Last week in “Who are the Texas Rangers?” I chatted about a bit of the Texas Rangers’ colorful history. But, what do they do? Are they really like “Walker, Texas Ranger,” the old TV show? Or the “Lone Ranger” of TV and movie fame? Well…yes and no. Most Rangers do not go around karate chopping the suspects or jumping from car to car on the roofs of trains barreling down the railroad tracks. That makes for great TV, but not for smart investigation and apprehension of the criminal types. Setting aside the flamboyance of the entertainment characters, here is what the Rangers’ area of investigative responsibility might include:
Basically, they are the primary criminal investigative arm of the Department of Public Safety in Texas and serve in whatever capacity will help the local law enforcement agencies. They are ‘subject to call’ at any hour of the night or day, in the counties to which they are assigned. When needed, they also assist in counties outside their own jurisdiction. Texas Rangers are a bit like a State Bureau of Investigation that operates in other States. Think CSI, without the TV glitz or instantaneous results.
These guys do it all, from the beginning to the end of a case, selecting and collecting evidence, photographing the scene, conducting the investigation, searching for, capturing and questioning the suspects, filing the reports, and more.
The Texas Rangers out in the field have to be able to handle every type of case that comes their way. And, I say “comes their way” because they are invited by local law enforcement to assist and/or take over certain cases. If a small town Police Chief normally has nothing more than drunks carousing on a Saturday night to deal with, and a bank robbery occurs or a murder is committed, he/she is likely to call the area Texas Ranger to help out with evidence collection and/or investigation/questioning.
With that in mind, a Ranger maintains a well-supplied trunk load of gear, including tire impression kits as well as chemical testing and other kits, so that he’s ready for whatever he’s asked to do.
If the Police Chief or Sheriff has never had experience with the particular case at hand (serial killers, kidnappings, etc.) he/she may ask the Texas Ranger to take the lead on the case – and then the local law enforcement follows the Ranger’s direction. Local people handle the press and dealing with the public. The smart Rangers work hard at establishing a good working relationship with the cops and sheriffs in their territory. Building trust is key.
The Texas Rangers have ongoing training. They are required to take 30 hours of training a year, sometimes in firearms, but in any area that needs to be addressed. The hours might be spent on:
When blood spatter analysis was being looked at as a viable method of crime scene investigation, the Rangers trained in that. Other areas, such as better ways to collect fingerprints, etc. also became part of the preparation. You can’t be an expert in everything, but they have to know where to find the experts.
As I mentioned in the last post, I’m really a stand-and-shoot guy and would never be able to shoot a rifle while on a moving horse. I was happy to discover that firearms training starts with bull’s-eye shooting for a Ranger. I could at least handle side-by-side with them at that stage. Lol They start with stand-and-shoot, then over the range of their careers, they learn to move-and-shoot, with a moving target and a moving shooter. They become proficient with handguns as well as long guns.
Sometimes, special circumstances require more than just one Ranger to show up. For those times, there is the Special Operations Group. Under that umbrella?
I recently had the privilege of meeting with Texas Ranger, Ret., Richard (Dick) Johnson, who chatted with me about a few of the cases he worked on.
A nurse in small town Nocona, Texas, likely killed 23 people under her care. From December 11, 2000, to February 18, 2001, Vickie Dawn Jackson murdered ten patients at Nocona General Hospital, probably another ten, and attempted to murder five more. She was not a mercy killer trying to help patients who were terminally ill or in terrible pain. Prior to her killing the patients, she had appeared to be a sweet, caring nurse. She knew most of the victims personally. She injected the patients with mivacurium chloride, a muscle relaxant used in surgeries. The only murder that seems to have had any clear motive behind it was the last one, when she injected the grandfather of her ex-husband.
Sergeant Johnson collected the evidence, including exhuming the bodies, and stayed with the case until it was concluded. It took six months to do the collection and investigation and he had to handle all of his other cases and anything else that came up during that time. It was grisly work, not like the glamorous stuff we see on TV.
Another case of his involved chasing four Texas capital murder convicts into Oklahoma. The FBI was called in, and then they deferred to Dick Johnson. It took 160 hours over ten days, but Dick and a team caught the guys.
During a kidnapping case, he was in ‘hot pursuit’ of the kidnapper and had to cross the Red River (the border between Oklahoma and Texas) but he was not about to wait for permission to enter the next jurisdiction and lose the suspect and the victim. So, he radioed the dispatcher and told her he was about to cross the Red River. He figured he could deal with the investigation later. Thanks to his clear thinking, the suspect was caught.
Ranger Johnson had five counties under his responsibility during his time in North Texas. Those counties are miles wide and include everything from small towns to good-sized cities to ranches and mesquite trees. If he got a call in the middle of the night telling him that shots had been fired and a crook was on the loose, he might have asked, “How soon do you need me?” and “Do you need horses or dogs for the manhunt?”
The man had an amazing career, to be sure. He enjoyed working in the trenches, and is one of the guys that preferred the “Mud, blood, and the beer,” rather than the glamor and glory attached to being part of one of the most respected law enforcement outfits in the world.
Many thanks to Texas Ranger, Ret., Dick Johnson for generously sharing his experiences and extensive knowledge of the Texas Rangers organization. Any errors in fact are mine, not his.
For more information about the ‘Angel of Death’ please see:
Next week: The Modern Texas Ranger and how to become one.
*Photos by Patti Phillips
Our cross country trip to visit sis in Texas wound down with a stop in Waco, about 200 miles southeast of Wichita Falls. The destination was the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame & Museum, built to celebrate the storied Rangers and home to several thousand artifacts and impressive bronze statues displayed throughout the complex.
Guided tours are the usual way to see the exhibits, and a movie about the history of this colorful organization is a great way to start the visit. We have been to dozens of historical sites over the years and seen many informational presentations, but none quite like this. The Rangers have had moments that were less than stellar during their nearly 200 year existence, and while the movie generously praises the many successes of the group, it does not flinch from relating the scandals that tarnished their reputation during part of the last century. Happily, varying the organizational style and recruitment techniques since then has worked to make the Texas Rangers a strong law enforcement entity, respected around the world.
A bit of history:
With the blessing of the Mexican government, a colony of about 300 families was created at the Northern edge of Mexico in the early 1800s, with the reputed Mexican goal that it would have a bigger claim to the contested land. This outpost was also supposed to act as a buffer between Comanche territory and Hispanic holdings. However, attacks on the settlement became so violent and frequent that in 1823, Steve Austin (with permission from Mexico) hired a group of men to keep the families safe and protect the frontier from Indians, bandits and other marauders. With that mandate, the Texas Rangers were born. They are the oldest state law enforcement agency in the USA.
In the beginning, the Rangers were mostly farmers, not cowboys, and had to provide their own horses and guns. The newly formed band was battling against the best light cavalry in the world, the Comanche Indians, and had to learn how to fight on horseback, rather than as foot soldiers in the tradition of English linear formations of battle they were used to. I’m more of a stand-and-shoot kinda guy, and have only ridden a horse while it walked very slowly, so the idea of having any kind of accuracy with a rifle while on a galloping animal? Boggles the mind.
The Comanches and other native tribes were determined to keep the settlers from gaining a bigger foothold and fiercely defended their territory. While some Native Americans today dispute the way ownership of the land was handled back then, that area was a political geographical hotbed at the time, with several governments claiming rights to the territory.
When fighting became too intense and/or widespread for the original few dozen men to handle, others volunteered to help or were hired temporarily, and it was possible to serve as a Texas Ranger in the Frontier Battalion for as little as six months at a time. There were spies, scouts, mounted riflemen – as varied as the needs of the campaign at hand. The men were promised $1.25 a day, to be paid when Austin raised enough money. That early bunch was the stuff of novels and movies – larger than life characters, living on the open range as they assisted the army, making decisions on their own, saving lives and keeping the peace, whenever they were called upon to do so.
Texas became a Republic in 1836, then a State in America in 1845, and the role of the Rangers changed as the political climate and the growing population required.
We were surprised to hear how few Texas Rangers there have been. In times of heavy conflict, the ranks swelled to 450, but after funding cuts and being split into four companies statewide in 1901, there were only 80 men in total. A few years ago, the numbers rose to 100, and even now in 2015, there are still only 150 commissioned Rangers for the entire State of Texas. That’s less than one Ranger for each of the 254 counties in the State.
Having said that, there’s a definite air of confidence surrounding each of the Rangers we met. You never doubt that they have the experience, the training and the skills to handle any situation that arises. One of the legends that feeds the mystique is a statement attributed to Capt. Bill McDonald. McDonald was sent to Dallas to prevent a prize-fight from being held. A rowdy crowd was getting out of hand, and when he arrived alone, he told the alarmed mayor, “Ain’t I enough? There’s only one prize-fight!”
In 1935, the Texas Rangers came under the jurisdiction of the Department of Public Safety and the Senior Ranger reports directly to the Director of the DPS. These days, the 150 commissioned, active-duty Rangers are divided into companies spread across the State. They are located in Houston, Garland, Lubbock, Waco, McAllen, San Antonio, and ElPaso, with the central headquarters in Austin, the state capitol.
Click on the links for additional information:
Next time: “What does a Texas Ranger do?”
*Photos by Patti Phillips, taken in Waco, Texas