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.

Rangers were made to learn state-of-the-art investigative and foresic techniques. His last Ranger hiree, Joaqin Jackson, says, “The Rangers would never have survived the modern era if not for him.” But no amount of laboratory schooling could prepare the veteran Rangers for the avalanche of laws and court rulings that descended upon them in the sixties. The Civil Rights Act. Miranda. Laws of arraignment. Habeas corpus writs. No longer could Rangers hide suspects from their attorneys by means of the “East Texas merry-go-round,” ferrying them from one town to the next in the dead of night. No longer could a suspect be tossed in jail without being charged with a crime and given access to a telephone. And the age-old Ranger specialty—coaxing confessions out of suspects by any means necessary—was suddenly in serious jeopardy.

“All the way up to the early sixties, a Ranger was apt to kill you as look at you,” says one Ranger who served among the old-timers. “He was the law, and on occasion he was above the law.” The methods employed by tough cusses like Walter Russell, Jerome Preiss, Clint Peoples, Jim Nance, and Levi Duncan weren’t pretty, but they produced results. When a man got his face held down in a river, it tended to refresh his memory. Putting a milk bucket over a fellow’s head and beating on it with a nightstick often yielded some useful information. “After Miranda,” says Sid Merchant, “we needed to use more finesse in getting confessions. Some of those old boys said to hell with it and left.”

Those who stayed found that the new rules, however aggravating, were going to be enforced. “They issued us each a little card that had the suspect’s rights printed on it, and we were supposed to read it aloud,” recalls a retired Ranger. “Some of us didn’t bother doing it at first—and we had some cases overturned as a result.”

The changes were especially apparent in South Texas, where a century’s worth of animosity had accumulated. To Mexican Americans, the Rangers were not romantic stalwarts but rather “Los Rinches,” oppressors of the poor and flunkies of wealthy Anglo ranchers. Captain A.Y. Allee, the head of Ranger Company D since 1947, was the focus of their fear and contempt. Allee had been sued and investigated countless times for his conduct in South Texas. He readily owned up to assaulting attorneys, smacking a Mexican labor organizer over the head with a rifle butt, and pistol-whipping George Parr, the Duke of Duval County. During a 1968 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights hearing, Allee said of his Rangers, “We are not instructed in any way [about the use of force]. We use what force we deem necessary to make any kind of arrest.”

When the United Farm Workers organized a strike in Starr County in 1967, Allee and his company waded in with characteristic vigor. The Rangers arrested a minister and his wife who were not carrying pickets, delivered a concussion to an organizer, and informed demonstrators that the Rangers would do whatever it took to break the strike. For both the Rangers and the South Texas residents, nothing about the scenario was unfamiliar except for the response it generated. Allee’s behavior was vilified in the statehouse, in the national media, and by the federal government. Eventually the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Allee’s Rangers had violated the farm workers’ right to peaceful assembly. Allee remained unrepentant, but the damage to the Rangers’ reputation was considerable. In 1975 Allee’s son, Ranger Alfred Allee, Jr., volunteered to assist in a Presidio case involving a strike organized by CÈsar Chavez. The younger Allee’s superiors adamantly refused. “We saw what mess your dad got us into before,” he was told.

Captain Allee departed in 1970, done in by mandatory retirement. Homer Garrison’s retirement from the DPS in 1968 ended a thirty-year reign, which would be followed by a succession of Ranger commanders. In 1972 Sissy Farenthold ran for governor and made the abolition of the Rangers one of her major campaign issues. The stance was intensely unpopular, and Ranger veterans guffawed when Farenthold lost. But Farenthold was of a newer time, and the Rangers were not impervious to it. No longer could a Texas lawman earn his Ranger badge simply by virtue of a veteran’s blessings; now he had to pass a written test that many old-timers doubtless would have failed. A regulation instituted by DPS director James Adams in the early eighties stipulated that new Rangers would have to be plucked from the Department of Public Safety, rather than from a police or sheriff’s office, as had been the case with so many Rangers in the past. As civil procedures tightened, paperwork demands increased. With Captain Allee’s antics known throughout Texas and Garrison no longer around to take the flak, Ranger captains reined in their men and demanded an account of their comings and goings. “Rangers were notoriously unsupervised,” recalls Sid Merchant. “I’d go a month at a time without seeing my captain. And things worked, because the old captains would back you. My captain, Jim Riddles, had balls as big as two brass bathtubs. Cap Allee was as mean as a snake, but damn it, he stood up for his men. Those fellows left, and the ones who came in after them were all caught up in covering their asses.”

New federal labor regulations that severely restricted overtime took effect in the mid-eighties. While unions across America rejoiced, the Texas Rangers were aghast. A Ranger didn’t punch a clock. How could he, when criminals didn’t? “I remember they forced me to take off twenty straight days because I had worked too many hours,” says Max Womack, an East Texas Ranger from 1969 until 1988. “It was ridiculous, and it brought a hardship on the rural counties that depended on men to work their cases.” Many Rangers went about their business and simply fudged their time sheets. “You’d have to lie,” says Glenn Elliott, “and then if

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...

Most Read

  • Viewed
  • Past:
  • 1 week