Out There

What I saw at the Republic of Texas standoff.

FOR A TROUBLEMAKER, RICK MCLAREN COULDN’T have picked a better place for a standoff. Spring wildflowers hugged the edge of Texas Highway 166 outside Fort Davis, and deer and antelope played in the tall grasses of Marfa ranchland under an expanse of deep blue sky.

Indeed, for the seven days that McLaren and his armed Republic of Texas cohorts were holed up on his property at the Davis Mountains Resort, observers had their pick of mythic images, and none was more stirring than that of the uniformed Department of Public Safety troopers who manned the roadblock in the middle of a blacktop with the Davis Mountains rising dramatically behind them. The troopers and the scenery were effective in sending two messages to TV viewers around the world: (1) State authorities, not the feds, were in charge, which meant it would not be another Waco … probably; and (2) crazies or no crazies, far west Texas is a place of considerable beauty. After dark, not even the glare of the patrol cars’ headlights could obscure the fact that the stars really do shine brighter out there.

Less than one hundred yards away, the Point of Rocks roadside picnic area had been taken over by eighteen trucks fitted with satellite transmitters and close to one hundred reporters and crew members in search of a story. It was a remarkable waste of brainpower and technology. The actual standoff was eight miles from Uplink City, leaving journalists with little to do other than wait for the 10 a.m., 2 p.m., and 7 p.m. briefings from Mike Cox, the genial DPS public information officer, or an impromptu press conference with Terence O’Rourke, the Houston attorney who negotiated on McLaren’s behalf.

Other than KTBC-Channel 7 reporter Gabe Caggiano, who amused onlookers by screaming via cellular phone at his producer back in Austin, the atmosphere was fairly relaxed. One reporter for San Antonio’s KMOL-Channel 4 went on camera in a blue blazer, shorts, and hiking boots (he was shot from the waist up, of course). And amazingly, there were precious few media hounds other than O’Rourke, who quickly earned the nickname Dicky Junior for showboating in the spirit of his fellow Houston defender Dick DeGuerin, who had represented David Koresh.

Meanwhile, Toi Fisher from the Fisher Hill gallery in Fort Davis was doing a brisk business selling quiche and teas and gourmet coffees while Larry Escobedo of the Indian Emily Cafe was hawking burritos and drinks out of the back of his station wagon. Escobedo became so familiar with his clientele that he feigned surprise after serving one regular: “What? You don’t want a receipt?”

Then there was Ray Guy, the burly owner of the Guycom satellite truck that a CBS crew used. He’d been on the scene at Waco and Oklahoma City, enabling him to put the standoff in perspective. “This one’s small,” he said. “We had fifty trucks at one point in Waco. This is mostly a Texas story, and it’s not that big of a deal—unless someone starts shooting.” But he was still interested. “You got a guy who is morally committed to the idea his freedom is getting ate up,” he explained. “He’s pretty smart because he picked a pretty good place to make a stand. Who’s going to go into a box canyon? And he’s a lot better off than Koresh: He doesn’t have any children, and he’s got a bunch of army guys who are eager to defend him.”

THOUGH 43-YEAR-OLD RICHARD Lance McLaren was unknown to most of the world, the people of Fort Davis knew him far too well. His beef was that the Republic of Texas had been illegally annexed by the United States in 1845, thereby rendering null and void any state laws he chose not to obey. In reality the Republic was only the latest front for his ongoing game of legal “Gotcha,” in which he used loopholes and technicalities to beat the system for personal gain. About twelve years ago the Missouri native started filing bogus liens against his fellow residents of Jeff Davis County, which meant that their property could neither be sold nor used as collateral for loans until the matter was resolved. It was paper terrorism, but sometimes it worked; at least one person gave him land in order to end the litigation. Others who subscribed to McLaren’s philosophy that you can get something for nothing found themselves on the short side: His neighbors, the Coopers, lost their home after McLaren convinced them that they didn’t have to pay their mortgage because the debt was unconstitutional. His legal filings were so numerous that the county clerk gave them a separate cabinet.

McLaren wasn’t regarded as a serious threat until he glommed on to the concept of the Republic of Texas in the early nineties. The idea of nationhood appealed to many Texans, and a movement was born, with others emulating McLaren’s lien filing. McLaren became the ambassador of the Republic and its consul general, with the embassy located behind the grocery store in the Davis Mountains Resort. In 1996, after the Stewart Title Guaranty Company fought back against one of his liens and was awarded $1.8 million in damages, McLaren was jailed for a month by federal judge Lucius Bunton for failing to show up in court. Bunton released him after he promised to get a job and refrain from filing liens, but McLaren’s rhetoric turned even more inflammatory. At the end of 1996 he hunkered down on his land with a gun-toting two-man security force and refused to come out—even though there were two warrants for his arrest, and even though factions of the Republic disassociated themselves from him. His war of words continued too. In March he wrote the federal government to say that the Republic was owed $93 trillion in reparations for the Civil War.

With a history like that, McLaren had more than his share of enemies in tranquil Fort Davis. Five years ago a resident of the

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