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WHO’S THE LAWBREAKER?

Border Vigilante Was Accused of Running Child-Cancer Charity Scam

United Constitutional Patriots livestreams grabbing migrants at the border. Its spokesman has a shady past.

Nick R. Martin5.22.19 5:29 AM ET

For the past few months, Jim Benvie has played the role of a wannabe cop in the New Mexico borderlands.

He wears a badge with the words “Fugitive Recovery Agent.” He refers to Border Patrol agents as his “backup.” He claims to be protecting America from a “criminal invasion” at the nation’s southwestern border.

All the while, he’s been facing a criminal charge of his own in another state.

Benvie is the appointed spokesman for a group of Trump-loving border vigilantes previously known as the United Constitutional Patriots, which recently renamed itself Guardian Patriots. The group earned widespread notoriety last month because of videos Benvie livestreamed to Facebook, showing his armed crew harassing and apprehending migrants.

The vigilante group was kicked off PayPal and GoFundMe as a result, but it is still attempting to raise money for its efforts in other ways. Now, court documents reviewed by The Daily Beast raise serious questions about Benvie’s background in fundraising.

He was arrested in an incident in which police said he was fraudulently claiming to be collecting cash for a child with cancer and was allegedly in possession of a stolen rental truck, according to the court records. Benvie was subsequently charged with stealing the truck, though prosecutors did not charge him regarding the charity work.  

The allegations against him are outlined in an affidavit filed in Logan County District Court in Oklahoma as part of an ongoing felony case. The existence of the stolen vehicle charge was reported earlier this month by Texas television station KDBC, but the affidavit paints a detailed picture of Benvie’s arrest, including the cancer scam suspicions, that has not previously been publicized.

Benvie’s organization has received the condemnation of civil rights groups and the attention of law enforcement. The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico described the group in a letter to the state’s governor and attorney general as an “armed fascist militia organization” and called for an investigation. Soon after, the FBI arrested the group’s self-appointed “commander,” Larry Hopkins, who goes by the fictitious name Johnny Horton Jr., on a federal weapons charge.

The incident that landed Benvie in trouble with the law began on the afternoon of July 2, 2018, when police in Guthrie, Oklahoma were contacted by the vehicle security company OnStar. The company had located a stolen yellow Penske rental truck in the parking lot of the chain chicken joint Golden Chick.

Inside the restaurant, a lieutenant found Benvie sitting at a table supposedly raising money for a child who had cancer. He had a blue bucket with cash in it, according to the affidavit.

“When Benvie observed me he began to look away and became very nervous,” Lt. Mark Bruning wrote in the affidavit. “I contacted him and asked how long he had been at the store attempting to raise money. He stated a couple hours.”

When the lieutenant asked what vehicle he was driving, Benvie pointed to the yellow truck. He told the lieutenant he had rented the truck from a Penske location in Tennessee on an “open ended ‘cash’ account,” according to the document.

The paperwork in the glovebox, however, showed that Benvie had rented the truck on April 4, 2018 and was supposed to return it the next day. A manager at the Penske location told police there was no such thing as an open-ended cash account.

It’s believed that Benvie was committing fraud by collecting donations for [a] child with cancer that he was unable to provide any information about.
Police affidavit

Bruning questioned Benvie about the cause for which he was supposedly raising money. In the affidavit, the lieutenant wrote that Benvie said he was collecting money for a friend in Tennessee whose son had brain cancer. But when asked who the friend was, according to the lieutenant, “Benvie was unable to produce a name.”

Inside the truck, police found a “Make America Great Again” hat along with some garbage and two duffel bags filled with clothing. They also found pamphlets that read “Help Ryan Beat Cancer,” which depicted a boy with a scar on his head. Some of the pamphlets were old. Others were new.

“I asked Benvie about the pamphlets,” Bruning wrote in the affidavit. “He stated it was real and that he was raising money for the child. But again was unable to give a name.”

After arresting him, the lieutenant found two GoFundMe pages that appeared to have been started by Benvie, each under a different variation of his name. The first was called “Join Ryans Flight Crew” and the other was called “Bella Walk A Thon,” according to the affidavit.

The Daily Beast was able to locate a GoFundMe campaign by a Christopher Benvie, his middle name, titled “Bella’s Walk-A-Thon,” which had raised $343 and was no longer active. The other page could not be found.

The lieutenant was clearly skeptical of Benvie’s charity claims. Bruning went as far in the affidavit as writing that “it’s believed that Benvie was committing fraud by collecting donations for [a] child with cancer that he was unable to provide any information about.”

Benvie was irate after his arrest and blew his top with Bruning, according to the affidavit. While being moved from the Guthrie police station to the county jail, Benvie reportedly told the lieutenant: “I’ll bring that mom and sick kid to court if I have to.”

He was charged on July 6 in Logan County District Court with one count of possessing a stolen vehicle, a felony.

Court records show he was held on a $25,000 bond until Sept. 21, when the judge overseeing his case agreed to release him on his own recognizance. He has pleaded not guilty.

Benvie didn’t answer a phone number listed for him in court records, and he didn’t reply to a message sent to his personal Facebook page. The United Constitutional Patriots’ page on Facebook sent a short reply to The Daily Beast’s request to speak with Benvie: “check out his facebook page.”

Benvie’s lawyer in Oklahoma, David Bedford, declined to speak about his client.

“I represent a lot of people,” Bedford said. “You’re going to have to reach them and they’ll talk for themselves.”

Benvie has spoken in vague terms about the case to other news outlets, which have not reported the details outlined in the affidavit.

He told television station KDBC that he vowed to continue his border activities even if convicted. “You're not gonna get rid of me,” he told the station. “I'm America.” He reportedly told The Intercept that his arrest was due to a clerical error by the truck rental office.

Benvie is something of an unusual figure, even in the unusual world of border militias. Acting as the spokesman for the vigilantes, Benvie has done what no other figure in the movement has by broadcasting his group’s harassment of migrants live on Facebook for the world to see.

He’s done so at times with a certain cruelty.

In a video livestreamed on March 31, Benvie could be heard huffing, out of breath, as he pursued a group of migrants over a hill. A woman carrying a suitcase could be seen falling behind the group. She cried out as Benvie chased her from a few feet back.

“You’re gonna hurt yourself,” Benvie said as the woman tumbled face-first down the hill. “You don’t have to run.”

“See what we’re dealing with here, guys?” he narrated to his Facebook audience. The migrant group was eventually stopped by Border Patrol agents, and Benvie filmed the arrests. The video went on to be viewed more than 43,000 times, with users leaving comments like “Start shooting” and “Shoot-first-ask-questions-later.”

Other videos have received tens of thousands more views, including one in mid-April that set off a firestorm because the United Constitutional Patriots claimed it showed them detaining about 300 migrants.

The ACLU of New Mexico’s letter to the governor and attorney general regarding the video mentioned Benvie by name, accusing his group of making “unlawful arrests,” which the civil liberties group said undermines legitimate law enforcement.

Two days after the letter was sent, the FBI showed up at the United Constitutional Patriots’ camp in Sunland Park, New Mexico, a city in the southeast corner of the state. Agents arrested Larry Hopkins, the leader of the group who claimed to be in touch with President Donald Trump, on a federal charge of being a felon in possession of a firearm.

On Saturday, the FBI’s Albuquerque field office spokesman, Frank Fisher, told The Daily Beast that the case “still is under investigation” and declined to answer further questions.

The state Attorney General’s Office declined to say whether it had been in touch with law enforcement in Oklahoma regarding Benvie’s case. David Carl, a spokesman for the office, kept it vague in an email: “We are collaborating with law enforcement agencies to fully investigate this matter.”

Beyond the arrest of its leader, Benvie’s group has run into even more trouble. It was ordered off its original campsite by Sunland Park and railroad police. (A stretch of rail runs through the area where the group has been operating.)

But Benvie and his small band of camo-clad vigilantes found a new site to set up and are still out there, looking for migrants.

And he’s still livestreaming.

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