His ATV, one of the vehicles he'll use to prowl terrain like this for so-called illegal immigrants crossing into this country without proper documents, will have to stay tethered to the flatbed. So much for a nifty photo op.
"I brought the wrong key," Spencer says, embarrassed. "It won't start."
Oh, well. Worse things happen in the border wars every day, and besides, the ATV isn't crucial to Spencer's mission.
But cameras and satellites are, and on this day, the 65-year-old tech-head with lots of money and a powerful anger at this human flood, demonstrates it.
His assistant fires up a generator rigged to a satellite on a trailer behind Spencer's truck, and begins videotaping the scene. Spencer's excitement grows.
"This is it. This is what we've demonstrated we can do." He points to the camera. "Right now, this image is being sent up to our satellite link and out onto the Internet.
"My idea is that if people around the country can go online and watch, in real time, illegals walking right into this country, maybe they'll ask why the government doesn't stop it. What's wrong with a little competition for the [U.S.] Border Patrol, right?"
In Spencer's view, this human traffic is overwhelming the country's health care and education systems. It is importing poverty. It allows within our borders an army whose leaders seek nothing less than the takeover by Mexico of the American Southwest.
"Plato said only the dead have seen an end to war," he says. "I think conflict is coming."
Ultimately, he wants to set up videotaping stations from San Diego to Texas, in the belief that outrage will brushfire around the country, forcing change.
Until then, it's Spencer to the rescue. When he talks about why he moved to Sierra Vista this past September from Sherman Oaks, Calif., he sounds like he's leading a cavalry charge.
"I concluded this summer that California was hopeless," he says. "The left has gotten what they want and the open borders policy is causing a meltdown there. I could either cut and run and go fishing in Idaho, or come to the belly of the beast and tackle this problem head-on."
ON ONE POINT, Spencer is undeniably correct, if behind the times. Conflict has already arrived, and it plays out every day in the mountains, in the pastures and along the roads and trails that crisscross the border country of Cochise and Santa Cruz counties.
Residents along this broad frontier report a skyrocketing number of illegals crossing their land, turning their daily lives into nightmares.
Some describe living under almost wartime conditions, with high levels of stress, fear, sleeplessness and especially frustration at the inability of the Border Patrol, or any law enforcement agency, to help them.
Ranchers say they've been howling about this for years. But no one has paid attention.
Reporters who took up the border chaos story viewed it mainly from one angle, hammered over and over again--the sometimes deadly suffering illegals encounter in their treks across the desert.
But now that a few ranchers, after years of frustration, have formed self-defense groups to protect themselves and their property, reporters won't leave them alone.
Suddenly, they find ranchers interesting--but only as vigilantes, men loaded down with Skoal and ammo, so dangerous they merit a Congressional investigation.
Both images--the harmless illegal and the out-of-control cowboy--contain some truth. But not enough. They're cartoon cutouts, easy renderings that frame a complex problem too simply.
Stuck in the middle--angry as hell, with nowhere to turn and wary for the future--ordinary ranchers and border residents, American citizens, try to hang on amid the chaos.
B.J. Kuykendall shares a ranch with her husband, Tommy, 34 miles north of Douglas. It has been in their family for six generations. She's not certain they'll make it to seven.
Her voice shakes with anger as she describes some of what's happened to her.
Illegals have chased her down the road near her home on foot, and used their vehicles to run hers off the road. On four separate occasions, they've piled boulders and debris across the road, apparently efforts to steal her truck.
They've tried to steal her horses, too. Two months ago, Kuykendall found her dog, a mastiff, poisoned with strychnine. The animal suffered for five hours before dying a horrible death, "for the crime of barking."
One of Kuykendall's neighbors found his dog dead, too, its throat slashed. Another has had four dogs poisoned.
"Every day of our lives, every facet of our lives is threatened," says Kuykendall, an ER nurse. "We can't leave here for any length of time because there might be nothing left when we come back. We're afraid of losing everything if this keeps up."
Kuykendall's neighbor, Gary McBride, tells a similar story. In a 100-day period beginning in January, he recorded 101 calls to the Border Patrol to report illegals crossing his property--not counting cell phone calls.
"I can pretty much guarantee that tonight there'll be 40 of them, maybe a hundred, going up the road here to Highway 80. You think anybody's gonna catch them? Nope.
"Night before last I had one hollering at the back door, trying to get in my house. It's unbelievable.
"What burns our butts is that the Border Patrol won't let agents on the ground do their job, and that's damn sure our biggest problem. They get their asses chewed if they make too many arrests because the chiefs don't want big numbers going to the higher ups.
"We don't lie out here. I'll tell you exactly how it is. These Border Patrol chiefs are the sorriest SOBs I've ever seen."
Not all ranchers suffer the same predicament. Some, even those a few miles from the Kuykendalls and McBrides, are largely exempt from these problems by the grace of geography.
Illegals generally avoid wide-open land, preferring the shelter of trees and deep canyons.
But for those who live on heavy crossing routes, whether outside Douglas, to the west in the Huachuca Mountains, or in the Patagonias near Nogales, the story is the same: Water lines cut, cattle gates left open, pastures and canyons full of garbage and human waste.
"They use the canyons as toilets," says Carrol Bercich, who lives near Parker Canyon Lake. "We've got three semi-loads of garbage to haul away right now."
Ranchers also report a change in the illegals they encounter. Five years ago, a group might approach and say, "Excuse us, Señor, could we work for water or food?"
Now, many demand food and water, demand rides and show a profound lack of respect for people and property.
"Every fence they hit they destroy, and that was before they discovered wire cutters," says Anna Magoffin, a Douglas area rancher. "Last year was the worst. We had huge groups, but the destruction, I mean, we still haven't gotten the fences back up. Every acre of the ranch is impacted."
McBride says their level of aggression has increased markedly.
"They make remarks, give you the finger and won't go away," he says. "Sometimes they go into your house and you have to pull guns to get them out."
Numerous ranchers contacted for this story wouldn't speak publicly.
They're afraid of being branded vigilantes and targeted in a possible police investigation on the one hand. And on the other, they fear reprisal by Mexican gangs that operate drug rings and increasingly powerful and nasty people-smuggling rings.
A few ranchers said they've received such threats and are clamming up for good.
Arizona ranchers have always carried guns, mostly for snakes, and to put down injured animals.
But in this siege atmosphere--with law enforcement response times ranging from 20 minutes to forget about it--ranchers now carry weapons for self-defense.
As one said, "Before, maybe a .22 plinker. Now we carry .38s and .357s."
One ranch has a weapons instructor on retainer. The owner requires that employees have a concealed-carry permit, allowing them to keep guns in trucks and other places.
As for the widespread belief that border country is crawling with armed ranchers seeking out illegals, that's more Hollywood than it is reality. The vast majority do precisely the opposite. They do everything they can to avoid them.
"If I see illegals in a ravine, I'll wheel my horse away and call the Border Patrol," says retired Marine general Bud Strom, a Hereford rancher who estimates that a thousand illegals cross his land every week.
"If I see drugs, or what I think are baled backpacks, I might call Customs. I don't have a vigilante mentality and neither do any of my friends."
But when you turn around and find illegals standing in your kitchen, how do you avoid them? When you're a woman alone and you step from the corral and suddenly find yourself surrounded by 35 men, how do you avoid them?
That happened to Kuykendall, who never goes to her corral without a sidearm, a two-way radio and a cell phone.
She quickly called the Border Patrol in Douglas and was told only three ranch patrol agents were on duty, the nearest two hours away.
"Sorry, B.J.," said the supervisor sheepishly.
"They were between me and the house and I couldn't get back there," she says. "I didn't know what they were going to do."
After yelling at them, radioing her husband and making sure they saw her sidearm, which she kept holstered, they retreated.
But with such a volatile mix now pouring across the border--job seekers, drug runners, gun runners and human traffickers, who pull down a reported $30,000 apiece to bring across Asians and Mideasterners--Kuykendall can't know what she'll encounter next.
"A neighbor told me he stepped outside and found 80 Iranians in his backyard," says Kuykendall.
Greg Nicholson, former manager of the Lone Mountain Ranch, which ranges from the Huachucas east almost to the San Rafael Valley, says his ranch used a secret code to communicate with a rancher in Sonora, Mexico.
This rancher, when he saw crossers, would call Lone Mountain headquarters and say, "You've got a red cow out," then identify the canyon by the mile marker. This triggered a call the Border Patrol.
The Mexican rancher had received threats for trying to run off the intruders, and feared traffickers had tapped his phone.
Nicholson spent 10 months at Lone Mountain, but quit over rising concern for his safety, and his family's.
"It's not a legal issue anymore. It's a military issue," says Nicholson. "Whether it's drug runners or illegals, we're being invaded down there."
EVEN IN THIS CLIMATE, Spencer's American Border Patrol has gotten off to a slow start. Thus far, he has recruited only 60 Hawkeyes--members who deliver tips on sightings of illegals. He expected to have 100 by now.
He attributes the low number in part to negative newspaper reports likening his group to vigilantes.
Spencer, who defines American Border Patrol as a combination neighborhood watch and think tank, says he has no intention of chasing illegals with guns.
But he readily tells of grabbing a Winchester and setting out to assist Douglas rancher Roger Barnett, an American Border Patrol member, who was following signs of drug runners on his land.
When in the field, Spencer says he makes individual decisions about whether to carry. His Hawkeyes, who report primarily from their own property, do the same.
Spencer has so far spent $50,000 of his own money and expects to raise $400,000 in donations for his non-profit group next year.
If his border videos generate support from the American people, Spencer hopes to raise big money to set up his monitoring stations.
"At first we were pilloried by the Sierra Vista Herald because they weren't aware of what we were doing. Now that they understand, their rhetoric has softened. We're very professional and careful. We're not wackos."
He laughs. "Even Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center has decided not to call us a hate group."
At the moment, Spencer is sitting in his office and command center in his rambling, white-columned house outside Sierra Vista. The former computer programmer could've made this place a peaceful retirement home.
Instead, his mini-palace, its doors always locked, its location secret, serves as headquarters to what Dees' Mississippi-based civil rights group calls "one of the hardest line anti-immigrant ideologues now operating."
"Illegal immigrant," Spencer corrects. "I'm hard-line on illegal immigration, not legal immigration."
If the subject is the weather or computers, a conversation with Spencer moves along pleasantly. When a photographer asks about taking pictures, he cracks, "Maybe I should put my mascara on."
But when the topic turns to the immigration mess, and those he sees as enemies of his cause, he leans forward, peers over his reading glasses and spits fire.
"I've seen how Morris Dees and some of these others work," he says. "They lie and accuse you of racism. That's their best technique for keeping borders open and immigration flowing. It's a tactic and it's quite effective."
Dees has labeled two groups Spencer formed during his California days, Voices of Citizens Together and American Patrol, which is separate from American Border Patrol, as hate groups.
As evidence, they cite a 1996 letter Spencer wrote to the Los Angeles Times in which he said: "The Mexican culture is based on deceipt. Chicanos and Mexicanos lie as a means of survival."
They also cite Spencer's American Patrol Web site, which Dees' spokesman Heidi Beirich says once featured a cartoon character pissing on a picture of Mario Obledo, a California Hispanic activist and winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The copy allegedly referred to Obledo as an "[expletive] cockroach and 1998 asshole of the year."
Spencer acknowledges writing the Times letter, saying now he was angry and shouldn't have done it. But he doesn't renounce it. He says he was mimicking a passage he read in Bordering On Chaos, a book on immigration by Andres Oppenheimer.
"The point was that Mexicans have to cheat and lie because their government is so corrupt. It's a survival mechanism," says Spencer. "But you can't say that these days. We should be able to talk about these things. If we could, we might be able to work out some of these difficulties."
He calls the letter his biggest mistake, because it gave his enemies an issue. "It's the only thing they have to hang the hate-monger label on me," he says.
As for the Obledo matter, Spencer categorically denies the material ever appeared on his Web site, and asks why Dees' people didn't download it? "I'll tell you why, it was never there," he says.
Beirich says she saw it and downloaded it, but was unable to find it by press time.
Either way, Obledo is never far from Spencer's mind. The activist is one of those Spencer believes is trying to take back Atzlan, a term for the territory Americans won from Mexico during their 1840s war.
Spencer spins in his chair to a desktop computer, tickles the keyboard and pulls up audiotape of Obledo. "He's the hero of this whole thing," Spencer says. "Listen."
The tape rolls. Obledo says: "We're going to take over all the political institutions in California." Then, on another clip, Obledo advises anyone unhappy about Hispanic control of California to "go back to Europe."
Before long--and it's never very long--Spencer takes off on Tucson's Isabel Garcia, co-chairman of Derechos Humanos, a leftist civil rights group, the polar opposite of Spencer's hard right views.
Spencer sniffs at the mention of her name. He calls her "a communist and an agent of Mexico, part of an advance fifth column" in the takeover effort.
Asked for a response, Garcia denies Spencer's charges, saying, "I resent even having to answer this. But I'll match my Americanism against theirs any day."
Spencer believes that powerful forces, including the Ford Foundation, a rich, private philanthropy, conspire to keep America's borders open:
"Democrats want votes, Mexico wants revenge, corporations want cheap labor and people like Garcia want immigration as a means of organizing the world's workers. You have it on the left and the right.
"And the Ford Foundation lobbies to stop laws that interferes with open borders, because they're globalists. They're a nation-wrecking crew. They want to re-work the world in their image, one government, total socialism."
Even some supporters flinch at Spencer's hot rhetoric.
Francis McWilliams, a 75-year-old Sierra Vista resident and former American Border Patrol board member, says Spencer can get "pretty messianic" in delivering his message.
"I found a lot of things on his American Patrol Web site not to my liking," says McWilliams, 75, who once worked in Mexico and has two adopted Guatemalan children. "I thought some of it was borderline xenophobic, and I told Spencer that.
McWilliams added that American Border Patrol would lose his support if it turned into a militia.
"The purpose should be to inform the American electorate that the government, for political reasons, has chosen not to enforce immigration laws, and that's all. I think there are enough moderates on the board to make sure Spencer doesn't go off the rails."
THE BIGGEST HURDLE Spencer faces, oddly, are the very people the media have labeled dangerous rednecks--the ranchers themselves.
The vast majority interviewed for this story don't want American Border Patrol, or any outside group, on their land.
They fear their presence would stir up trouble, and if something happened--a shooting or a serious accident of some kind--they might losing everything in a lawsuit.
"I wouldn't allow them here," says Anna Magoffin. "It's a liability and a safety concern. A rancher can call the Border Patrol and that's the legal way to handle things. But I know people are frustrated. They want the destruction of their property stopped."
One after another echoed that same sentiment, including McBride, who added: "I want the U.S. government to take care of this. I'm already paying them to do it."
The Civil Homeland Defense Corps, organized by Tombstone Tumbleweeed owner Chris Simcox, has encountered the same hurdle. Simcox, a former Los Angeles schoolteacher who moved to Tombstone a year ago, has received considerable publicity lately, packing a gun on the front page of Tucson newspapers.
"Simcox can't do what he wants to do because ranchers aren't fools," says Ben Anderson, a conservative activist and publisher of an online political newsletter. "That's why Simcox switched his attention from private land to public land. Why put ranchers in more jeopardy? They're in enough jeopardy already."
GIVEN THE conditions they live with, border residents have shown remarkable restraint thus far. But it has limits. Everyone interviewed for this article made the same prediction: Conditions are speeding toward a breaking point, and blood is coming.
Already Spencer has received "two or three" death threats, and Simcox says he has gotten 12, including a note on his windshield. "Most have been in Spanish," said the 42-year-old publisher, who wears a sidearm while at his desk.
Three times FBI agents have entered Roger Barnett's business in Sierra Vista to warn him that someone will try to kill him, or failing that, kidnap his wife and take her to Mexico.
Since 1997, Barnett, often with help from brother, Don, has arrested almost 8,000 illegals on his property. Unlike most ranchers, who go the other way when they see illegals or tracks, Barnett sets out after them.
He couldn't care less about liability. "If I go down, at least I'll go down fighting," he says. "Everyone needs to realize, we're the victims here."
Barnett continues: "People tell me I'm a hero. I never thought of it that way. But then I stopped and thought, maybe the cause wouldn't be so far along if it wasn't for me. Maybe I am a hero."
His bold public actions have made Barnett a kind of vigilante poster boy, and earned him the moniker of "El Asesino" by an Hispanic news service, La Voz de Aztlan, out of California. The same news service suggested that Jewish agents might've been behind the World Trade Center attacks, and called Osama bin Laden "the Pancho Villa of Islam."
But Barnett has never shot anyone, or even fired his weapon, and with a past that includes five years as a Cochise County Sheriff's deputy, he knows the law well. His brother was a deputy for 15 years.
Trouble is more likely to come from the small protection forces that have formed in total secrecy, according to sources, and are now conducting patrols, unknown to any authority.
Meanwhile, huge numbers of illegals continue to enter Arizona. Ron Sanders, retired head of the Border Patrol's Tucson sector, has said a million a year make it through this sector alone, which covers most of the state, except Yuma County.
And experts estimate the Border Patrol catches only one in five.
"It's not just job-seeking Latinos," says McWilliams. "Nationals from 150 different countries were apprehended last year." This includes France, Germany, the Ukraine and dozens of others around the world.
That might be the best-kept secret of the border wars, the number of OTMs--Other Than Mexicans--entering the U.S. It's a secret because the Border Patrol won't break down by country the apprehension statistics it releases publicly.
"Since September 11, we're restricted in what we can say about OTMs because of national security," says Border Patrol spokesman Rob Daniels.
If the agency did release OTM numbers, the public might register alarm to learn that among those arrested in Arizona in 2002 were six nationals from Egypt, two from Lebanon, three from Yemen and one from Iraq.
These figures, provided by an INS source who asked to remain anonymous, also showed nationals from Sudan, Cuba, China, Jordan, North Korea and the Philippines, the latter a place where American forces are currently on the ground fighting groups affiliated with al-Qaida.
The OTM numbers are a small fraction of the number of Mexicans apprehended in Arizona 2002--375,000. But the figures represent only apprehensions in Arizona, and remember, five times that number got through.
Moreover, OTMs crossings have grown markedly of late, and it only takes a few with bad intentions to create havoc, as the country learned on September 11, 2001.
As Douglas Mayor Ray Borane, no supporter of private border groups, says: "We haven't found anybody coming across the border with anthrax or smallpox. I say yet. But this afternoon it could happen."
The possibility of terrorists walking through America's wide open backdoor is the gorilla in the room of the border crisis, its most frightening aspect.
"I thought the terror war would change the equation," says Bud Strom. "But I haven't seen any change by our Feds down here. The border is still a sieve."
Gary McBride wasn't alone in making an unsettling prediction:
"It ain't going to be a year or two and we're going to find that somebody who did something awful in our country came across this border. We've got the biggest terrorist threat you could imagine right here and they're doing nothing about it."
Gary Thrasher, a large-animal veterinarian based in Hereford, says his biggest concern is that an illegal will import, intentionally or accidentally, a deadly disease.
Several such diseases can be easily transmitted to American livestock, which have been well protected for 50 years, leaving them with no background immunity to numerous viruses and bacterias.
In addition to work in this country, Thrasher runs a business in Mexico spaying heifers and keeping them healthy prior to export to the U.S. as feeder animals.
He says the disease everyone knows about is foot and mouth, which devastated the cattle industry in England. It hasn't been detected in Mexico, but it is in South America, specifically Uruguay, Brazil, Columbia, Paraguay and Argentina.
Arizona's OTM figures for 2002 include 687 nationals apprehended from those countries, which means around 3,500 got through.
Foot and mouth disease spreads easily. Thrasher says an illegal can carry it on his hands or shoes, or in his respiratory system and be sneezing it out for days.
At a recent bioterrorism conference, Barry Bloom, dean of the Harvard School of Public Health, echoed Thrasher's concern, saying the U.S. is "the perfect target" for a foot and mouth disease attack and the disease itself is "the perfect weapon."
"Agricultural threats are the easiest to use at the moment," Bloom told Reuters News Service. "There is no need to weaponize the agents of attack and a single point of introduction could lead to a major epidemic."
But Thrasher also worries about diseases affecting humans. He mentioned Chagas disease, a regularly fatal parasitic illness currently widespread across rural areas of South and Central America. Tens of thousands of illegals enter the U.S. from those countries every year. Chagas spreads by contact with the feces of a common insect, and can be easily carried on clothing.
"I can't point to any one disease and say that's the one that's going to get us," says Thrasher. "But it's only a matter of time. This is serious. Cattle, livestock and people's health are sitting ducks at this point."
NO ONE WANTS TO HEAR IT. The border is the border, and once you get 70 miles away, or a thousand miles away, who really cares?
Bob and Bonnie Eggle of Cadillac, Mich., tasted the indifference on August 9 this year when an alleged Mexican drug trafficker gunned down their 28-year-old son, Kris, a law enforcement officer at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.
"The initial response from national media and official Washington was total silence," says Bob Eggle. "There was no expression of outrage that a federal officer could be murdered by a Mexican drug cartel on American soil. There's combat going on at that border and nobody wants to face it. Everybody wants votes and cheap labor."
The government's failure to perform its Congressionally mandated responsibility of securing America's southern border and protecting American citizens has created a vacuum--now being filled on the right by Spencer and his hoped-for video revolution.
And on the left by those who leave water in the desert, and demand, as Isabel Garcia has done, that the regional director of the INS be prosecuted for causing the deaths of illegals in the desert. More than 100 died in Arizona during the past year.
Garcia also says the Border Patrol has "created a police state on our southern border," a view perhaps shared by many residents of the relatively isolated mountain town of Bisbee but laughed at by ordinary ranchers.
The ranchers go back to their everyday lives of trash pickups, fence repair, suspicion, uncertainty--and the constant need to reassure city friends that they've never, in fact, shot anyone, as border residents are repeatedly asked.
One rancher spoke publicly some time ago and received death threats. One of her cowboys, who had contact with a drug gang that crossed her property, told this woman she "had dollars on her head for talking."
Now she speaks in fear, and only under a promise of anonymity:
"Before all we had was people looking for work and they rang the doorbell. I'm not against that. But what we're seeing now is blatant crossing of people carrying big bundles, and it sure as hell isn't a change of clothes.
"I'm sorry, they're not just wonderful people from Mexico wanting a better life for their family. This is bigger than the government wants to portray it. We're dealing with a large drug cartel. It's every single day. I can't say 'gee whiz, I'll just forget about this and go to bed.'
"My dogs bark all night long. When I drive to town I have to go through National Forest and every minute I'm on that road I pray to God I don't have a flat tire. I don't need this shit. I'm on Social Security, but the security I need isn't social.
"If we have homeland security, how is my home and my land secure? We moved here because it's God's country. We built this house to be a gathering place for our children and grandchildren, but now I have to say, 'Don't go outside unless papa's with you. And take your rifle.' We don't worry about bears and lions. We worry about humans. This was my dream house, but it has become my prison."