Confronting a vigilante

The father of a childhood cancer survivor will get a chance this week in federal court to confront border vigilante Jim Benvie.

Hi, and welcome to The Informant, a publication covering hate and extremism in America, written and edited by me, Nick R. Martin.

The report I’m bringing you today is an important one, so I hope you’ll take the time to read it. It’s a case I’ve been covering for more than a year. It involves a border vigilante, a kid fighting cancer, a dad who stood up for his son, and a trial that begins today in federal court in New Mexico.

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Confronting a vigilante

Eric Cremeens has been waiting for this opportunity for a long time.

He’ll finally get a chance this week in federal court to confront the man who he says used his son’s childhood cancer diagnosis for years to scam people out of money.

That man is Jim Benvie, a longtime drifter who somehow managed to find a small amount of fame in the anti-immigrant movement in early 2019 by joining up with a border vigilante group in New Mexico. Benvie (pictured above) is set to go on trial starting today in Las Cruces, New Mexico, on charges that he impersonated a U.S. Border Patrol agent.

As part of that trial, the judge has allowed prosecutors to call Cremeens as a witnesses to demonstrate what they say is Benvie’s history of intentionally deceiving people. And although Cremeens’ son, Ryan, is not the focus of the case, the opportunity to testify against Benvie means a lot for the boy’s father.

“Anybody that would do this and try and take advantage of a child, they need to be shown for what they are and have the spotlight put on them for that,” Cremeens told me Saturday by phone from his home in Kentucky as he was getting ready to travel for the trial.

I’ve been covering Benvie and his border vigilante companions for more than a year. It began in late 2018, around the time of the midterm elections, with a group called the United Constitutional Patriots, which was based in northern New Mexico and run by a man who went by the fictitious name “Johnny Horton Jr.”

Hardly anyone was paying attention to the group initially, likely because it was small, numbering no more than a dozen people. But I was working as an investigative reporter for the Southern Poverty Law Center at the time, and a researcher there put me on to the group’s activities. So I started digging into it.

I soon discovered that Johnny Horton Jr.’s real name was Larry Hopkins. He and his followers had been riled up by President Trump’s pre-election fearmongering about immigration, and they had bought into all sorts of wild conspiracy theories, including that caravans of immigrants from Latin America were being funded by George Soros and trained by the United Nations.

Hopkins and his crew were so convinced about this that they fielded a team of people to head down to the U.S.-Mexico border, armed, to try to stop the immigrants themselves. The group set up camp near some railroad tracks in Sunland Park, New Mexico — a suburb of the border city of El Paso, Texas — and wound up staying there for months.

In early 2019, Jim Benvie joined the United Constitutional Patriots, and it really changed everything for the group, for better and worse. His actions would bring widespread media attention to the group. But that ultimately brought the attention of law enforcement, too.

Benvie was more media savvy than the others, so he was quickly named the group’s spokesperson. He used his own Facebook page to livestream their actions. The videos showed the armed and often camouflaged vigilantes accosting migrants who had just crossed over the border. The vigilantes would herd the migrants into an open area and then order them to sit on the ground. They would then call or flag down a Border Patrol agent in the area and turn the migrants over to authorities.

The ability to livestream has become a powerful social media tool in recent years, including for extremists who want to get their message out in real time. Following a massacre last year in New Zealand in which a white supremacist killed dozens of worshipers at two mosques while livestreaming to Facebook, the social media giant has attempted to grapple with extremist content, but it is often a losing battle.

For Benvie, the livestreams were an incredibly effective way to bring attention to the United Constitutional Patriots. Some of his videos went viral, including one in which the group claimed to have captured more than 300 migrants on a single night in April. That video got over 115,000 views.

Somewhere along the way, I began to do some checking on Benvie’s past. I learned that he had been arrested in 2018 in Oklahoma on suspicion of stealing a rented moving truck. I wanted to know more, so I requested the public records in the case.

When I got the records, I was surprised to learn that the officers who arrested Benvie not only suspected him of stealing the moving truck, but they also thought he was running a scam to solicit money under the name of a child who had cancer.

The records only said the child’s first name was Ryan, but there was no last name given. In fact, the records said that when questioned about it, Benvie couldn’t name the child. He was eventually charged with stealing the truck, a felony, but prosecutors didn’t bring any charges involving the fundraising.

Gone from the Southern Poverty Law Center at that point, I ended up writing an article about Benvie’s trouble with the law for The Daily Beast. He didn’t return calls or Facebook messages I sent him, so the piece was pretty simple.

From there, I thought I’d hit a dead end. Maybe I would track Benvie’s case and see if he got convicted on the stolen truck charge, or maybe I would just let it go and move on to something else.

But then Eric Cremeens found me on Twitter.

Eric was Ryan’s dad, and he had a harrowing story to tell. I ended up having several conversations with him in the coming days to learn about what had happened.

At 8 years old, Ryan Cremeens was diagnosed with cancer. Doctors had found a mass in his skull near his brain. He had surgery to remove it followed by 43 weeks of chemotherapy and seven weeks of proton radiation treatment.

Eric told me Benvie had been using Ryan’s cancer diagnosis to raise money in several states, setting up outside restaurants and gas stations with a blue bucket to take donations and fliers that told Ryan’s story. Eric said neither he nor Ryan had ever seen a penny of it.

“I've chased him from Georgia to Tennessee and now Texas, Oklahoma, running this scam,” Eric told me at the time. “The only thing he's ever done is threaten to sue me when we exposed who he was and what he was doing.”

In the course of our conversations, Eric told me that he’d read my article at The Daily Beast, and that it had inspired him to contact prosecutors in Oklahoma. He told them he’d be willing to travel to testify against Benvie if necessary.

The prosecutors, Eric said, assured him that they would add a fraud charge to Benvie’s case. And sure enough, they did. Benvie was charged in June with a misdemeanor fraud count on top of the felony stolen vehicle charge.

Eric was elated because he felt that he might finally get justice against the man he’d been chasing for so long. I ended up writing a second article for The Daily Beast about the new fraud charge and about Eric’s efforts to track Benvie down.

What neither Eric nor I knew at the time, however, was that the FBI had also been investigating Benvie for his actions at the New Mexico border. So when Benvie showed up later that month in Oklahoma for a court appearance at which he was going to face the new fraud charge, FBI agents were there waiting for him.

Benvie was arrested on two federal counts of impersonating a peace officer. Federal authorities said that Benvie could be seen on two of his livestreams telling migrants that he was with Border Patrol.

Benvie was eventually extradited from Oklahoma to New Mexico to face the federal charges. He pleaded not guilty and was released into a halfway house, where he has remained while awaiting trial.

Several weeks ago, federal prosecutors disclosed that they would be bringing Eric in from Kentucky to testify against Benvie. They also disclosed that they they are bringing in Eric’s attorney to testify that Benvie called her and falsely claimed to be an attorney representing Ryan’s biological mother. (Eric says Ryan’s biological mom has had no contact with Ryan for at least two years, and, well, it’s complicated.)

On Saturday, Eric told me he sees this as the first step in seeking justice for his son.

“I'm able to stand up for Ryan and let everybody know that this wasn't legitimate,” Eric said of Benvie’s fundraising. “It wasn't right.”

“This wasn't just a mistake made or a misrepresentation,” Eric said. “This is a person who made a life out of scamming people in one way or another and taking money that wasn't rightfully his and lying and presenting himself as something that he wasn't.”

After speaking to Eric on Saturday, I decided to reach out to Benvie. He had never returned my calls or messages seeking comment for previous articles I wrote about him, but I wanted to give him another chance to talk on the eve of his trial.

Benvie has a new Facebook page, one where he describes himself as a “political prisoner” and lists his job as working for the Trump re-election campaign. He livestreams videos occasionally from there, too, but those videos get far fewer views than the ones he posted when he was on the border.

I sent Benvie a Facebook message to his new page late Saturday afternoon and asked if he’d be willing to talk. To my surprise, he responded almost immediately.

“Absolutely!” he wrote.

Benvie’s a hard-charging talker, a fact that was clear from the videos I’d watched from him over the past year or so. But even knowing what I was getting into, it was still remarkable to be on the other end of a phone conversation with him. Benvie sniffled and snorted throughout the interview and talked so quickly that it seemed like he was on his fourth or fifth can of Red Bull. It was often hard to get a word in.

Benvie made it clear that his attorney didn’t want him doing things like this.

“I've got no problem because I've got nothing to hide. I'm being completely transparent. My lawyer said don't talk. I said I don't care, dude. I don't care. I know what happened,” he told me.

We talked for 54 minutes, and he spent the first 25 of that tearing into Eric Cremeens with all kinds of accusations that sounded, frankly, like the kind of conspiracy theories Benvie had spewed about the border. Much of it was nonsensical, and some of it was totally bizarre. At one point he claimed to have hired “Green Berets, special forces” to tail and take photos of Eric.

He was furious that Eric had talked to me over the past several months and used strong language about what was going to take place in the federal trial this week.

“You know what? I'm going to go after him, and I hope he comes to court,” Benvie said about Eric. “I'm going to make a fool of him in front of the court, and I'm going to kill the prosecutors with it.”

Benvie’s contention was basically that he had been friends with Eric’s ex-wife — Ryan’s biological mom — and that the fundraising he did at gas stations and restaurants in various states all went to her.

He admitted that at some point he set up a GoFundMe account in his own name and used Ryan’s story to raise money, setting the goal for the fundraiser at $50,000. But he said the GoFundMe was linked to a bank account for Ryan’s mom, and that it never raised much money anyway.

“The GoFundMe raised $800,” Benvie said. “She got $200 into the account, and guess what happened? She lost her phone. She couldn't recover the password. So guess what happened? All the rest of the $800 — I think it was $600 — it all got refunded back to the people who donated it.”

I asked Benvie multiple times throughout the conversation if he had documentation or other kinds of proof for the things he was saying. He often changed the subject or said he didn’t have access to it yet.

“Well, here's the thing,” Benvie told me. “My defender is subpoenaing GoFundMe. I don't know if that'll be there in time.”

Benvie tried to tell me the case against him in Oklahoma had been dropped, a claim that was easily disproved by searching online court records. When I confronted him with that, he backtracked, saying he was arrested on the federal charges before the Oklahoma case could be dropped and that the timing was political.

He also claimed Ryan’s biological mom might come to the federal trial and back up his story about the fundraising. But he said that, too, was up in the air.

“We are actually trying to subpoena in order to see if we can get her here in time. If we can get her here in time I don't even think Eric will come. I don't even think he will show up,” Benvie said.

Benvie told me he plans to take the stand in his own defense this week. If so, he might be the only defense witness. Last week, his attorney filed a list of witnesses he planned to call in Benvie’s defense. The bulk of the list was five politicians — all Democrats — including New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas and three members of Congress.

The list spoke to Benvie’s assertion that he’s being prosecuted because people didn’t like what he and his crew were doing at the border.

“I already told the judge. I said, this is political. The governor, the ACLU, and all of them, they wanted a reason to get us off the border to have us arrested,” Benvie told me. “They couldn't find a reason, and so they manufactured this. That's bottom line. This is a political prosecution of a civilian.”

Federal Judge Robert Brack saw it differently. In an order on Friday, he barred Benvie from calling any of the politicians, writing that Benvie and his lawyer “provided no facts or evidence to substantiate these claims.”

The order seemed par for the course for Benvie.

But despite all of Benvie’s outlandish claims and conspiracy theories, he might have a chance at winning this case.

The federal government’s track record for prosecuting militia members and other anti-government extremists in recent years has been pretty bleak. Prosecutors lost a number of high-profile trials against members of the Bundy clan who were involved in two armed standoffs with federal authorities, for example.

In Benvie’s case, the jury will be asked to decide whether he broke the law and passed himself off as a U.S. Border Patrol agent on two specific occasions among the many times he confronted migrants near the border. Both occasions were caught on video because, well, Benvie was livestreaming them.

You can watch the incidents yourself. BuzzFeed News published clips from both videos in June after Benvie’s arrest. He was behind the camera, so you can hear him speak but you can’t see him.

In one video, Benvie can be heard shouting “stop” in Spanish as he approached a group of migrants. “U.S. Border Patrol. What are you guys doing?” he asked them in English.

In the other video, Benvie got out of a vehicle and similarly yelled at another group of migrants to stop. He told them in Spanish to sit down, and then said, “Border Patrol.”

Prosecutors contend that, in both situations, Benvie was pretending to be a Border Patrol agent acting under the authority of the United States.

I asked Benvie what he meant when he used the words “Border Patrol.” His answer was rambling and hard to understand.

“Well, in one of the videos I was actually referencing to behind me that that's the direction that they should go,” Benvie said. “The other video, I was actually just saying it because they didn't speak English. I was basically giving them a sign that, ‘Hey, if you're looking for Border Patrol, I'll get you there.’”

Photos of Benvie from when he was the border show him wearing camouflage and a badge that read “Fugitive Recovery Agent.” It’s the kind of badge you can buy for about $30 online, if you’re so inclined. He told me, however, he was dressed differently during both of the incidents.

“I was wearing my shorts and my brown T-shirt,” Benvie said. “No gun, no handcuffs, no badge. … You're going to have trouble convincing somebody that I was trying to be or trying to hold myself out as Border Patrol.”

That, of course, will be up for the jury to decide. Benvie’s trial is scheduled to last until Wednesday. He faces up to three years in prison if convicted.

Ryan, by the way, is doing great. It’s been more than 30 months since his last cancer treatment. In December, his father sent me a photo of Ryan dressed to the nines and headed to a middle school dance.

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