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 town named Charlie Sims offered to whip McLaren’s ass anytime he showed his face. Tom Jenkins, a former neighbor, once vowed, “If I go to the doctor and he tells me I only have six weeks to live, first thing I’m gonna do is find Rick McLaren and shoot him and leave him in a bar ditch.” During the standoff, one local woman promised to throw a margarita party as soon as the coroner pronounced him dead.
McLaren wasn’t without his supporters, however. A quarter of a mile from the roadblock, the Reverend W. N. Otwell, a former radio talk show host and Fort Worth street preacher, maintained a vigil with his son Rocky and four others, sitting in lawn chairs in the shade of a small trailer next to a display of signs that made their feelings about the standoff clear:
“Republic of Texas A Rediscovery of True America”
“I Will Not Submit to the Globalist United Nations & Her AntiChrist Conspiracy (Rev. 13:1-17 Ps. 2: 1-5)”
“DPS: To Serve & Protect—Not Kill & Destroy Waco/Ruby Ridge/Here?”
The white-bearded Otwell painted McLaren as a heroic figure. “He’s the one who’s done the research,” he said. “We’re here because we’re interested in this, because we believe the New World Order has trampled our constitutional rights. It’s the Antichrist and the mark of the beast.” Otwell also criticized the Republic factions and militia groups for not supporting the cause of Texas nationhood. Then, with a straight face, he added: “I heard there were six thousand to seven thousand FBI and ATF and federal troops between here and San Antonio. At least that’s what I hear.”
Other McLaren sympathizers making pilgrimages to the West were just as suspect. When seven people walked into the Flying J Truckstop in Pecos on day four of the standoff, a waitress stopped them in their tracks by innocuously asking, “Where are y’all headed, Fort Davis?” All seven were placed under arrest: The cache of firearms they were carrying may have been legal, but the two-pound bag of marijuana found in one of their vehicles certainly was not. Leonard Martin of Sanderson and his son Dale were charged with firearms theft when a stolen weapon was found in their vehicle on the Davis Mountains Scenic Loop. Troopers pulled them over after noticing a Republic of Texas insignia on their license plate.
TWENTY MILES AWAY FROM MCLAREN’S derelict “embassy,” downtown Fort Davis was as peaceful as ever. Teenagers lingered in front of the Brass Boot gift shop, tourists sipped fountain sodas at the drugstore, and visitors streamed into the Fort Davis National Historic Site, where the Buffalo Soldiers once bivouacked. Inside the two-room office of the weekly Jeff Davis County Mountain Dispatch, editor and publisher Bob Dillard calmly laid out his latest edition. McLaren was not foremost on his mind. “We’ve got enough going on already,” he said. “There are elections this week, and we’re trying out a new printer in McCamey. Rick is old news around here. We’ve been trying to get rid of him for a long time.”
But there was no question that the standoff was exacting some sort of psychic toll, if not an economic one. There was a bomb threat at the high school. The Texas Nature Conservancy’s state meeting at the U Up U Down Ranch was called off, as was the Mom and Me camp-out at the Mitre Peak Girl Scouts Camp.
The natives were getting restless. During the press briefing on day five, several frustrated locals showed up to complain. One of them, Cathy Fulton, glared defiantly in the direction of several cameras and hurled the greatest insult of all. “By the way,” she spat, “Rick is not from Texas. As a fourth-generation Texan, I resent what he’s done in the name of Texas.”
Even unhappier was Todd Jagger, the owner of the Overland Network Internet service provider, who set up a Republic of Texas Web site at McLaren’s behest last summer. After the standoff began, the local district attorney asked Jagger to close the site; previously, Attorney General Dan Morales had subpoenaed him for all records pertaining to the Republic’s site, including e-mail addresses and messages from people who had received communications from the group. “This is not a Republic of Texas issue,” complained Jagger. “It is an Internet and privacy issue.”
Jagger was annoyed. He wasn’t a constitutionalist, a militiaman, or a Republic sympathizer—he’d never even met McLaren. Yet just like everyone else in Fort Davis, he found himself caught up in the moment. And just like everyone else, he wanted it all to go away.
On Saturday, when Rick McLaren and twelve others ended the standoff without a shot being fired, his wish was granted.