Before the law caught up with Steve Benifiel last year, he had become known as the biggest badass in West Texas. In the little town of Ranger, 86 miles west of Fort Wroth, people told stories about him the way old-timers once talked about Bonnie and Clyde. He had been called a bully, a thief, a forager, a drug lord, a loan shark, a pimp, a gunrunner. There were rumors that he had been a hit man. That he had Mafia connections. That he had taken a double-crossing friend out into a cornfield and shot him in the kneecaps.
Everyone knew about the aquarium filled with rattlesnakes that Benifiel kept at his auto-body and wrecker shop, Steve’s Garage. One day, so the story goes, a man tried to cheat Steve Benifiel. Benifiel smiled, then suddenly grabbed the man’s hand and stuck it in the aquarium. “There wasn’t a person in Ranger who doubted that Steve could get you killed if he wanted to,” said a prominent local businessman.
People were afraid of him, no question about that. Yet in the stories that are told about Steve Benifiel, there is always a note of, well, admiration. Lean as a yard rake, with hair the color of wheat and glittering blue eyes, the forty-year-old Benifiel is a legend in these parts, a likable—hell, at times charming—good ol’ boy who reminds people of the character Burt Reynolds played in the movie Smokey and the Bandit.
Benifiel, frankly, relished his reputation. He even took to calling himself the Ranger Bandit. In his souped-up $30,000 black Corvette, he would come roaring through the town’s main stoplight at ninety miles an hour, laughing as he gave the local police a half-hearted chase in their boxy Dodge squad cars. On weekend nights, high school kids would gather in a parking lot across from the Circle K convenience store, sitting on the tailgates of their pick-ups, cheering whenever Benifiel barreled by. He feared no one. When he would pass his archenemy, Texas Ranger Gene Kea, on the highway, Benifiel would flash him a big grin. Once he pulled up to Lillie’s, the town café, in a new truck and waved at some fellows drinking coffee. “Boys,” he said, “who says the life of crime ain’t easy?”
It was not hard to understand why even the most law-abiding Ranger citizens liked to stop at Steve’s Garage and shoot the breeze. Some married women had even been known to slow down when passing by his garage to see if they could get a good look at the handsome Benifiel. Others in town defended him as a kind of Robin Hood, a sociable scoundrel who donated money to the volunteer fire department and bought Christmas turkeys for the town’s poor. “Steve looked like a mean dude, wearing his black T-shirt and tearing through town,” said Donna Driskill, the sister of Ranger’s mayor. “But there’s a lot of old ladies around here who got their cars fixed for free. I guarantee you, anybody who got to know him knew he had a good heart.”
For a long time, Ranger’s residents wondered if the law would ever get him. They knew that officers from half a dozen law enforcement agencies were on his tail. But Benifiel seemed to have too many friends in high places. Whenever he was arrested, it wouldn’t be too long before the charges were dropped. Few police informants would mention his name, fearing that he would find out and kill them. “A myth had grown up around Steven Benifiel, and it kept getting bigger and bigger,” said FBI special agent Thomas Clark of Abilene. “Over the years people began to believe that he ran the town, that he could do anything he wanted and no one could touch him. The Ranger Bandit was bigger than life.”
It was, accordingly, a historic civic event in Ranger on January 4, 1991, when carloads of lawmen, a modern-day posse, wheeled into town to arrest Steven Benifiel. They claimed he was the kingpin of one of the largest methamphetamine drug rings in West Texas. They said that he was so powerful that his ring included the sheriff of the county and a highly decorated Department of Public Safety trooper.
A lot of people in Ranger got out of their beds on that very cold morning to watch as Benifiel was led off in handcuffs. They all nodded and told one another that it was inevitable that he would someday fall. But months later, as they continued to tell stories about him, there was almost a slight sense of regret in their voices. It was as if the townsfolk knew they were seeing the last of a breed—one of the last of the great outlaws of the Old West.
“I was sick of those old boys, coming into town like Wyatt Earp, telling people I was guilty of this and that,” Steve Benifiel recalled one afternoon from prison, an unlit cigarette dangling from his mouth. He winked slyly. “if they couldn’t catch me, they had no business bothering my ass. I had my rights, you know.”
For a notorious renegade, Benifiel seemed as pleasant as a preacher. He lit his cigarette, blew smoke toward the ceiling, and talked easily with a singsong back-country accent—the kind one hears late at night when truckers chatter on the CB radio. “Buddy,” he said, “I did the kind of things people would pay money to sit up in the stands to watch.”
Ranger sits just off Interstate 20, at a spot where the highway suddenly cuts through a fault line of flat-topped hills and small canyons in Eastland County. It is an unexpected, almost dramatic sight, this last prominent rise in the earth before the vast flatlands of West Texas spread out, and if a driver is not careful, he will miss entirely the exit sign for Ranger (population: 2,800).
Like many small Texas towns, Ranger is withering away. The downtown has as many boarded-up storefronts as open ones. Freight trains roar through the middle of