PHOENIX -- An Arizona ranch once owned by a member of an armed group accused of terrorizing illegal immigrants has been turned over to two of the people the owner had tried to keep out of the country.
The land was transferred to satisfy a judgment against Casey Nethercott, a member of a self-styled border-watch group who is serving a five-year prison term for firearms possession.
Morris Dees Jr., chief trial counsel of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which represented the immigrants, said he hoped the ruling would be a cautionary tale to anyone considering hostile measures against border crossers.
''When we got into this case, ranchers all along the border were allowing these types to come on their property," Dees said. ''Now they're very leery of it, especially when they see someone loosing their ranch because of it."
The ruling was made as the governors of Arizona and New Mexico have declared states of emergency in their border counties -- moves designed to free up money for enforcement, while drawing national attention to illegal immigration.
Nethercott was a member of Ranch Rescue, which works to protect private property along the southern US border. In March 2003, he was accused of pistol-whipping Edwin Alfredo Mancia Gonzales, 26, at a ranch in Hebbronville, Texas, near the Mexico border. A jury deadlocked on the assault charge but convicted him of being a felon in possession of a firearm.
Mancia and another immigrant traveling with him from El Salvador, Fatima del Socorro Leiva Medina, filed a civil lawsuit last year saying they were harmed by Ranch Rescue members.
The suit named Nethercott; Jack Foote, the founder of Ranch Rescue; and the owners of the Hebbronville ranch, Joe and Betty Sutton. The Suttons settled for $100,000. Nethercott and Foote presented no defense, and a Texas judge issued default judgments in April of $850,000 against Nethercott and $500,000 against Foote.
Nethercott transferred ownership of his 70-acre Douglas ranch to his sister. But she gave up ownership to settle the judgment when challenged by lawyers.
The transfer of the ranch outraged border-watch groups.
''If the federal government was doing its job, ranchers would not be living in fear," said Chris Simcox, president of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, a group that watches for illegal crossings and reports them to Border Patrol. He said the group has a policy against touching the immigrants and uses video to document their patrols.
Messages left for Nethercott's family and his attorney were not returned yesterday. Mancia and Leiva declined through Dees to speak to reporters.