Former Rep. Paula Sutton of Warren has once again stirred up controversy over an ad that many consider to be racist and xenophobic. In a letter to Sen. Susan Collins — which ran as a paid ad in the Bangor Daily News twice last week — Sutton urged Collins to support President Donald Trump’s border wall, citing a 2003 lawsuit against her late father Joe Sutton for inviting a violent gang of right-wing paramilitaries onto his ranch to terrorize Latino migrants near the Mexican border. The ad was paid for by former Rep. Heather Sirocki (R-Scarborough) with funds raised by the Knox County Republican Committee.

Sutton, who also serves on the Maine Republican State Committee, described in the letter how her father moved from Maine to south Texas to retire in the 1990s, but she claims they “were forced out of their first ranch by illegal immigrants crossing the border at all times of the day and night” and were “afraid for their lives” so they moved to another ranch to raise exotic wild game. But migrants crossed that ranch as well.

“When I visited it was unsafe for me to ride the trails due to people lurking on the property,” wrote Sutton. “Illegal aliens would routinely cut the expensive game fence leaving valuable animals with an easy way to escape. The caravans of immigrants openly flaunted their freedom with campfires and barbecues where they feasted on dad’s slaughtered animals. They left behind piles of trash, dirty diapers, Mexican lottery tickets and evidence of illicit drug use.”

Sutton claimed that she came upon a group of five men on the ranch and “from their body language and facial expressions I was fearful of being raped,” but, she wrote, they were likely deterred by a “large caliber firearm” she had strapped to her waist.

The Portland Press Herald rejected the letter, both as a column and as an ad, but it was later published in The Buzz, a newsletter affiliated with the WRFR radio show Rockland Metro. It immediately generated public outrage and prompted Rockland Metro co-host Nate Davis to resign.

“I don’t want to be associated with a publication that offers a platform for such stereotyping and race-baiting,” wrote Davis in his resignation letter. “Imagine publishing a piece arguing that the author’s personal experience with money-grubbing, deceitful, selfish Jews with threatening facial expressions and body language had convinced the author of the need to reinstate anti-Jewish quotas. What would we be discussing then, and how would the world react?”

Buzz editor and Rockland Metro co-host Joe Steinberger defended his decision in an email, stating that the mission of The Buzz and WRFR is not to promote a particular point of view, but to give Rocklanders a place to share their ideas. “We are non-partisan, and we are certainly not interested in preventing people from hearing what our local Republicans have to say, any more than we would censor the views of Democrats,” he said.

Davis maintains that his position isn’t related to the border wall or Trump, but that he is opposed to “actively giving a platform to speech that crosses a line into realms that … are generally incompatible with civic life.”

Terrorizing Migrants

But in addition to the stereotyping, Sutton’s letter also raises questions about why the Knox County Republican Committee is promoting a man who was successfully sued for his involvement in illegal paramilitary activity. In her letter, Sutton argued that the Border Patrol “was a joke” and that they would just send the migrants back across the border in an “air-conditioned van” so her father called in the vigilante group Ranch Rescue to “defend his property.”

“Sadly, he was sued by the dreaded Southern Poverty Law Center because they represented an illegal that lied and accused my father of terrorizing him when in fact it was my parents, frustrated and law-abiding citizens that were the victims,” she wrote. “... The man won the lawsuit saying my father made him afraid. A man who was caught trespassing in the middle of the night on terrain covered with coyotes, rattlesnakes, scorpions and cactus said he was more afraid of my father and won. Private property rights should mean something. Public safety should be a priority for taxpaying Americans. Build a wall.”

The 2003 lawsuit was one of SPLC’s greatest legal victories in its fight against violent right-wing extremism. In 2005, the 229th Judicial District Court in Jim Hogg County, Texas, handed down a pair of judgments totaling $1 million against Ranch Rescue leader Torre John “Jack” Foote and Casey Nethercott, a Ranch Rescue member, for allegedly abducting, threatening and pistol-whipping Salvadoran migrants Fatima Leiva and Edwin Mancia on Sutton’s property. According to legal documents, Nethercott was forced to hand over his 70-acre ranch, which was used for Ranch Rescue’s training ground, to the victims. Sutton’s father paid out $100,000 in an out-of-court settlement for allowing Ranch Rescue to use his ranch for their activities. Below is an excerpt from SPLC’s lawsuit:

On or about March 18, 2003, plaintiffs Leiva and Mancia were chased, surrounded, assaulted, physically detained at gunpoint, terrorized, interrogated, and threatened with death by Joseph Sutton, Foote and other Ranch Rescue associates. While the plaintiffs were traveling on foot across defendants Joseph and Betty Sutton’s property, they were accosted by Ranch Rescue associates, who chased them into the brush. Defendant Joseph Sutton fired numerous gunshots, while angrily yelling out obscenities in Spanish at the plaintiffs and threatening to kill them (“te vamos a matar”). The Ranch Rescue associates continued to search for the plaintiffs. The plaintiffs were ultimately discovered by defendants Foote, Nethercott and Conner and other Ranch Rescue associates with the help of Nethercott’s trained Rottweiler attack dog.

Upon discovery, the plaintiffs were forcefully captured and restrained. Defendant Nethercott forced plaintiff Mancia to remain on the ground with his hands behind his head. He then ordered plaintiff Mancia to get up and struck him in the back of his head with a handgun. Defendant Nethercott also allowed his Rottweiler to attack plaintiff Mancia, ripping the hood of his sweatshirt from his head. Plaintiff Leiva was found by another Ranch Rescue associate who initially held her to the ground.

The plaintiffs were then grabbed under their arms and forcefully moved to a clearing where they were again ordered to kneel on the ground. They were physically searched, forced to remain in prone positions for a long period of time, interrogated at great length, and accused of being drug smugglers. At one point, a Ranch Rescue associate forcefully jerked the plaintiffs’ faces upward to facilitate the taking of their photos. Each of these wrongful actions occurred while plaintiffs were being held at gunpoint. As a result, the plaintiffs were in fear for their lives.

The plaintiffs were later forced into a van and driven to the front gate of the property where Joseph Sutton verbally abused them, insulted them, accused them of being drug smugglers, and threatened them with death in an attempt to terrorize them. He stuck his head into the van, pointed and shook his finger at them in a threatening manner, and told them that if they returned to his property his men were going to kill them. Sutton was yelling so furiously that saliva flew from his mouth and hit plaintiff Leiva in the face. After approximately one and one-half hours of unlawful detention, the plaintiffs were finally released.

All of the assailants, with the exception of defendants Nethercott and Sutton, wore camouflaged uniforms. They communicated through two-way radios and were armed with high-powered assault rifles, handguns and knives. At least one Ranch Rescue associate, defendant Conner, aimed a high-powered assault rifle at the plaintiffs throughout the duration of their detention. And at least one other Ranch Rescue associate told the plaintiffs that they were soldiers on guard duty because of the war in Iraq.

During the entire ordeal, the plaintiffs feared they would be severely injured or even killed. They were terrified and traumatized, and as a result of the defendants’ actions, they suffered physical injuries and severe emotional distress. Both plaintiffs have developed and are currently suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of the trauma they experienced on the Sutton Ranch.

A jury deadlocked on the pistol-whipping charge, but convicted Nethercott for illegal possession of a firearm by a felon and he was sentenced to five years in prison. A few months after the suit was filed, Sutton, then 64, told the Dallas Observer that he called in Ranch Rescue because he was fed up with “mojados,” wetbacks, crossing his land, littering and committing petty thefts. But neighbors described Sutton’s complaints as exaggerated, telling the Observer that the migrants were no more than a minor annoyance. “We have lots come through, and from time to time there are little troubles, like leaving gates open — more of a nuisance,” said Bill Holbein, whose family had been ranching on the same land since 1900. “I don’t know what Sutton’s experiences are, but from the way he describes them, they aren’t like mine.”

Another neighbor, Robert Fulbright, said the number of border crossers had been constant for as long as he could remember, “Like drought and irregular cattle prices, you deal with it.…” he told the Observer at the time. “There’s a little deterioration in the quality of people passing through. Your peones out of the agrarian, rural areas are good, good people.” Fulbright said he kept the main house in his ranch camp unlocked, so canned goods disappeared, but he was not overly concerned.

“If you ask me, that man (Sutton) is paranoid,” he said.

Sutton told the Observer that he had received “not one bit of sympathy” from the 5,000 other residents of Jim Hogg County and requested that his lawsuit be moved out of town to a federal court. The fact that Sirocki and the Knox County GOP would hold up a man like Joe Sutton as some kind of martyr certainly illustrates the extent to which right-wing extremists have taken over the party. Sen. Collins’ office did not respond to a request for comment on the letter.