Shawna Forde was a rogue, many border-security activists say, or an impostor or a criminal.
They say the woman now charged in connection with the home invasion and shooting deaths of an Arivaca marijuana-trafficking suspect and his 9-year-old daughter was not really one of them.
But interviews with so-called Minutemen and their critics, as well as reviews of recently scrubbed Web sites, suggest Forde was well-placed in the border-security movement and represented a persistent radical wing.
"Shawna Forde was very much a known entity in this movement and, to some degree and to different folks, tolerated for quite some time," said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University-San Bernardino.
Forde has been charged with two counts of murder in the May 30 home-invasion killings, and with aggravated assault in the shooting of the pot-trafficking suspect's wife. Pima County sheriff's investigators allege Forde conceived of the killings and carried them out with co-defendants Jason E. Bush and Albert R. Gaxiola, in order to raise money for her small anti-illegal-immigration group, Minutemen American Defense, and other activities.
Forde and Bush were white supremacists, according to police reports in Washington state and Pima County and one of Forde's brothers. Since her arrest on June 12, Minuteman groups and their allies have distanced themselves from her.
Jim Gilchrist, founder of the Minuteman Project and an early leader of the movement, said last week that he donated $200 to a member of Forde's group, that he called Forde a few days after the murders as investigators closed in, and that his group removed postings by and about Forde from its Web site after the arrests. But he called Forde and her associates "rogues," and denied that he or his group had a formal relationship with her.
"They happened to use the Minuteman movement as a guise, as a mask," he said.
Glenn Spencer, founder of the American Border Patrol and another prominent figure in the anti-illegal-immigration movement, posted an Internet account of Forde's arrest titled "Full Disclosure About Shawna Forde." She was arrested minutes after leaving Spencer's house near Sierra Vista.
He said Forde had dropped in uninvited on June 12 and asked to use a room in the house, which doubles as American Border Patrol's offices, to write an e-mail, then left.
"Being a polite person, I spoke with her, even though last summer I told American Border Patrol employees that, due to her strange behavior, she was no longer welcome at the ranch," Spencer wrote. "This is an object lesson about understanding with whom you are dealing in the border volunteer effort."
But former American Border Patrol employee Michael Christie, who left the group in February, said radicals such as Forde were a persistent part of the movement.
"This movement attracts people who are desperate to be a part of something big," Christie said. "These are people who are discontented with their lives for one reason or another, who have probably tried to make a difference in other aspects of their lives and failed." Looking back
Today's Minuteman movement was forming as early as last decade, when Roger Barnett began patrolling Cochise County ranch lands, looking for illegal immigrants.
But the movement took off in 2002 when then-Tombstone resident Chris Simcox printed a call to form a border-security militia in the Tumbleweed newspaper, which he owned.
Even while calling for armed citizen patrols of the border, Simcox warned of the danger of radicals joining up. "We want local people," he said in 2002. "We don't want the Rambos, the mercenaries and soldiers of fortune that some of these groups seem to be made up of."
When Simcox and Gilchrist organized an April 2005 patrol along the border in Cochise County, hundreds of everyday people came from around the country to join them. White supremacists also showed up, said Heidi Beirich, director of research for the Southern Poverty Law Center. "From the get-go, from 2005, that movement has been shot through by extremists," she said. "She was so assertive"
In 2007, Forde applied to join Simcox's group, Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, and was allowed in on a probationary basis, said group Vice President Al Garza and founder Simcox, who left the group this year to run for the U.S. Senate. The group vetted her through interviews and a background check, members said.
"Within a few weeks, she was so assertive, wanting to take charge and wanting to be a spokesperson," Simcox said.
"She lasted less than six months. After that, she went and tried other groups," he said. "She thrust herself into the movement where no one else wanted her." "It's a hodgepodge of folks"
The world she entered is a set of individuals and groups, many using the word "Minuteman" in their name, many harboring hostilities with each other. They share an interest in stopping illegal immigration.
"It's a hodgepodge of folks, including some real decent people of good will who are not racist, who are for strict immigration laws and border enforcement," said Cal State's Levin. "However, peppered in there are some unstable folks; peppered in there are some racists."
Garza and others noted, though, that the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps and other groups have rules in place forbidding racism in their organizations, and that their vetting is intended to catch white supremacists. They also note that the whole movement has had few negative incidents during its many patrols and has helped hundreds of border-crossers in trouble.
Still, Forde showed up wherever she could find border-security hard-liners.
She came to Spencer's Sierra Vista-area ranch, from which the American Border Patrol conducts high-tech border surveillance, at least a half-dozen times, Christie said. (Spencer said she came a maximum of three times.)
"She would use it as a place to stay when she would go out and scout the border," he said.
Last summer, she stayed for a week, Spencer said. He said he decided to keep her away after she asked if her teenage daughter could stay and work at the ranch, which he found inappropriate.
In August 2008, Forde showed up uninvited at Camp Vigilance, used by the Minuteman Corps of California and the private group Border Patrol Auxiliary as a base for patrols, said member Carl Braun. She was ejected after 40 minutes.
Last October, she showed up at a camp near Three Points where the Minutemen Civil Defense Corps had a group, Simcox said. There, too, she was ejected not long after arriving, he said.
That same month, Chuck Stonex met Forde for the first time at a border operation near Three Points, he said. "She said she was trying to infiltrate the cartel in Arivaca," said Stonex, of Alamogordo, N.M.
On May 30, Stonex said, he was in Arizona to attend a barbecue at Spencer's home when Forde called him asking for medical supplies because a colleague, Bush, had been shot during a patrol. Stonex drove to Arivaca and helped clean and bandage Bush's wound, which he says was minor. Forming an association
As Forde made forays into other groups, she formed an association with Gilchrist, the founder of the Minuteman Project. She posted reports from the border on his Web site, and they defended each other publicly from critics.
In July 2008, Forde wrote about Gilchrist, identifying herself as "Operations Director For The Project," and saying, "The Project has worked closely with MAD (Minutemen American Defense) for several years now."
On Feb. 23, the day after Forde's hometown newspaper, the Everett (Wash.) Herald, published an exposé of Forde's background, Gilchrist defended her in an Internet posting.
"In my experience with Ms. Forde I conclude that she is no whiner. She is a stoic struggler who has chosen to put country, community, and a yearning for a civilized society ahead of avarice and self-glorifying ego."
"The Minuteman Project is proud to be a supporter of Shawna Forde's Minutemen (women) American Defense (M.A.D.)"
On June 2, three days after the murders, Gilchrist received an e-mail from a Southern Arizona associate who had been visited by investigators looking for Forde. Gilchrist forwarded the e-mail to Forde, he said.
He said he called her and asked if there was a warrant for her arrest. She said no.
But after roaming Southern Arizona for another nine or so days, she was picked up outside Spencer's home.
"This movement attracts people who are desperate to be a part of something big; these are people who are discontented with their lives for one reason or another, who have probably tried to make a difference in other aspects of their lives and failed."
Michael Christie Former American Border Patrol employee