Walls Come Crashing Down On Border Vigilante With Impersonation, Fraud Charges

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Border vigilante Jim Benvie had a terrible Friday.

After months of viral fame, the man responsible for live-streaming dozens of his and his masked militia friends’ “arrests” of migrants and asylum seekers at the border was charged with impersonating a federal agent, according to newly unsealed court filings.

The Daily Beast also revealed Friday that Benvie had been charged with fraud in Oklahoma, for allegedly padding his own pockets with money he ostensibly raised for a cancer-striken child.

First, the alleged cancer scam: On June 4, as the Beast first reported last week, state prosecutors in Oklahoma added a fraud charge to a previous charge against Benvie for being in possession of a stolen rental truck.

The new charge came a few days after the Beast reported on the police report for the July 2018 stolen vehicle incident, in which an officer observed that Benvie was in possession of seemingly fraudulent fundraising materials. The arresting officer noted that Benvie couldn’t name the child for whom he claimed to be raising money. When the boy’s parent saw the Beast report, he contacted law enforcement.

“I’ve chased him from Georgia to Tennessee and now Texas, Oklahoma, running this scam,” Eric Cremeens, father of cancer survivor Ryan, told the publication.

Then, in an indictment filed under seal Wednesday and unsealed Friday, Benvie was accused of two counts of impersonating a U.S. Border Patrol agent.

The indictment listed the dates of the two alleged violations, both felonies, as April 15 and April 17. Videos on Benvie’s Facebook page from those dates clearly show him yelling “stop” and “sit” in Spanish at people nearby the border, and identifying as “U.S. Border Patrol.”

In a debate earlier this month with the ACLU of New Mexico’s executive director Peter Simonson — the group first flagged civil rights concerns with arrests made by Benvie’s group in April — Benvie defended using those words.

“You made reference to the fact that we were impersonating officers,” Benvie told Simonson. “On our videos, when you hear us say — I’m holding the camera — ‘U.S. Border Patrol,’ there’s Border Patrol right here.”

However, in an April 17 video in which Benvie yells “Border Patrol!” at a small group of people near the border, he says seconds later that real-life Border Patrol agents are nowhere nearby.

“And of course, as usual, this is why we’re here, guys, because there’s no Border Patrol,” he comments to his online audience after calling a backup militiaman from their nearby camp. “They’re busy right now.”

When Benvie’s videos first gained international attention in April, he was the public face and videographer of the United Constitutional Patriots border militia. After that group’s self-proclaimed leader Larry Mitchell Hopkins was arrested, a few days later, on an old gun charge, Benvie and others with him at the border created a newly named splinter group, Guardian Patriots, and pledged to ditch the  long guns and camouflage for side arms and civilian clothing. The videos continued.

ACLU-NM’s Simonson noted in an interview with TPM on April 22, after Hopkins was arrested: “We’re not satisfied with felon gun possession charges being the end of the matter … We are anxiously awaiting yet more charges to come down.”

Benvie has formed bonds with many high-profile figures in the Trumpian mainstream via his connections to the leaders of We Build The Wall (WBTW), a GoFundMe-powered effort to build sections of a border wall on privately owned plots of land.

When WBTW leader Brian Kolfage, a triple amputee Air Force veteran, spoke at an event last month celebrating the completion of the first section of private wall, he said his group had picked the site after seeing “videos popping up on Facebook from the members who were on the other side of this hill.”

Separately in the same speech, Kolfage said he’d seen first-hand how porous the border was when “I actually rolled across into Mexico and rolled back in in my wheelchair.” Left unsaid: United Constitutional Patriots members helped Kolfage navigate his wheelchair over the bumpy terrain.

That video appeared on the Internet in early April, just a few days before Benvie’s alleged felonies. That same day, Benvie interviewed We Build The Wall general counsel and former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, making his ties to the Trump administration explicit. We Build The Wall also counts the former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon as its advisory board chairman. Other Trump-linked figures like former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke also sit on that board.

On April 18, a day after the second alleged violation, Benvie filmed a video from the property of American Eagle Brick Co., the future site of WBTW’s first construction project. (The property’s co-owner, Jeff Allen, has appeared in Benvie’s videos.) Though the site would be kept secret for weeks, until the wall itself was nearly completed, Benvie knew about the group’s plans.

“This is the area where they’re negotiating to build private wall right now, We Build The Wall,” he said, adding: “We need wall, and we’re going to get wall, believe it or not. One way or the other, we’re going to get wall.”

Jeff Allen, Jim Benvie, Viper and Stinger share cigarettes while patrolling the US-Mexico border in Sunland Park, New Mexico on March 20, 2019. (PAUL RATJE/AFP/Getty Images)
An individual patrolling with Benvie carries a rifle while walking behind a migrant woman and child near the border (KOB4/Jim Benvie)

Soon, just a few hundred feet from where Benvie’s group campsite once stood — before UCP was evicted by Union Pacific Railroad — WBTW construction began. A few hours after Kolfage’s comments in May celebrating the project, WBTW co-founder and vice president Dustin Stockton made the connection to Benvie’s group even more explicit.

“You guys have shown, Jim, you and your crew have shown how high-traffic this area was,” he said, adding: “Your videos turned us on to just how serious this crisis is. And when we saw those, the proof is there. We had the absolute proof of what was happening right here.”

Recently, Benvie filmed as We Build The Wall spokesperson “Foreman Mike” gave a tour to Oath Keepers militia founder Stewart Rhodes. Mike invited “any of our Oath Keeper friends to come on in, any of our Three Percenter brothers, all of them,” to come to the private property for a tour.

TPM’s requests for comments to Benvie’s lawyer in the fraud and stolen vehicle case, David Bedford, went unanswered. As did requests for comment to the federal public defender currently representing Benvie in the impersonation case. Benvie appeared in court Friday and is scheduled to appear for a detention hearing Tuesday in Oklahoma City. Benvie’s compatriot on the ground, Old West reenactor and militiaman Steve “Viper” Brant, also did not return a call seeking comment.

Simonson, of the New Mexico ACLU, told TPM in a phone call Monday that the group was “glad that at least Mr. Benvie is being held accountable for his illegal actions.”

“Our key concern is the safety of immigrant families that he and his people have been illegally detaining,” he said. “These are the kinds of people that you don’t want to be running into in the dead of night out in a remote part of the desert. They carry semi-automatic weapons, they conceal their faces and their identities, and yet they, as the charges indicate, hold themselves out as official law enforcement.”

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