The Twilight of the Texas Rangers

For 170 years, the legendary lawmen have faced down cattle rustlers, serial killers, and every threat imaginable. Now they must grapple with their most dangerous foe: the modern world.
The end of a long ride: Retired Ranger Joaquin Jackson of Alpine
Photograph by Dan Winters

In the summer of 1993, Joaquin Jackson, the senior member of the Texas Rangers, drove from his outpost in Alpine to the Austin headquarters, where he informed his superiors that he was hanging up his spurs. Assistant commander Bruce Casteel was visibly upset by the news. “Joaquin, you’re not ready to quit,” he protested. “You need to stay.”

Jackson shook his head. “I just can’t do it,” he said.

Everyone present knew what Jackson meant. Though he had been a Ranger for the past 27 years, the strapping six-foot-five lawman was only 57 and had several good years left. The murderers and drug smugglers, he could handle just as capably as always. What Joaquin Jackson could not handle were the changes taking place within his beloved Texas Rangers. “Well,” said one of the secretaries after a long silence, “I guess this is the end of one era and the start of another.”

In fact, the new era had already begun, and it had made Jackson sick to his stomach. Forty Department of Public Safety employees had recently been made finalists for nine new Ranger positions. Five of the forty applicants were women. Friends within the DPS had told Jackson that two of the nine jobs were going to be filled by women, no matter what. Since no woman had ever been named a Ranger before, this information came as a shock to Jackson. As veteran lawmen went, Jackson had a reputation for open-mindedness. He had vocally encouraged the 1973 hiring of the Rangers’ first Hispanic officer in more than fifty years. He believed that any good law enforcement agency had to adapt with the times and was hopeful that by the year 2000, Rangers would be computer experts who primarily tangled with white-collar criminals. Now, women Rangers—that was something else again. Jackson knew a few excellent female FBI agents and always thought that a woman’s intuitive powers were useful investigative tools. But a Ranger had to be more than an investigator. A Ranger had to live off the land, had to withstand days of sleepless pursuit, had to fight back mobs and overpower psychopathic murderers. That was what a Ranger did. That was what Joaquin Jackson had done for the past 27 years. Could a woman do all that? Jackson was skeptical, but he waited to see who the DPS would come up with.

When Jackson found out, he was infuriated. Cheryl Steadman was promoted from a clerical job that involved processing warrants. The other newly appointed female Ranger, Marrie Garcia, had spent the past several years in San Antonio’s driver’s license service. Like Steadman, Garcia had never worked a criminal case in her life. Neither Jackson nor any of the other Rangers he talked to could remember a Ranger being plucked from the ranks of the driver’s license service.

This was hardly a trivial matter. After all, the elite force of 87 Texas officers has a hand in the state’s biggest criminal cases, from the crime-scene investigation of the Branch Davidian compound to the pursuit of mass murderers, rapists, and drug lords. Arguably, Steadman and Garcia were two of the least qualified recruits in the Rangers’ 170-year history. And, Jackson thought bitterly, that was obviously beside the point. DPS director Jim Wilson and Ranger chief Maurice Cook had turned their backs on tradition and responded to the political lash. So a new era was dawning, all right, and the men of Jackson’s era wanted no part of it. “When they hired those two women, that clinched it for me,” Jackson says today. Another Ranger, with 18 years on the force, turned in his badge as well, citing the women as his reason. A third veteran, after putting an end to his 23 years of service, was heard to say, “Well, I’m the last rat getting off this sinking ship.”

Even so, the veterans left quietly, their disenchantment with the brotherhood surmounted only by their aversion to airing dirty Ranger laundry. The hiring of the women Rangers was seen as a quirky sign of progress by the media, which did not bother to investigate whether these particular women possessed even the most rudimentary qualifications for the job. When reporters asked Marrie Garcia’s father if she was up to the challenge, he declared, “Watch her shoot,” as if Rangers were ever known for their markmanship. For her part, Cheryl Steadman told the media how she placated the DPS interviewers by saying, “A good female Ranger will wear whatever she’s told,” as if Rangers were ever known for conformity. But then again, this was the new era.

To Joaquin Jackson and his peers, the quota-hiring of woman Rangers suggests a kind of political emasculation, one that makes a mockery of the legendary law enforcement corps. To critics of the Rangers, the event was twenty years behind schedule, further proof that the state’s most sanctimonious good old boys could not be trusted to march in step with the modern world.

Certainly it is true that the recent history of the Texas Rangers is the history of an organization at odds with the changing times. In a sense, however, the Rangers have always been in sync with Texas—or rather, with the part of Texas that, for better and for worse, distinguishes Texans from the rest of the world. No other state boasts an equivalent to the Rangers, and in no other state would the Rangers survive its many controversies. The question, “Are the Rangers necessary?” involves matters so deeply embedded in the Texas psyche that it is almost never addressed. For that matter, America as a whole is entranced by this indigenous lawman; hence the recently released movie A Perfect World (starring Clint Eastwood as a Ranger), the television series Walker, Texas Ranger, and the innumerable movies and books preceding them. As such, the movement to overhaul the Texas Rangers, and the Rangers’ cynical and defensive reaction to that movement, are knotted together in our state’s tangled web of romance and realpolitik, honor and progress, myth and mortality. The knot is what

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