His group claimed to be enforcing the law when they rounded up undocumented immigrants at gunpoint. But now after months of contesting charges, militia leader Larry Hopkins has pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm.
Hopkins heads the United Constitutional Patriots (UCP), a vigilante group that made headlines this year after it released footage of members ordering migrants to the ground at gunpoint near the El Paso border. Many of the people at the opposite end of their rifles were children.
For all his role-playing as an officer, Hopkins had his own criminal history. In April, he was arrested on weapons charges. He pleaded not guilty, and his followers cased him as a martyr for their cause. But on Thursday, he changed his plea, prompting members of his conspiratorial group to falsely claim his guilty plea had been fabricated.
Hopkins, 70, is not allowed to own a gun. He has three felony convictions, including a weapons charge in Michigan in 1996, being a felon in possession of a firearm in Oregon in 2006, and impersonating a peace officer around the same time.
That didn’t stop him from stockpiling nine guns, along with ammunition in a New Mexico home in 2017, the FBI charged in a criminal complaint earlier this year.
Hopkins’ UCP is notoriously gun-happy. In videos they uploaded to Facebook, members carry what appear to be semi-automatic rifles while prowling the border. Though U.S. Border Patrol has claimed not to work with the vigilante group, Border Patrol officers sometimes appeared in videos of UCP patrols, and the group claimed to have close relations with the U.S. agency.
Hopkins, who promotes far-right conspiracy theories, has also claimed to be in contact with President Donald Trump and allegedly said he was training the UCP to “assassinate” Hillary Clinton, former President Barack Obama, and liberal megadonor George Soros.
His change of plea on Thursday touched off a new wave of false claims from his group, which has maintained that Hopkins is innocent of his weapons charges. In a UCP Facebook group on Thursday, a prominent member (who previously claimed the “deep state” was paying for migrants to “crash the system”) claimed Horton had not pleaded guilty, but that all his charges were actually dropped. (They were not.) Other members ordered each other not to share news coverage of Hopkins’ guilty plea, which they claimed was not real.
Hopkins’ lawyer, Kelly O’Connell, confirmed that the guilty plea was legitimate. “It doesn’t surprise me” that UCP members claimed his charges were dropped, O’Connell told The Daily Beast. “These guys’ minds are all fighting against what they see is this very unjust government police state and everything. I understand the resistance to accepting him changing his plea, but nobody called me from the group to verify anything, or ask why” Hopkins changed his plea.
Part of the decision stemmed from Hopkins’ health. The militia leader was beat up in jail where he may have been housed with “people he was personally involved with,” O’Connell said, adding that Hopkins also claimed to have badly injured his head in a courthouse fall. Hopkins also reported heart and diabetic concerns.
“The questions was, you’re looking at up to 10 years on a charge that is typically not difficult to prove,” O’Connell explained of Hopkins’ weapons charge. “Are you gonna fight this out to the end or would you rather take a plea deal?”
Hopkins isn’t the only UCP member facing charges. Jim Benvie, who previously acted as the group’s spokesperson, was charged in June for allegedly impersonating a Border Patrol officer while detaining migrants. The case against him stems from his own Facebook videos. UCP members often uploaded livestreams of their exploits, during which Benvie can be heard to identify himself as “Border Patrol” while ordering people to sit on the ground. In another unrelated case filed in June, Benvie was charged with fraud for allegedly running a cancer charity scam using images of a real child who had been diagnosed with brain cancer. The child’s father told The Daily Beast that Benvie falsely claimed to have set up a “trust” for the child, and solicited $50,000 using the boy’s pictures.
Benvie also faces a felony charge of possessing a stolen vehicle. He’s pleaded not guilty.