SAINT JO, Texas – It’s an intoxicating lure to off-road rally fans.
Rednecks With Paychecks. Three days of mud and mayhem. The sign out at the entrance to the Montague County property where it’s held proclaims the only rules are “no drugs, no fights, and no stealing.”
But the fine print on the waiver you must sign before entering the park is somewhat more explicit.
The public must “acknowledge that the activities of the events are very dangerous” and “involve the risk of serious bodily injury,” the “possibility of death,” and that you must “assume all risk.”
After a rally in March 2012, the Rednecks With Paychecks Facebook page bragged that “…no one was raped and no one died…”
After the rally in March 2015, that claim could no longer be made. Ten-year-old Nicholas Torres of Fort Worth was killed when he ran his ATV into the side of pick-up.
A year later, on March 12 of this year, another tragedy – 30-year-old Stephanie Baldridge of Crowley was killed when the ATV she was riding on flipped on top of her.
Event organizers have pledged to make the events safer. Earlier this month, News 8 took our cameras to a Rednecks rally to see what safety measures had been put in place.
We saw adults everywhere guzzling beer and driving their ATVs fast, as well as children -- riding with parents or driving on their own -- crossing paths. Uniformed security officers and paramedics watched and hoped that nothing went wrong.
Their vigilance would prove futile. Within hours of our team leaving, on another side of the park, tragedy struck again. Jeff Sawyer, 34, of Corinth, flipped his 4-wheeler. He was crushed and died.
“It just shows you that they know they have a problem, and they are not willing to take the steps that are necessary to make it safe,” said Joshua Ross, an attorney representing Stephanie Baldridge’s family.
He says the lack of controls and the absence of rules shows a blatant disregard for lives.
“The extent to which these events are operated and supervised the same way, now, after three deaths, as they were after the first last year, is unconscionable,” he said.
Rednecks With Paychecks declined an on-camera interview, but gave us a written statement.
“(We) strive to make each event safe and enjoyable for all in attendance, through the employment of the RWP staff, security team and emergency medical services personnel, which are on-site for the entirety of each event.” (Here is their full statement posted on their Facebook site.)
But according to Montague County Sheriff’s records, no one has ever been arrested at the rally.
Last September, a monster truck driver with “a strong odor of an alcoholic beverage” and “bloodshot eyes” ran over and injured one of the security officers on duty. No charges were filed.
In Nicholas Torres’ death, the investigator “decided not to take any written statements due to the fact that alcohol was involved,” and the driver “did admit that he had been drinking.” No charges were filed.
We asked Sheriff Paul Cunningham if he knows how much drinking and driving goes on at Rednecks events.
“Probably 90 percent of them who are driving,” he said.
Sheriff Cunningham should know. He says most of his deputies make extra money working private security at the Rednecks rallies, including his chief deputy – who doubled as the official investigator the day young Nicholas Torres died.
Is there a built in conflict of interest when somebody who’s making money from Rednecks With Paychecks is also the investigating officer of a death at one of their events?
“I’m not going to discuss that,” the sheriff told News 8.
Sheriff Cunningham did say the Redneck rally is safer with his off-duty officers working the event. He says participants are not allowed to leave the park if they have been drinking.
We asked the sheriff about the inebriated individuals on motor vehicles racing around unchecked on the property.
“There’s nothing I can do about it,” he said. “The law tells me I can’t. It’s not a violation to drive intoxicated on your own property or private property.”
The sheriff is right. But, a former Dallas County prosecutor and assistant U.S. Attorney told us that law enforcement officers have a duty to protect the public and that any deadly conduct is a violation of law.
“If somebody is being witnessed consuming large amounts of alcohol and getting in their vehicle, then they are, per se, committing a reckless act,” said Taly Haffar, now a defense attorney in Dallas.
Drinking and driving is not one of the rules posted on the Rednecks With Paychecks website. But they do make a hard stand on this rule: “Anyone found with glass bottles will be escorted out of the park..."
Note: Here is a statement from Chuck Baldridge, husband of Stephanie Baldridge:
He describes a "complete lack of any type of safety towards anyone on the grounds throughout the 4 day event."
"At any given moment, vehicles from the size of small four wheelers, up to the size of vehicles with tires taller than the average human, [are] within arms-reach of each other, driving over terrain designed to be challenging for seasoned off road ATV enthusiasts.
"Thousands of people [are] drinking alcohol at different levels of driving with not a single safety barrier in place to warn anyone they may be driving into or off of something unsafe...
"There have now been three deaths and countless injuries involved at Rednecks With Paychecks due to no safety concerns put in place by the people that build the course or the owner of the property. And when they were asked if anything could be changed, their response is 'nothing can be done.' To that I say what is human life worth to you?
"In closing, I am reflecting on my life with my wife and thinking how unfair it is that she died at 30 years old, leaving myself and a 6-year-old daughter behind -- also parents, grandparents, siblings, and a vast amount of people that loved her -- all because Rednecks With Paychecks said that there was nothing they could do in terms of people’s personal safety."