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.
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 binds us, and what forms the noose we cannot slip.
A retired Ranger stared dreamily at the plaque he kept on his wall, bearing the name of his most famous predecessors. “Leander McNelly,” he murmured at last, and his voice almost caved in with emotion as he quoted one of McNelly’s men, “Lord, how I would have charged hell with a handbucket behind the leadership of that man!”
Rangers are faithful keepers of Ranger mythology, and it all begins with McNelly, the youthful captain under whose command a pintsize brigade slaughtered countless criminals and Mexicans from 1874 until 1877. To the Rangers and their admiring historians, McNelly is an appealing composite of warlord and Christ figure: courageous and gentlemanly, utterly devoted to his men and his mission, a remorseless killer, and dead himself by the holy age of 33. From McNelly flows the rich blood of Ranger lore.
And that is oddly fitting, since in fact Leander McNelly was never a Texas Ranger. Muster rolls, vouchers, and state correspondances indicate that from 1874 until 1876, McNelly was the captain of the Washington County Volunteer Militia, and from 1876 until his departure in January 1877, captain of a brigade worded in state legislation as “special state troops.” His troops were structurally and budgetarily set apart from the six companies making up the separately legislated Frontier Battalion of Texas Rangers. McNelly did not report to the head of the Rangers, Major John B. Jones, but rather to Adjutant General William Steele. Occasionally reporters and McNelly referred to his men as Rangers, presumably as a descriptive term—and indeed, McNelly’s bridage performed just as bravely as Major Jones’s Rangers did. But to say that McNelly was a Texas Ranger simply because he killed Mexican bandits on behalf of the state would be like saying that Oliver North was a CIA agent simply because he went on a few spying missions.
Yet historians, including the Rangers’ eminent biographer-booster Walter Prescott Webb, have woven Leander McNelly into Ranger history with little regard for the facts. Numerous biogaphers have written that McNelly’s troops were known as the Special Force of Rangers, though the historical record plainly indicates that his battalion was never given that official designation. True, McNelly was a remarkable leader, when he was well, but it is also true that he spent much of 1876 laid up with ailments and was finally determined by the adjutant general to be “an incompetent man” and discharged. True, McNelly often stared death in the face, but it is also true that as a state policeman in 1870, McNelly stared a gang of Harrisburg outlaws in the face—and promptly surrendered to them. (Perhaps that was a prudent act on McNelly’s part, but in any event this rare display of “Ranger” capitulation does not appear in any known historical text, though a copy of the newspaper article citing the surrender can be found among Webb’s papers at the University of Texas.) McNelly’s lionized exploits include the killing of unarmed men and the raiding of innocent homesteads—enough wanton bloodlust to have reportedly scared off Robert Redford from a Leander McNelly movie project.
But Webb is perhaps right to conclude that McNelly and the Rangers were reared in desperate times, when, as he puts it, “neither the rules nor the weapons were of the Ranger’s choosing.” The first Rangers were hired in 1823, when Stephen F. Austin employed ten men to protect settlers from Indians. Some fifty years later, after subduing the Indians, the Rangers turned their attention to the precarious conditions along the Mexican border. After the banditos came the bootleggers, bank robbers, and lynching mobs; later still, the oil field thieves and striking steelworkers.
In that rough rural terrain, no officer excelled like the Texas Ranger. He knew his prey and his territory, but tenacity was his greatest asset. Indeed, a Ranger’s charge was to range the frontier: to cross city and county lines, to spend a week or a month or a year in pursuit of his quarry, to suppress lawlessness with any weapon at his disposal. It fell to other Texas officers to mingle with the public and wear starched uniforms. A Ranger was a Ranger because he was bred for the prairies and the backwoods. He personified the frontier and lived by its rough-hewn ethic. In the city he always seemed out of place. When Joaquin Jackson visited New York a few years back and toured the Harlem projects with the city vice squad, he believed he had stepped into Ranger hell. “I could never do what y’all do,” Jackson told the city cops. A Ranger belonged in the wilderness. He was the earthiest of Texas lawmen, and yet there was always a little bit of the dreamer in every Ranger, for he lived the dream of the virtuous wanderer, slaying serpents in God’s garden; every man who coveted Rangerhood sought his mythic place among the wanderers.
In their domain the Rangers were champions. Big Foot Wallace, John Coffee Hays, Rip Ford, Ben McCullough, J. B. Gillett, Lone Wolf Gonzaullas—the names themselves are expressions of frontier heroism. The Rangers made it possible to settle Texas. By protecting South Texas from cattle rustlers and East Texas from oil-field plunderers, they guarded the soft flanks of the state’s burgeoning economy. They were the Klan’s greatest foe and the most-dogged trackers of murderers, from Clyde Barrow to Animal McFadden. In the line of fire the Ranger force produced dozens of bona fide legends, a handful of scoundrels, and hundreds who simply performed as the times demanded. For the vast majority of Rangers, it might be enough to say that they were merely actors in the unholy theater of the frontier, beyond good and evil.
Yet Ranger scribes cannot resist the holy detail: that McNelly “would not enlist a man who did not come from a good family,” that feared “border boss” Captain John R. Hughes “is a devout church minister” who “will not keep a man in his Ranger company who swears or drinks,” that famed Bonnie and Clyde tracker Frank Hamer, killer of more than fifty men in his lifetime, loved to whistle for birds and “talk to his feathered friends.” Far less is said about Ranger sergeant Bass Outlaw, murderer and drunk, or about Geronimo captor Tom Horn, who was hanged for murder in 1903. For that matter, former Ranger commander and historian William Sterling wrote much about his own exploits on the frontier but nothing about his being tried in 1915 for murdering a South Texas rancher with a bullet to the back. (The jury bought Sterling’s self-defense plea, though no weapon was found on the deceased.) And while the credo “One Riot, One Ranger” originated around the turn of the century, its validity was called into question only a few decades later, following the lynching of an accused black rapist at the hands of a mob in Sherman in 1930. Writing of the incident, the Wichita Falls Times lamented, “We are afraid that story (one riot, one Ranger) is passé from now on. Not just one Ranger, but several, constituted the force at Sherman, and proved all but helpless against the mob.”
Today’s Ranger does not pretend to be able to stifle a riot single-handedly. But another turn-of-the-century Ranger motto remains in force, this one coined by Captian W. J. McDonald: “No man in the wrong can stand up against a fellow that’s in the right and keeps on a’coming.” It is the romance of this statement that has kept the Rangers alive in the hearts of Texans, and it is the sanctimony of the motto that has gotten them into so much trouble. By 1919, the notion of a lone officer’s being given the authority to determine what is “right” was called into question. That year—for the first time, but by no means the last—the Rangers were investigated by the Legislature for torturing and killing civilians who had been deemed “in the wrong.” The Ranger force endured the investigation and also survived the 1933-through-1934 reign of Governor Ma Ferguson, who filled the force with cronies as punishment for the Rangers’ diligent efforts in the 1932 campaign to keep Governor Ross Sterling in power.
When the Department of Public Safety was created, in 1935, Walter Prescott Webb glumly predicted the demise of his heroes. But Webb had underestimated the tug of the Ranger mythology he himself had promulgated. The Rangers were simply incorporated under the DPS and kept on a’coming.
Progress, however, was a’coming even faster.
The men I worked with used to chase criminals on horseback,” says Lewis Rigler, who joined the Rangers in 1947. “The captains all got cars around 1921, and the number one private was the one who got to drive and wash the captain’s car. There were only fifty-one of us by the time I came along, and they put a tremendous responsibility on all of us. No bothering the captains with picky-picky things—just go where you need to go and work as long as it takes to get the job done. And anytime you needed something, you picked up the phone and called the Colonel direct.”
The Colonel was Homer Garrison, Jr., the head of the DPS and the Rangers from 1938 until 1968. Garrison had come up through law enforcement ranks; he knew his men, and their trust in him was unwavering. When the Colonel’s door was closed, he was most likely telling the governor what his men needed. When it was open, anyone was free to tell the Colonel what was on his mind. In 1965 Sid Merchant was a 32-year-old DPS patrolman when he took advantage of Garrison’s policy, walked in, and said, “Colonel Garrison, I’d like to be a Texas Ranger.” The DPS chief said, “I could tell that the moment you walked in,” and eventually hired him. Garrison relied on his hunches but was not an intractable man. Twenty days after Lewis Rigler was promoted to a command post at the Austin headquarters in 1957, he told Garrison, “Colonel, I appreciate your confidence in men. But I’m used to dealing with robbers, rapists, and cattle thieves. Here I’m just staring at the walls. Please just make me a private again.” Garrison nodded and said, “You head on back to Gainesville, Lewis.” Rigler did, and happily remained a Ranger private for the next twenty years.
Garrison kept the politicians at bay and let his Rangers police themselves. Each of the six Ranger companies was led by a captain stationed at each of the six offices (in Houston, Dallas, Lubbock, Corpus Christi, Midland, and Waco), with Ranger privates scattered throughout the hinterlands. Each Ranger assembled his own work load from the cases originating in his jurisdiction. If a Ranger needed to leave his region, or even the state, no advance permission was required. When Garrison needed to hire a new Ranger, he usually took the advice of his subordinates. “A lot of Rangers put in a good word for me,” says Glenn Elliott, who joined the force in 1961 and left in 1987. “But I had been in the trenches with them. During the Lone Star Steel strike in 1957, I was a patrolman working side by side with Lewis Rigler, Bob Crowder, Jim Ray, and Red Arnold. The first night of the strike, we fought a mob of twenty-five hundred mad people blocking the gates. That night, those Rangers learned how I would react in the dark against a mob. If anyone should know whether I’d be a good Ranger, it was them.”
“The Colonel stressed individuality,” says Rigler, though only up to a point: Garrison’s Rangers were white males. Equal opportunity was not yet an issue, but Garrison had his hands full with other matters. Criminals were smarter in post-war Texas, their methods far more sophisticated than in the days of bank robbers and bootleggers. So that his frontier battalion would not be consigned to obsolescence, Garrison’s 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 a case you were working on went to trial, they’d get you on the witness stand and shove your time sheet in front of your face and make a fool out of you in front of the jury.”
The Ranger force had always been full of ancient lawmen who had lied about their age to keep their post, but now the rules conspired with their advancing frailties to goad them into retirement. Charlie Miller in Mason, Jim Nance in Sierra Blanca, Homer Melton in Benjamin, Frank Kemp in Paris, Hollis Sillavan in Columbus, Bill Baten in Pampa, Lewis Rigler in Gainesville—these men had served their country outposts for as long as anyone could remember, and the silence of their passing was like a lonely death on the prairie. They would have successors, but they would not be replaced. “Coming up, I knew that old bunch,” says Alfred Allee, Jr., now retired from the Rangers. “They were just different. Had a sense of honor. Knew how to get the job done. That old bunch—they were Rangers all the time.”
“Now, the new bunch, they’re something else again. You might run into them on the street and see them in Bermuda shorts and tennis shoes.”
“I served on the oral interview boards when Tom Almond and Lloyd Johnson were made Rangers,” recalls Lewis Rigler. “Before we did the actual interviewing, a captain would tell me, ‘Now, Lewis, I know this Johnson and he’s good.’ And another captain would tell me, ‘Almond, he’s a hell of a guy.’ So that’s who we’d select. Sure, the fix was in. And I was part of the fix.”
To the Rangers, that was a perfectly legitimate hiring practice. To those outside, looking in, it smacked of old-boy inbreeding. In the wake of the 1967 farm worker strikes, critics began to ask DPS officials why there hadn’t been a Hispanic Ranger in many years. The question seemed to take Rangers aback, and their stock response—that there weren’t any qualified Hispanic officers available—no longer seemed to wash. “I don’t see any Japanese here,” A.Y. Allee snapped at a reporter. “I don’t see any Chinamen. We can’t hire every doggone breed there is in the United States.” But the pressure did not relent, and in 1969 a 31-year-old highway patrolman named Arturo Rodriguez was given a Ranger badge. Rodriguez was a tough investigator, highly thought of by Allee and Joaquin Jackson. Yet those connections, along with Rodriguez’s mere five and a half years of law enforcement experience, only reinforced criticisms about the Rangers’ good-old-boy network. In 1971 a Ranger captain approached DPS narcotics investigator Ray Martinez and said, “Ray, we really need another Mexican American Ranger.” Martinez, who as an Austin police officer in 1966 helped gun down sniper Charles Whitman in the University of Texas Tower, thought the proposition sounded like tokenism and declined. He later changed his mind, and though Martinez served contentedly as a Ranger from 1973 until the end of 1991, he acknowledges that his efforts to be promoted in the Ranger ranks were unsuccessful. “Did I feel like I had an equal opportunity to compete for promotion?” he muses. With a wry smile, Martinez then says, “Let’s just say I would hope that I did.”
In 1986 the Ranger oral interview board turned away a veteran DPS trooper named Michael Scott, despite the eight commendations in his personnel file and the high score he had achieved on the written test. Scott had grown up in Waco a mile from the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame. His childhood dream was to be a Ranger. He was an intelligent, well-built, clean-cut family man. The oral interview seemed to have gone well, and yet he was given a score sufficiently low to deny him a promotion to the Ranger force. In 1987 Scott again scored high on the written test. Again he went before the oral board. Again he received a low score and was denied a Ranger position.
Michael Scott could not help but notice that the Rangers had no blacks on the force and wonder if the fact that he was black had something to do with his treatment. Other black troopers began to wonder the same thing, and in 1987 they approached the NAACP, which filed a federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint on behalf of the troopers in 1988. DPS officials agreed to enter into negotiations, and later that year, two black Rangers were hired. Neither of them was Michael Scott, who had committed the unpardonable sin of airing his frustrations to the media. Nor were the hirees among the group of black troopers who had contacted the NAACP. “Scott was as good or better than any Ranger who got in,” recalls a state official who was part of the negotiations between the DPS and the NAACP. “But that’s the pattern that emerged after 1988. Individuals who refused to go along with the company line have continued to be denied justifiable promotions.”
Never before had the Rangers been the least bit concerned about appearances, but the EEOC complaint changed all that. The traditional Ranger oral interview board, consisting of veteran Rangers who happened to be white, was now seen as an invitation to a job-discrimination lawsuit. By 1992, the new interviewers tended to include one of the two blacks Rangers as well as a 32-year-old Hispanic woman from the DPS narcotics division and a black woman from the DPS safety division—”People who don’t know ‘come here’ from ‘sic’em about the Rangers, to tell you the damn truth,” says Joaquin Jackson.
But the cosmetic reforms were not enough to suit the state legislature. By 1993, the growing power of the Hispanic and Black caucuses had seeped into the Texas House Appropriations Committee. During the 1993 session, new committee members like Mario Gallegos, Pete Gallego, and Karyne Conley took it upom themselves to review the minority-hiring situation at the DPS and the Rangers chief Maurice Cook were called to a conference session, where, according to Gallegos, “We raked them over the coals. The low numbers of minorities just stuck out like a sore thumb. Their promotional test hadn’t been validated since the early seventies. To us, that just typified what was happening over at DPS.”
The committee members made it clear: If the DPS and the Rangers wanted to survive the 1993 session unscathed, they would have to make a demonstrative commitment to minority hiring. “You hate to write policy through appropriation, but that’s the only way you get people’s attention,” says Conley. “The Rangers are the last bastion of the good-old-boy system. We sent them a message that their ranks would have to be reflective of the state as a whole.”
It was a message that the Rangers had been hearing from Governor Ann Richards as well, with an additional twist: The lawmen had been wary of Richards from the start. At a Ranger reunion in Waco in the spring of 1992, Richards addressed the current and retired lawmen over dinner. Among the old-timers was former senior Ranger captain Clint Peoples, who had told a reporter in 1990 that he would vote against Richards because “I don’t care to see any petticoats in the governor’s office.” Now Richards’ blue eyes fell on the 81-year-old retired Ranger. “I’m glad to see y’all eating some good steak,” she cracked, “but in my opinion ol’ Clint ought to be eating some crow.”
Women had been employed by the Rangers in the past for security detail, and in 1935 a “petticoat brigade” of four female Rangers was used in undercover nightclub work. But these were only brief assignments. Word spread among Ranger ranks that Governor Richards had something far more lasting in mind. On an instinctive level, the notion was anathema. What would McNelly and Big Foot Wallace and Frank Hamer and Cap Allee have thought? Former Ranger chiefs had vowed that as long as they were in charge, no woman would ever wear a Ranger’s badge. When Maurice Cook became chief in 1992, he reaffirmed the sentiment. But on August 1, 1993, DPS officials announced the hiring of nine new Rangers: two white males, three Hispanic males, one black male, one Asian American male … and two women.
The appointments fulfilled Representative Karyne Conley’s demand that the Rangers “be reflective of the state as a whole.” Beyond that, they fulfilled little else. One of the Hispanic males hired, Duane Henderson, happened to be the nephew of House Hispanic Caucus chairperson Irma Rangel, who had previously been critical of Ranger hiring practices. As a nine-year-old veteran of the highway patrol, Henderson had no formal investigative experience but had been hired over 62 applicants who did. The new black Ranger was once again not Michael Scott but rather a highway patrolman named Marcus Hilton. Hilton was hired despite having logged fewer years in law enforcement than 246 of the 261 DPS employees who applied for a Ranger position. Of the 19 female applicants, only 2 of them were criminal investigators—and those were not the 2 who were hired. The Ranger interview board had chosen from a woefully limited field of minorities and women to begin with and compounded the problem by selecting individuals who were clearly less qualified than other minority and women applicants. Word circulated throughout the Ranger force that the only thing these new Rangers had in common, besides their inexperience, was their willingness not to rock the boat. And while Rangers saw nothing wrong with the hiring of Richard Shing—who had been a DPS veteran for seventeen years and looked, notes Glenn Elliott with approval, “just like George Strait”—they thought it unseemly that the DPS was openly advertising Shing as the Rangers’ first Asian American officer. The Texas Rangers had now become politically correct and were the worse for it.
When Sid Merchant heard the news about the hirings, he vowed never to attend another Ranger reunion. “The damn women,” he mutters today. “Some things ought to remain sacred, and the Rangers are one of them.”
Three weeks after the hirings were announced, Chief Maurice Cook addressed a conference room filled with criminal investigatiors from around the state. The attendees worked for cities and counties that had relied on the Texas Rangers for law enforcement leadership for more than a century. But today Cook was not here to offer advice. Instead, the Ranger chief told the attendees that his newest Rangers lacked experience and would benefit greatly from any guidance those present could give the rookies.
It was a startling admission by the Ranger chief. To some, however, Cook was merely stating what had been obvious for some time. “A sheriff told me not long ago, ‘When we call the Rangers, it’s because we need help,’” says Alfred Allee, Jr. “He said, ‘These new Rangers, they’re nice folks, but they ‘re just inexperienced troopers, and we can’t get help from them.’”
Today’s Rangers find themselves hemmed in by bureaucratic absurdities and civil rights edicts. But they must share the blame for their own decline. Once media darlings, the modern Rangers are thin-skinned when it comes to their public image and generally—as Chief Cook did for this story—refuse to explain themselves to the press. Cook, the Ranger chief since July 1992, is a 23-year veteran of the DPS, a lifer like Homer Garrison, but his ascension through the ranks has not garnered him the admiration of his men as Garrison’s rise did. Then again, Chief Cook inherited a force that is now paying dearly for the insularity of the Garrison era. In their stubborn arrogance, the Rangers did not think to prepare for the inevitable equal-opportunity demands and had a shallow talent pool at the DPS from which to draw qualified women. For every Michael Scott who has patiently reapplied for the Rangers every year, there are several other talented black law enforcement agents elsewhere. The cynical recent hirings, combined with prior hirings based purely on the old-boy spoils system, have produced a roster that would not fit anyone’s description of an elite force.
Many outstanding Rangers remain, of course, and the best of them are greatly admired and relied upon by sheriffs and district attorneys throughout the state. Even a run-of-the-mill Ranger can move with more freedom than the average deputy, can devote more time to a case than the average investigator, can make use of the DPS’s sophisticated crime labs, and can cut through the department’s red tape at will. For these reasons, the Rangers remain useful. Nonetheless, the performance of the force over the past decade suggests an organization still struggling to square the utter rightness of its holy frontier ethnic with the imperatives of the modern world.
The infamous Brandley case epitomized the wrongheadness of the Ranger Way. On August 28, 1980, Texas Ranger Wesley Styles was called in to investigate the sexual assault and strangulation of a Conroe High School cheerleader. The following day, before interviewing a single witness, Styles arrested high school custodian Clarence Brandley and charged him with capital murder. A Montgomery County jury sentenced Brandley to death. Today a number of Rangers contend that Styles had collared the right culprit. After all, Bradley had recently had been arrested for an attempted rape and abduction, was on felony probation for a weapons charge, was spotted near the scene of the crime, had no solid alibi, and had failed a polygraph in connection with the offense.
The Rangers believed they had gotten their man. But he ultimately slipped through their fingers, due entirely to the Rangers’ outmoded methods. In 1989 the Court of Criminal Appeals determined that Styles had conducted his investigation with a “blind focus” on Brandley, ignoring crucial evidence that incriminated other potential suspects. Styles had led other janitors on a “walk through” of the crime scene that “contributed a due process violation by creating false testimony.” He had roughed up and threatened to kill the state’s star witness. He had suppressed crucial tape recordings of witness interviews. Finally, presiding judge Perry Pickett determined that Ranger Styles had lied on the witness stand. The court was thereby left with no choice but to reverse the conviction in 1989 and set Brandley free after seven years on death row.
The Brandley episode indicated that the classic Ranger style could not survive modern legal scrutiny. But as an embarrassment to the force, it paled in comparison to the Henry Lee Lucas fiasco. Lucas, a drifter who had served time for killing his mother, stunned a Montague County courtroom audience in June 1983 when he pleaded guilty to two murders and then added that he had committed at least a hundred more across the nation. Later Lucas revised the body count to more than six hundred. The Rangers dove in the gray, speardheading the Henry Lee Lucas Task Force, which would oversee the clearing of unsolved murder cases to which Lucas was now confessing. The Ranger in charge of the task force, Bob Prince, would later insist that its role was purely to facilitate interviews with Lucas by outside law enforcement parties, that it played no role in the confessions. But that was not the case at all. As Ranger memos confirm, the Rangers helped “refresh Lucas’ memory” by providing him with details of specific cases that Lucas had more or less claimed were his offenses—crimes that, as evidence would later show, he could not possibly have committed.
The task force’s role looked fishy to some from the outset. An Arkansas district attorney learned that Lucas had confessed to a Little Rock murder that had already been solved and that Lucas provided details of the case only after the Arkansas state police, in the presence of the Rangers, obligingly showed him a videotape of the crime scene. West Virginia officials learned that Lucas, at the urging of the Rangers, was now confessing to the murder of a West Virginia policeman despite an official ruling that the death had been a suicide. The attorneys for a Delaware murder defendant sent the task force their client’s case file, and once again Lucas confessed. But a tape of the confession later indicated that the Rangers had been, according to a Delaware prosecutor, “incredibly leading” in discussing the case with Lucas, and ultimately the defendant admitted that he, not Lucas, was the killer.
Through these dubious methods, the Rangers extracted literally hundreds of confessions from Henry Lee Lucas. But in 1985, a Dallas Times Herald article documented that Lucas had been out of the state and at times in jail when many of the murders were committed. McLennan County district attorney Vic Feazell, spurred by these revelations and two questionable confessions in his home county, brought Lucas before a grand jury, where the drifter admitted that he had taken the Rangers for a ride. Rather than own up to their mistakes, the Rangers continued to insist that Lucas was a mass murderer, even as they sought to distance themselves from some of his confessions. Feazell has testified that Ranger Prince assured him outside the grand jury room, “I’m going to make you regret this if it’s the last thing I do.” Indeed DPS officials undertook a full-scale investigation of the district attorney’s activities, culminating in a trial in which Feazell was found not guilty of various infractions.
The Lucas hoax drew international attention and brought shame to the Rangers of a magnitude not since the A.Y. Allee years. Today a number of retired Rangers, including Joaquin Jackson and Glenn Elliott, say they had interviewed Henry Lee Lucas about certain cases in their jurisdictions and could see for themselves that the task force was dealing with a habitual liar. “I remember him trying to cop to one he didn’t do,” says Elliott, “but there was another murder case where I’ll kiss your butt if he didn’t lead us right to the deer stand where the murder took place. Ain’t no way he could’ve guessed that, and I damn sure didn’t tell him. I think he did that one.” Yet the hoax aura of Lucas’ many confessions has left the resolution of this case in doubt.
The eroding credibility of the Rangers meant that defense attorneys no longer shuddered when a Ranger took the stand on behalf of the state. In 1986 an East Texas school principal named Hurley Fontenot stood trial for the murder of a football coach who had been dating a woman Fontenot had been in love with. Much of the evidence incriminated Fontenot, and as one of the jurors later said, “A lot of us felt that he was guilty, but the evidence just wasn’t trustworthy.” Specifically, Fontenot’s attorney, Dick DeGuerin, based his defense largely on the dubious investigation and testimony of Ranger Tommy Walker. As Wesley Styles had done in the Clarence Brandley case, Ranger Walker focused exclusively on Fontenot as a suspect, ignoring numerous leads along the way and emphasizing physical evidence that withered under DeGuerin’s cross-examination. “All of us thought Walker’s investigation was very slipshod and his credibility on the witness stand was blown from beginning to end,” the juror remembered. “Right after we looked at some of his conflicting testimony, we took the vote and decided to acquit Fontenot. It was not at all what I would have expected of a Ranger.”
Nor did the citizens of Brownsville expect the kind of investigation the Rangers conducted of their city officials in 1987. Following a grand jury’s determination that there were irregularities in Brownsville City Hall’s purchasing procedures, Ranger Rudy Rodriguez undertook a highly visible, leak-plagued seven-month investigation that led all of Brownsville to believe that a massive scandal was about to be unearthed. Those suspicions hardly abated when Rodriguez’s investigation led to 23 indictments of city officials, including Mayor Emilio Hernandez. Yet as one of the attorneys involved in the cases noted, “It was a results-oriented investigation from the start. The Ranger knew what he wanted and wouldn’t let the facts get in the way.” Indeed, 21 of the indictments were thrown out and another resulted in a not-guilty verdict. The lone conviction, that of Mayor Hernandez was later reversed after the Ranger’s main witness would not confirm in court information he had given Rodriguez. Far from cleaning up a corrupt city hall, the Rangers left Brownsville in a state of confusion and bitterness, with nothing to show for their efforts except a number of damaged reputations, including their own.
So tarnished was the Ranger image that by the beginning of the nineties, it was just as easy to suspect the Rangers of covering up evidence as it was to assume that they were doing their jobs honorably. When David Joost, the Texas Racing Commission’s chief financial officer, his wife, and their two children were found shot to death in March 1990, the Rangers promptly took charge of the case—and for the next four years seemingly did nothing. Though the Hays County sheriff’s department’s ruling had been that Joost had shot his family and then himself, numerous clues pointed to a multiple murder. Joost’s brother begged the state to let him know what the evidence in its possession suggested, but the Rangers refused to disclose anything, saying that the investigation was ongoing. Their silence, along with their refusal to pursue a number of angles to the case, led the media (including the news show 20/20) to speculate that the Rangers might be covering up a contract killing at the behest of powerful racing interests. Individuals involved in the Joost investigation say that this is not the case—that in fact the Rangers have been gathering evidence and are in the final stages of producing a documented finding. But the Rangers’ arrogant refusal to respond to earnest questions surrounding a high-profile case virtually guarantees that their conclusion about the Joost murders, whatever it happens to be, will not be accepted on faith.
This past year has seen the Texas Rangers consistently in the news yet somehow incidental to the day’s events. The Rangers were called upon to investigate the crime scene of the Branch Davidian compound near Waco; they comported themselves professionally but seemed all too willing to accept the FBI’s work on critical matters of dispute, such as whether or not helicopters from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms had opened fire on the Davidians. When a black man named Craig Thomas died last June at the hands of white Corsicana police officers, the Rangers were called in. Yet the “investigation” promised by the Rangers was in fact a slender report that took only a day to produce and exonerated the Corsicana officers. City leaders promptly contacted the U.S. Justice Department in hopes of a more penetrating inquiry, swatting aside the Rangers’ work like a feeble first draft. Later in the year, the Rangers hired Marrie Garcia and Cheryl Steadman and put the latter to work processing extradition warrants. By the fall of 1993, Ranger Steadman had been assigned her first criminal case, but the media has already lost interest in the women Rangers—maybe in all Rangers. When it was announced this past December that the Rangers would be investigating the matter of an Odessa Permian High School football player’s stolen transcripts, no one seemed to be wondering whether the Rangers didn’t have something more important to do. Perhaps it was one of those questions that hit too close to home and was better left unasked.
“It used to be we’d have a controversy every two or three years by someone who wanted to do away with us,” says Lewis Rigler. “Now there’s no noise, and that means we’re not doing something right.”
The Rangers have seen through their own myths and are confronting their worst fear: that they may become uncontroversial and in fact irrelevant. It is the only threat that could drive a proud lawman like Joaquin Jackson out his life’s work. “The sheriff’s department county budgets have gotten bigger than when I first got here,” he acknowledges over chicken-fried steak in an Alpine restaurant. “They’re not as dependent on us as they used to be. And the city police—hell, they don’t need us. Normally I work about two homicides a year, where a Houston Police Department homicide detective works four or five a week.”
But Jackson lives upon the changeless West Texas prairie, and on its vistas he sees, through eyes both cold and unabashedly romantic, that a changeless struggle persists: good versus evil. In what remains of the frontier, the Rangers must still roam—if they can. “I see the brotherhood slipping,” he says quietly as he chews. “The government won’t let us pick our own people. The ones we’re recruiting are there strictly to meet federal standards. Politics and law enforcement don’t mix. They never did. A lot of us got tired of it. It just got to be too much.”
And so Jackson left the Rangers, the better to keep them in his heart. He looks down at a piece of paper that lists the Rangers who retired in 1993. Jackson’s name is there. His eyes go down the list. Robert Steele, the Yankee from the New York Police Department who had been worked over by the mob in a failed sting operation and left to die on the Long Island Expressway. Steele survived, relocated with his family to San Antonio, then flew back to New York and testified against the mobsters at their trail. A hell of a Ranger for thirteen years … George Fraiser, a fine investigator, now gone on to be a preacher … Bobby Prince and Clayton Smith, the men who had headed the Henry Lee Lucas Task Force. Maybe they got in over their heads a little on that one, but generally speaking, they did excellent work … Jack Dean, the captain of Company D for damn near forever. Now about to be a U.S. marshal … Joe Bailey Davis, been in Kerrville thirteen years. Hard to imagine anyone else in Kerrville. Or in Alpine, for that matter…
“Good men,” says the Ranger. “These are all good men.”