Gilbert gunman's rampage sheds light on extremism

Arizona Republic News/May 5, 2012

Neo-Nazi J.T. Ready's death Wednesday in what authorities believe was a murder-suicide in Gilbert has decapitated the border vigilante group he founded, but anti-immigrant extremism is expected to continue in Arizona.

The state has long had a homegrown fringe right-wing element, but its more recent status as ground zero in the heated national debate over illegal immigration has made Arizona a beacon to out-of-state White supremacists, neo-Nazis, skinheads and militia types.

The national furor over the Arizona Legislature's passage of an immigration-enforcement law, Senate Bill 1070, in 2010 helped make the state a destination for hate groups, say scholars and other experts who research extremism. Other perhaps equally significant factors are Arizona's proximity to Mexico, its casual gun culture and its reputation for anti-federal-government rhetoric and intemperate politics, which have played out to varying degrees for decades.

"I know neo-Nazis who want to make pilgrimages to Arizona," said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University-San Bernardino. Levin has interviewed many hate-group members, including Ready. "They believe that there are a lot of people in the state who are sympathetic to them."

Ready was not a native Arizonan. In 2006, when running for the Mesa City Council, he said he was born in Florida but spent much of his adult life in Arizona. He eventually founded a group, the U.S. Border Guard, that attracted support and visitors from out of state. The group once proposed putting a minefield along the U.S.-Mexican border. Ready also was a former member of the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement, based in Detroit.

His death has pulled back the curtain on the shadowy world of extremism in Arizona that seems to teeter on the edge of violence.

Seventeen hate groups, including Ready's armed search-and-rescue squad, had a presence in Arizona as of 2011, according to the Montgomery, Ala.-based Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremism across the country. Others include the National Socialist Movement, which has an authorized Phoenix unit that Ready once led; the National Knights of the Ku Klux Klan; and the Vinlanders Social Club.

"J.T. was the founder and patrol leader of U.S. Border Guard, but there are other groups, though, who are still active and who will continue to be active," said Harry Hughes, a National Socialist Movement regional director who lives in Maricopa and was a good friend of Ready's. "So the whole concept that J.T. started with the U.S. Border Guard, I'm sure will continue. People come from other states, from all over the country, to come out here to patrol our desert areas."

Ongoing investigations

James Turgal, special agent in charge of the FBI's Phoenix division, said the Arizona domestic-terrorism program is "very active," specifically mentioning the National Socialist Movement and neo-Nazis, the Vinlanders, skinheads and the anti-government "sovereign citizen" movement.

Turgal declined to talk about ongoing investigations. "But suffice it to say, there are some," he said.

Gilbert police believe Ready, 39, shot and killed his girlfriend and three other people, including a 15-month-old girl, before committing suicide. Despite Ready's extremist resume and border activities, authorities are investigating the killings as a domestic-violence case.

"There are a lot of really thuggish individuals associated with the nativist movement in Arizona," said Mark Potok, editor of the Southern Poverty Law Center's magazine Intelligence Report. "I think what these murders reflect is the kind of person who very often is attracted to this movement. J.T. Ready was a thug. He had a long history of violence, and it finally came to this kind of violence."

The apparent murder-suicide in Gilbert is far from the first time that violence in Arizona has been linked to anti-illegal-immigration extremists or White supremacists.

Earlier this year, Dennis Mahon, a White supremacist from Illinois, was convicted on charges connected to the Feb. 26, 2004, mail bombing that injured Don Logan, then-director of Scottsdale's Office of Diversity and Dialogue. Mahon's brother, Daniel, also a White supremacist, was acquitted on a charge of conspiracy to damage buildings and property.

Last year, Shawna Forde, founder of a group called the Minutemen American Defense, and two other border activists were convicted of first-degree murder in the 2009 deaths of two people, including a 9-year-old girl.

Jeffery Harbin, a National Socialist Movement member from Apache Junction, pleaded guilty in 2011 to transporting homemade explosive devices that, according to a government informant, were intended for border activity.

In April, a group of camouflage-clad gunmen killed two immigrants in an ambush near Eloy. The killers could have been human smugglers or bandits, but Potok speculated that vigilantes may have been responsible. The killings are still under investigation.

"Immigration is pretty much unarguably the No. 1 recruiting element in the White supremacist world," said Bill Straus, the Anti-Defamation League's regional director in Arizona.

Straus predicted that, despite the circumstances of his death, Ready will become a "martyr" for anti-illegal-immigration extremists. He said he is stunned at the general lack of outrage from Arizona's political and law-enforcement establishment over the extremists who roam the state's desert areas.

"Something like neo-Nazis patrolling the border? That warrants everybody's attention," Straus said.

'Veneer of legitimacy'

Experts say White supremacist groups started pivoting from their usual anti-Jew and anti-Black messages to the illegal-immigration debate 10 or 12 years ago. The national conversation, experts say, allows these groups to plug into some Americans' anxiety about ongoing demographic changes. Demographers predict that Whites of European ancestry will lose their majority status in the United States by 2050 or sooner.

"If you're the sort of person who sees White Protestants as the defining face of America, you're about to lose it," said David Alpher, an adjunct professor who has taught about terrorism at George Mason University's School for Conflict Analysis & Resolution in Virginia. "Immigration ties into this real loss of identity, and that's the kind of thing that people get violent over."

By cloaking themselves in the guise of patriotic border patrols responding to threats to security and safety, extremist groups can give themselves "this veneer of legitimacy," Alpher said.

Ready, in particular, sought to ingratiate himself with mainstream Arizona conservatism, running for the Mesa City Council and other offices, serving as a Republican precinct committeeman and associating with elected officials such as former Senate President Russell Pearce, the author of SB 1070. He also attempted to distance himself from his activity in the National Socialist Movement.

Ready's efforts to build a quasi-political base were stymied by the fact that much of the border-security turf in Arizona was already staked out by more serious and successful Republican politicians, said Levin of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism.

"But at the end of the day, when you're an unrepentant neo-Nazi who compliments Adolf Hitler, that really does limit your mainstream acceptability," Levin said.

Desert patrols

Hughes, who went on desert patrols with Ready's border group but did not consider himself a member, said he and others get a bad rap from their critics and the media. He characterized their border patrols as humanitarian missions that have resulted in the rescue of illegal immigrants who were lost and in danger.

"It's really ironic that a pro-White group or someone who is an alleged racist would actually give up their free time and go out and help these people," Hughes said.

Although the patrols are well-armed to guard against "bad guys" such as drug or human smugglers, Hughes said he has never run into a situation that required shooting. He flatly credited the state's "relaxed gun laws" as part of the appeal of patrolling in Arizona.

"We can't do this in California because high-capacity magazines are illegal there," Hughes said. "We do carry semiautomatic rifles."

Hughes also suggested that the patrols, which began a couple of years ago, are helping the state's economy because they attract visitors from other states.

"We've got guys who come down here for three or four weeks at a time," he said. "People were criticizing SB 1070 for driving people out of the state. Well, we've got people coming here."

Duke Schneider, the National Socialist Movement's chief of staff and head of what the organization calls its SS security force, estimated that 20 to 25 of the group's 1,400 members worldwide are based in Arizona. He disavowed Harbin, the Apache Junction bomb-maker, as a bad apple. "In his case, had we any inkling that he was doing the things that he was doing, he never would have been a part of this organization," Schneider said. "We frown on any of these things."

Straus, of the Anti-Defamation League, said that while there may not be a "tremendous" number of neo-Nazis in Arizona, a single hate-filled individual can pose a threat.

"As somebody said to me one time, 'How many neo-Nazis living on your block does it take to create a little tension and fear?' " Straus said. "It's a really relevant question."

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