by Susy Buchanan
Nov. 27, 2006 -- An Arizona jury, acting in a lawsuit sponsored by the Southern Poverty Law Center, ordered border vigilante Roger Barnett to pay $98,750 to a family of Mexican-Americans he terrorized in 2004.
The verdict marks the first time Barnett, 62, has been held legally responsible for his violent treatment of Latinos.
Barnett, who controls 22,000 acres in southern Arizona through ownership and state leases, is one of the most prominent border vigilantes along the U.S.-Mexico border. He claims to have captured more than 10,000 people who crossed his land, and publicity about his personal campaign helped inspire other self-appointed groups of border watchers like the Minutemen.
The jury deliberated just three hours on Nov. 22 before ruling against Barnett for threatening two Mexican-American hunters and three young children with an assault rifle and insulting them with racial epithets.
"The Center's support of the case was critical to our success," said Jesus Romo Vejar, an attorney who received financial support from the Center in order to bring the civil action.
On Oct. 30, 2004, Ronald Morales and his father, Arturo, were deer hunting with Ronald's two daughters, who were 11 and 9 at the time, and another 11-year-old girl. All members of the family are Mexican-Americans born in the United States.
Barnett spotted the family's pickup truck through binoculars and radioed his brother, Donald, asking him to investigate. Ronald Morales and one of his daughters were still out hunting when Donald Barnett made contact with others in the party at their truck, informed them they were on Barnett property and asked them to leave.
By the time Ronald Morales and his daughter returned to the truck, Roger Barnett had arrived and was, by all accounts, livid.
According to witness testimony, Roger Barnett erupted in flurry of profanities and racial epithets, calling the two men and three young girls dirty, ignorant Mexicans. When Ronald Morales asked, "What is your name, sir?" Roger Barnett marched over to his truck, and pulled out an AR-15 assault rifle.
"He said, 'My f---ing name is Roger Barnett. If you don't get off my property, I'm gonna shoot you and shoot you and shoot you,' " Morales testified.
"When I heard the bullet chamber I knew then that we were really in trouble. All he had to do was pull that trigger and spray us."
According to a psychiatrist who testified at the trial, all three children suffer from chronic Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of the encounter. The lawsuit sought punitive damages for negligence, false imprisonment and emotional distress.
The Center awarded Vejar, the Arizona attorney representing the hunting party, a grant to fund his out-of-pocket litigation costs, including expert fees and depositions. The grant project was created to help local lawyers bring civil rights and other important cases that otherwise might not move forward.
Although a deputy sheriff who investigated the incident at the time found evidence to charge Roger Barnett with eight felony counts of aggravated assault and 10 misdemeanor counts of disorderly conduct and intimidation, the Cochise County prosecutor refused to file criminal charges against the Barnett brothers. Morales says the county attorney simply told him "no jury in Cochise County will ever convict Roger Barnett."
The Barnetts have several businesses in the area, including a tow-truck service that contracts with the Border Patrol, and both are former deputy sheriffs. In a documentary released last year, El Inmigrante, Roger Barnett expresses his fears of unchecked immigration, namely that "the white race is going to be gone."
The ruling against Barnett marks the second court victory won by the Southern Poverty Law Center against anti-immigrant vigilantes in the past two years. In August 2005, two Salvadorans who were illegally detained and assaulted on a Texas ranch in 2003 were awarded a 70-acre ranch near Douglas, Ariz., that formerly belonged to their attackers.