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Jun 4, 2016

Lawless lands

Co-produced with PRX Logo

On the next Reveal, we’re taking you to lawless lands. From Africa and the Middle East to places in Oregon and Texas, we explore what happens in the absence of government and find out who or what comes in to fill the void. Sometimes, it’s a strongman enforcing his will; other times, it’s just anarchy, and occasionally it’s something completely unexpected.

We start in Libya, where a black hole created by the fall of dictator Moammar Gadhafi has been filled by roving militias and the growing threat of the Islamic State group. Police no longer can maintain the rule of law, and the only thing people can do is call for help from the dozens of armed groups that keep order – but they operate according to their own rules.

Next, we head to the rural West – Josephine County in Oregon, to be more specific – where budget cuts have stretched law enforcement to the breaking point. There’s no detectives division, the jail runs on a skeleton crew, and deputies patrol just 10 hours a day. Fixing the problem would mean raising local taxes, but residents refuse to do so.

Then we travel to a Texas town that is known as one of the most corrupt little cities in America: Crystal City. The town’s mayor has been arrested – several times – and the FBI took away most of the city council in handcuffs after they allegedly accepted bribes in exchange for awarding permits and city contracts. Without a functioning government, things have spiraled out of control.

From a dusty town in Texas, we go to a swath of desert wedged between Sudan and southern Egypt. Bir Tawil (beer tah-WEEL) is the last unclaimed territory on earth, and it’s been that way for more than 100 years due to a dispute over competing maps and a neighboring stretch of desert. We meet a farmer from Virginia who’s decided to make this place his very own kingdom, in order to fulfill a promise to his daughter, who had her sights set on being a princess.

DIG DEEPER

  • Read: In the rural West, residents choose low taxes over law enforcement
  • Read: How a tiny Texas town took down its city council

Credits

Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Mary and Steven Swig.

Track list:

  • Camerado-Lightning, “True Game (Reveal show theme)” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Tortoise, “Spiderwebbed” from “Tortoise” (Thrill Jockey)
  • Telafon Tel Aviv, “TTV” from “Fahrenheit Fair Enough” (Hefty)
  • Paavoharju, “Salatut Käyvät Julki” from “Tuote-akatemia / Unien Savonlinna EP” (Miasmah)
  • Atlas Sound, “Notown Phase” from “Bedroom Databank Vol.3” (self-released)
  • Paavoharju, “Salatut Käyvät Julki” from “Tuote-akatemia / Unien Savonlinna EP” (Miasmah)
  • Telafon Tel Aviv, “Fahrenheit Fair Enough” from “Fahrenheit Fair Enough” (Hefty)
  • Jim Briggs, “Last Horse in the Woods” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Jim Briggs, “Look it Back” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Jim Briggs, “So Defenseless” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Jim Briggs, “So Defenseless (dubby version)” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Jim Briggs, “So Defenseless (lost version)” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Camerado-Lightning, “Hawthorne Grove (last horse version)” from “” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Au.Ra, “Sun (instrumental)” from “Jane's Lament” (Ghostly International)
  • Keiran Hebden and Steve Reid, “Our Time” from “Tongues” (Domino)
  • Ben Benjamin, “Chamber” from “The Many Moods of Ben Benjamin Vol. 1” (Ghostly International)
  • Ketsa, “Minus 2” from “Beneath a Serpentine Sky” (Ketsa Music)
  • Régis Victor, “Faux Départ” from “Le Marathon de la semaine”
  • Régis Victor, “Faux Départ” from “Le Marathon de la semaine”
  • Atlas Sound, “New Romantic” from “Bedroom Databank Vol.1” (self-released)
  • Coolzey, “Death” from “Dark Mantras” (Public School Records)
  • Ketsa, “Minus 2” from “Beneath a Serpentine Sky” (Ketsa Music)
  • Mulatu Astatke, “Munayé” from “Ethiopiques, Vol. 4: Ethio Jazz & Musique Instrumentale, 1969-1974” (Buda Musique)
  • Liminal Co, “ptaki (Birds)” (Liminal Co)
  • Abd Al Hafiz Karar & Mustafa Al Sunni, “Tam Al Dawru” from Songs of the Sudan“”(Nimbus)
  • Circus Marcus, “La tapa del jueves” from “Kalimba session, 2016-05-07”
  • Harsanyi Laszlo, “Through the Haunted Woods” from “Witchcraft”
  • Abd Al Hafiz Karar & Mustafa Al Sunni, “Tam Al Dawru” from Songs of the Sudan“” (Nimbus)
  • Atlas Sound, “Indian Bitrate” from “Bedroom Databank Vol.3” (self-released)

TRANSCRIPT:

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.

Section 1 of 3          [00:00:00 - 00:14:05] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

Al Letson:

From The Center for Investigative Reporting in PRX this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

 

Recently President Obama said leaving Libya after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi without a day after plan was the worst mistake of his presidency. It's been over four years since Gaddafi was killed by rebel forces during the Libyan revolution. As reported by Chanel 4 and BBC in Great Britain, removing a dictator from power didn't solve Libya's problems.

Speaker 2:

On a quiet Mediterranean night you might think all is well in Tripoli, until suddenly it's not.

Speaker 3:

As you can see, the fight here is street to street and house to house.

Al Letson:

The black hole created by Gaddafi's fall has been filled by roving militias and the growing threat of ISIS.

Speaker 3:
[00:01:00]

This center holds men accused of fighting for extremist groups. Faraj confessed to carrying out dozens of murders and has agreed to talk about the crimes.

Faraj:

They show you how to do it. They do it in front of you, then they ask you to shoot to slaughter, so you get the knife and you use it. They stay with you, watching you do it. Yes, it feels strange at first, but after several times it becomes normal.

Al Letson:

Brutal violence is a part of everyday life and the people who live there, somehow, have to go about their day to day, even kids.

Ayisha Vati:

Actually, any country is better than Libya right now.

Al Letson:

Ayisha Vati was 14 when Gaddafi fell. She's been living in Tripoli the whole time. Aside from the fact that she lives in what many would call a war zone, Ayisha has a lot in common with most 19 year olds.

Ayisha Vati:

I'm a university student. I'm going to be a dentist. When I want to have fun I watch Grey's Anatomy, Friends, Simpsons.

[00:02:00]
Al Letson:

 

She remembers vividly what life was like before Gaddafi's regime fell.

Ayisha Vati:

Before the revolution, crimes did happen but there was police. Now after the revolution, when you get out of your door you try to listen if there is someone behind the door and when you get into your car you immediately lock the doors. There's some neighborhoods that are known for being full of gangs. They just have pistols, guns, and they'd form a checkpoint so they take the car and they run away.

Al Letson:

Without police, the only things people can do is call for help from the dozens of armed groups that keep order, but they operate according to their own rules.

[00:03:00]
Ayisha Vati:

 

So they start fighting, creating a small clash ... Actually there's no clash that's small because every time someone gets killed.

 

There's no place to go. I've been safe so far because ... Actually, it's just a matter of luck. We hear about some girl that was found killed, some girl was kidnapped today from university while she was waiting for her brother or father to pick her up.

Al Letson:

Ayisha tries to float above the chaos around her by living as normal a life as possible. In a place where the law of the land is nonexistent, you just can't float above it all. Sooner or later, you have to come back to the ground. For Ayisha, this hardened reality came in the form of a guy who followed her home from school.

Ayisha Vati:

[00:04:00]

From the moment I stepped out of the school until I reached my house he was just harassing me. He wanted to talk to me. He's been telling guys all over the neighborhood that I'm his girlfriend while I never even know his name. Every day, Sunday to Thursday, when I get out of this school I find him waiting.

Al Letson:

Ayisha told her dad.

Ayisha Vati:

Dad really freaked out. He had to call his friend. He knows some people in some militia.

Al Letson:

Ayisha's life ground to a halt. Now her younger brother had to walk her home from school. She couldn't visit friends, she couldn't even go to the supermarket right next door.

Ayisha Vati:

I couldn't do any of that anymore in my neighborhood because of this guy.

 

 

[00:05:00]

If he did something to me, this militia would come with my Dad to rescue me and this other militia would want to protect their friend and there might be some clashes between them. Of course, some people might die. Unfortunately, that's how it is.

Al Letson:

The militia, friendly with Ayisha's father intimidated the man and eventually her went away. Ayisha has resumed her life, but, for how long? When there's no authority, everything is up for grabs.

 

Today on Reveal, we're taking you to lawless lands and while the concept may seem like something that happens far away, you might be surprised to learn that we have our own version of it right here at home.

 

Take the police for example. In Libya you can't count on the police to be there in case of an emergency, something you wouldn't think would happen in the U.S.

911 Dispatcher:

911.

Coen Ellenwood:

Hi I just came home and I've been burglarized.

Al Letson:

It's December 2015. Coen Ellenwood is calling 911 for help from his home in rural Southwest Oregon.

911 Dispatcher:

The unfortunate thing is you're in the county and it has to go through the Sheriff's Office and they won't be open until tomorrow.

[00:06:00]
Coen Ellenwood:

 

I need help right now ma'am. I'm telling you what ... Someone stole everything I own.

Al Letson:

He calls back again and again, sometimes getting transferred to the state police.

911 Dispatcher:

Now what have they told you sir?

Coen Ellenwood:

To get lost. Now can I please have someone come report this.

911 Dispatcher:

If they're not going to respond sir, there is nobody to report it to until nine o'clock in the morning.

Coen Ellenwood:

You have no one I can speak to that can be reasonable with me? Everything I ... Picture yourself, everything you have was stolen.

911 Dispatcher:

I understand that.

Coen Ellenwood:

You're calling for help and no one will [bleep] come?

Al Letson:

Coen keeps calling, a total of 13 times in one hour. Finally, someone tells him to come to the police department in Grants Pass, the nearest city, to speak with an officer in person. When he gets there, he is arrested for improper use of 911.

 

[00:07:00]

This may sound like a really bad joke, but people in Josephine County have come to learn that when they call 911 there's often no one there to help them out. Reveal's Byard Duncan went there to find out why this once sleepy corner of timber country has unraveled into lawlessness.

Byard Duncan:

On a recent morning, Josephine County Sheriff Dave Daniel jumps into his squad car and heads out on his rounds. Daniel cooks a strong presence, north of six feet, linebacker build, salt and pepper crew cut.

 

He leaves the sheriff's station and heads into the county's forested folds. It's a beautiful place: emerald rivers, dollops of clouds slinking between mountains. The area he's supposed to protect is spread out over 1600 square miles, a little bigger than my home state of Rhode Island. Recently, it's been hard to keep people safe.

Dave Daniels:

Can you imagine living in an area that you call 911 and no one comes?

Byard Duncan:
[00:08:00]

Daniel says that's because the Sheriff's Department budget is about half of what it was 15 years ago. These days, there are often only two deputies covering the entire county.

Dave Daniels:

Seems a bit ridiculous, doesn't it?

Byard Duncan:

There's no detectives division, no major crimes team, and his department patrols just ten hours a day. Criminals know that, and when the sun goes down, Daniels says it's go time.

Dave Daniels:

Criminals, they're like cockroaches in a way because they don't like the light.

Byard Duncan:

Cracking down on crime would mean raising local taxes, but residents have refused to do that for four years in a row. That's despite the fact that Josephine County enjoys the lowest property tax rates in Oregon, about a quarter of the state average.

Dave Daniels:

People pretty much support law enforcement, they just aren't ready to pay for the law enforcement and I think that's part of the difference. It's all about a choice.

Byard Duncan:
[00:09:00]

So why is the county in such dire financial straights? Well, it has a lot to do with the timber industry which used to be the backbone of the economy for this area.

Gov. Video:

On the slopes of the Cascade Range, the northwest citizen is a lumberjack.

Byard Duncan:

This is a government video from the 1940s.

Gov. Video:

Out of the dark of the forest, he cuts trees as high as skyscrapers and rolls them down the mountain to be made into homes and furniture and books to be read.

Byard Duncan:

During the 60s and 70s, Oregon produced close to 9 billion board feet of wood each year. Enough to frame more than half a million houses. It was a pretty good time to be a logger. It was also a good time to be a tax payer.

 

More than half of Oregon's acreage belongs to the federal government and counties with lots of federal land got to collect a cut of the revenue from logging. Tax rates in some places became very low. Then something happened in 1994 that would change everything for the Northwest logging industry and Josephine County. Something designed to protect the regions natural resources, but it came at a big cost to the people who lived there.

[00:10:00]
Bill Clinton:

 

We're announcing a plan today, which we believe will strengthen the long term economic and environmental health of the Pacific Northwest and Northern California.

Byard Duncan:

That's President Bill Clinton. He's introducing a set of guidelines to tighten environmental regulations in Oregon, Washington, and California.

Bill Clinton:

We know that our solutions will not make everybody happy, indeed they may not make anybody happy.

Byard Duncan:

They certainly didn't make the timber industry happy.

 

In a report from 2011, a logging group blamed the Northwest Forest Plan for the closure of 261 mills and the loss of 50,000 jobs. There used to be more than a dozen mills in Josephine County but the last one is closing this year.

 

Mark Haggerty, an expert in rural economic policy, says a lot of small communities didn't know how to deal with this drop.

Mark Haggerty:

 

[00:11:00]

Because payments were so large through the 60s, 70s, and into the 1980s, local governments became dependent upon them and they relied on them to fund basic services and made it really difficult for them to go back and try to diversify the economy where options were limited or to raise revenue from other sources.

Byard Duncan:

Let me tell you exactly what was going on here. As the timber industry declined, county revenues which were based on logging, declined too. The federal government stepped in to make up the difference with something called "The Secure Rural Schools and Communities Self Determination Act." Quite a mouthful.

 

 

 

[00:12:00]

The act propped up counties across the US, dolling out billions to more than 40 states. Very little timber harvesting was taking place. You might call these make good payments, since it was the government's environmental rules that were causing problems. Some would even say welfare. The act was supposed to last for 6 years, enough time for communities to get back on their financial feet, but it kept getting extended, sometimes at the eleventh hour. Finally in 2012, a lot of the money dried up and the Josephine County Sheriff's Department was walloped by the fallout.

 

On a sunny Wednesday, in May of 2012, 39 inmates pour out of the Josephine County Jail. Some sprint out, whooping and hollering. Some look incredulously from side to side, like its all too good to be true. They've been charged with everything from drug possession to third degree rape and robbery, but today, none of that mattered. The jail no longer had money to keep them, so they were set free.

 

A local newscaster from KDRV News catches up with this one guy named Will Smith.

KDRV Newscaster:

[00:13:00]

Will Smith spent the last 20 days behind bars for fourth degree assault and felony possession of drugs and a firearm. Wednesday, he got to sit under a tree and smoke a cigarette, not believing his luck.

Byard Duncan:

He says he was surprised that he got out.

Will Smith:

I didn't expect to be one of the ones that was going to get out.

KDRV Newscaster:

Why's that?

Will Smith:

I've been a bad boy.

Byard Duncan:

Letting the bad boys out of jail was the beginning of bigger problems in Josephine County. It became a surreal scene for the criminals and for the police trying to catch them.

Bill Landis:

If you can imagine a burglary being committed, arresting the person inside the residence and then handcuffing them, walking them outside and only being able to issue a citation because you can't lodge them in a jail with the way that the staffing levels are.

Byard Duncan:

That's Bill Landis, the Chief of Police in Grants Pass, Josephine County's biggest city.

Bill Landis:

Additionally, with a stolen vehicle pulling them over in a felony car stop with guns pointed after spiking the tires, maybe sometimes ending in a crash, taking the people out and arresting them and issuing citations because the jail can't take those type of individuals due to the staffing levels.

 

It starts to be almost like a crazy system when you star thinking about it that way.

Byard Duncan:
[00:14:00]

Since 2012 the total number of crimes reported in rural Josephine has increased by about 50% each year. The value of stolen or damaged property

Section 1 of 3          [00:00:00 - 00:14:05]

Section 2 of 3          [00:14:00 - 00:28:05] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

Narrator:

... each year. The value of stolen or damaged property has gone from about twelve thousand dollars a year to about three hundred thousand dollars. The list of crimes is long and it's growing. Burglaries, vandalism, thefts, even murders. Without much law enforcement, residents in Josephine County are filling the gaps themselves. I'm at a sprawling outdoor gun range attending a class put on by Rogue Protection Group. They're a local company that teaches everything from martial arts to handgun fundamentals.

Kelly:

I'm going to explain every single drill, everything we do before we do it. You'll see me do it or you'll see Jason do it first.

Narrator:

The instructor is a big guy named Kelly Sparlin. He's a Navy vet who's also trained with the Israelis and the Russians. He even did private security for a celebrity he won't name. In other words, somebody you would want on your team. Today's lesson is about securing your property.

[00:15:00]
Kelly:

 

This is assuming I drive home and my door is wide open and I need to clear my house. It's not a quick draw kind of thing or a defensive situation.

Narrator:

Kelly lines everyone up and has them shoot at people-shaped cardboard targets, first standing, then kneeling, then lying down. They shoot at targets for most of the morning. During a break I pull aside one of the people in the class, a muscular guy with wraparound sunglasses named Zack Skoglie. Can you talk about that need to protect yourself given the law enforcement situation here in Josephine County?

Zack:

Yeah. Law enforcement. In fact, I have a story about that.

Narrator:

Everybody does.

Zack:

Yeah. I live in the county ...

Narrator:

Zack told me about a time he caught someone videotaping his wife through the bathroom window. He had to wait an hour and a half for police to show up. He says it's up to residents to protect themselves.

Zack:
[00:16:00]

I encourage really anybody I can to, at the very least, get a concealed weapons permit because then they know how to be responsible with a weapon. They now have a reason to own a weapon.

Narrator:

In fact, in one year the Sheriff's Department processed nearly twice as many concealed carry permits as the year before.

Male:

[inaudible 00:16:13].

Narrator:

Trista Ehly is one of Rogue Protection Group's owners. Back in her office, she says business is booming. She estimates that eighty percent of her customers are there because there's little help from law enforcement.

Trista:

It is what it is. We know that we don't have a Sheriff's Department that is going to be capable of taking care of our citizens, so they take care of themselves.

Narrator:

 

[00:17:00]

As Trista talks, my eyes wander over to a printout from the Sheriff's office hanging on the wall. Instructions for how to report a crime. There are two options. Call a number and leave a message which will be returned "as time allows". Or submit a report online. I try to imagine a burglar breaking into my house. I run into my room, lock the door behind, then dash off an email? I look back toward Trista and notice her handbag now. There's a Glock pistol sitting right next to it.

 

Sheriff Daniel is back in his squad car heading north to the location of a crime he believes could have been prevented if his department was better staffed.

Sheriff:

One of the most brutal murder scenes I've ever been to ...

Narrator:

It happened last June at the home of Jerry and Joann Jackson, an elderly couple who lived in a secluded neighborhood outside of town. A guy named Brian Killian allegedly broke into the Jackson's home intending to rob it. Then he realized they were there. Daniel says this is what happened next.

[00:18:00]
Sheriff:

 

He stabbed them both, killed one of their dogs. Senseless. Maybe somebody that should have already been in our custody.

Narrator:

In fact, he had already been in their custody. Just a few months before the Jacksons were murdered, Killian had been arrested for allegedly stealing a car. After just two days he was released because the county didn't have enough money to keep him in jail. It wasn't like it was his first run-in with the law. We ran a background check. Over the years, he's been arrested six times for charges ranging from drug possession to robbery and spent about five years in prison. After the Jackson killings, he was arrested again. He is now facing twenty-three charges including aggravated murder.

Radio:

[inaudible 00:18:58].

Narrator:

Daniel pulls up to the Jackson's house, a secluded spot at the top of a winding tree-lined road.

Sheriff:

It looks like somebody knew about it. Who would have thought the random act of violence would come to a nice house, nice home, with the suspect not knowing them. That's the scary part is it can happen to anybody.

Narrator:

You might think a ghastly murder like that one would convince residents that they needed to fund the Sheriff's Department. Daniel says that didn't happen.

Sheriff:

That time came and went without a blink of an eye. Another levy goes down. The citizenry decides not to support law enforcement again.

Narrator:

In fact, the latest attempt to raise taxes didn't even make the ballot. Politicians in Josephine County are running out of ideas. It's not that they're sitting on their hands. It's more that their hands are tied. For example, one county commissioner recently proposed declaring a public safety fiscal emergency which could offer some financial relief with help from the State of Oregon. As usual, it's a tough sell for residents.

Male:

I don't think the answer is ever to tax people to get what you deem to be the proper way to govern.

Narrator:

This was a public meeting a few months ago. Residents got to weigh in on the emergency plan. Some were skeptical it would work. Very skeptical of state lawmakers telling them what to do.

Male:

If you are willing to give up our authority and let the state run the county, then you're obviously lacking in the ability and talent to do the things we need you to do.

Narrator:

These people really don't want new taxes even as their public safety crumbles. I didn't get it. I needed someone to break it down for me, so I asked Joseph Rice. He's a member of the Josephine County Oath Keepers, an organization dedicated to defending the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic. He also recently lost a bid for a county commissioner seat. His take on everything? Crime stats are overblown. Josephine should be advertising its low taxes.

Joseph:

Let's give new business a twenty-four month personal property tax holiday. That way, when they move in the county, they set themselves up, they get their financial feet under them, and they get stable. They create long-term living wage jobs.

Narrator:

What if they get robbed?

Joseph:

When you say robbed, I went two places. Robbed on taxes or robbed by they broke into the business?

Narrator:

Sheriff Daniel doesn't laugh about the issue much. He hopes the people he swore to protect can find a way to fund his department, but he is not optimistic.

Sheriff:

For so long, we were just dependent on the almighty federal dollar. I think it led to a feeling of entitlement maybe.

Narrator:

Still, he won't give up.

Sheriff:

We will not quit down to the last person. When there's one penny left in the coffer, that last deputy will fight for the victims out there. There are many.

Narrator:

Our story was reported by Reveal’s, Byard Duncan.

Narrator:

Coming up, a tiny town in Texas is left without a functioning government after nearly all of the town's officials were taken away in handcuffs by the FBI. That story when we come back on Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting PRX.

Narrator:

From The Center for Investigative Reporting in PRX, this is Reveal. Crystal City is a quaint little town in South Texas with a population of about seventy-five hundred. It's most famous resident is a cartoon sailor with a corncob pipe, one good eye, and a fearsome right hook. Popeye is the official mascot of Crystal City, the spinach capital of the world. The town is now known as one of the most corrupt little cities in American. This is the town's mayor getting arrested for inciting a riot at his own city council meeting.

Mayor:

[crosstalk 00:23:47] for what? Only in Crystal City, ladies and gentlemen.

Narrator:

The mayor had stormed out of city council chambers and gotten into an altercation with several residents demanding his resignation. They wanted him out because a couple weeks earlier he had been arrested by the FBI in a raid that took down nearly the entire city council. They were accused of taking bribes in exchange for awarding city business. The life-sized Popeye statue in front of city hall had a front-row seat to the mayhem.  Since he isn't talking, we sent Reveal's Ike Sriskandarajah to find out what's going on. He joins me now. Hey, Ike.

Ike:

Hey, Al.

Narrator:

Hey man, I've heard about corruption in city hall before, but this sounds like a whole new level. The most corrupt little city.

Ike:

Yeah. When I heard about this place, it sounded kind of lawless. When I got down there I didn't expect to see the government dysfunction unfold right in front of me.

Narrator:

What happened?

Ike:

I'm down at city hall in Crystal City hoping to interview people who worked there. I've got my mic out when I hear to door buzzer and two buys come rushing in. They look like they're on a mission. I recognized one of them as he walks by.

Mayor:

This is the current problem we've run into when we're trying to call a meeting.

Narrator:

Who's that?

Ike:

That's the indicted major, Ricardo Lopez. He's here to call an emergency meeting of the city council. He's looking a little crazed and slurring a little bit. He promises me he only uses prescription drugs. I follow him into city hall. Do you mind if I record any of this?

Mayor:

Go ahead. Go ahead.  My name is Richard Lopez. I'm still the mayor of Crystal City. Let me try to ...

Ike:

He rushes off to flush out the city clerk. The emergency here for Mayor Lopez is that he doesn't know how much longer he'll be in power. He still has a few things he wants to get done, including appointing an interim city manager since the last one is on indefinite suspension. A few minutes later he finds the clerk.

City Clerk:

Do you know the requirements for the emergency ...

Mayor:

[inaudible 00:25:51] interim city manager. It is an emergency. The city hall has to appoint somebody.

Ike:

The clerk doesn't think this is an emergency situation, so she won't grant the meeting. The mayor is clearly not welcome, but he still feels like he belongs here.

Mayor:

Did I clean up my city hall? Did I clean up corruption? Yeah. Am I indicated? Yeah. We're going to see in a court of law if I'm guilty or not.

Ike:

He sounds a little agitated there. Get this. After their encounter, the clerk calls the cops on the mayor. He gets arrested again. This time he's charged with harassing the clerk. This sort of craziness has almost become routine in Crystal City.

Narrator:

Okay, Ike. I'll let you take it from here, but how did things unravel and who's running this place now?

Ike:

It's barely running. Next door to city hall are the city council chambers. I get permission to go inside. The large city seal with the winking Popeye hangs on the front wall. Two mismatched tables are pulled together in an L-shape. They're scattered with engraved nameplates that feel like tombstones. To find out how the chambers became this political graveyard, I decided to meet with one of the town's elder statesmen, former mayor, Jose Mata.

Jose:

Jose Mata. Nice to meet you.

Ike:

Nice to meet you. Jose Mata was mayor back in the '80s. He and a group of friends have been keeping a close eye on city hall over the past few years.

Jose:

[inaudible 00:27:18] the four Cs, Concerned Citizens of Crystal City.

Male:

Four Cs. Don't make it too awkward.

Ike:

They are a group of seniors, some former mayors and council members. They drink Pepsi, eat chips, and tell me where they think this town went wrong. It all started in the city council chambers.

Video:

Raise your right hand. I, and each state your name.  [crosstalk 00:27:40].

Ike:

This is video of the council meeting taken by the Zavala County Sentinel in 2014.

Video:

We're calling the meeting to order.

Ike:

That's Mayor Lopez and two new fresh-faced young council members taking the oath.

Video:

... the duties of the office.

Video:

... the duties of the office.

Video:

... of mayor and councilman one and two.

Video:

[crosstalk 00:27:57].

Ike:
[00:19:00]

On the video you can see they're a little nervous and excited like it's the first day of school.

Section 2 of 3          [00:14:00 - 00:28:05]

Section 3 of 3          [00:28:00 - 00:51:01] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

Al:

You can see they're a little nervous and excited, like it's the first day of school. But within a few months things unravel when the new council members start deferring to city attorney James Jonas. Here he is walking the mayor through his first public hearing.

James:

Tonight Mayor Lopez is here to gather information in this first hearing. This is only a one way conversation, as his city attorney I urge him to not go into a dialogue back and forth with you.

Al:

 

 

[00:29:00]

Jonas stood out in the overwhelmingly Hispanic population, an Anglo outsider who had been an influential republican lobbyist in DC. After the democrats took over congress and the White House in 2008 he fell on hard times. Even spending a few months in jail for not paying his child support. Then, came a lifeline from Crystal City, a former client of his was a councilman there and offered him the job of city attorney in 2012. He didn't even have to apply. Long time political observer Jose Motta watched with disgust.

Jose:

It was a republican leader that came and poisoned Crystal City to the ground.

Al:

Jonas convinced the new city council members to hire him as the city manager and since he was already the attorney, Jonas got to write his own contract.

Jose:

No other city manager, city attorney in the history of Crystal City that had been paid the salary that was paid and awarded to city manager James Jonas III.

Al:

 

[00:30:00]

In a town where the median household income is $26,000.00, Jonas paid himself $216,000.00 plus a $6,000.00 travel stipend. That's nearly half the annual municipal budget. At the same time, the council is voting to raise taxes and hike fees. By the end of last year, the council meetings are standing room only, angry citizens are filling the doorway as Jose Motta steps forward to challenge what the new mayor and his city council are doing.

Jose:

This is why this gathering is here because now you've got yourselves in a corner where you have to raise in order to pay this man.

Al:

Residents have a laundry list of allegations, unjustified firings of city employees, questionable bids being awarded to family members, grant money disappearing without contractors getting paid. But, what really seems to insult people is how blatant city manager Jonas was. He even established residency by claiming to live in a city landmark, an abandoned caboose in the middle of town. A local reported from San Antonio News 4 confronted him about it on camera.

reporter:

Did you really plan to live in the caboose on city property?

[00:31:00]
James:

 

I absolutely hoped that that was a possibilityity.

Al:

That's when things went off the rails. During my visit, I walked up to Jonas' supposed residence, a single train car, planted on a cement slab about the size of a trailer home. It's painted with graffiti and the ground is covered in trash.

 

I recognize that caboose, it's so crazy. I can see through it.

 

People were absolutely fed up here and Jose Mottos said they couldn't find anyone to help.

Jose:

We started reaching out to people that are in state level, district level, county level, city level and we couldn't get anybody to hear us and we wanted to put an end to it. Finally, finally some people here have been talking with the FBI, they were the ones that ultimately got the ball rolling.

Al:
[00:32:00]

Actually, it was more like a wrecking ball. Early one February morning, dozens of FBI agents stormed this little city hall and the news media followed.

Male:

The feds say this is one of the most prolific cases of public corruption they've ever seen.

Female:

They arrested the whole city government, the FBI arresting the entire city government all at once.

Al:

The federal charges describe a scheme where Jonas offered to award building permits and construction contracts in exchange for money for himself and the council. We're not talking about huge sums of money, a few thousand dollars for himself, a couple thousand for the council member and at one point the indictments alleged he even got a contractor to pay for his country club membership. People in town had suspected as much for years and they were thrilled to see federal agents finally kick down the doors of city hall.

Male:

I think the reaction in Crystal City was that of joy.

Al:

That's Chris Combs, the special agent in charge of the FBI San Antonio division, and joy is not the typical reaction his agents get during a raid.

Male:

There were literally people coming up to us and thanking us for coming in and making those arrests.

[00:33:00]
Al:

 

Actually, everyone I talked with in Crystal City had something nice to say about the Federal Bureau of Investigation, including Mayor Lopez. Who despite his federal charges, still has praise for them.

Mayor:

There's hundreds of little cities suffering from this type of corruption, for the first time the FBI is starting to do their job and sweeping this corruption is south Texas.

Al:

Public corruption is a top criminal priority for the FBI, with arrests tripling in recent years in this district. There were 64 cases in 2014, that's more than 1 a week and just a few weeks ago, two public officials, the magistrate and a commissioner in the next county over got sentenced in their own bribery scheme. Here's the FBI's Chris Combs again.

Chris:
[00:34:00]

I think when you look at the rural of, especially southern Texas, when you look at some of the poverty issues in small towns. That breeds corruption and that's where we're looking a lot of our efforts towards.

Al:

In places like Crystal City, even a small amount of corruption can have a big impact.

Chris:

Especially in a smaller town where there really isn't a large municipal budget. If pieces of that budget are going to corruption, that's taking a service away from those citizens and I think people need to see that. That it's not a victimless crime.

Al:

Not long after the FBI raid, the citizens here fell victim to another municipal mess. A simple maintenance mistake at the towns water tower contaminated their water supply.

Male:

Residents water is running black.

Female:

Anarchy and a bathtub full of black water.

Louda:

The reason it happened is they didn't close a valve.

Al:

That's Louda Lopez, she runs the Chamber of Commerce.

Louda:

Why? Due to lack of oversight and supervision on the part of the administration, because by that time, all this others stuff was going on.

Al:
[00:35:00]

The water turning black was a metaphor for all that's going wrong in this town. She says it's been really bad for business.

Louda:

What kind of incentive am I going to put out there for anybody from the Chamber of Commerce saying, hey new business, come to Crystal City and I mean, if you're a business, really. Who's going to touch us with a 10 foot pole.

Al:

It's a reputation that also hurts the towns ability to go after federal and state grants and even if all the alleged perpetrators disappear. The stains of corruption doesn't just wash away.

Louda:

The three year term that these people served, the legacy and that they left is going to take a whole lot longer to clean up.

Al:

I wanted to know what it takes to clean up corruption in a town like this. I found somebody who's been trying to do just that for 30 years. United States attorney for the western district of Texas, Richard Durbin, no relation to the Illinois Senator. He's philosophical about what makes human beings so corruptible.

[00:36:00]
Richard:

 

At some level [inaudible 00:36:00] we're way off where my expertise is. But you know, at some level we're all sort of tribal.

Al:

All our lives we act in the interest of our family, our community. But one day, when given the power of a public office we're expected to put our own relationships second.

Richard:

Without having a lot of experience and training in that area, it's probably very difficult for people to recognize that I've got a conflict. Then once you've recognized the conflict, what do you do about it?

Al:

He says many people don't know what to do about it. Especially when an alleged corrupting influence, some like city attorney James Jonas, takes control.

Richard:

Once they're in charge, once they've got that upper hand and that control it's very difficult to get the control back. It's very difficult to get the integrity back.

Al:

[00:37:00]

I talked with the indicted mayor, Richardo Lopez about how corruption takes root. Even though he's been arrested several times and is facing bribery charges. He says he got into public service for the right reason, he told me he saw the city as patient needing the help of a doctor. Now, he's not a doctor, he sells cars on Craigslist for a living. But, for some reason he thought he could help.

Mayor:

That's when I decided to run. I was in surgery, seeing a human heart laying on a table and still beating. How hard can it be to try to help a city.

Al:

Heart surgery is really hard.

Mayor:

Well, it's a lot of stress.

Al:

It's stress, but you've got to be a surgeon.

Mayor:

[inaudible 00:37:34] when, now I give up.

Al:

[00:38:00]

Now, Lopez didn't go to medical school but his patient is still on life support. In a landslide recall election this spring, all indicted council members were removed. Only 25 people voted for the mayor to stay in office. Jose Matto tells me he and the other concerned citizens will continue to watch over elected officials in Crystal City. It's like watching a train wreck, how can you look away.

Jose:

I believe it had not been for the absurdedly of council, we probably wouldn't have been able to get them out. Because that's what made the citizens of Crystal City get all riled up.

Al:

But the absurdity actually helps.

Jose:

Yes, yes. It was their doing that made our citizens, our community realize that we were headed in the wrong direction and we all finally came together.

Al:

 

[00:39:00]

Which is probably the best advice for confronting corruption. Our story was produced and reported by Ike [inaudible 00:38:40] with additional reporting from Andy Becker. Mayor Lopez, the indicted city council members and city manager James Jonas will face trial this summer. We reached out to Jonas for comment but he did not respond. You're listening to Reveal, the center for investigative reporting and PRX.

 

From the center for investigative reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Ledson. Today we've been looking at lawless lands, what happens in the absence of government. Who or what comes into fill the void. Sometimes it's a strong man enforcing his will, other times it's just anarchy and occasionally it's something completely unexpected. In December of 2013, Jeremiah Heaton's daughter asked him a simple question.

Jeremiah:

 

[00:40:00]

We were in a room and I was playing and she kind of went into a quiet moment and she looked at me and asked, will I ever be a real princess one day. I guess the nature of the way that she presented the question to me made me realize that she was somewhat serious about it and I answered her, absolutely she would be.

Al:

I think most people would find a way to deflect that answer, maybe tell their daughter she's always been a princess in their heart. But, not Jeremiah.

Jeremiah:

You know, I had in that moment made a statement to my daughter that I couldn't really honor and that bothered me because I didn't it to be apparent that, told their child something that they can not follow through with and trying to actually question is this even possible anymore.

Al:

 

 

[00:41:00]

The answer is maybe, kind of. Jeremiah got on the internet and found something that just might work. Bir Tawil, it's a swaft of desert between Sudan and Southern Egypt, it's the last unclaimed territory on earth. A true terinoleus, Latin for no mans land. Been that way for more than a hundred years when England drew some lines in the sand to separate countries. There ended up being a dispute over competing maps and a neighboring stretch of desert and in the end Bir Tawil remained unclaimed. When Jeremiah discovered this he got an Egyptian visa, packed his bags and set off. Now, this is not an easy place to get to.

Jeremiah:

I had never traveled to that part of the world, so I traveled to Cairo and from there went to Hergata and traveled along the coast to the village of Shalateen and from there trekked toward the southwest towards the Bir Tawil region.

Al:

After a brutal journey which took days, planes, trains and automobiles. Jeremiah laid his eyes on his new kingdom, 800 square miles of relentless winds, sand and punishing sun.

Jeremiah:

 

[00:42:00]

In the period of time from researching this up till the point that I went, my children had designed a flag for the kingdom and so I had a flag manufactured and took that to Bir Tawil and actually on Emily's seventh birthday planted the flag. When I returned to the area where I ultimately was staying and had internet access I made one Facebook post about what I had done for Emily. In terms of creating a new country so that she could be a real princess and that's where things went somewhat beyond what my expectations were.

Al:

His posts included a photo of him standing on a cluster of rocks in the middle of the desert. A flag of his new nation flies directly behind him, the kingdom of North Sudan. Later he wrote a proclamation of independence.

Jeremiah:

For countless millennia our planet has witnessed the rise and fall of peaceful societies and those of cruel heartlessness with a thousand shades in between.

Al:

The news media took notice.

Jeremiah:

 

[00:43:00]

I began being contacted by news outlets around the world about what I had done and it was only three days after that, that the CNN satellite truck was parked in my yard which was, you know surreal. The speed at which news moves today when there's a story that interests people, it really is amazing. I think over the period of a month I conducted anywhere from three to four hundred interviews with outlets in every major country around the world.

Al:

Disney even bought the film rights and all of a sudden Bir Tawil became the main focus of Jeremiah's life. He was serious about following through on his claim, so he started having conversations with investors and developing ideas about what he would do with his kingdom.

Jeremiah:

 

 

 

[00:44:00]

I want to use the Bir Tawil region and the King of the North Sudan to be that laboratory for agricultural science. What we're focusing on is a new type of agriculture called controlled environment agriculture, also known as vertical farming. The Japanese have really mastered the techniques of growing lettuce indoors and so, why Bir Tawil? It represents the most extreme conditions that exist on earth and if we can grow food there. Using a minimal amount of water, using these controlled environments in Bir Tawil then that will allow us to expand that to other areas. What we're focused on in terms of our agricultural research is the use of water. If we don't start taking steps now to combat the food security issues that face our planet. Then we're going to be in a very tough situation in 30 years.

Al:

While Jeremiah was dreaming big about his new nation, other people were feeling that the kingdom of North Sudan was crossing into some pretty sensitive territory. Many bloggers, tweeters and commentators began condemning Jeremiah mainly because he's a white man claiming a part of Africa. Which is something the world has seen before.

Jeremiah:

 

[00:45:00]

I really was surprised by it, I grew us in Northeast Georgia, in a area that was very diverse. I never, ever seen anything through any type of racial lens and so, being attacked as someone who didn't belong in this area simply because of the color of my skin was white, was very much a surprise to me and I think it's unfortunate on many levels that people look at me and see me in some sort of a racial way. I have no more control over the color of my skin then does anyone else on earth.

Al:

No, I don't expect you to, I don't expect you to. I totally get what you're saying and I would just respectfully. You get to live in the world where you cannot deal with the racial component of stuff. I'm a black man that was raised in the south and I didn't get that opportunity. I had to always deal with the racial component of stuff and in my daily life I'm not going around looking for racists hiding in the closets or anything like that. But because of the skin that I'm in and the skin that you're in, the way that we connect with the world are different, just fundamentally different.

Jeremiah:

Sure.

Al:
[00:46:00]

I don't think that you went in there with the intentions of being "the white savior". But I do think that to think about the actions that you've taken without looking at it in the context of history, you know, is problematic.

Jeremiah:

Sure and that's something that once it was brought to my attention that that was a concern for people and I've worked my hardest to try to explain what the intention is and I think one of the variables that is different. In my particular case versus what happened during British Colonialism or some of the religious activities that have occurred in Africa is that. Where this land has no population, we in effect, can carry out these activities and not have any impact on any sort of local population because no one lives there.

Al:

 

[00:47:00]

Jeremiah believes that no one lives in Bir Tawil, we looked into it and it turns out there's a Nomadic tribe that's roamed the Sahara, including Bir Tawil for centuries. They're called the Abavda and they still pass through the reason today. They're not permanent residents in the technical sense but they're around and we tracked one of them down with the help of a Sudanese journalist named [inaudible 00:46:59] who translated for us.

Journalist:

The area means a lot for me, I feel part of me there. My root is there and I'm nothing without [inaudible 00:47:09].

Al:

Assan Alabati is a local leader of his tribe. He was near Suddan's border with Bir Tawil when we spoke by phone and he takes issue with Jeremiah.

Journalist:

Yes, we have heard about the American who has proclaimed his kingdom there but he left before we could reach him. We wanted to tell him that the area belongs to us, the [inaudible 00:47:32]. Our ancestor graves are still there and we have come from there too. If we meet him we will tell him that we will not let him or anybody else on Bir Tawil and we not allow him to have this land.

Al:
[00:48:00]

There's a big question as to whether Jeremiah can legally claim this piece of land. According to international law it's possible, but first he must obtain recognition from other countries, mainly his neighbors, Egypt and Sudan. We got in touch with the Egyptian and Sudenese Embassies who are both aware of Jeremiah's claim, they wouldn't go on the record with a statement about the North Sudan but the vibe they gave us is Jeremiah will probably have to wait a long time before he ever gets their stamp of approval.

 

Before we go, we want to take you to one last lawless place. I know it doesn't sound very lawless, these kids have a great time. They can be on a jungle gym in your neighborhood right. But these kids are in no playground, independent radio producer and friend of the show Anna Andlerson explains where she found them.

Anna:
[00:49:00]

On this island in Greece where about 1,000, 1,100 refugees are being housed in a facility constructed for 300.

Al:

These kids have lost their homes and some of them have even lost friends and loved ones. To wars they left behind in Syria, Afghanistan and other countries. But today in the dust and chaos of this overcrowded refugee camp about 30 of them hop of a slide they've made and glide to the bottom. Unmitigated joy.

Anna:

The thing is constructed on a hill and there's this big concrete ramp that leads from level to level. The kids had a big metal door and were sliding down it as a means of entertainment and I think that's pretty damn lawless.

[00:50:00]
Al:

 

When you think about it, that's pretty damn inspiring. For more on what you just heard plus our latest stories, go to Revealnew.org. Thanks for listening. Our show was edited by Taki Teleinetis and Ike [inaudible 00:50:08] was our lead producer. Special thanks to Jim Malowitz, CV Lopez, Reveals Andy Becker, Liam Moriati, Jack Shanker and Anna Adlerson. Our sound design team is the wonder twins, my man Jay Breezy, Mr. Jay Briggs and Clair "C Note" Mullet, Amy Pile is our editor in chief and Krista Sharpenburg is our head of studio. Suzanne Weaver is our executive editor and our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Kamerato Lightening. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation and John D and Katherine D McCarther Foundation. The John S and James L Knight Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

 

Reveal is a co-production of the center or investigative reporting and PRX. I'm Al Ledson and remember, there is always more to the story.

Section 3 of 3          [00:28:00 - 00:51:01]