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Washington Journal: Texas Authorities Confront 'Separatist'

By Kevin P. Foley

Washington, 2 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - What began as an expensive nuisance has deteriorated into an armed confrontation between law enforcement authorities and a man who wants to "separate" the southwestern state of Texas from the United States and proclaim an independent republic.

Richard McLaren, who calls himself the "ambassador" of the Republic of Texas, is not even a native Texan. He was born and raised in the mid-country state of Missouri. Now, however, McLaren's attorney says the ambassador "is clearly willing to die for what he believes in. He has people with him who are willing to die."

What McLaren believes is that the U.S. illegally annexed Texas in 1845 and that its government that sits in the state capital of Austin is not legitimate. He claims that the state's 18 million residents would join his nation if only given the chance. And one of his principal demands is that Texans be allowed to hold a referendum on secession.

McLaren's "government" has issued arrest warrants for a host of state officials, including Governor George Bush -- the son of the former U.S. president -- and federal government officers.

No one knows exactly what has driven McLaren on his crusade. This is not a case of an ethnic or religious group wanting autonomy from a central government. Texans like to boast about just how independent in spirit they are, but aside from McLaren, there is no organized political movement to secede from the United States.

McLaren is part of the extremist fringe of anti-government organizations that have troubled authorities in many of the 50 states. Some call themselves militia -- a term for an armed group -- others call themselves patriots. Students of the movement say there may be more than a million or so Americans involved in these organizations, whose only real common thread is a belief that the federal government in Washington is conspiring to deprive Americans of their constitutional rights.

For years, Texas officials considered McLaren to be a nuisance. He waged what was called a war of paper terrorism against state officials. McLaren filed claims against private property, paid bills with fraudulent checks and filed dozens of lawsuits against his neighbors, state officials, and even Pope John Paul.

His actions were annoying, but costly, since the state had to respond to the lawsuits and the property owners had to prove the claims were false. It has been estimated that McLaren's actions cost the state almost a half million dollars during the past few years.

Still, authorities were content to ignore McLaren. That began to change at the start of the new year. Letters from McLaren became more threatening in tone. His followers were suspected of making bomb threats that shut down some public buildings. When authorities issued an arrest warrant for McLaren for failing to appear in a civil lawsuit, he vowed last month to open fire on anyone trying to apprehend him.

Then, this past Sunday, the feud escalated to armed confrontation. It started after members of McLaren's group took two neighbors hostage in retaliation for the arrests of two followers. Both hostages were released a day later in exchange for one of the jailed followers. McLaren and five other members of his Republic of Texas faction were charged Monday with engaging in organized criminal activity, a crime that could send him to prison for life. "Members of this group are no longer novelties or curiosities; they now are bona fide criminals," Texas Attorney General Dan Morales said. "What is occurring in West Texas is terrorism, pure and simple."

Authorities believe McLaren has about a dozen followers with him. He operates out of a mobile home that is equipped with computers, telephones and fax machines. The police cut electric power to the home on Thursday.

The state authorities have made it clear that they can wait for as long as it takes to convince McLaren to give up without a fight. The man's lawyer says that is not likely.

"We don't use the word surrender," attorney Terence O'Rourke told reporters this week, "but my client's best opportunity to present his case is in court and not shooting it out with the government in the mountains."