May 3, 2023 615 PM
FORT DAVIS — Twenty-six years ago this week, all eyes were on Fort Davis as hundreds of law enforcement officers, neighbors and journalists descended on the sleepy mountain town. Richard McLaren — leader of the Republic of Texas secessionist movement — was holed up with his followers in a trailer in the Davis Mountains Resort (DMR), in what they felt was a noble show of force against an impostor government.
As a younger man, McLaren became enamored with the legends of the historical Republic of Texas, populated by figures like Davy Crockett, Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston. He became convinced that Texas was illegally annexed in 1845, and that leadership of the contemporary state of Texas had no real authority.
The standoff got its start long before the gunfire in what The Big Bend Sentinel described as “a paper war.” McLaren quickly figured out how to use the legal system to stir chaos — he used adverse possession laws to challenge the titles of landowners in the DMR, gradually amassing 900 acres by searching county records for erroneous or nonexistent documentation.
He also started filing liens — some against combative neighbors in the DMR, but also against business, churches, politicians and banks. Just before the standoff, he was under warrant for these fraudulent documents.
On April 27, 1997, Joe Rowe — a DMR resident — called the sheriff on three people poking around an abandoned structure near his property. Sheriff Steve Bailey “detained without incident” Robert Scheidt, McLaren’s “Captain of the Guard,” according to that week’s Big Bend Sentinel.
McLaren then sent reinforcements to the home of Joe and M.A. Rowe, claiming that the Rowes were enemy spies. Shots were fired, and Rowe was injured in the shoulder. The Rowes were held hostage in their own home — sparking what’s now known as the Republic of Texas Standoff.
The Republic of Texas kept the world updated via the internet — which in 1997 was an unusual way to broadcast information. “Joe Rowe and Sheriff Bailey may go down in history as having inadvertently set off the liberation of America from New World Order tyranny for a personal vendetta,” McLaren wrote on April 29, 1997.
The Rowes were not the only locals who felt victimized. The May 1, 1997 Big Bend Sentinel spoke to Jan Harkey, a Marfa ISD teacher who was barred from leaving her home in the DMR by law enforcement as the standoff wore on. “I feel very violated,” she said. “We were literally hostages in our own home.”
The McLarens were arrested and brought to the Presidio County Jail on May 4. They had ultimately surrendered under pressure from their families — and after making Captain Barry Caver of the Texas Rangers sign an “international agreement and terms of ceasefire,” which they said gave the Republic of Texas “legal recognition.” (Law enforcement disagreed.)
On May 5, the standoff claimed its lone casualty: Mike Matson, a Republic of Texas member who refused to surrender, was shot and killed by law enforcement.
That same day, Evelyn McLaren stood before the U.S. Magistrate Court for her indictment. She was charged with 23 counts involving fraud against the federal government and several businesses and financial institutions.
The Sul Ross Skyline reported that the family members who had pleaded with the McLarens to surrender did not come to the Big Bend in support. “The small courtroom was packed with reporters but two seats remained empty throughout the hearing,” they wrote. “Those had been reserved for Mrs. McLaren’s two daughters, but they never appeared.”
Letters to the editor trickled into The Sentinel newspaper office, many of them invoking the Siege of Waco standoff between the Branch Davidians and Texas state law enforcement barely a year prior. “[McLaren] saw what happened at Waco, at Ruby Ridge, in Oklahoma City … he just wants to be recognized,” wrote Abe Castilo of Marathon. “That’s all he wants.”
Malcolm Tweedy of Fort Davis also implored readers to “consider the lessons of Waco” after it was discovered that the McLarens had been stockpiling weapons at their compound. “Was this simply wisdom or just good luck that a possible firefight was avoided?”
Last weekend, the Museum of the Big Bend hosted a standoff reunion of sorts featuring former Texas Rangers Joe Malone and David Duncan, alongside Republic of Texas hostage Joe Rowe. Author Donna Marie Miller — author of Texas Secessionists Standoff, a new book on the subject — hosted the discussion.
Miller’s previous work includes The Broken Spoke: Austin’s Legendary Honky-Tonk. She sat down with The Big Bend Sentinel to talk about her writing and her new book. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did writing about the Broken Spoke lead you to writing about the Republic of Texas?
I was at a book signing at the Broken Spoke in 2017 and this woman — a very demure, very tiny woman — named Molly McKnight came up to me with this giant envelope of news clippings and she said, “I know what your next story is.” We had lunch the next day, and she introduced me to Jo Ann Turner, who was the secretary for the Republic of Texas militia in 1997, when they had a standoff with 300 law enforcement officers in the Davis Mountains.
I started interviewing Jo Ann once a week in my house. After a while, I realized this was more than a book about Jo Ann Turner — this was a book about the standoff. There had been some articles written [about it], but it had been 20 years and nothing had really been written. The next thing I knew, I had a longer list of people to interview and it just went on and on.
I flew to Amarillo in 2018 and interviewed Richard McLaren, the self-proclaimed ambassador of the Republic of Texas, in prison, behind plexiglass. He had a guard with him, he had been in isolation for 20 plus years — he was harmless, but he was just as delusional as the day is long.
Can you give me the Spark Notes version of how the Republic of Texas came to be?
All of his life [McLaren] had read all the myths about Texas and began to think of himself as an expert — he aligned himself with some of his mythological heroes.
He wanted to be a hero and bring Texas back to the people who believe that in 1845 Texas was illegally annexed, that there was not enough of a quorum to make it a state in the Union.
He always discounted the fact that Texas joined the Confederacy during the Civil War. Once the North won, the Texas v. White Supreme Court ruling stated that it was illegal to secede. They never considered that, they just relied on the history of the annexation, so all bets were off.
[In the early 1990s] he decided to begin to squat, if you will, up in the Davis Mountains. He worked these really weird odd jobs in restaurants and kitchens, he worked in a winery for a while. Everybody got to know him as this guy who was a master of none, you know — he just wanted to do whatever he could to earn a living.
He had this little tiny shanty with a trailer attached that he called his embassy. His group of friends would go up to his land that he had [acquired] without any money, just by squatting and using adverse possession laws — those laws are still in effect in Texas.
[Adverse possession laws] were designed to help colonize Texas before it became a nation — and before it became a United States state. But he really took advantage, and he earned a bad name for himself among the people up there in the DMR and he was always fighting with the local community.
He set up his own set of books at the Jeff Davis Courthouse and created this group of what he considered legal representatives. People started filing with him at the courthouse for legal residency, for marriages, for births, for landholdings, for car titles — you name it. That angered people even more.
Then his little group of friends started bringing their guns and cannons and all kinds of things on the weekends and practicing little military maneuvers on this land.
How was he figuring out how all this works legally?
He had spent a lot of time in the Jeff Davis County Courthouse. If the land has not been developed, and it’s just sitting there, you can squat on it. If you develop it and no one objects, you can go ahead and file claim on that. He knew just enough to do what he wanted to do. He was the perfect long con.
He was so good at his talk that he was convincing people who were really wanting someone to solve all their problems — like Jo Ann [Turner]. Jo Ann wanted a miracle.
[The Republic of Texas was] getting a list of possible foreclosures in Austin and Travis County. They would mail these postcards with the official Republican Texas seal on them, saying if you’re about to lose your home, give us a call.
That postcard came at the moment that Joanne feared the worst was going to happen — that she was going to lose her home. So she immediately called the number.
[The McLarens] left with the promise that they were going to help her keep everything in the home. After they left, the title company, the Travis County Constable and some moving vans arrived and they just cleared out all of her stuff, everything except a few jewelry items and Joanne’s clothes.
Do you feel like in the popular imagination there are any misconceptions about this event? Or has it mostly been forgotten?
It certainly has not been forgotten by people who are directly affected: the homeowners in the DMR, the volunteers that answered the call when Joe [Rowe] was shot, the 300 law enforcement officers who arrived on the scene, the FBI agent who was a consultant, any surviving members of the Republic of Texas militia.
It’s been 26 years this April 27. And it was lost in history because it was successful: only one person died as opposed to 75 people at the 51 day standoff in Waco.
Because only a few chapters have been written in a few news articles on the anniversaries, I felt like a whole book needed to be written.
Have you seen any fallout from the standoff in today’s politics?
It was in the Austin American Statesman just a month ago: Daniel Miller’s group, [the Texas Nationalist Movement] marched to the Capitol. It was in the newspapers, on the front page, in the media. The Texas Nationalist Movement is built on the Republic of Texas dogma.
This is happening everywhere. There are secessionists in Florida, there are secessionists in Colorado, California, Nevada, Arizona — they’re everywhere right now.
This happened in the Davis Mountains because it could — because there were just a bunch of volunteer firefighters, volunteer EMS, a handful of Texas Rangers covering thousands of square miles.
If you want to start a militia, you cannot choose a better place than the Davis Mountains. You have all this land, and nobody will bother you until you bother them.