BROWNSVILLE, Texas -- For more than six decades, the Balli family languished in poverty as strangers took over their ranch lands, and condominiums and towering hotels rose on the sands of the resort island they once owned.
On Wednesday, the Mexican-American border family felt vindicated in their legal battle over the rights to Padre Island's oil wells. After four days of deliberations, a jury determined the New York lawyer who bought the island in 1938 swindled the descendants out of $1.1 million in oil and gas royalties.
The same jury will decide Monday how much Gilbert Kerlin, 90, must pay in punitive damages to make up for decades of malice and fraud. Three hundred Ballis are asking for $11 million.
The historic opinion lends credence to the generations-old Balli complaint: The powerful border dynasty slipped into poverty after white settlers stripped them of land and social status.
"We worked so hard for this, so hard," said Alma Torres, 55, who was among family members from Florida, Arizona and Mexico packed into the courtroom. "My mom and my dad died hoping for this to happen."
A gag order barred Kerlin and his lawyers from saying whether he would appeal.
The Balli decision is "revolutionary," said Armando C. Alonzo, associate professor of history at Texas A&M University and author of "Tejano Legacy: Rancheros and Settlers in South Texas."
"It serves as a model. It sets a precedent for other Hispanics in other parts of the Southwest to look seriously into the possibility of obtaining equity in the courts," Alonzo said.
Padre Island was little more than a desolate Coast Guard outpost when Kerlin arrived in 1938 with orders from his uncle to buy the Ballis' 61,000 acres and the ribbon of water separating the island from the mainland.
None of the heirs know why the descendants of the island's namesake, Padre Nicolas Balli, sold the island or how much Kerlin paid.
The deed agreement reads: "The sum of ten dollars, cash in hand to us paid." And there was one condition: Kerlin agreed to share with the Ballis any money he earned from drilling oil wells into the island.
According to the Ballis, the heirs carefully copied down their addresses and awaited their checks from the oil drilling.
They never heard from Kerlin again.
Kerlin later leased drilling rights to Padre Island, and sold its sandy surface to developers, earning millions. The Ballis, meanwhile, struggled to make ends meet.
Rebecca Gomez Sexton grew up on a dirt road in Brownsville. Her family couldn't afford doctors, medicines or shoes, and she was the first to learn English and the first to graduate from high school.
The island's history is blurred. In 1765, Padre Nicolas Balli, a Mexican priest, received it as a grant from King Carlos III of Spain, and the priest willed the island to his nephew.
By the 1930s, the Balli descendants had fallen upon hard times. Almost all of their vast Rio Grande ranch lands had been lost or repossessed and they were struggling to feed their families.
Few spoke English and probably didn't realize what they were selling or how much it was worth, their survivors say.
In court, Kerlin's lawyers had presented documents from Matamoros, Mexico -- the border city across from Brownsville, Texas -- indicating the Ballis had sold the land to a man named Santiago Morales in 1830.
But the Ballis say the Morales sale never went through. Balli attorney Tom McCall says Mexican documents indicate Morales later gave the island back and collected a refund.
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