Part Two: What Lies Beneath the Soil

Story and Photography by Skip Connett

"A Farmer's Diary Part 1: Bitter Harvest" can be found by clicking here

Editor’s note: After befriending Joe, a farm manager for two Central Texas organic farms, Skip and his wife, Erin, offer to support him while he seeks treatment for cancer. Joe’s intoxicating charm and over 40 years of farming experience initially win them over, yet broken promises, bizarre tales and numerous contradictions begin to mount and swirl around this Steinbeckian drifter with dirt on his hands and a peculiar cell phone ringtone.

Following a brief trip away from the farm left under Joe’s watch, Skip and Erin return to find their crops in ruins, their animals half-starved, and, most disturbingly, their personal mail and financial statements hidden inside Joe’s duffle bag…next to a very large knife.

Aug. 19, 2007: It’s one o’clock in the morning and I’m lying awake in the den waiting for Joe. What if he suspects we’re on to him? A truck drives up the dirt lane and I reach for the rifle beside the mattress. Boonie, our white retriever, steps off the front porch, but the barking reserved for strangers never comes. That could only mean that Joe, the man we trusted as a friend, has finally returned. If he comes into the house, I am ready to confront him with force, if necessary. The crunch of gravel beneath his boots grows louder as he opens the gate, then fades as he turns and heads to the guesthouse. All is quiet again, except for the pounding of my heart and the fitful sleep of Erin and the kids in the nearby bedroom.

Aug. 20: “Investigator Murphy here.” The voice on the other end of the phone is music to my ears. Robert Murphy had come to our farm six weeks earlier to question Joe about financial documents missing from My Father’s Farm in Seguin. When I tell him Joe has stolen our financial statements, he doesn’t need to hear more. “I’ll grab my deputy and be there in an hour.” Soon after the call, Joe leaves for Sharon and Jack Crow’s farm in Manor. After too many broken promises from Joe about equipment delivery, they’re going to nix his plans to start an organic hay operation there. Joe will be upset…and desperate. When Murphy arrives, I call Sharon and tell her what we discovered in Joe’s bags. Now we have proof—as hard as it is to accept—that Joe is a con. What I don’t tell her is that two investigators and a Travis County deputy are waiting at our house, ready to intercept Joe if, and when, he returns. Sharon warns us that Joe was surprised and angry that they rescinded their offer, and he is heading back our way. When he pulls into our long driveway, the investigators surround him. They grill him while a computer check identifies his real name (Reeder, not Reider or Ryder) and finds outstanding warrants in Oregon. Joe refuses to look at me or answer my questions as they haul him off to jail.

Aug. 25: A car drives in this morning and two older African-American women step out. “Is that your Subaru?” they ask Erin. “Do you know Joe Ryder?” They tell us that Joe and his “lawyer” were supposed to meet them this morning at their church down the road. He’d approached them while we were on vacation, driving up to the modest wood-framed sanctuary—in our car—and bragging that he’d just sold his farm in Bastrop for three million dollars. He offered to buy the adjoining vacant lot and build them a new worship center. That Sunday the pastor shared the good news with the excited congregation: a benevolent stranger had not only offered them money but enough excess food from “his” farm to start a small canning business. We tell them Joe is in jail, and their mouths drop in disbelief. Yet they end up comforting us. “Don’t feel bad,” the older one says. “You were doing God’s work. You cared for an old man sick with cancer.” It seems like too much to tell them that the cancer was a lie, too; that we had, in fact, cared for a perfectly capable criminal. As they drive away, Erin turns to me and cries, “When’s this going to end?”

Aug. 28: In Joe’s bag I find printouts of the names and addresses of farmers who have applied for certification from Certified Naturally Grown (CNG), the grassroots alternative to organic certification. Joe had recently volunteered as a CNG inspector and had visited two farms near Houston—again using our car—while we were on vacation. As a CNG inspector, he had no trouble getting farmers to provide him with income, plans and other private information. Next to names are notations like “good opportunity.” They stretch from Texas to Georgia.

Sept. 2: This morning I meet with Travis County prosecutor Barrett Hansen to discuss Joe’s case and his long criminal history. Hansen says there’s a good chance Joe will serve a year or more, but adds that Texas jails are so full he may get off with probation only. I hesitate to tell Erin the bad news. The thought of Joe appearing in our driveway, enraged and vengeful, is a recipe for sleepless nights. We then learn the Guadalupe County prosecutor is reluctant to pursue the My Father’s Farm case. Feeling helpless, I write a letter to Scott Mitchell, owner of Montesino Farm in Wimberley, where Joe was manager when I first met him. Murphy says Montesino has the strongest case among the four Texas farms where Joe spent time, and I urge Scott to press charges. Joe had spending privileges there and used them liberally, including the purchase of plane tickets to enroll one of the farm’s employees in a three-month organic farming training program in the Northeast. She’d packed her bags and was headed for the airport when Joe informed her that the program was canceled at the last minute after the school’s director was killed in a plane crash—a malicious fabrication from start to finish.

Sept. 8: While searching for possible signs of Joe’s electronic mischief on our computer, I find a contract he had written for another employee at Montesino. A young, single woman with a degree in horticulture, she’d quit her job there after Joe offered her an overseas position with his former boss Glenn, the owner of a Swiss-based company Joe described as “the Halliburton of Agriculture.” After months of delays, he finished the contract in my office and apparently forgot to erase it from my hard drive. The company, New Ventures, was finally ready to hire her to manage an organic potato operation in Estonia. Yet everything was put on hold when Joe, tears running down his face, sobbed that Glenn had been stabbed to death shortly after arriving in San Antonio to finalize the agreement.

Sept. 10: Everywhere I turn, I am confronted with reminders of Joe—the greenhouse he designed, his shirt hanging in the barn, the trashy crime novels in the truck. Joe’s presence was all-consuming, like the pigweed he promised to pull, now six feet tall and bursting with seed. I’m relieved, angry, confused, but mostly exhausted, and tired of explaining this mess to everyone, including our kids. “Joe’s in jail because he stole quarters out of our piggy bank,” our five-year-old informs visitors. I wish we could leave it at that.

Sept. 22: I get a call from one of our CSA (community supported agriculture) members—a mother of two young children. She grew fond of Joe while working beside him in the fields. She confesses that she wrote to him in jail and he wrote back, asking her to gather his belongings from us and hold them until he gets out. She feels sorry for us, but sorry for him, too. He told her he misses the feel of dirt in his hands, and that there is more to the story. He told her that no one is completely evil, and that he misses his dog. I warn her that Joe is desperate and will say anything to get someone to take pity on him. I feel unsettled after I hang up. Is Joe evil? Is he too sick to be helped? If not jail, where does he belong? Right now I’m just glad he’s in jail and I want to make sure he stays there.

Oct. 15: We learn that the Veterans Administration has no record of Joe serving in the military. All those supposed VA visits he made, the harrowing tales of flying a helicopter over the Mekong Delta, the shrapnel in his knee…all lies. I learn that Murphy was surprised at how angry Joe became when they forced a DNA test on him. From Murphy’s experience, such a strong reaction is common when someone is hiding from a serious crime.

Nov. 19: Good news! The Travis County Grand Jury has indicted Joe on the felony charge of identity theft! Now we wait to see how he pleads. Things look promising!

Dec. 20: Unbelievable. Joe is out! He was released from the Travis County correctional facility on December 12, yet we were never notified as promised. I call prosecutor Hansen and she, too, is surprised. Because Joe’s whereabouts are unknown, prosecutors in Hayes and Guadalupe counties aren’t likely to pursue their cases against him.

Dec. 27: I’ve spent months mining the Internet for clues to Joe’s past. Light shines through the tunnel today while searching a forum on a volunteer farming website. In 2004, a member noted to proceed with great caution regarding Joe, that he had leased property to him and hadn’t yet been paid rent, that he was being evicted. Another member who had worked on Joe’s farm warned that Joe was unethical, and that he had an overwhelming affinity for lying. The most recent poster, in 2007, said that Joe was such a liar, that they requested the website’s moderator remove his posting privileges. Too bad he found his way back on.

A sliver of Joe’s past is finally confirmed, yet I fear he’s already moved on to another state, prepared to set up another trusting farmer. Working the land is a leap of faith, a surrender, and, most of all, a blind trust. By sharing this cautionary tale, my hope is that the real Joe Reeder won’t be able to hide so easily in that blind spot.

Dec. 31: This afternoon the grackles swooped in—boisterous purple throngs riding the wind and dropping down into our freshly plowed soil. The fields are blank, brown slates waiting for our plans, our seeds, our hopes. Soon, we plant for spring.

Green Gate Farms’ CSA and farm-stand season runs March through July. Visit greengatefarms.net or come by the farm stand at Decker Lane and MLK, Fridays and Saturdays.