Chris Simcox, co-founder of the vigilante Minutemen, describes himself in heroic terms. But some of those once close to him tell a different, and frightening, story.
With his guns close at hand and visions of mushroom clouds blossoming darkly in his mind's eye, Chris Simcox punched the record button on the answering machine inside his Los Angeles apartment.
"Hi, this is Chris," he said. "You have reached a righteous American educational institution. Due to the horrific changes in our society in the last few days, I now must preface that I will accept offers of communication only from people who preface their message with the preamble to the Constitution of the United States of America. If you include that with your message, I look forward to communicating with you, and have a great day. Thanks. Bye."
It was Sept. 13, 2001. Simcox, by his own later account to reporters, was obsessed with the recent terrorist attacks. His phone messages and conversations with relatives were growing increasingly bizarre. He talked endlessly about stockpiling firearms and apocalyptic premonitions. Los Angeles was doomed, he said. Then, on Sept. 30, he fled the city for good.
"I'm going on a great adventure," he told his teenaged son. "If I end up going to prison, you can always e-mail me."
Four years later, Simcox is at the height of his great adventure. He is president of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, a nationwide, anti-immigration vigilante organization with armed "citizen border patrols" in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas, along with a smattering of states on the Canadian border where Minutemen have deployed to protect America from northern invaders.
Simcox has said he moved to Los Angeles from New York (where he relates that he was mugged twice by people who didn't speak English) because he wanted to be a movie star.
He didn't make it as an actor. But he's famous now. Hailed as a hero within the anti-immigration movement, Simcox has testified before Congress and been interviewed, repeatedly, on CNN (see Broken Record).
A frequent guest on the Fox News show "Hannity & Colmes," Simcox travels the country giving paid lectures at anti-immigration conferences where he receives standing ovations and accolades from other celebrity extremists.
"I salute Chris Simcox. The Minutemen are the best thing that ever happened to our movement," the Los Angeles talk radio host Terry Anderson told anti-immigration activists at "America First," a "summit on national security" held in October at a private Christian school in a Chicago suburb.
At that summit, Simcox claimed to have signed up more than 1,200 volunteers who have "assisted in the apprehension of more than 6,500 illegal immigrants representing 27 different countries."
"We are the premier civilian border defense organization," he said. "We are the biggest, baddest neighborhood watch group in the nation."
Angling for Power
Never modest, the cigar-chomping Simcox is a hyper and relentless self-aggrandizer who comes across with the smug egotism and fiery conviction of a former nobody who has long suspected that he's destined for greatness.
"I didn't choose this cause, it chose me," he said during his "America First" address. "But the Minutemen are now a force to be reckoned with, and I will continue to lead these proud and patriotic Americans until we achieve total victory. We're not leaving the border until we're relieved from duty by the U.S. military or National Guard. There will be no compromise."
Though his core supporters are anti-immigrant extremists, Simcox's political influence presently extends far beyond the fringe. More than 20 U.S. congressmen attended a Minuteman rally he hosted in September in Washington, D.C. And six of those politicians actually signed up with his organization, strapped on handguns and participated in Minuteman patrols in October, along with Arizona Republican gubernatorial candidate Don Goldwater, nephew of archconservative one-time presidential contender Barry Goldwater ("Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice").
That same month, Simcox met with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Both men have publicly endorsed Minuteman patrols in their states.
"I appreciate the support of elected officials, but right now our state and federal politicians are still not willing to do what's necessary to defend our borders, which is why we have to do it ourselves," Simcox said at "America First." "If you're breaking into this country when this country is at war, then you're a potential enemy of this country, and you should be treated accordingly."
While Simcox has been interviewed for hundreds of newspaper articles and television shows, little has been reported about his background except that he used to be a private-school teacher and that he claims to have been a hip-hop music producer and a professional baseball player who was once drafted by the Cincinnati Reds but had to quit the game after he had part of a lung surgically removed.
During interview after interview, Simcox has told the same story of his political awakening. It came, he says, during a 40-day solo camping trip at Arizona's Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in October 2001, during which he encountered platoons of illegal aliens and witnessed "five paramilitary groups of drug dealers just driving caravans of vehicles right into this country." After that, according to his account, Simcox moved to Tombstone, Ariz., and rededicated his life to national security.
Threats, Anger and Paranoia
The truth is more complex and troubling. Court records obtained by the Center's Intelligence Project show Simcox's second ex-wife, Kim Dunbar, filed an emergency appeal in September 2001 to obtain full custody of their teenage son because she feared that Simcox had suffered a mental breakdown and was dangerous.
Dunbar declined to be interviewed for this article, but her sworn affidavits speak for themselves. In one, Dunbar testified that throughout their 10-year marriage, Simcox was prone to sudden, violent rages.
"He once took a knife from the kitchen and threatened to kill himself," she testified. "When he was angry, he broke furniture, car windows, he banged his head against the wall repeatedly and punched things."
Dunbar said that when their son was 4 years old, Simcox slapped him so hard that a mark remained on his face for two days. Another time, she testified, she grabbed her young son in her arms and jumped out a window because Simcox was throwing furniture at them.
After such episodes, she said, Simcox would become despondent. "He would stare at walls, mumbling to himself." In the affidavits, Dunbar said she repeatedly pressured Simcox to seek professional help and even tried to have him hospitalized. But he persistently refused treatment.
"Eventually," she said, "the only thing I could do was file for divorce."
Simcox and Dunbar initially shared custody of their son. There was no legal dispute until shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, when Dunbar suddenly filed a flurry of emergency appeals.
"While Chris has always been prone to strong opinions and ranting behavior, this last episode has gone even farther," she told the court. "I am convinced he has had some kind of mental lapse and I am now, more than ever, afraid for my son to be in Chris' care."
Dunbar grew frightened after Simcox left her a series of bizarre voicemail messages beginning that Sept. 13, in which he went on angry diatribes about the Constitution, patriotism, and impending nuclear attacks on Los Angles, and talked about training their 15-year-old son in the use of firearms.
"I will begin teaching him the art of protecting himself with weapons," Simcox said in one recorded message he left for Dunbar. "I purchased another gun. I have more than a few weapons, and I intend on teaching my son how to use them." Simcox added, "I will no longer trust anyone in this country. My life has changed forever, and if you don't get that, you are brainwashed like everybody else."
In phone conversations with his son that his ex-wife recorded and submitted to the court as evidence of Simcox's mental instability, he challenged the boy to become "a man and a real American."
"You better stop playing baseball, buddy, and you better do something real, 'cause life will never be the same," Simcox thundered. "I'm going to go down to the Mexican border and sign up for the government for border patrol to protect the borders of the country that I love. You hear how serious I am."
Simcox's son asked his father what would happen to his cat, Moe. "Moe may end up on the dead pile, " Simcox said.
Wyatt Earp vs. the Chinese
The court ruled in Dunbar's favor, ending the joint custody arrangement and awarding Dunbar sole custody of their son.
Simcox has said that after leaving Los Angeles he tried to become a Border Patrol agent but was rejected for being too old. After settling in Tombstone, he worked for a while as a gunfight-show actor before purchasing the local newspaper, The Tombstone Tumbleweed.
Simcox initially told followers he had drained his son's college fund to pay for the paper, but later switched to claiming he had emptied his own retirement account. Simcox used the paper to rail against illegal immigration and to recruit volunteers for Civil Homeland Defense, the outfit he founded in 2002 and described in the Tumbleweed as a "committee of vigilantes."
In January 2003, while on patrol with Civil Homeland Defense, Simcox was arrested by federal park rangers for illegally carrying a .45-caliber semi-automatic handgun in a national park. Also in Simcox's possession at the time of that arrest, according to police records, were a document entitled "Mission Plan," a police scanner, two walkie-talkies, and a toy figure of Wyatt Earp on horseback.
Two months later, in a speech to the California Coalition on Immigration Reform, a hate group whose leader, Barbara Coe, routinely refers to Mexicans as "savages," Simcox offered a dire warning to his audience.
"Take heed of our weapons because we're going to defend our borders by any means necessary," he said. "There's something very fishy going on at the border. The Mexican army is driving American vehicles -- but carrying Chinese weapons. I have personally seen what I can only believe to be Chinese troops."
Of illegal immigrants, Simcox added: "They're trashing their neighborhoods, refusing to assimilate, standing on street corners, jeering at little girls walking on their way to school."
Simcox's big mouth and swaggering manner inspired Tombstone locals and the numerous Simcox detractors within the Minuteman movement to nickname him "The Little Prince."
Wherever he goes, Simcox seems to establish a reputation for arrogance. After failing as a would-be actor in Los Angeles, he took a job in 1990 teaching at a prestigious private academy, Wildwood School.
In interviews with the Intelligence Report, two of Simcox's former teaching colleagues at the school describe him as an instructor who was exceptionally popular with students and parents but isolated himself from his fellow teachers with his condescending attitude.
"He always stayed up on the latest trends in childhood development and teaching methods, and he was always talking about himself like he was God's gift to teaching," said one teacher who taught at Wildwood at the same time as Simcox.
"He had this real holier-than-thou attitude, like he was so far above the other teachers they should be grateful he was even discussing his methods with them. He was insulting."
'A Drastic, Dangerous Guy'
There's one trend that Simcox seems oblivious to -- the growing involvement of racists in the border vigilante movement. Despite the fact that white supremacist groups openly recruit for Minuteman patrols and that a handful of neo-Nazis from the National Alliance and Aryan Nations did sign up for the Minuteman Project in April, Simcox refuses to acknowledge that vigilante border patrols are potentially a magnet for violent racists.
"There's nothing fundamentally racist about national security, so there's no reason that fundamental racists should be interested in joining our movement," he said at the Chicago Minutemen conference.
In multiple interviews and public appearances, Simcox has dismissed the possibility that he's personally racist by pointing out that he once married a black woman and by claiming that he once chaired the diversity committee at Wildwood School.
(Head of School Hope Boyd, who has been at Wildwood since 1992, told the Report she had no recollection of Simcox holding such a post. "I do not remember that he was chair of our diversity committee," she said.)
"When I'm asked by reporters if I'm a racist, I tell them, 'Why don't you go ask my black ex-wife and my biracial children and the members of the racial diversity committee I chaired whether I'm a racist?'" he said at the October conference.
"When they ask me, 'Well, what do you have to say to people who call you a racist?' I come back at them with, 'What do you have to say to people who call you a child molester?'"
That's a strange rhetorical device given the accusations leveled at Simcox in the summer of 1998, when his 14-year-old daughter from his first marriage -- prior to his union with Dunbar -- came to live with him in Los Angeles.
In separate interviews with the Intelligence Report, two of Simcox's former colleagues at Wildwood and his first ex-wife gave the same account. They said that Simcox helped his daughter get a job babysitting for a Wildwood School employee and that one night, Simcox's daughter showed up unexpectedly at her employer's house, visibly upset, alleging that her father had just attempted to sexually molest her.
"He tried to molest our daughter when he was intoxicated," said Deborah Crews, Simcox's first ex-wife and the girl's mother. "When she ran out, he tried to say he was just giving her a leg massage and she got the wrong idea."
Contacted by the Report, Simcox refused to answer four direct questions about the molestation allegations. "I would never answer those questions to you. You can't ask those questions," he said. "You're on a witch hunt and you're trying to discredit our movement, which is to secure the borders. ... My personal life has nothing to do with anything that goes on here."
No charges were filed against Simcox, but Crews said she and her daughter immediately broke off all contact with him.
"He's a drastic, chaotic, very dangerous guy," said Crews. "I'm surprised he hasn't shot anybody yet. I see him on TV and I have to turn if off, because it makes me sick to see him getting all this attention."
Simcox, now 44, recently married for a third time. He met his new wife, 25-year-old documentary filmmaker Alena Lyras when she traveled to Tombstone in April along with hundreds of other journalists to interview Simcox during the Minuteman Project. Simcox organized the massively hyped, month-long vigilante action with current Orange County, Calif., congressional candidate Jim Gilchrist, for whom Simcox says he has been stumping as a paid spokesman.
Simcox and Lyras were married in late August in Maricopa County, Ariz. Simcox sold The Tumbleweed in September and moved in with Lyras at her home in Phoenix. During the "America First" summit, Simcox said that Lyras is "useful to our movement, because she's young enough that she's been infiltrating the ACLU and other open borders groups and filming their meetings and protests."
At that summit, Simcox said he has no plans to run for office like his colleague, Gilchrist.
"My future plans do not involve politics. ... Once we've finally stopped the illegal immigration invasion in this country, I plan to turn my attention to education reform. I believe that's where America needs me next."
But just as Gilchrist toned down his militant rhetoric once he started campaigning for Congress, Simcox continues to finely tune his public image.
But his rivals don't buy it. "Simcox knows how to put on a good showpiece, and he looks pretty on TV, but he's all talk and no walk," said Jim Chase, leader of the rival, more hard-core civilian border patrol organization California Minutemen.
"He's more concerned with finding himself a sugar mama than anything else. I expect that if the bullets ever really start flying or if the going really gets tough, he'll abandon what he started. Until then, he'll go on pretending he's king shit of the Minutemen."
Susy Buchanan and David Holthouse are senior writers for the Intelligence Project's quarterly magazine, the Intelligence Report.