By Kayla Epstein, Eli Rosenberg and Lindsey Bever / The Washington Post
The leader of an armed militia that scours the southern border for undocumented migrants had once claimed his group was training to assassinate Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and billionaire Democratic donor George Soros, the FBI said.
Larry Mitchell Hopkins appeared Monday in U.S. District Court in New Mexico, days after a video of the group holding migrants against their will sparked outrage. The 69-year-old was arrested on Saturday in Sunland Park, New Mexico, on charges of being a felon in possession of firearms and ammunition.
The charges stem from an incident in 2017, when the FBI received a tip that he was connected to “alleged militia extremist activity” and found nine guns in his home, including a 12-gauge shotgun, long rifles and handguns. Hopkins claimed the weapons belonged to a woman he was living with, the FBI said in recently unsealed court documents.
His attorney, Kelly O’Connell, a former conservative radio host in New Mexico, questioned the timing of the charges against his client.
“The main takeaway is this was not about anything down at the border,” O’Connell said in a brief phone interview with The Washington Post. “If it was a very serious charge worthy of prosecution and incarceration, why not jump on it immediately?” He told Reuters his client intends to plead not guilty.
Elizabeth Martinez, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in New Mexico, declined to comment on the delay in charging Hopkins.
Citizen-led patrols have been prompted by a recent surge in caravans of Central American migrants and have been emboldened by President Donald Trump’s assertion that the arrivals constitute an “invasion.”
Hopkins leads the United Constitutional Patriots, or UCP, one of several militias that have taken to patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border. The group’s stated objective is to “uphold the Constitution of The United States of America” and to protect citizens’ rights “against all enemies both foreign and domestic” – which mimics the oath taken by U.S. service members.
The United Constitutional Patriots came to public attention this month after the emergence of videos that showed men stopping and detaining people crossing the border.
An April 16 video, which was posted on Facebook by a woman who goes by Debbie Collins Farnsworth, showed a large group of migrants, including several children, kneeling on the ground in the total darkness, some of their faces illuminated by flashlights.
“This is crazy, everybody, totally crazy,” a voice that appeared to be Farnsworth’s narrated as the camera moved around the group, claiming it consisted of “hundreds” of people. “I don’t know what to say about this, other than the fact it’s got to stop,” she said.
Several minutes into the 45-minute video, Border Patrol officers arrived and ordered the migrants to sit down before telling them to start walking.
As the migrants were shepherded through the night, adults were seen holding children’s hands.
“See the way they hold their kids? I don’t think those are their kids, honestly,” the narrator continued. “They’ve got grips on their wrists. It’s crazy.”
The video had garnered more than 100,000 views and 2,700 shares by late Sunday afternoon.
The militia has maintained its actions are legal, though Sunland Park Police Chief Javier Guerra told BuzzFeed News that he explicitly informed the group that they are not.
The New Mexico chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter Thursday to the state’s governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, and attorney general, Hector Balderas, D, demanding that they investigate the United Constitutional Patriots and the actions that were captured in the April 16 video.
“We cannot allow racist and armed vigilantes to kidnap and detain people seeking asylum,” it said. “We urge you to immediately investigate this atrocious and unlawful conduct.”
“Law enforcement belongs strictly in the hands of trained professionals,” Peter Simonson, director of the ACLU in New Mexico, told The Post. He said his group alerted officials because of fears that the armed militia members would harm migrants.
On Friday, the governor called the militia’s actions “absolutely unacceptable.”
“This is a dangerous felon who should not have weapons around children and families,” Balderas, the state attorney general, said in a statement after Hopkins’s arrest. He said the arrest “indicates clearly that the rule of law should be in the hands of trained law enforcement officials, not vigilantes.”
This is not the first time Hopkins has faced a weapons charge.
In 2006, he was arrested in Oregon on charges of impersonating a police officer and being a felon in possession of a firearm, according to an incident report cited by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The report states that Hopkins was seen at a gas station in Keno, Oregon, near the California border, showing firearms to a group of children and telling them that he was a police officer.
A Klamath County sheriff’s deputy wrote in the incident report that he had “observed that Larry Hopkins was wearing a black uniform style shirt and black pants. Hopkins had a badge similar in appearance to a police officer badge pinned above his left breast in the area a police officer would wear a badge. Hopkins had a gold star on each of his collars which is often a sign of rank. Hopkins had several military or law enforcement style pins all over his shirt in a uniform appearance.”
Hopkins was indicted on one count of impersonating a police officer and two counts of being a felon in possession of a firearm but, in the end, did not serve a sentence, according to the SPLC.
Following Hopkins’s weekend arrest, one of the militia’s members, Jim Benvie, addressed the recent charges in a Facebook Live video, saying that the militia was not breaking any laws and that Hopkins would be exonerated.
He asserted that Hopkins was “set up” by Grisham and Balderas based on the ACLU’s “false, baseless allegations against the group.”
“This was their first attack,” Benvie said. “They want to create a narrative that there’s a bunch of reckless criminals out on the border.”
The United Constitutional Patriots did not respond to a Facebook message and a phone inquiry from The Post requesting comment.
A U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman distanced the agency from the militia in a statement to The Post, saying the agency “does not endorse private groups or organizations taking enforcement matters into their own hands” and warning that “interference by civilians in law enforcement matters could have public safety and legal consequences for all parties involved.”
However, some of the group’s videos showed Border Patrol agents arriving to take away migrants who had been stopped by militia members. One militia member, Mark Cheney, told BuzzFeed News that Border Patrol officers are “happy we’re here… . We have a direct line to the local outpost.”