It started darkly, with a phone greeting just after Sept. 11: "Hi, this is Chris. ... 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."
Welcome to the peculiar world of Chris Simcox, vigilante leader, right-wing dilettante and, according to one new report, a man rapidly skidding towards extremist delusion. In "Minuteman Leader Has Troubled Past," the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center portrays a confused and dangerous demagogue whose rapacity for conspiracy theories exploded as the Twin Towers imploded.
In Southern Arizona, he's known as co-founder of the Minuteman Project and former owner of the Tombstone Tumbleweed newspaper. But according to the report, Simcox arrived here with a little baggage from his tumultuous Los Angeles past--one rich with wild-eyed rants, violent outbursts and an alleged molestation attempt.
The SPLC was founded in 1971 to fight hate crime and racism. In Simcox, it apparently found shades of both. The center began investigating the vigilante chieftain "because he was making very bigoted statements about Hispanics, and he sounded a bit crazy," says Mark Potok, SPLC Intelligence Project director. "Simcox in many ways represents a lot of people in the vigilante movement."
Contacted by the Tucson Weekly, Simcox in turn accuses the SPLC of "conducting a witch hunt."
"I consider the Southern Poverty Law Center a hate group," he says. "Their goal is to slander and stereotype people."
But what SPLC reporters Susy Buchanan and David Holthouse found was a former primary school teacher who left frightened ex-spouses, bizarre behavior and plenty of firepower in his wake. If Simcox was paranoid before Sept. 11, they write, he was raving in its aftermath. "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.'"
But old memories die hard. Take Deborah Crews, his first ex-wife, who accused Simcox of pedophilia in 1998. "He tried to molest our daughter when he was intoxicated," Crews told the SPLC. "When she ran out, he tried to say he was just giving her a leg massage and she got the wrong idea.
"He's a drastic, chaotic, very dangerous guy," Crews added. "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."
Today, Simcox calls those molestation claims "a bunch of crap, considering that I just spent Christmas with my daughter, and she's pretty estranged from her mother as well."
The scene was little better between Simcox and his second wife, Kim Dunbar. She filed for full custody of their son "because she feared that Simcox had suffered a mental breakdown and was dangerous," says the SPLC story.
In sworn affidavits, Dunbar testified that Simcox would fly into sudden and violent rages during their marriage. "He once took a knife from the kitchen and threatened to kill himself," she said. "When he was angry, he broke furniture, car windows, he banged his head against the wall repeatedly and punched things."
When their son was 4 years old, Dunbar said, Simcox slapped him with such force that the marks lasted for two days. And she reported grabbing her boy and jumping out the window another time, because Simcox was heaving furniture at them.
Her husband always emerged morose from his outbursts: "He would stare at walls, mumbling to himself," she told the court. At one time, she reportedly tried to have him hospitalized, but he rejected all professional help. Finally, she said, "the only thing I could do was file for divorce."
And after Sept. 11, she started filing emergency appeals. "I am convinced he has had some kind of mental lapse," she said, "and I am now, more than ever, afraid for my son to be in Chris' care." At the same time, says the SPLC report, Simcox would leave ranting phone messages about terrorist attacks, nuclear bombs targeting L.A. and the fact that their then-15-year-old son sorely needed a little good gun training.
Soon Dunbar was awarded full custody.
At that point, Simcox was drifting. He tried joining the U.S. Border Patrol, but was too old. So he struck out for the borderland, eventually rambling into Tombstone and a brief gunfight actor's gig. Then he reportedly raided his son's college fund to buy the Tumbleweed, according to the SPLC. And that's when the Simcox we've come to know started to emerge. Soon, he'd formed the Civil Homeland Defense Corps, a ragtag band of weekend warriors bent on turning back Southern Arizona's migrant hordes.
Today, Simcox dismisses the entire SPLC report as culled "from one ugly divorce, and another with the court considering that me wanting to sign my son up for an NRA-sanctioned gun-safety course was inappropriate.
"Other than the court records," he says, "90 percent of it is inaccurate and blatant lies. I could really care less--it has nothing to do with anything now."
But the past may portend the future, says Potok. "This wasn't an attempt to pillory the guy with unpleasant things his ex-wives had to say about him. I think what is most important in this story is the idea that he is a chaotic individual, a person who is acting for reasons other than the reasons he says."
Potok calls Simcox an unstable conspiracy theorist who draws extremists to his cause. "I don't mean to suggest that everyone in the Minutemen and other (vigilante) groups are Klansmen or off their rockers," Potok says. "But we have seen time and again that the leadership of this movement is shot through with people who are racists, very militaristic and seem somewhat divorced from reality.
"Conspiracy theories run through these groups from top to bottom. Our overall concern is that the mixture of false conspiracy theories, a lot of weapons and a great deal of bigotry is really a tinderbox waiting to explode."