Armed militia takes captives in West Texas

The Dallas Morning News/April 28, 1997
By Douglas Holt

Anti-government group has two hostages, seeks release of recently arrested members

FORT DAVIS, Texas - An armed anti-government group took a husband and wife hostage in a standoff with law officers Sunday, wounding the man and sealing off a remote West Texas resort community.

Using wartime lingo, leaders of the self-styled Republic of Texas said the captives would be released if state and local officials release two recently arrested Republic members and negotiate with the organization.

"We want them to . . . agree to a referendum to allow Texans to vote on the independence issue," said Richard McLaren, who calls himself the Republic's ambassador, in an on-air telephone interview with San Antonio radio station WOAI.

Mr. McLaren's group maintains that Texas was illegally annexed into the United States and is actually a sovereign nation.

The man who led the midday assault on the home of retiree Joe Rowe and his wife, Margaret "M.A." Rowe, both 51, spoke with The Dallas Morning News by telephone from the Rowes' house. He said he occupied the home with two other militia members but said it did not constitute kidnapping.

"The Rowes are prisoners of war. They are not hostages. This is a military operation," said Richard Keys, who said he is a lieutenant in the Republic of Texas militia. "I was ordered to move on this location, so I did."

Mr. Rowe leads a homeowners' group at the Davis Mountain Resort, where the Republic's headquarters and about 90 homes are scattered through 5,000 acres of rugged, mountainous scrubland. The site is more than 10 miles southwest of Fort Davis, a town of about 1,200.

Mr. Rowe has been a vocal opponent of the group's activities. Some other neighbors said Mr. McLaren's followers at the resort may number no more than two or three.

Mr. Keys said the assault on the Rowes' house came shortly after local authorities arrested Robert Scheidt, 43, described as an "embassy guard," on weapons charges Sunday morning.

Local law enforcement officials could not be reached for comment.

Department of Public Safety Trooper Lucila Torres said authorities were maintaining contact with the McLaren group, but she wouldn't say how that was being done. "Our department is negotiating along with the Sheriff's Department," she said.

State troopers stopped traffic on state Highway 166 about two miles from the Davis Mountain Resort.

Law enforcement vehicles sped past the checkpoint, including a Border Patrol van pulling what appeared to be a portable floodlight on a trailer. Neighbors waiting at the checkpoint said they had seen Texas Rangers and FBI on the scene, too.

"I have never seen so many law enforcement personnel in one place time at one time," said Michael Ward, director of the Jeff Davis County ambulance service. Four ambulances and two first-response vehicles were on stand-by in case "things get nasty," he said.

About 20 state troopers and the entire Jeff Davis County Sheriff's Department were at a blockade near the resort, and the FBI had been called, said a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Safety.

Trooper Torres said Mr. Rowe suffered wounds from glass fragments and a broken arm.

A neighbor, who said she had spoken to emergency medical personnel, said Mr. Rowe was cut while standing near a window that had been shot out.

Mr. Keys would not comment on Mr. Rowe's condition or how he was injured, other than to confirm he had been hurt and that an emergency medical technician was treating him.

He said that if Mr. Rowe needed to be hospitalized he would be allowed to leave, but only if a substitute prisoner could be taken.

Mr. Keys said his group would want to take Jerry Rhea, the local fire chief, who is also an emergency medical technician. It could not be determined if Mr. Rhea was the one tending to Mr. Rowe.

Trooper Torres, speaking Sunday evening, said no exchange had occurred.

Mr. Keys referred further questions to Mr. McLaren, who could not be reached at the group's "embassy" - a metal-sided shed about two miles inside the resort entrance. Mr. McLaren has been hiding out at the resort since December because of outstanding warrants from state and federal courts.

Ms. Rowe's brother, Bob Bowers, said he spoke by telephone about 4 p.m. with his sister, who said her 50-year-old husband had suffered a superficial gunshot wound to the shoulder.

"She said she was all right," said Mr. Bowers, who requested that his hometown not be divulged. "She couldn't tell me how many people were holding them hostage. . . . I asked specifically if he [Mr. McLaren] was there, and she said no."

Mr. Bowers said Ms. Rowe, 51, and her husband had been so worried about Mr. McLaren's group that they recently purchased several weapons.

"They were pretty sure it was going to happen," said Mr. Bowers, a former DPS officer. "The sheriff had told them he had gotten word about a year ago that McLaren wanted their house because it has a commanding view of the valley approaching the highway."

Trooper Torres said that the Davis Mountains Resort subdivision was sealed off and that other area residents remained inside. "We would like to advise them to stay calm," she said.

Al Cruz, a spokesman in the FBI's El Paso office, said the agency "is assessing the situation, including all the information available from other agencies."

In a faxed news release late Sunday, Mr. McLaren's group described the Rowes as "two state of Texas agents."

"At present, the resort has been sealed off by units of The Republic of Texas Defense Forces," said the release, which demanded that two Republic members be freed from jail and that "the State of Texas and federal government agree to enter into negotiations and they agree to start following the law."

Besides Mr. Scheidt, the "guard" arrested Sunday, the group sought the release of Jo Ann Turner, who was arrested Tuesday in Austin on contempt-of-court charges related to a phony lien she filed against a moving company.

That bogus document was part of a rash of liens filed over several months by Republic members, which has prompted the Legislature to consider a bill to criminalize the practice and provide civil recourse for targets of such "paper terrorism."

Attorney General Dan Morales last year sued 25 Republic members, securing an injunction barring more phony liens.

Mr. McLaren issued a statement last week calling Ms. Turner's arrest "a declaration of war." He said the Republic responded by issuing warrants against "foreign agents" including Mr. Morales, the Legislature, all federal judges and IRS agents.

The Republic leadership has attempted to convince potential followers that they would live in a state free of federal income taxes and outside the jurisdiction of the U.S. military, the FBI, the IRS and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

The movement's leadership has fractured in the past six months into three factions, one headed by Mr. McLaren.

Mr. McLaren was jailed by a federal judge in West Texas last May for contempt, and that judge ordered federal marshals to again arrest him earlier this year. He has been named in a state warrant on charges of burglarizing a neighbor's house.

The Rowes' house overlooks the one access road into the community, where residents were monitoring the standoff on police scanners and through an informal phone bank.

"We can't get out of the resort," said Chuck Sanders, 65, one of several residents who said the road out of the resort is in the militia's line of fire. "We're apprehensive, naturally."

In the past, local authorities have said that they've held off confronting Mr. McLaren with the warrants, partly to avoid just the sort of armed standoff that took place Sunday. That angered the neighbor who spoke with the Rowes shortly after they were taken prisoner.

"We've warned law enforcement over and over, and they did nothing," Michele Behrent said. "If the governor or some big shot lived out here, the Republic of Texas would have been shut down long ago, and Joe and M.A. would not be in the position they're in."

Another Rowe neighbor, Mary Fred, 48, said the "whole situation has been going on a long time. Officials could have nipped it in the bud.

"They have let this get too far out of hand. It's pretty bad when you can't get protection from your own law enforcement officials. At the county level, their response has always been, 'Well, we're watching it.' "

Few of Mr. McLaren's neighbors have escaped getting bogus lawsuits and liens filed against them, and they accuse him of squatting on his land without title to it.

"We're just tired of it," said Bob Dillard, publisher of the Jeff Davis County Mountain Dispatch and former county judge. "He sued me four times and tried to put me before a judges and commissioners judicial review board."

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