DOUGLAS – Spent shells litter the ground at what is left of the firing range, and camouflage outfits still hang in a storeroom. Just a few months ago, this ranch was known as Camp Thunderbird, the headquarters of a paramilitary group that vowed to use force to keep illegal immigrants from sneaking across the border from Mexico.
Now, the 70-acre property about two miles from the border is being given to two immigrants the group caught trying to enter the United States illegally.
The land transfer satisfies judgments in a lawsuit in which the immigrants had claimed that Casey Nethercott, the owner of the ranch and a former leader of the vigilante group Ranch Rescue, had harmed them.
“Certainly it’s poetic justice that these undocumented workers own this land,” said Morris S. Dees Jr., chief trial counsel of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., which represented the immigrants.
The surrender of the ranch comes as the governors of Arizona and New Mexico have declared states of emergency because of the influx of undocumented immigrants and related crime along the border.
Bill Dore, a Douglas resident briefly affiliated with Ranch Rescue and still active in the border-patrolling Minuteman Project, called the land transfer “ridiculous.”
“The illegals are coming over here,” Dore said. “They are getting the American property. Hell, I’d come over, too. Get some American property, make some money from the gringos.”
The immigrants getting the ranch, Edwin Alfredo Mancia G onzales and Fatima Del Socorro Leiva Medina, could not be reached for comment. Kelley Bruner, a lawyer at the law center, said they were happy.
Bruner said that Mancia and Leiva, from El Salvador but not related, would not live at the ranch and would probably sell it. Nethercott bought the ranch in 2003 for $120,000.
Mancia, who lives in Los Angeles, and Leiva, who lives in the Dallas area, have applied for visas available to immigrants who are the victims of certain crimes, Bruner said. Until a decision is made on their applications, they can stay and work in the United States.
Mancia and Leiva were caught on a ranch in Hebbronville, Texas, in March 2003 by Nethercott and other members of Ranch Rescue. The two immigrants later accused Nethercott of threatening them and of hitting Mancia with a pistol. The immigrants also said that the group gave them cookies, water and a blanket and let them go after an hour or so.
The Salvadorans testified against Nethercott when he was tried by Texas prosecutors. The jury deadlocked on a pistol-whipping charge but convicted Nethercott, who had previously served time in California for assault, of gun possession. He is serving a five-year sentence in Texas.
Mancia and Leiva also filed a lawsuit against Nethercott; Jack Foote, the founder of Ranch Rescue; and the owner of the Hebbronville ranch, Joe Sutton. The immigrants said the ordeal had left them with post-traumatic stress.
Sutton settled for $100,000. Nethercott and Foote did not defend themselves, so the judge issued default judgments of $850,000 against Nethercott and $500,000 against Foote.
Dees said Foote appeared to have no substantial assets, but Nethercott had the ranch. Shortly after the judgment, Nethercott gave the land to his sister, Robin Albitz of Prescott. The Southern Poverty Law Center sued the siblings, saying that the transfer was fraudulent and was meant to avoid the judgment. Albitz, a nursing assista nt, signed over the land to the two immigrants last week.
“It scared the hell out of her,” Margaret Pauline Nethercott, the mother of Nethercott and Albitz.