El Paso Times -
Deputies Fail To Get Rancher Off Range Area
Prather’s Ranch, N.M. – John Prather loaded up his 30-30 Winchester and .38 automatic pistol late Tuesday to face up to a new day’s battle with the U.S. deputy marshals he refused to let take him off his ranch.
Meanwhile, two Ft. Bliss colonels, and five military policemen were reported ready to join the marshals at daylight. The later news leaked out after newsmen’s automobiles finally were allowed through roadblocks after being sealed inside the vast McGregor guided missile range by Army roadblocks.
Presence of Col. H.T. Baughn, Ft. Bliss judge advocate and Col. Allison T. Leland, base provost marshal, seemed to put a question mark on an earlier Ft. Bliss official statement that the Prather eviction was “entirely up to the court.”
U.S. District Judge Waldo Rogers in Albuquerque Tuesday morning issued a writ of assistance which deputies of U.S. Marshal George Beach were supposed to use to force the fighting rancher from his home.
But it didn’t work. The deputies failed to lay a hand on the 82-year-old Prather, who warned if they ever touched him he would fight until they killed him. Col. Baughn, who also was at the ranch Tuesday afternoon, told newsmen late Tuesday that he was coming back at dawn and would bring the military policemen with him, but failed to say for what purpose.
Soldiers at Roadblock – Regular soldiers manned roadblocks in the area Tuesday. “I’m going to stay here, dead or alive,” Prather said with the same rugged determination which has held off the U.S. Army for taking his range home for two years.
The judge’s order – apparently anticipated by the U.S. marshal who ordered three deputies into Alamogordo Monday night – came as a flat turnabout. Judge Rodgers was quoted Monday as saying he “had serious doubts” about whether he had done the right thing in giving Prather’s land to the Army, because it appeared the Army might not need it.
Prather met the three marshals, accompanied by a pistol-packing line rider, after spending Tuesday morning out salting his cattle and checking the big well pumps. He was away from the house when he met the quartet and did not have a firearm. He had a pocketknife in his pocket, however, and kept a hand on it throughout his two-hour interview with the marshals.
The deputy marshals were Dave Frescas, Roswell, N.M., J. Demetiro de la O and Mike Gonzales, both of Albuquerque. All of them obviously viewed their position with discomfort and on one occasion, a marshal said: “Do you think I’d be here if I could keep from it?”
Southwest Air Rangers flew National Broadcasting Co. Representative Lawrence Smith and Herald-Post Reporter Don Knoles to the scene about 3:30 p.m. Pilot Lloyd Hamilton did a fine job of hauling out reporters and photographic film through turbulent thunderstorm activity.
Rotation System – After the deputies left, reporters set up a rotation system to protect each other in order to leave someone at the ranch day and night in case the officials slipped back in after the press had left.
Attitude toward reporters was markedly chilled at the time this reporter arrived at 2 p.m., but warned somewhat before the marshals left. Officers repeatedly asked how this reporter had been enabled to reach the ranch, sealed by roadblocks on all main roads.
The Ft. Bliss staff judge advocate, Col. H.T. Baughn and Corps of Engineers Civilian Representative John Cobb put in an appearance and were asked by Deputy De la O whether the roadblocks were still in effect.
Col. Baughn interpreted this as meaning the marshals did not want reporters in the vicinity and told this reporter that De la O wanted him to leave. “The general could keep you from coming out here at any time or from ever going on the post at Ft. Bliss if he wanted to,” the colonel said.
“But he doesn’t want to. I am just telling you that the marshal has asked you to go and that, after all, you have no right in here. De la O said that he had not requested that the reporter leave and that he had only asked the colonel if the road blocks still were in place. “I don’t care if you stay or not,” he said.
No other incidents arose, but Reporter Rick Raphael of the Alamogordo Daily News said he had to drive by way of Cloudcroft and Pinon, N.M. – about 23 miles farther than the most direct route – to avoid roadblocks coming in and was help up a long time going out.
Deputies Frescas and De la O left about 3:30 p.m., after the second batch of reporters arrived, and returned about and hour later – apparently with instructions from somebody. Then all three deputies and a government-paid range rider who had come with them left the place.
While confronting the quartet for about three hours, the crusty rancher repeatedly warned them not to put a hand on him and none did. “By damn, if I had a job where some judge could tell me to go out and kill a man, I’d quit it before I’d kill him if he was in the right like I am.” Prather told the deputies in general.
“We don’t want to kill nobody,” a marshal said defensively. Throughout his interview with the marshals, the tough, outspoken rancher took care to keep any of them from getting behind him, and kept on his feet except for the last few minutes.
About 3:20 p.m., Mrs. Mary Toy, Prather’s housekeeper, served coffee for a reporter and Deputy Marshal Frescas, Prather then sat on a cottonwood stump, making Frescas take a chair with arms on it and facing a direction where he could watch the other two officers.
Frescas said he enjoyed the coffee. Prather said: “I’m glad you do, sir. I want to be friends with everybody. Why don’t you go tell that judge that I’m not going to leave and its time for him to back down and change that court order?”
Prather had no coffee, explaining: “They say every man who works cattle has to smoke cigarettes and drink coffee, but I never cared for either one and never used either one. Guess that’s because I’m so ign ‘r’ nt.”
Prather, who also flaunts cattle-country tradition by wearing ankle top laced shoes instead of cowboy boots, referred repeatedly to Judge Rogers turnabout. “How in the world can a judge who admits he has doubts it order a man to leave his home that he has worked all his life to build for his family?”
Neither Prather’s son, Tom, nor his daughter, Mrs. Hart Gaba, was given advance notice of the Army intent to evict their father. Mrs. Gaba, who lives at 1521 Likins Drive, learned of the situation about 5:30 p.m. Tuesday and went to her father’s side immediately, accompanied by her husband.
Relatives Gather – Tom Prather, Anthony, N.M., farmer-rancher, presumably notified by his sister, also was expected to hasten to the ranch. “My brother, Owen, was down the other day when they were supposed to come and try to move me and didn’t come,” Prather said, “but he didn’t know to come today. There’d have been lots of folks around to back me up if they’d known the Army was lookin’ for a showdown.”
The word for reinforcements went out Tuesday night. A mob of Prather’s closely-knit clansmen and other well-wishers was expected for Wednesday’s session, unless they are kept away by the cordon of Ft. Bliss troops rimming the ranch.
Col. Baughn, whom Prather refers to as “Col. Bull,” and Cobb, tagged “Smilin’ Johnny” by the rancher, left soon after the first reporter arrived at the ranch Tuesday. “Smilin” Johnny has plumb wore his smile out a-tryin’ to talk me into sellin’ my birthright,” Prather said in reference to the Corps of Engineers representative who failed to crack a smile all day.
“I sure hate that,” Prather continued, “I’ll swear, they hired old Johnny to smile and be a nice feeler to help ‘em along with takin’ over all the county and he sure is a nice feller, by damn. I hope he’ll get to where he can smile again and keep his job.
Obviously fatigued by his long stand-up session with the marshals, Prather nevertheless hefted a six-inch by one-foot by five-foot block of wood and carried it for a reporter to use as a base for his jack in changing a flat tire.
“I’m stout enough that they’ll never haul me to town in a car alive,” he said. “I’ll guarantee you that.” Never, throughout the long and rugged day did the indomitable rancher waiver from his stand that he would die rather than leave or be moved.
“I’d like to live a while yet,” he told the solemn-faced peace officers, “but I’m not moving, by damn, and if it’s time for me to die I’m ready. Let’s get on with it.” At one point the nearly-blind rancher – who used to shoot crows off fenceposts from a moving automobile with a pistol – issued a direct challenge to one of the marshals for a personal shoot-out in the finest Old West tradition.
“Just let me get my gun and we’ll square off and have at it,” he said. “I’m ready any time you are.” The marshal, already bemoaning their fate at being assigned to the job, wanted no part of it.