[Cross-posted at Hatewatch.]
At one time, about a decade ago, Chris Simcox was a political figure in high demand: As the cofounder of the nativist border watch operation known as the Minuteman Project, he was a popular guest on TV and radio programs – where he often held forth on the alleged dangers of illegal immigration, demanding that the government enforce “the rule of law” – and his endorsement was avidly sought by a number of conservative politicians. However, in the intervening decade, Simcox’s celebrity has been in sharp decline.
That fall was completed last week when a Phoenix jury of nine men and three women convicted Simcox, 55, of two counts of child molestation and a charge of providing pornography to a minor. Judge Jose Padilla scheduled Simcox's sentencing for July 5, when he faces a sentence of 17 to 37 years in prison under Arizona sentencing guidelines.
The conviction came after a four-week trial that included witness testimony against Simcox by all three of his daughters by two different marriages, who all claimed he had either molested them or had attempted to while caring for them. However, the jury voted to acquit Simcox of the sexual misconduct charges involving the two youngest daughters, now ages 7 and 9, charges that potentially carried a sentence of life in prison.
The charges for which he was convicted involved his molestation of another now 8-year-old girl, a neighbor at their Mesa apartment complex and one of his daughters’ playmates. She testified in person that Simcox had played with her genitals on several occasions while visiting their home, and her original testimony for a counselor, videotaped when she was 5 shortly before Simcox’s arrest, was played for the jury on the final day for testimony.
His oldest daughter, now 33, also testified that Simcox had attempted twice to molest her when she was in his care as a teenager in Los Angeles, where he lived at the time, as the SPLC reported in a profile of Simcox’s troubled background in 2006. "I felt scared and uneasy around him most of the time," she told the court.
Simcox had gained fame in nativist circles in the early part of the previous decade by leading armed patrols in the Arizona desert in order to catch illegal border crosses. Eventually he co-founded the Minuteman Project, the April 2005 gathering on the Arizona border of citizen border watchers south of the Tombstone area, where Simcox lived at the time, with California activist Jim Gilchrist.
Originally founded as a border militia, Simcox and his Minutemen became the epitome of the nativist border-watch movement, embodied by a national fund-raising campaign that he led to build a fence on a section of the border as a demonstration project that mostly ended up lining the pockets of his Beltway-based handlers. The movement, which peaked with 319 nativist extremist groups in 2010, had faded to just 17 groups by late last year.
He later announced his intentions to run for John McCain’s U.S. Senate seat in 2010, but abandoned the campaign after only a few months when the ugly details of his divorce from the two girls’ mother began surfacing.
Simcox was a volatile personality with a history of destroyed relationships, and eventually his Minuteman Civil Defense Corps (MCDC) shut down amid turmoil within its ranks over finances and egos, as well as the decline of its reputation as the border-watch movement became increasingly associated with criminality.
Indeed, while the phrase “rule of law” even today is often bandied about by the remaining nativist extremist groups, the record demonstrates that this was a peculiarly flexible concept for many of the Minutemen and their associates.
Among the onetime Minutemen now in prison are Shawna Forde, a onetime associate of Simcox’s who later become more closely affiliated with Gilchrist, and who is now on Arizona’s Death Row for masterminding the home-invasion murder of a 9-year-old Latina girl and her 32-year-old father; as well as a Tucson man named Todd Hezlitt, who was arrested and charged with two counts of sexual conduct with a minor for an affair he had initiated with a 15-year-old girl from a local high school where he was an assistant wrestling coach, then fled with her to Mexico before he eventually wound up pleading guilty to the sexual conduct charges in exchange for not being charged with kidnapping, and was sentenced to six years in prison.
Yet another vigilante border watcher, Jason Todd “J.T.” Ready — a longtime leader of the state’s neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement, and an organizer of independent NSM border watches in Arizona — went on a shooting rampage at the home of his girlfriend, killing four people (including a toddler) before turning the gun on himself.
However, Simcox’s concept of vigilante citizen patrols of the nation’s southern border remains very popular with antigovernment groups. Although they had largely disappeared by 2010, in recent years, such organizations have popped up again in Texas and in Arizona, fueled in large part by hysteria over Latin-American children fleeing political and criminal violence in Central America arriving on the borders in large numbers.
Simcox was arrested in July 2013 on three counts of child molestation, later reduced to two such counts, though prosecutors also charged him with sexual misconduct with a minor under 12. Prosecutors at one time had offered Simcox a generous plea deal that would have given him a 10-year sentence – an offer that deeply angered Michelle Lynch, the mother of the neighbor girl. However, Simcox rejected the deal. He remained in the Maricopa County Jail for the duration of the long runup to the trial and announced in 2015 that he intended to act as his own attorney in the trial.
That produced both drama and further delays for the trial, since it presented the prospect that Simcox could wind up cross-examining his victims on the stand – a rare event in a court system that is supposed to offer robust protections for crime victims. And after the matter was bandied about in the courts – Padilla agreed to permit Simcox to conduct the cross-examinations of the girls, but that decision was appealed to the Arizona Supreme Court, which eventually permitted the trial to proceed while it considered the propriety of permitting such cross-examinations in pro se cases.
Again, Lynch was unhappy, describing how she felt abandoned by the system, and criticizing the prosecutor’s office. “Over the whole two-year process, victims’ rights in general have just not been followed,” she told Hatewatch at the time. “I’ve gotten more information from reporters and television than I’ve even had with my own victim’s advocate.”
The jury took a day and half of deliberation to reach the verdict. This time, however, Lynch was pleased, despite the acquittal on the most serious charge, telling Stephen Lemons of the Phoenix New Times: "This conviction is for all of the children he hurt," she said. Then she added: "I hope that he meets karma in prison."