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 town but never stop. This, indeed, is rural like on its last legs, the quintessential home of hard-bitten people rooted to a land too poor for cattle or most crops except an occasional peanut harvest. For sixty years, Ranger citizens have known little except work and want. It’s doubtful that Ranger would exist were it not for the traffic on Interstate 20. The most thriving businesses in town are the garages and auto-parts stores. There’s only one rickety reminder of what the town used to be: At the intersection of the main street and U.S. Highway 80 is a miniature oil derrick with a United States flag on top.
When oil was discovered around Ranger in 1917, gushers were drilled daily; it was reported that $1 million worth of oil came out of the derricks every three days. The town was called the Rainbow’s End, “the city of flowing gold.” The population of Ranger soared from 750 inhabitants to more than 30,000 as people arrived from around the country to get in on the boom. In the process, they turned Ranger into the greatest oil boomtown in American history, the wildest, unruliest place this side of Dodge City. There were dance halls and gambling dens, gunfights, and stickups. One Ranger saloon was a meeting spot for horse thieves. Just east of town, where the railroad crossed over a canyon, train robbers gathered to look the mail and express cars. Ranger’s peace officer, Si Bradford, wandered the street with his famous shotgun, Ol’ Betsy, which, according to one report from those days, he regularly used to “tame the lawless breed.”
Even though the oil played out by 1920 and the people disappeared as quickly as they had come, the area retained some of its rowdiness. Renegades—and the men who chased them—just came with the territory. The hilly terrain was a perfect place for moonshiners to set up their stills. Murderers and thieves from the cities used the land for their hideouts.
Even today, the residents require some gentle prodding about law and order. In Eastland, ten miles from Ranger, there’s a sign in the county courthouse reminding visitors of the $5 fine for spitting on the courthouse walls or floors. Though most folks in Eastland County are as honest as the day is long, “the fact is, they just aren’t that fond of law enforcement,” said former sheriff Don Underwood. “Too many of them are related to other people in the county who are involved in criminal activity. If we had to go to trial and if it came down to the word of one of my officers against the word of the man we arrested, very seldom would my officer win. That’s the way it’s always been.”
IN 1974 A STRANGER NAMED steve Benifiel swaggered into Ranger and announced that he was looking for a job. In his blue jeans, tennis shoes, and T-shirt, he didn’t look like the typical redneck ruffian who made his way to Ranger. He was so wiry and baby-faced that other men sizing up Benifiel would estimate that they would stand a good chance against him in a fistfight. But there was a daring, reckless side to this new-comer. He was a great braggart, the biggest talker the town had seen since the oil boom. “People used to tell me,” he said, grinning, “that I’d grow up to be either one good lawyer or one good crook.”
Raised in Florida, Benifiel said, he ran away from home when he was eleven, bounced around foster homes, served in Vietnam, then eventually made his way to the Texas Panhandle, where he worked as a mechanic. He said that he wanted to own a truck stop, a distinguished profession in those parts. A man who’s good at “turning wrenches”—local slang for working on automobile engines—is treated with deep respect in Ranger, and Benifiel quickly became known as one of the best.
By 1979 the ambitious Benifiel had bought a small garage and decided to expand. He bought wreckers—the ultimate status symbols among Ranger’s paint-and-body crowd—and he hired mechanics and proclaimed that he would eventually control the interstate. Every time there was an accident or a breakdown on I-20, Benifiel said, he wanted it to be handled by one of his red-and-gold wreckers with the shiny chrome bumpers and “Steve’s Garage” painted on the door. He wanted those cars and trucks to be towed into his garage, where, one of his business associates said, he was “a master at taking a twenty-dollar repair and turning it into a five-hundred-dollar bill.” Someday, Benifiel boasted, he would have Steve’s Truck Stops at interstate off-ramps from Fort Worth to El Paso, and his wreckers would cover every mile of the road.
It was not long before truckers along I-20 were swapping Benifiel stories on their CB radios. They talked about the roll of bills Benifiel kept in his front pocket, the girls who hung out at his shop, and the scams he pulled that led to his nickname, the Interstate Thief. In one infamous episode, Benifiel allegedly persuaded a buddy from the Ranger Police Department to park a squad car near the beginning of a gradual, curving hill west of Ranger on a freezing winter’s night. The truckers would have to slow down to avoid a speeding ticket, then would find themselves going too slow to make it up the icy grade. There, halfway up, sitting behind the wheel of a wrecker, would be Benifiel himself, his face illuminated by the glint of his cigarette. He told the stalled truckers he would happily tow them to the top of the highway for $100.
Ranger citizens would gather for coffee, talking endlessly about Steve Benifiel. For a town long accustomed to a lusterless daily routine, to bleak jobs and summers as hot as wool, Benifiel must have been like something out of a Pecos Bill folktale. His desire for adventure seemed as great as his desire for loot. At his garage, he tossed a $100 bill in his rattlesnake aquarium and declared, “If you got the courage to grab it, then you get to keep it.” He owned a mountain lion and a Bengal tiger as pets. Benifiel would drive around town with the tiger sitting in the front seat, its head sticking out of the window like a dog wanting fresh air. The tiger’s name, appropriately enough, was Bandit.
Benifiel made a list entitled “Steve’s Ten Steps to Success.” The tenth step was “Buy your friends. This way you’ll know everybody’s price.” For entertainment, he played chase with the local cops. One afternoon he saw Charles Edwards, then the town’s chief of police, driving toward Eastland. Benifiel leaped into one of his sports cars, came up behind Edwards’ car outside the city limits, tapped the back bumper, sped around him from the left side, slowed down, sped around him from the right side, and then took off. A grim Edwards admitted that not once in his two years as chief was he able to catch up to Benifiel to give him a speeding ticket—and he couldn’t arrest him later because he would not have been able to prove in court that Benifiel had been driving the car. One of the few times Benifiel did receive a speeding ticket, he laughingly signed it “The Ranger Bandit.”
In a way, Steve Benifiel was a frontier anti-hero, a direct throwback to the “lawless breed” of the oil boom. “Back in the old oil-boom days in Ranger,” said Texas Ranger Gene Kea, who worked that area of Texas, “the feeling there was that if you couldn’t find any blood, then there was no foul. You were allowed to get away with a little bit more. And it’s a feeling you still find out there among the Ranger people today.”
Benifiel openly ran a loan shark business right out of his garage, offering money, no questions asked, at a minimum of 20 percent interest a week. (If a man borrowed $1,000, he owed Benifiel $200 a week until he could pay back the full thousand.) Though he loaned up to $10,000, he rarely had to worry about collecting it. He would simply lower his eyelids and stare hard at his customer, and then he’d say, “Your interest payment is due back exactly at this time in exactly seven days, not a minute later.” Said a business associate of Benifiel’s: “He never had to tell you he’d break your legs. You just knew.”
Ranger was overrun with stories—most of them, no doubt, apocryphal—about people who had crossed him. Some talked about the student at Ranger Junior College who owed Benifiel money. He disappeared one day and was never seen again. “For all we know, the kid got sick of school,” said a former police officer. “But for months, all anybody wanted to talk about was how Steve Benifiel did away with that kid.” The story that Benifiel had once been a hit man and a member of the Mafia gained such fervent support on the local grapevine that an FBI agent quietly did some checking. The story, he said, was not true.
If Steve Benifiel was a crook, the cops couldn’t prove it. Officers in Eastland County investigated all sorts of allegations about Benifiel. They tried to catch him trafficking in stolen cars and illegally selling firearms (it was once known that he kept up to one hundred guns in his home). They tried to learn what Benifiel might have known about a couple of unsolved West Texas killings. But only once were they able to get a criminal charge to stick against Benifiel. In 1989 he was given deferred probation and fined $2,909 for attempting to cut off the electric meter at his home (he still hasn’t paid the fine). Other charges—including a separate incident in which he threatened a Ranger police officer—were dismissed. Benifiel never even paid for any of his speeding tickets. Mysteriously, said courthouse sources, he would appeal his tickets at the Eastland County courthouse, and they would disappear.
Benifiel made sure the lawmen knew they were losing. In 1985, after a lengthy investigation that the Texas Rangers conducted with the Eastland County Sheriff’s Department and the Department of Public Safety, Benifiel was arrested for auto theft. The case was later dropped because of lack of evidence. A few days later, an ad appeared in the Ranger Times, addressed to the officers who led the investigation. It read, “Better Luck Next Time. The Ranger Bandit.”
“You don’t know how bad we wanted to get that old boy,” said Texas Ranger Gene Kea.
By the late eighties, Benifiel owned half a dozen wreckers, one of which cost $325,000. He owned a gigantic eighteen-wheeler truck capable of cleaning up hazardous wastes. Besides his Corvette, he owned a Cessna airplane, a $50,000 Pantera sports car, a ski boat, a Honda touring motorcycle, and a dragster that he kept down at the Ennis speedway. He wore a $25,000 Rolex on his wrist.
The town’s biggest businessman, Benifiel helped a couple of his buddies start garages of their own. He began planting his wreckers at other garages and gas stations along the interstate. He invested in places like Lillie’s Cafe and opened a laundromat. “By my count, he owned twelve businesses in Ranger,” said one town leader. “It’s sad to say, but he kept our economy going.”
Few residents of Eastland County believed that Benifiel made all of his money solely from those businesses. Most of the rumors about him suggested that he was involved in the drug trade. If so, the news wouldn’t have surprised anyone. The drug profession had long been a popular one in Eastland County.
Eastland County is considered by law enforcement agencies to be the hotbed of methamphetamine manufacturing in West Texas. Often called meth, speed, or crank, methamphetamine is far more powerful than ordinary stimulants and can be injected, snorted, or taken as a pill. Meth costs about the same as cocaine ($100 a gram), but it is very much a drug of the rural world, a workingman’s drug. Among some poor folk of Eastland County, the making and selling of meth is really just a modern-day version of the moonshining that once flourished there. Meth “labs” are nothing more than updated stills: Large glass flasks containing a variety of chemicals are heated over butane burners until they form a red oil. Then a distilling and condensing process creates the methamphetamine. Like moonshiners, meth “cooks” erect their labs far off in the country, away from prying eyes and noses (when heated, meth chemicals smell like cat urine), in old trailer houses or abandoned farmhouses. They cook for a few days, dismantle their labs, and then take off, thunder-road style, to a new location before the cops can catch them. “You have to remember that this is just a way of life passed down among the generations,” said Don Bush, the DPS lieutenant in charge of narcotics investigations in West Texas. “The granddaddies were moonshiners and now the grandkids are making speed.”
Unlike the large, organized cocaine rings in the cities, a meth organization is small, usually consisting of the cook and a couple of buddies who sell the dope for him. But Benifiel saw a gold mine in the meth trade, a chance to go big time. The interstate could be used to transport the drug all over Texas. And there weren’t that many police officers in Eastland County (besides the small local police departments, only a sheriff and four deputies patrol the county’s 931 square miles).
Benifiel needed $20,000 for the chemicals and glassware necessary to make a ten-pound batch of meth; on the street, that ten pounds would sell for $200,000. All he had to do was find a good cook who knew what he was doing, put together a loyal group of distributors, and keep the cops off everyone’s tails. With that kind of income, he would finally be able to buy all the land he wanted for his truck stops and get his wreckers rolling everywhere. He could be the king of West Texas.
In early 1989 he started up his drug ring. Thirty people were brought into the operation; twelve labs were set up in remote areas near towns like Necessity and Wild’s Canyon and Rising Star. According to federal court documents, Benifiel and an associate made a secret trip to Florida to purchase lab equipment. Though these weren’t exactly chichi drug dealers—their code word for meth was “shit,” and they used an abandoned couch underneath an interstate overpass as a drop spot for the drugs—they certainly could not be called unsophisticated. Benifiel acted as the chief executive officer, keeping track of the money but rarely getting near the drugs. Benifiel’s second in command was his buddy Guy Kincaid, then a 32-year-old Ranger native and former star high school quarterback. Kincaid did most of the hands-on work, supervising the labs, moving the meth from the cooks in the country to the dealers in the towns, and collecting the money.
In one of their most important moves, Benifiel and Kincaid recruited perhaps the most famous meth cook in the state, a West Texas hillbilly named Billy Dickey. Dickey, then 42, lived almost like a pauper in a run-down three-room farmhouse in neighboring Brown County. He didn’t even have a high school education. Yet according to the DPS’s Don Bush, he was a Mr. Wizard in a meth lab, a man with incredible scientific skills who never failed in making quality speed. Any dealer who could secure his services could make a fortune.
For years, narcotics agents in West Texas had wanted him. Dickey’s uncle, a deputy sheriff for Brown County, would regularly drive up and down the road outside Dickey’s home, hoping to catch him delivering drugs. But Dickey was always one step ahead of everyone. To make his getaways, he drove a beat-up 1970 Camaro with a rebuilt engine that could reach speeds of 150 miles per hour.
Normally, Dickey worked alone in a little lab in his barn and sold his drugs to a few close friends who acted as distributors. But Benifiel and Kincaid offered Dickey all the new glass-ware and chemicals he wanted. They said he could keep one half of the finished meth. Dickey agreed. The Benifiel gang—made up of hicks, farm boys, oil-field workers, and mechanics—was setting itself up to cook hundreds of pounds of methamphetamine.
IN HIS ABILENE OFFICE, 76 miles away from Ranger, special agent Tom Clark, an eighteen-year veteran of the FBI, began to hear reports that uncommonly large amounts of methamphetamine were starting to come out of Eastland County. Immediately he thought of Steve Benifiel. A burly, no-nonsense Texan who kept a handy pouch of Red Man in his pocket, Clark had been aware of Benifiel since 1987, when Ranger Gene Kea happened to mention that, strangely, Benifiel beat every rap thrown at him. One informant had piqued Clark’s interest when he said, “Everything that goes on in Eastland County, Benifiel knows about.”
Clark had often wondered about Benifiel’s friendship with the cops who worked the county. Benifiel, it was said, was always doing favors for officers, fixing their cars for free, buying them beer, inviting them to his house on Friday nights for poker parties. Charles Edwards, the former police chief, had to fire a couple of his officers because they spent more time around Steve’s Garage than they did patrolling the streets.
Most intriguing to Clark, however, was Benifiel’s relationship with Eastland County sheriff Dee Hogan. When he was elected in 1988, the bespectacled 59-year-old Hogan had little experience in law enforcement. Raised in Eastland County, he had worked at an auto-parts business in the Dallas suburb of Garland before moving back to run for sheriff. According to his chief deputy, “He didn’t have much of a clue what he was doing.”
But Hogan seemed to adore Benifiel—whom he fondly called the Bandit—and he started sending squad cars to Steve’s Garage for repairs. Hogan was not particularly subtle about his friendship with Benifiel. When Guy Kincaid was stopped in his car by a deputy and caught with drug paraphernalia and $12,000 in cash, Hogan personally took over the case. He authorized Kincaid’s release from jail, then called Benifiel to come get him, and then returned the $12,000 to them, even though other officers complained that it was illegal drug money.
Hogan, in turn, told his deputies that Benifiel was one of his sources who provided information on criminal activity. But Clark wondered if it was the other way around; maybe Hogan was a source for Benifiel. “Somehow, Benifiel could pick up the phone and find things out,” said Clark. “He always seemed to know every undercover operation going on in Ranger.” In fact, Benifiel did act as a source for Hogan by telling him about the location of certain meth labs. Hogan would make the bust and receive a lot of media attention—but what Benifiel had really given Hogan was the lab of one of his competitors. Benifiel’s labs miraculously escaped detection.
In September 1990, Clark got a tantalizing hint that something big was happening in Ranger. The police in Stephenville, 25 miles south of Ranger, had caught a young woman in front of a Wal-Mart with an ounce of methamphetamine. Clark went to question her, and eventually she broke. She confessed that she had picked up the meth from Guy Kincaid and that Benifiel was also involved. Benifiel, she said, was “heavy duty” and “Mafia-related.” She added that Sheriff Hogan knew all about the Benifiel ring and was “crooked.”
Clark, according to one fellow investigator, became “obsessed” with bringing down Benifiel. He put together a team of the area’s best narcotics investigators, including Don Bush of the DPS, an IRS criminal investigator named Don Karcher, and assistant U.S. attorney Dick Baker of Lubbock, a narcotics prosecutor. They, too, were throwbacks to the old days, contemporary versions of old-time lawmen like Si Bradford. They wore cowboy hats and boots, and they spit their tobacco juice into soft drink cans. Baker had a sign in his Lubbock office that read, “Drug Czar of West Texas.”
The men decided that no one but themselves and the local Texas Ranger should know about the investigation. They refused even to go to the county courthouse to look up records regarding Benifiel. If anyone connected with Eastland County government, especially the sheriff, learned what they were doing, the chances were too strong that word would leak back to Benifiel. Clark and Bush were so dedicated to the mission that they both grew beards as disguises and drove an old pickup so no one would recognize them.
Clark knew this investigation would not be easy. Steve’s Garage was located along busy Highway 80; there was no place for an officer to hide to set up a surveillance operation. If a stranger came to Ranger and started asking a lot of questions, somebody was going to get on the phone to Benifiel. When Clark would ask informants to wear a wire at a meeting with Benifiel or record a phone conversation, they would look at him as if he were crazy.
Clark and Bush had even more trouble when they tried to bring their own undercover agents into Ranger to purchase drugs. It turned out, to their dismay, that Benifiel had persuaded a buddy of his, a square-jawed, highly decorated DPS state trooper named Acey Steel, to run vehicle registration checks on cars coming through Ranger that Benifiel didn’t recognize. One vehicle that Steel checked turned out to be an unmarked state police car that Clark and Bush were using to spy on Benifiel.
Steel was something of a local hero. In 1985 he saved the lives of many people in Eastland County when he controlled the spillage of deadly chemicals after a tractor-trailer collided with a train and exploded. It didn’t seem possible that Benifiel could persuade such a man to come to his side. Yet, when Steel ran across two DPS narcotics officers at an Eastland grocery store, he passed the information along to Benifiel.
Ranger was an impenetrable fiefdom. Everyone seemed beholden to Steve Benifiel. Clark and his team, pondering their options, realized their one bleak hope was the telephone wiretap. Secretly, in a closed hearing in a federal court in Lubbock, a judge ordered a tap on Benifiel’s phones.
It didn’t seem likely that Benifiel would be so careless as to use the phone to make drug deals. He was already suspicious, he would later say, that the police were closing in. He would pat down people who came into his office, looking for a wire. He would fly his airplane above town to see if he could spot any unusual police surveillance. He secretly recorded conversations with people in his office who he thought might be turning on him.
The wiretaps came on-line in early November 1990, and agents started listening around the clock. Astonishingly, they hit pay dirt within three days. Benifiel and Guy Kincaid were heard talking about someone named Dickey. Bush began to tremble with excitement. They were onto Billy Dickey! “I had been working narcotics for twenty-four years and had never been this carried away,” said Bush. “We realized we had a chance to take down two untouchables, Benifiel and Dickey, together.”
A few days later, another Kincaid conversation was recorded, this one about a meeting with the ring’s meth dealer from Odessa. The dealer, according to the conversation, discussed buying half a pound of meth for $7,000. Then Kincaid called Benifiel to talk about the deal again. Clark was flabbergasted. No major drug dealers used the telephone so freely to talk about their work.
Benifiel must have felt so invulnerable in Eastland County that he apparently never worried about a simple wiretap; at the least, he figured one of his sources in law enforcement would have told him about it. Clark realized Benifiel’s arrogance was going to hang him.
Quickly Clark and Bush put together a surveillance team to follow Kincaid. They tailed him to a parking lot outside an Abilene honky-tonk called the Caboose Club, where one officer witnessed Kincaid and the Odessa dealer exchanging meth and money. But to keep Benifiel guessing, no arrests were made. Kincaid headed untouched back to Eastland County. And the Odessa dealer was almost back home before a DPS trooper pulled him over for speeding. The trooper, who had been briefed about Clark’s investigation and told what to do, then asked if he could search the Suburban. Inside he found a boxed radio with the guts removed and replaced with meth. The task force finally had its hard evidence.
But there was more. Through December, Clark listened in disbelief as Benifiel arranged to personally sell meth to a couple of friends. Clark’s team slipped into Ranger long enough to witness Benifiel making a sale to a man right in front of Steve’s Garage. Clark listened to Benifiel ask Sheriff Hogan about how to get rid of a large cache of guns he kept at his home. They witnessed other drug deals.
On January 4, 1991, Clark and a team of other officers poured into Steve’s Garage. Benifiel didn’t say a word. He just sat in his chair. Then he gave the officers one of his cocky grins and held out his hands to be handcuffed.
Over the next few months officers fanned out over West Texas and arrested other members of Benifiel’s ring. So many of them were caught that a Border Patrol bus was brought down to the Eastland County jail to transport them all to Lubbock, where the arraignments were to take place. “It looked like a high school band trip,” said one resident. Wide-eyed residents circled the jail in their cars. Some got out and taped the scene with their video cameras. County Still High After Drug Bust, read the headline in one Ranger weekly newspaper. And in the Ranger Times, the same paper that had once run Benifiel’s ad trumpeting his escape from the law, a new ad appeared, paid for by one of the officers Benifiel used to chide. The ad read, “Better Luck Next Time. Bye Bye Bandit.”
It was, indeed, the Bandit’s final ride. The case against him was airtight. According to federal agents, the Benifiel gang had produced and sold more than $4 million worth of drugs. All thirty of those arrested pleaded guilty to participating in a drug conspiracy or trying to cover it up—including DPS trooper Acey Steel and Sheriff Dee Hogan. In federal court, Steel shook as he received a two-and-a-half-year sentence. Hogan bowed his head when the judge handed him a three-year sentence. Dickey got twelve years and eleven months, and Kincaid got six years and eight months.
When Steve Benifiel stood before the judge, he was in a white dress shirt, blue jeans, and tennis shoes. “Look at him, no different, not a feather ruffled,” whispered a Ranger resident who had shoved her way into the packed courtroom. “Good God, he’s a cocky one.” The judge gave Benifiel twelve years. Benifiel smiled knowingly and left the courtroom, his head held high, with five U.S. marshals surrounding him.
A YEAR AFTER HIS ARREST, some townspeople still could not let go of the Benifiel myth that had for so long enriched their lives. At the high school, a teenager passed around baseball caps that read, “Eastland County Bandit Boosters.” One prominent Ranger woman, the wife of a county commissioner, kept insisting that Benifiel wasn’t guilty of anything at all, that he had been working undercover the whole time for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration to expose bigger drug dealers.
Benifiel wouldn’t speak on the record about any of his past criminal activities, but he loved hearing the latest tales that were being spread about him. “Listen, those people made my reputation for me, okay?” he said. “I didn’t spread all those Mafia killer, hit man stories. I just visited with people, bought them coffee.”
Benifiel cheerfully said he could wait out his prison sentence, then hinted that his sentence might get reduced after he tells all about public corruption regarding drugs in West Texas. “This ball game hasn’t even started,” he said, lighting another cigarette. “All the players are not in. Believe me, I know the whole story, the whole story, and nobody else knows it.”
He blew more smoke into the air, then lowered his eyes and flashed a half-lidded look that could only be described as threatening. For all his good humor, it suddenly became obvious why Benifiel could also scare the bejesus out of a person. “It ain’t fair to throw the rule book at me when everyone else was breaking the rules already,” he said. “The big boys are just mad because I was stealing more than they were.”
There was still a lot of outlaw left in Steve Benifiel—a distrust for the law, an antagonism for any man with a badge, a sworn vow to get even.
Already a rumor was circulating through Eastland County that before his arrest, Benifiel had buried hundreds of thousands of dollars in the abandoned Ranger oil fields. Someday, it was said, he would return in the dark of night to dig up his money and start all over again.
When asked about the story, Benifiel smiled mysteriously. “Don’t worry,” said the Ranger Bandit, defiant to the end. “You ain’t seen the last of me yet.”