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Suspect Rests His Fate in Texas, Rangers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When accused killer Angel Maturino Resendez, who surrendered to authorities Tuesday, crossed from Mexico and shook hands with a Texas Ranger, it was more than the end of a fevered two-country manhunt.

By insisting on giving up to the Rangers--the nation’s oldest, perhaps most storied body of state lawmen--Resendez also was crossing a long bridge from past to present built by this once-bloody vigilante group, launched 176 years ago to defend white Texans. It was a long journey from the turn of the century, when Latino mothers on both sides of the Rio Grande scared miscreant children with threats of “los Rinches"--the Rangers.

In the decades since, the small group of law officers has been credited with becoming more tolerant. To many Texans, despite their turbulent past, the officers’ enduring image is one of independence and personal honor.

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The handshake between droopy, mild-looking Resendez and white-hatted rookie Ranger Drew Carter was only the latest distinctively Texan element of the gory crime drama.

The newest twist was the suspect’s repeated requests during a court appearance Wednesday to be allowed to plead guilty--to what, it was unclear. Later in the day, Resendez was officially charged with capital murder in the October bludgeoning of 87-year-old Leffie Mason in Hughes Springs, one of nine murders in which he is now a suspect. The first Texas murder charge filed against him, it was based on a palm print left behind at the crime scene.

After weeks of painstakingly building a relationship with Manuela Maturino-Resendez, the suspect’s sister in Albuquerque, 32-year-old Carter rushed to meet her in New Mexico when she called him saying her brother wished to surrender. Resendez, she said, would surrender if he were guaranteed humane treatment, a psychological evaluation and permission to see visitors. The only other condition, authorities said, was that he be allowed to surrender to a Ranger.

Carter, who resisted taking sole credit for the surrender, told reporters he gained the family’s trust with simple honesty.

“There were very personal one-on-one discussions with family members representing the subject and myself and other people that brought this about,” Carter said. “Honesty’s never hard. Sincerity is something people sense. . . . That’s what I did. I was honest with the whole family.”

But students of Texas border culture say there was more at play in Resendez’s decision than Carter the individual; it was the complex legacy of the elite outfit itself.

Resendez gave up “because of the impeccable reputation of the Texas Rangers personally. . . . Their word is their bond,” said San Antonio defense lawyer Jesse Gamas, whose heavily Latino clientele hails from both sides of the border.

“I think what [Resendez] was scared of was bounty hunters, or people taking potshots at him, or people bringing him out of Mexico with no guarantee,” he said. “I think he trusted Rangers enough to cut a deal with them because they would keep their word with him.”

Department of Public Safety spokesman Mike Cox, who has written several books about the Texas Rangers, agreed, saying that, in addition to the personal rapport built by Carter, the Rangers’ unusual personal autonomy in decision-making has created a mystique on both sides of the border.

“When Rangers are selected, that’s part of the pattern: They look for someone who can stand on their own two feet and don’t have to run everything they do past a supervisor,” Cox said.

In the early days of the corps, however, that same autonomy often inspired horror among Latinos and others who crossed Rangers’ paths.

Formed in 1823, when Texas was still part of Mexico, the original Rangers were 10 volunteers summoned by Texas founding father Stephen F. Austin to protect white settlers. Twelve years later, Texas’ new provisional government formalized the group as a frontier defense force against Native Americans and Mexicans.

In the chaotic aftermath of the Civil War, the state Legislature created two Ranger forces to control “marauding or thieving parties” in the still-contested frontier zone, and in 1901 a law was passed permitting the governor to create his own Ranger force in the region.

The men performed their duties with minimal supervision and ferocious dispatch, mounting cross-border raids that included massacres of Mexicans remembered to this day in the form of corridos--story songs--and children’s tales of “los Rinches,” bloodthirsty Rangers who snatch and kill children out of sheer blood lust.

But side by side with the resentment and fear they prompted, another, more enduring, Ranger mystique developed. It’s that mystique, said Gamas and Cox, that lives on in the Rangers’ contemporary incarnation.

“There were bloody raids into Texas from Mexico, and there were bloody retaliations on the part of local citizens as well as Texas Rangers,” Cox said. “But that was then, this is now. . . . The Ranger ethic used to be: Shoot first, ask questions later. In this day, it’s ask questions first and shoot only if you have to.”

Although the 127-officer corps still struggles with controversy, it is now far more diverse, including five black men, 14 Latino men and one Asian man, and two women, one white and one black.

And, attorney Gamas said, the investigators he remembered as openly racist from his youth as a Latino radical are now distinctive for their efficiency and good character.

“Years ago, they didn’t do right by Hispanics in general,” Gamas said. “But I think the new era of Texas Rangers has a higher than average reputation among everybody. Every community that I know in Texas, when there’s a problem, they call the Rangers.”

To Gamas, that air of straight-shooting, cowboy autonomy earns respect even among criminals in border areas. Resendez, he speculates, may have responded to that legacy too.

But Antonio Zavaleta, an anthropologist at the University of Texas at Brownsville, thinks the fugitive responded to a different aspect of the Ranger myth. In Zavaleta’s view, the Rangers still spark enormous resentment among many Latinos old enough to remember and have heard of their past deeds.

“For my generation--people in their 50s and older--Texas Rangers are people to be feared,” Zavaleta argued. Resendez, who is 39 and used many aliases, may be unbalanced but is clearly intelligent, he went on.

“He learned how to weave and work his way through the system of border control and law enforcement, to work trains, to get through garitas, or border checkpoints,” Zavaleta said. “As far as I’m concerned, the Rangers are the cream of the crop of professional law enforcement. But I know what the perception is in the community . . . in [Resendez’] mind, he sees himself as the best of the best. And the Rangers are the toughest of the tough. So he’ll surrender, but only to the best.”

-- UNPUBLISHED NOTE --

Stories after July 30, 1999 use the spelling Angel Maturino Resendiz.

-- END NOTE --


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