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  • Writer's pictureLauren Jessop

Exclusive: What it’s like living near the border;

An interview with Janet Franson, retired homicide investigator and Big Bend Sector resident

Big Bend National Park, Texas
"USA - Texas - Big Bend National Park" by Alexander Hatley is marked with Public Domain Mark 1.0

JEFF DAVIS COUNTY, Texas – If you want to know what’s really going on at the border, you need to talk to the people who live there and experience it every day.

I recently had the opportunity to speak over the phone with Janet Franson, a retired homicide detective who moved to Texas just over seven years ago. She lives near Ft. Davis, not far from Alpine, Van Horn, and Marfa, in the Big Bend Sector, where there has been an uptick in the number of illegal alien encounters, often in large groups.

When someone says to you, “There’s a lot of people that don’t like me, but I will tell you this: I don’t get in trouble for lying – I get in trouble for telling the truth,” you know you’re going to get a straight story.

Fort Davis is located in Jeff Davis County, which has a population of approximately 2,300 people within an area of 2,265 square miles. With a population density of approximately one person per square mile, they hold “frontier status.”

Janet, a Wyoming native, moved to the Lone Star state in 2014 from Montana with her husband. Prior to that, she spent 21 years as a homicide investigator in Florida. After arriving in Texas, they first settled in the hill country, which is remote and rural, but also includes the far reaches of San Antonio and Austin. When a friend introduced them to the Texas mountains in 2019, they fell in love with it and have been there ever since.

She had asked one of the local deputies about illegal alien activity in the area and was told there was not much trouble with it and that they only passed through occasionally, but she said it started becoming more of a problem after “certain entities opened the door and said Y’all come.”

Over the past year, illegal aliens from at least 106 countries have been encountered at the southern border. Franson has seen some evidence of this, noting that years ago, most illegal border crossers were from Mexico. Then, central Americans started coming next, and now migrants from all over the world are showing up.

In 2019, Franson says the Border Patrol apprehended ten Chinese nationals that were hiding in someone’s tool shed in Marfa, which is less than 50 miles from her. “I’m sure that nobody except us around here, heard about it,” she said. “But they’re coming from Africa; they’re coming from the Middle East, coming from the Far East. And you know what? They’re not walking here… they’re getting brought in by smugglers.”

We discussed the big business that is human smuggling and trafficking, a subject that someone in her line of work knows all too well.

Another topic broached was the “church organizations” that assist illegals once they are released from custody. Franson calls them “money making entities” and claims that many of them get people set up somewhere, but then “jerk the rug right out from under them.” Once the federal government is through with them, the states, communities, and the taxpayers of the United States are the ones having to foot the bill for them.

Many of the mayors and officials of these towns are Hispanic themselves, but Franson says, you would be surprised at how many of them have changed parties and are now Republicans because of what they are dealing with.

She spoke about the situation in Del Rio last September, when tens of thousands of Haitians showed up all at once. According to Franson, the people living in the area had to travel to other areas to buy their groceries “because all the illegals coming through were buying up all the groceries…you couldn’t even get a cold drink in a convenience store.”

I asked where the illegals get the money, and Franson replied, “The government.”

As we have seen, when illegal aliens are released from custody, they are given an envelope that contains various items, including their immigration hearing paperwork. Franson says there is also cash money in the packet as well as a sign that says, “Please help me, I don’t speak English.” She says they use these signs to help with transportation.

Franson spoke about several facilities being used as detention centers, such as Ft. Bliss, an active military base, and one of the many locations that were used to shuttle illegals in charter planes under cover of darkness. In most cases, the receiving communities were not informed, but they are left to deal with the situation after the individuals are released into their communities.

She says she has adopted about half of the Border Patrol Agents in her area because at some point, they have been in her yard in response to her calling them about illegals going through her property.

“They literally are tromping through right in front of my front gate,” and through the back of her property, she said. Their land backs up to a camp that is used by a religious group for only a short time in the summer. During the remainder of the year, the only person occupying it is the caretaker.

In January and February 2021, Franson says they had people going through their property “almost on a daily or nightly basis.” The reason, she says, is because not far from their home, and up on the mountain, is a Verizon tower with a beacon at the top.

As she explains it, the coyotes lead the individuals being smuggled, or the “mules” – those who are smuggling drugs for the cartels – across the Rio Grande River, traverse the desert, and then only bring them so far.

“And then they’ll point them to that little red blinking light and tell him that’s where you go. And then they go back,” she said.

One night, her husband asked her to go outside so he could show her something. Their backyard adjoins an unoccupied 5 acre piece of property on which there are “two old house trailers, three dead cars in the front yard,” and no power hooked up to it for years. They could see flashlights in one of the trailers, so they called Border Patrol. About 20 minutes before they arrived, a full size truck pulled right to their front gate.

While Franson was on the phone with the agents, her husband came in to tell her he thought the people they assumed to be illegals were picked up.

January and February are usually busy months for foot traffic through the area, and afterwards it slows down due to rising temperatures.

She spoke of a friend of hers that has a large ranch. One night, the friend received a call about a fire on her property. Apparently, some illegals started a fire to keep warm, but due to the drought and wind conditions at the time, it spread. Franson said “it’s a wonder they didn’t burn the whole mountain down.”

This same neighbor had taken a piece of their property and turned it into an RV park and campground, and there are amenities such as bathroom facilities and a laundry room on the premises. She says typically, illegals shed their dirty clothing and put on a clean set as they get nearer to the towns so they don’t draw attention to themselves. Many have taken advantage of the facilities and have left their dirty clothing in the laundry room.

At around 4:30 on a Sunday afternoon, this same friend heard something at the back door. Two guys were trying to get in.

The woman called her son-in-law, who lives across the road, and he came running over. He also speaks Spanish, so he asked them, basically, “What the hell are you doing?”

They replied that their car broke down, which Franson says is always the story. “Their car broke down, their cell phone doesn’t work, and can they borrow your phone?” She says there was no car; they were trying to call for someone to come and pick them up.

She said the woman’s son-in-law had a security camera installed on his front door, and about two weeks later, “two of them walk up to his front door and want to use his phone.”

Back in November, she and her husband followed a van full of suspected illegals until Border Patrol caught up with them.

They had friends visiting who were staying at the RV Park. She and her husband picked them up and went out to lunch. It was early afternoon when they returned to drop them off, and as they were leaving, they spotted a white 15-passenger van with two guys in the front. They couldn’t tell how many were in the back because of its tinted windows. What struck her as unusual were the California plates.

She said they slowed down, and as they got near the van, “the guy starts rattling to me in Spanish, and I don’t speak enough Spanish to do anything but get myself in trouble.” The van continued up a dirt road, and Franson told her husband to turn around and follow it.

She was calling Border Patrol as they followed the van to the highway, and after several turns, the van stopped, and so did they. She said she could tell the other driver knew they were being followed. She also made a call to a “deputy buddy” to say if he was out in the area, “we’re out here, and we’re following this van.” There are many locations in the area that have little to no cell service, so she had to leave messages.

At that point, she said the van turned around “and hauled ass back toward town,” so they followed. After a distance, the van stopped again, and Franson says they stopped “about a quarter-mile away where we could see ’em.” When the van took off again, “they went flying down the road.” It wasn’t long before the van was stopped by the Sheriff’s Department, and the Fransons stayed with the deputy until Border Patrol Agents and a Department of Public Safety (DPS) trooper showed up. It turned out there were 10 individuals in the van, but their legal status is unknown. The Fransons left them in the hands of the authorities and went home.

“They’re running like never before on foot and in vehicles,” she said. Many of the vehicles used by human smugglers are stolen, so as Franson says, “They don’t give a damn what happens to it. They’re maiming and killing innocent people.”

The day before we spoke, a mother and daughter were killed by a human smuggler in Mission, Texas after he ran a stop sign and T-boned their car, and high-speed chases are becoming more common.

She spoke of an incident that happened between Van Horn and Valentine “when a bunch of them” ended up in a rancher’s barn. It was cold out, and the rancher said they could stay the night, but they would need to move on the next day. They ended up setting the barn on fire, and she said she is sure they were just trying to keep warm, “but they set the damn grass on fire!”

Fortunately, someone traveling past the property saw it and called the owner, because once the fire grew out of control, the group fled.

The day after we spoke, Janet sent me an email to inform me of an incident that had occurred the day before. She talked to a “deputy buddy” of hers who told her that on Saturday, December 11, 2021, at approximately 7 p.m., as he was headed out of town, he had three vehicles pass him,” all running together.”

“When he got to a place we call Point of Rocks, there were 9 SEPARATE fires started! NO way in GOD’s little green earth that was any kind of “accidental” fire start! All right along side of the road.” She said that luckily, there was no wind. He caught them right away and called out the volunteer Fire Department. She added, “Needless to say I didn’t get any sleep last nite, kept looking out the window…”

These are just some of the stories from one area, and they are happening in every border state. All of these incidents involve “gotaways,” who are usually males dressed in dark-colored, or camo clothing, have evaded Border Patrol, and are miles from the border in an attempt to move farther into the country without being detected.

“These are not the people that are coming to America for a better life. These are people who are coming to get everything that they can, and what they can’t beg or borrow, they’ll steal, and they are also bringing in dope like never before,” Franson said.

Things in the county have settled down since they beefed up the area with law enforcement. Franson says they heard the coyotes moved their routes farther north towards and Van Horn, which has been “getting hammered.”

She sympathizes with the Border Patrol, saying she knows what it’s like to work with your hands tied by political issues. Since she frequently comes in contact with agents, she has told them to let her know if they need anything.

Her home is open to them if they’re out patrolling and need a cup of coffee, a cold drink of water, bathroom facilities, or the use of her land line phone. She said she has told them, “if you get out here at three o’clock in the morning and you’re chasing somebody, and you don’t have backup, you need help? You call us and we will come with guns, because I’ve been to too many cop funerals in my years.”

Instead of learning to play golf when she retired, Franson worked as a private investigator for some time and then drew on her many years of expertise and founded a group called, Lost and Missing in Indian Country. Their goal is to assist law enforcement and other professionals in finding missing persons, with an emphasis on Native Americans, which she says are under-reported.

She is still helping solve cold cases and recently helped Washington State Police detectives identify a victim of an automobile accident that happened over 30 years ago.

To my comment that she has led a very interesting life, Franson responded with, “I have. I’ve led a very blessed life. I am living proof that…the good Lord loves fools, drunks, and cops because I’ve been all three. I know that the good Lord above just isn’t through with this old cop just yet because I missed many opportunities to get myself killed in my life.”

Editors note: Correction. We stated that Franson helped detectives identify a victim of an automobile accident that happened over 30 years ago.

That should have said: She is still helping solve cold cases and recently helped Washington State Police detectives create an updated sketch of a victim of an automobile accident that happened over 30 years ago, in the continuing effort to bring closure to the case.

Originally published on Citizen Stringer, February 16, 2022

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