violating their civil rights.

February 20, 2009|Nicholas Riccardi

DENVER — A federal jury this week found that an Arizona rancher who has complained about illegal immigrants trespassing and trashing his border property has to pay four women $73,000 after he detained them and other migrants at gunpoint.

In a verdict Tuesday afternoon, the jury in Tucson found that Roger Barnett did not violate the women's civil rights but was liable for four claims of assault and infliction of emotional distress.

It is not the first time Barnett has been ordered to pay such a civil penalty. In 2006 he was ordered to pay $100,000 to a Latino family of U.S. citizens who said Barnett threatened them while they were out deer hunting.

Barnett is well-known in southeastern Arizona, which has been a hot spot for illegal border crossings since the late 1990s. Immigrant rights groups have long called him a vigilante; supporters say he is simply defending his land. He and many other ranchers complain about vehicles tearing through their property and groups of immigrants that they say tear up their water tanks and leave debris.

Barnett has said that he has reported thousands of illegal immigrants to the Border Patrol.

The plaintiffs in the recent case "were viewing it as vigilantism while we were viewing it as defense of self and property," said David Hardy, Barnett's attorney. "He was swamped and trying to keep it down."

Marisol Perez, an attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which filed the case, contended that the 2004 confrontation occurred off Barnett's 22,000 acres of ranchland.

"His activities go way beyond defense of property," Perez said.

"He intimidated these individuals, he threatened them with a gun."

In March 2004, Barnett's dog led him to a group of 24 immigrants in a brushy arroyo. He drew his gun, Hardy said, because he was in sudden proximity to the group.

"At that point, in that area of the border, you draw," Hardy said.

Hardy said that Barnett holstered his pistol when he found the immigrants were unarmed and that he used his feet to nudge one woman, who was lying down, to make sure she wasn't hurt.

The plaintiffs contended he kept the gun out, threatened them and kicked the woman before the Border Patrol arrived.

Hardy said that Barnett views the case as a "95% victory" since the jury cleared him of civil rights violations but that he still plans to appeal.

Barnett encounters illegal crossers while checking facilities on his sprawling ranch, Hardy said, and does not look for trouble.

But "as long as they're trashing his land," Barnett will continue to report them to the Border Patrol, Hardy said.

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nicholas.riccardi@latimes.com

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