A man approaches a group of apparent migrants along a dusty road. “Stop!” he yells in Spanish, before identifying himself as U.S. Border Patrol. “What are you guys doing?”
The moment was captured in a video filmed in mid-April, and posted to James Benvie’s Facebook page, according to BuzzFeed. But Benvie is not a federal officer. At the time, he was a spokesman for a group of camouflaged, rifle-carrying civilians that scoured the borderlands for migrants — until the group was forced out amid pressure from police and the governor.
Benvie, 44, filmed himself and others in the group during their patrols — which may have helped federal prosecutors.
The FBI arrested Benvie in Oklahoma, and last week a grand jury indicted him on two counts of false impersonation of a U.S. officer or employee, federal prosecutors in New Mexico said in a news release.
Prosecutors did not disclose details on those counts but said those alleged incidents were in Dona Ana County, N.M., on April 15 and April 17. Those dates match a period when Benvie bombarded his Facebook pages with live videos of encounters with apparent migrants, some of which were recorded by BuzzFeed News.
Benvie was scheduled for a detention hearing Tuesday in Oklahoma and will be transported to New Mexico for prosecution. Prosecutors said Benvie was a dangerous flight risk and should remain jailed.
He faces up to three years in prison if convicted, prosecutors said. Bill Earley, an attorney for Benvie, did not reply to a request for comment.
In another video, Benvie stopped several adults and children, commanding them to stop and sit while identifying himself as “border patrol,” the video published by BuzzFeed News shows.
On April 16, a volunteer with the group, United Constitutional Patriots, filmed group members detaining dozens of migrants near Sunland Park, N.M., which is in Dona Ana County.
The woman filming on Facebook Live reminded members not to point their guns at migrants. The video showed members holding AR-15-style rifles, despite Benvie later claiming they were banned on patrols and instead used handguns. U.S. Border Patrol agents could be seen in the video but did not intervene or ask the group to leave.
The video and stories that followed prompted stern denunciations from New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) and rights groups, and their camp was soon broken down.
Those viral videos also apparently drew the interest of federal authorities. The group’s founder, Larry Mitchell Hopkins, who goes by the pseudonym “Johnny Horton Jr.” and is referred to within the group as “Striker,” was arrested in April on charges from 2017 of being a felon in possession of firearms and ammunition.
Benvie, who has been photographed wearing a law enforcement-style badge that reads “Fugitive Recovery Agent,” was the spokesman for the United Constitutional Patriots before he took over duties as spokesman for a splinter group called the Guardian Patriots.
He often defended the former group online as a band of patriotic volunteers and shunned labels such as militia or vigilante.
“If we did anything wrong, if there had ever been anything wrong, not only would those videos have not been done live, but the Border Patrol would have immediately acted,” Benvie said in one April video. “They don’t want civilians to enforce the law.”
Benvie was charged Friday in a separate case where he allegedly used a story of a cancer-stricken child to pocket donations, the Daily Beast reported.
His attorney for that case, David Bedford, declined to discuss details about the allegations.
But he did say he was familiar with the alleged impersonation case and said Benvie was “gesturing” to Border Patrol agents when he was heard on camera, not identifying himself as such, citing witnesses he declined to identify.
This story has been updated.