November 21, 2023 451 PM
REDFORD — Since the end of August, two Redford landowners — Dallas-based The Local Chapter LLC and Pecos-based attorney Bill Weinacht — have been locked in a suit and countersuit over a slice of the quiet farming community. The contested property measures just under two acres and has nothing on it but creosote, a crumbling ruin and a white steel cross.
Depending on how the courts untangle a messy 75-year web of documentation, a property assessed by Presidio County at $1,800 could pull a settlement of up to $250,000.
According to Weinacht, the hefty potential price tag indicates the emotional, historical and political weight of the contested property. The white cross marks the place where Esequiel Hernandez Jr., a Presidio High School student, was killed by a United States Marine in 1997.
The ruin and cross are located on the western end of El Polvo Road, which makes a horseshoe along FM 170 just east of town. Originally, the ruin served as the officers’ quarters for a Mexican-Revolutionary cavalry post across the street — rumor has it that General Patton stayed there during his time in what was then known as “the Bloody Bend.”
The military returned to these ruins in the late ‘90s, when then-President Bill Clinton sent troops to Presidio County to combat a perceived rise in violence and drug trafficking. “The simple fact is that we must not and we will not surrender our borders to those who wish to exploit our history of compassion and justice,” President Clinton said of his decision to militarize the border.
On May 20, 1997, Corporal Clemente Banuelos — clad in a ghillie suit — shot 18-year-old Esequiel Hernandez in the shadow of the house on the contested property. Hernandez stumbled and collapsed against the wall of a well a few yards away, where he died 18 minutes later. That spot is now marked by the white metal cross.
Hernandez’s story was picked up by newswires worldwide and eventually became the subject of documentaries, films and songs. Though criminal charges against Banuelos were dropped, the Hernandez family was awarded just under $2 million in damages from the United States — thanks to their legal counsel, the same Bill Weinacht implicated in the current-day suit.
Since 2005, Weinacht and the Hernandez family have maintained the property as a memorial to Esequiel — one of a very few U.S. citizens killed by the U.S. military on American soil. No formal memorials through agencies like the National Historic Register or the Texas State Historical Association have been erected in Redford.
Back in August, The Local Chapter filed a suit in district court against Weinacht for “trespass to try title and quiet title” over the two-acre parcel, which they say is an island within their property lines. Their legal counsel — W. Ross Forbes Jr. and Sarah Starr — alleges that a foreclosure document from 1954 invalidates Weinacht’s claim to the land.
The deed in question spurs from Weinacht’s purchase of the land in 2005. After Hernandez’s death in 1997, the cross on the property — allegedly owned by a man named Trinidad Grado Jr. — attracted streams of mourners, journalists and other visitors.
Eventually, Grado demanded that the Hernandez family paid him rent. “Naturally, people were upset,” Weinacht wrote in his answer and countersuit.
Once Grado started complaining that locals were firing shots at the house in retaliation, Weinacht stepped in. He purchased the just-under-2-acre lot around the ruin and cross from Grado for $4,000, in lieu of the Hernandezes paying rent in perpetuity.
The controversy over the cross died down for 14 years, until The Local Chapter — a Dallas-based company that owns a yurt “glamping” compound overlooking Big Bend National Park in Terlingua — bought a 474-acre tract of land along the Rio Grande in Redford on the eastern edge of El Polvo Road.
Fences make good neighbors
Much of the east side of the road is fenced off and marked with The Local Chapter’s logo. Behind the fence are the ruins of a military post staffed by the U.S. Cavalry during the Mexican Revolution, standing proud on a bluff over the river.
The crumbling adobe structure is part of a dramatic panorama: lush fields, rolling hills and the mighty Sierra Rica, higher than any peak on the Texas side of the border. For Baxter Box — who runs the company alongside his wife, Amber — it was love at first sight.
The Dallas-based tech entrepreneurs renowned in the industry for launching RewardStyle in 2011. The software company is widely credited for launching the influencer movement by monetizing bloggers’ links to products.
Despite a reputation for being plugged in, their young family started taking trips to the Big Bend parks a little over a decade ago to get away from screens and busy city life. They became enthralled with the area. “It felt like the raw Texas that used to be — a true frontier,” Box said.
As soon as they had the money together, they purchased a property between Study Butte and the entrance to Big Bend National Park. The couple became interested in their signature yurts after a vacation in Colorado. They appreciated how the tent-like structures could hold up to the weather but were fairly easy to disassemble. “We felt like it was going to have the lowest footprint,” he said. “It was a low-cost way for our growing family to have a place to go and spend time down there.”
The Local Chapter was initially just a retreat for friends and family, but opened to guests in 2017. Trendsetters took note — a headline in D Magazine in 2020 described the operation as a “posh desert oasis.” PaperCity lauded the Box’s aesthetic sensibilities, delighting in the contrast between the rustic yurts and their luxury accouterments from brands like Croft House and CB2.
The Boxes were quickly faced with a harsh South Brewster County reality: it gets very, very hot in land-locked Terlingua during the summer. They started looking for another place to relax, this time closer to the river.
As self-proclaimed Texas history buffs, they were delighted when they heard that there might be a property in Redford that checked all the boxes: scenic views, river access and plenty of history. The couple snapped up the Polvo Road property, alternating summertime family swims with dreaming about how to restore the historic buildings on their land.
A survey commissioned by The Local Chapter in 2019 outlines a sprawling property from the Rio Grande to the edge of Big Bend Ranch State Park, roughly in the shape of the number 1.
The survey also revealed that there were overlaps with surveys commissioned by other landowners over the years. The Boxes were now faced with another harsh desert truth: in what may be the continent’s oldest farming community, record-keeping about land passed down through generations is scant or non-existent.
Box said that he was shocked by the complexity of establishing land ownership in South Presidio County. “It’s messy down there,” he said. “Deeds just show up out of nowhere.”
The Boxes and their legal counsel started diving into county records. They discovered something alarming: there were numerous other families who thought they owned small chunks of the land they’d just purchased.
The trouble started in 1949, when Trinidad Grado Sr. — the father of the man who sold the Hernandez memorial site to Weinacht — purchased his land from W.A. Glasscock.
Over the next few years, the Grados discovered that Glasscock sold off small parcels in Polvo on land he had not yet fully paid off. Glasscock defaulted on his loan to a man named George Pugh, and in the process of foreclosure the Presidio County Sheriff’s Office issued a title for the land back to Pugh in 1954. (Despite the financial drama, the Grados never vacated the property.)
Box feels that the “Sheriff’s deed” described in the lawsuit is his smoking gun. The deeds to any of the foreclosed land were rendered null, and the families who continued occupying and passing on that land from generation to generation had no legal claim to the land, which The Local Chapter had purchased from the family of J.T. Paulsel, the man Pugh sold the land to in 1959.
He explained that his deep-dive into county records was simply so he could start stabilizing and preserving the property’s historic adobe structures. He decided to put off these projects until he could clearly delineate what was his. “I want to get to the point of being able to invest in it, and I can’t really do that if someone else thinks they own it,” he said.
The Boxes put up fences around their property, hoping to prevent vandalism and looting targeting the archaeological sites under their care. “They say fences make good neighbors,” he said. “I don’t like fences, but when people have different ideas of where their boundaries are, it’s a challenge.”
“We still believe it was stolen”
In 2020, The Local Chapter filed a suit against Benny Carrasco, Elva Reza and Susan Rodriguez for small slices of the 474-acre parcel they had purchased the year prior, citing the “Sheriff’s deed” invalidated these families’ chains of title. The parties ended up settling out of court for a modest payout. “It was amicable,” Box said.
According to Priscilla Carrasco — wife of Benny Carrasco — their family’s legal battle was anything but amicable. She says that roughly a year and a half of formal litigation wrecked her family’s health and finances and put strain on a happy marriage of almost four decades. “There was a lot of heartache,” she said.
The Local Chapter sued her husband over a 10-acre plot on El Polvo Road. The riverfront property is also home to a ruin with a dirt floor, where Benny’s grandfather once raised 10 children. County records show a deed written out to the senior Carrasco in 1949, who purchased the land from Glasscock.
With generations of ties to the land, the Carrascos were shocked to be served with legal documents claiming they were trespassing on their own property. Benny works for TXDOT and Priscilla is a schoolteacher. “We’re just your average Joe,” she said. “We make an honest living, and we’ve never been in any type of trouble.”
The family’s own records show tax receipts dating back to the 1950s, but other records are scant. Priscilla says that The Local Chapter’s attorneys wanted pictures of the family in the house to substantiate their claims — something that a humble family from Redford wouldn’t have had access to. “We just had the memories,” she said.
Though the Redford Carrascos eventually relocated to the Permian Basin, she and her husband and kids returned often and made memories of their own — spending afternoons tubing on the river and having picnics in Big Bend Ranch State Park. “That was going to be our retirement,” she said. “We wanted to go out there several months out of the year and relax. It’s beautiful country out there.”
In the original answer to the suit, Carrasco’s argument against The Local Chapter was on the grounds that the conflict “could not be reasonably foreseen by the defendant.” When his father passed down the land in 2006, Benny was not aware of a 50-year-old foreclosure document between three people who had no relationship to his family — particularly one that never resulted in anyone vacating their land or ceasing to pay taxes on it.
The litigation quickly drained the family’s finances. Benny took out money from his 401(k). It got to the point that their only option left was to put their house up as collateral. Over the course of 14 grueling months, the couple’s retirement dream started to corrode their ability to retire in the first place.
With heavy hearts, the Carrascos decided to settle. They walked away without their family’s land and with little faith in the legal system. “What I learned through this whole ordeal — I’d never been through a lawsuit before — is that in a case like that, the person who wins is the one who has the most money,” Priscilla said.
After the suit was settled, the Carrascos said that The Local Chapter tore into the property, cutting trails and digging up native plants. “They started excavating right away,” she said. (Box said that the only excavation he had done was to cut a pad for a cabin, so that the family would one day have a more permanent place to stay the night.)
Priscilla Carrasco still thinks about the property all the time, wondering what could have been. “We still believe it was stolen,” she said. “I know it was settled, and that’s what’s on paper, but we feel that in our hearts it was stolen.”
The perfect hunting ground
Weinacht was all too aware of the Carrascos’ saga when he responded to the suit in early October. Over the course of 26 years tragically embedded with native Redford families, he anticipated that the community’s old-world way of handling real estate transactions would leave them vulnerable to outsiders.
In his answer to The Local Chapter suit, Weinacht explains that the first people to be granted formal deeds to properties in Redford were from poor Mexican and Mexican-American families without extensive knowledge of the American legal system. In many cases, landowners also lacked the ability to read or write in English.
Redford plots were also small, cheap and remote. Even those with more courthouse savvy often didn’t see the value in investing in expensive surveys. “This is how Redford became the perfect hunting ground for the Box’s [sic],” Weinacht wrote. “There is nothing local about The Local Chapter.”
His argument against The Local Chapter’s claim to his land — and the defendants in the 2020 suit — hinge on the law of adverse possession.
Adverse possession laws apply to people who own land that can also be claimed by someone else. Adverse possession claims — and how they’re adjudicated — hinge on proving that the claimant “uses or enjoys” the property in question “peaceably” with no interference from the other party.
In Texas, these laws follow tiered statutes of limitation. The process of fighting a claim gets more complex the longer the property has been “used or enjoyed” by any one party, but after 25 years a suit cannot be filed to determine the property’s ownership.
Weinacht explains in his response that Trinidad Grado Sr. — who owned land implicated in the infamous “Sheriff’s deed” — passed the property along to his son. Both Grado men owned the property for 25 years or more. By the law of adverse possession, Weinacht argues, Grado Jr. had every right to sell the land to someone else, and the chain of title was clear.
He also explained that in the criminal and civil proceedings after Hernandez’s death, establishing exactly who owned the land where Esequiel died and where the fatal shot was fired became a recurring theme — in the hopes of proving that Banuelos was a trespasser as well as an alleged murderer.
The petition belies a deep distrust of the Box family. “They bought a large tract with defects they knew about … with the real intention of buying up the property at a discounted price using the threat of litigation,” he writes.
He expressed zero faith in The Local Chapter’s claim that they had no commercial interest in the property, taking a shot at Amber Box as an “Instagram Queen” whose family made their wealth from warping reality on the internet. He suspected the couple was only interested in “selling a night’s stay in their yurt next to the place where Esequiel Hernandez Jr. was shot and killed.”
He wanted to keep the Box family far, far away from any engagement with the community’s world-famous pain and grief. “The Hernandez family will not be humiliated by their Instagram poses,” Weinacht wrote.
If The Local Chapter was able to take possession, Weinacht argued, the future of the memorial was at stake. “In the event the Box’s [sic] are successful in their Pac-Man feeding frenzy and take the property, the cross will be removed,” he wrote.
Baxter Box denied having any plans for commercial development in Redford and said that Weinacht’s claims disappointed him. He felt that the attorney’s descriptions of his intentions and character were complete mischaracterizations.
He also said he had offered numerous olive branches to Weinacht, promising to keep the cross in place and to add a plaque that would commemorate the site and Weinacht’s contributions to the Hernandez family’s fight for justice.
Box was not aware of the story of Esequiel Hernandez when he purchased his tract, but said that he had come to understand the weight of the event. “If restoration is really important to [Weinacht], it’s really important to me — we should be completely on the same page,” he said.
He also felt that Weinacht had not demonstrated any interest in the property since the tract’s 2019 purchase. “It looks like if he thought he owned it, he hasn’t done anything with it,” Box said.
In response, Weinacht said he has made around $18,000 in improvements to the property over the past four years — hooking up electric and water to make the restoration process easier, as well as cordoning off the memorial site.
If the courts settle in Weinacht’s favor, he wants to reopen the property to people outside the Hernandez family who want to contemplate its historic gravity. Mostly, he just wants to stabilize the adobe and preserve it as it was on that tragic day in 1997. “I don’t want to have it fenced, honestly,” he said.
Regardless of Box’s insistence that the two parties have the same goals in mind, Weinacht remains steadfast in his claim to the land. “The property is not for sale at any price,” he said.