Border fear: Robberies by rogue citizens militia

Published: Monday, Oct. 5 2015 9:07 p.m. MDT

ARIVACA, Ariz. — "Somebody just came in and shot my daughter and my husband!" the woman shouted to the 911 dispatcher. "They're coming back in! They're coming back in!"

Multiple gunshots are then heard on a tape of the call.

The woman, Gina Gonzalez, survived the attack after arming herself with her husband's handgun, but both he and their 10-year-old daughter died.

The killings, last month, have terrified this small town near the Mexican border, in part because the authorities have tied them to a rogue group of citizen border patrols.

The three people arrested in the crime include the leader of Minutemen American Defense, a Washington state-based offshoot of the Minutemen movement, in which citizens roam the border looking for people crossing into the country illegally. Former members describe the group's leader, Shawna Forde, 41 as having anti-immigrant sentiments that are extreme, at times frightening, even to people accustomed to hard-line views on policing the border.

The authorities say that the three suspects were after money and drugs that they intended to use to finance vigilantism, and that they have been linked to at least one other home invasion, in California.

"There was an anticipation that there would be a considerable amount of cash at this location," said Clarence Dupnik, the Pima County sheriff, because, he said, Gonzalez's husband, Raul Junior Flores, had previously been involved in narcotics trafficking, an assertion the family denies.

A Pima County public defender representing Forde had no comment on the case. Nor did lawyers for the other suspects: Jason E. Bush, 34, and Albert R. Gaxiola, 42. All three have been charged with first-degree murder, assault and burglary. Merrill Metzger, Forde's half-brother who worked for Forde's group for six months just as it was getting started in 2007, said Forde had often traveled from Washington to Arizona with weapons. In March, while stopping over at Metzger's home in Redding, Calif., Forde presented a plan for the group to undertake, said Metzger, speaking in in a telephone interview." She was sitting here talking about how she was going to start an underground militia and rob drug dealers," he said.

Metzger quit the group, alarmed, he said, by a number of things, including Forde's demand for extreme loyalty, right down to the choice of cuisine.

"I had to take an oath, and part of the oath was that I couldn't eat Mexican food," he said. "That's when red flags went up all over for me. That seemed like prejudice."

Another former member of Forde's group, Chuck Stonex, a retired independent contractor, said Forde had talked about buying a ranch near Arivaca and building a compound. He said that in October, he took an excursion with her into the desert north of here, where, wearing camouflage and carrying handguns and rifles, they searched for illegal immigrants.

"It's just like hunting," Stonex said, describing the tracking skills the group used. "If you're going out hunting deer, you want to scout around and get an idea what their pattern is, what trails they use."

Stonex said he treated one of the suspects, Bush, for a flesh wound the day of the attack on Gonzalez's family. Gonzalez had presumably shot Bush in warding off the attackers, but, Stonex said, the wound did not raise his suspicions, because, he said, Forde offered what seemed a plausible explanation: "They'd been jumped by border bandits."

"They were very relaxed, having casual, normal chitchat," he recalled.

Small numbers of Americans have always viewed border patrolling as a patriotic duty, but the most recent incarnation — the Minutemen movement, which takes its name from citizen militias formed during the Revolutionary War — gained momentum in 2005, when hundreds of volunteers flocked to locations from California to Texas.

Their patrols initially drew praise from some leaders, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, but also raised concerns that such activities were thin veils for racism and xenophobia. Over time, the Minuteman movement has also suffered from infighting, with some groups, like Forde's, advocating increasingly confrontational tactics while others have simply monitored the border and reported illegal border crossings to authorities.

Since the killings here, members of some better-known groups associated with the movement have hastened to disassociate themselves from Minutemen American Defense, while other began doing so long before. The 750-member San Diego Minutemen started warning people on its Web site in January to avoid Forde.

In the killings here, the authorities said the three suspects believed that Gonzalez's husband, Flores, 29, was holding both drugs and money at their remote ranch home. According to Gonzalez's 911 call, they were dressed in uniforms resembling law enforcement and arrived shortly after midnight on May 30. They told the family that they were looking for a fugitive.

The suggestion of drug smuggling have devastated and outraged residents in Arivaca, a town of retirees, artists, and working people about 55 miles south of Tucson. "This is a good town," said Fern Loveall, 76. "It's a good place to live, and it's a good place to raise kids. What they're saying about it isn't true."

Members of Flores' family also denied that he had any connection to the drug trade. "He was a good guy," said Gilbert Mungary, 80, Flores' grandfather. "I know what happened, but I can't imagine why."

The family's house was silent last week. An American flag hung on the porch, and three pink roses adorned the front door. Down a dirt road, at the local community center, a picture of Brisenia, the slain daughter of Flores and Gonzalez, had been placed in a frame with a small black ribbon affixed to it.

For the regulars at the La Gitana Cantina, on the town's only major street, emotions have ranged from abject sorrow to rage.

"I've had people come into the bar and just put their heads in their hands and all the sudden, they've got tears pouring down their face," said Karen Lippert, a bartender. She added that while one of the suspects was a local — Gaxiola — Forde had come from out of town. "This is not us guys," she said. "It's not the way us guys operate."

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