Bloody Aftermath

Following the brutal Arivaca killings, anti-immigrant groups struggle to change the topic

Shawna Forde never took the stand. Not once did she testify about the May 2009 murders that left Raul Junior Flores and his 9-year-old daughter dead, in their modular home on the outskirts of Arivaca.

Had Forde talked in the February trial that found her guilty of first-degree murder—and ultimately dispatched her to death row—she might have detailed the encouragement she'd received from an anti-immigrant movement that intermittently embraced her, and now can't distance itself fast enough.

According to witnesses, Forde had planned to rob 29-year-old Junior Flores—whom she believed to be a drug dealer—in order to bankroll her nascent Minutemen American Defense border militia group.

But there was no money, and there were no drugs. There were only the deaths, caused by the delusions of Forde and her accomplices, white supremacist Jason "Gunny" Bush, and a local man with his own grudge against Flores.

To critics, the Arivaca murders were the direct product of an anti-immigrant movement known for fierce, sometimes violent rhetoric—and for attracting followers who don't always have both boots firmly on the ground.

The killings also sparked vicious internecine warfare, according to Mark Potok, intelligence project director for the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, which has monitored and litigated against hate groups for more than 40 years. "Basically, the nativist vigilante movement is in serious disarray right now," Potok says. "The murders set off a kind of pissing match between all these different groups, each trying to blame the other for being somehow linked to the murders."

But today, anti-immigrant movement leaders are also downplaying those nasty squabbles, even as they struggle to jettison any connection to Shawna Forde.

Among them is William Gheen, who runs the North Carolina-based Americans for Legal Immigration PAC. Gheen was among those raising alarms about Forde and her erratic behavior even before the murders. Now he says detractors are using her to discredit ALIPAC and other groups. "Of course, what Shawna Forde has done is no reflection of the 200 million-plus Americans that share our concerns about border security. But there are people all across the Internet that are hoping, praying, and doing their very best to take what Shawna Forde has done" and indict the entire movement.

Among those closest to Shawna Forde was Jim Gilchrist, who runs a group called the Minuteman Project from Laguna Hills, Calif. Prior to the murders, Gilchrist shared the podium with Forde at various conferences, and described her in online postings as "a stoic struggler."

When I interviewed him a few months after the murders, Gilchrist was still defending Forde. "Being a victim of propaganda, I know what it's like to be relentlessly barraged with lies and propaganda," he told me. "Being innocently hung, I am very skeptical about claiming that anybody is guilty of anything until we get through the legal system."

He subsequently castigated Gheen "and his small band of hate-mongers" for attacking Forde and his connections to her. "I have met so many people in this movement who are either delusional or are just not playing with a full deck," Gilchrist told me. "They're out there. They're the ones who are attacking me because I refuse to goose step with them, and I refuse to work with them because they're nutcases."

Today, Gilchrist apparently prefers not to discuss Shawna Forde; numerous attempts to interview him by phone were unsuccessful.

Carolyn Brown is a professor at American University's School of Communications in Washington, D.C. She has extensively researched the border militia groups, and produced the documentary On the Line, which traced the activities of the now defunct Minutemen Civil Defense Corps.

Brown says public support for militia groups plunged following the Arivaca murders, a trend that only accelerated in March 2010 when Minutemen president Carmen Mercer urged supporters to merge on the border "locked, loaded and ready."

Mercer oversaw the corps' disbanding later that month, saying her "call to action" might be misunderstood, and result in substantial liability. Commenting in the the Arizona Daily Star, she said that militia members "are ready to come locked and loaded, and that's not what we are all about."

These bizarre contradictions highlighted an undertone of violence and, according to Brown, further sullied public perception of such groups.

"I'm not sure the organization or the fervor has changed, especially in Arizona," she says. "But I think the love affair with the media has changed. The media no longer favors them as much as they have in the past."

Glenn Spencer heads the American Border Patrol, headquartered on the Arizona-Mexico line south of Sierra Vista. Shawna Forde had enjoyed short stays on Spencer's ranch, and was leaving his compound when she was apprehended by federal agents on murder charges.

At the time, that connection drew heated attacks by Gheen. Spencer didn't hesitate to respond. "By making these totally false accusations with no evidence whatsoever to back them up," Spencer wrote on his website, "Mr. Gheen has proven himself to be unprofessional and exploitative of the problems of unfortunate people like Shawna Forde. He is doing this to make money by tearing his 'competitors' down, pure and simple.

"There is really only one way to deal with people like Mr. Gheen and it is not to mince words," Spencer continued. "To wit: Wm. Gheen is an idiot."

But these days, Spencer prefers not to discuss the matter. What he will say is that his APB continues to grow, despite the Shawna Forde residue. "Our supporters come from all over the United States, and the Shawna Forde thing was just a local thing. It did make some national news but not much. ... It had no impact on us whatsoever."

Kat Rodriguez finds that comment intriguing. As program director for the immigrant advocacy group Coalición de Derechos Humanos, she's watched Spencer's group and others feverishly distance themselves from Forde, even as news of the murders flew around the world.

"The fact is that they've all gone into CYA—cover your own ass—mode," Rodriguez says. But she believes they're all equally guilty of stoking the demons that drove Shawna Forde. "The anti-immigrant rhetoric, the fervor, the lies that continue to be told ... She would not have been able to do those kinds of things, say those kinds of things, get the traction she had, had she not enjoyed this status that was implied by being part of the Minutemen Project."

Adding to the heated atmosphere, says Rodriguez, is a border backdrop where scores of immigrants perish each year, and the governor wins reelection by fabricating stories about narco beheadings in the desert.

Those factors allowed Forde and Bush to think they could attack the Flores family with impunity, Rodriguez says. "You had these people openly plotting to kill them. It's not like they just wanted to rob them. They hunted them down."