Advertisement

This grifter is taking gullible conservative conspiracy theorists for a ride

Lewis Arthur's claims of child sex trafficking are unsubstantiated, exploitative, and ignore the real crisis at the border.

(PHOTO CREDIT: DIANA OFOSU, THINKPROGRESS)
(PHOTO CREDIT: DIANA OFOSU, THINKPROGRESS)

A child sex trafficking camp run out of the Arizona desert is part of a wider global conspiracy where a shadowy cabal of global elites indulge in pedophilia and Satanic Ritual Abuse, and help the cartels ferry drugs and unsuspecting victims over the border.

At least, that’s the baseless theory being pushed by a group of conspiracy-mongers called Veterans on Patrol (VOP).

Conveniently enough, the theory — and VOP’s many videos about it — has allowed the group to amass hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube, tens of thousands of followers on Facebook, and cash in on their “discovery” by grifting money out of true believers.

The conspiracy began on May 29, when the Arizona-based VOP, led by Michael “Lewis Arthur” Meyer (who is not a veteran), claimed to have discovered what it described as a “child sex camp.” The Tuscon Police were subsequently called in, but found no corroborating evidence of any sort.

Advertisement

Despite this, the claim spread like wildfire online, and by June 4, one of VOP’s Facebook videos on the subject had nearly 600,000 views. More importantly, it had begun to attract the fevered attention of QAnon fans.

For the uninitiated, QAnon has replaced Pizzagate as the main conspiracy in the fringe, Trump-friendly sections of the internet. A sprawling epic which has the ability to fold in literally any current event, it claims (in a nutshell) that the global Deep State — made up of George Soros, Hillary Clinton, Hollywood, the Rothschilds, and various other bogeymen — are responsible for most of the evil in the world today. It also claims they like to indulge in child sex abuse.

The theory claims Trump is standing up to that “Deep State” collective, along with Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who followers claim is using the Russia investigation as cover to, at some unspecified time in the future, deliver thousands of sealed indictments and send the entirety of the Deep State to Guantanamo Bay.

That “information” was posted online by the cryptic “Q,” which refers to the anonymous individual’s supposed high-ranking security clearance within the U.S. government, and which gives the theory its name.

Like all wild internet theories, the QAnon conspiracy began on 4chan before then migrating to the even more backwater 8chan. But in recent months, it has increasingly drifted over into the real world.

Advertisement

On June 15, a man with an AR-15 drove onto the Hoover Dam in an armored truck and demanded the government release a report (which had already been published) that supposedly validated Q’s theories. QAnon merchandise is also readily available for purchase and is often seen at Trump rallies. On Tuesday, right-wing commentator Ben Shapiro retweeted one of the main QAnon promoters, “Praying Medic,” who claimed former U.S. dignitaries had retained security clearances because they were members of the “Deep State.”

Shapiro has nearly 1.5 million followers, including GOP chair Ronna McDaniel, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz (TX), counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway, and presidential adviser and first daughter Ivanka Trump. President Trump’s two elder sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, also follow Shapiro.

For supporters of QAnon, VOP’s discovery is proof of their theory and vice-versa, especially since the mayor of Tucson is Julian Rothschild, and the “sex camp” was found on a site owned by Cemex, a Mexican cement company in which billionaire Soros is invested.

But peel back the lurid, breathless claims of a worldwide conspiracy and a very different picture starts to emerge.

How it all started

Not only has Arthur used the child sex camp theory as a distraction from his own legal problems — including his arrest for trespassing last Sunday — he’s also used it to coax gullible QAnon believers out of their hard-earned cash. What’s more, VOP has posted the private information of anyone it believes is interfering with its “investigation,” including public officials and sheriff’s deputies.

Advertisement

Prior to his newfound “fame,” Arthur had a history of helping veterans in the Tucson area who had become homeless, creating makeshift camps in which they could stay. But shortly before his May 29 “child sex camp” discovery, Arthur ran into a dispute with one of the land-owners whose property was being used for one of those camps.

Local police said Arthur “became associated with” the homeless encampment in question, which was located behind Santa Rita Park in Tucson, in 2015. Recently, the property owner had reported a number of “public safety concerns” and began placing signs asking those living there to leave. It’s unclear what the “public safety concerns” entailed, however one recent volunteer at the camp complained to the Arizona Daily Star about “flooded tents and hot days” with no air conditioning, and several local residents claimed that they had been harassed and threatened by Arthur and his followers.

In one incident this past April, Arthur pepper-sprayed a man in the public restroom of Santa Rita Park after falsely accusing him of using drugs. A judge later found Arthur guilty of misdemeanor assault.

After being forced off that land, police said Arthur began directing his attention elsewhere, eventually settling on another homeless encampment which had been abandoned by its founder, Albert Ondras, after 23 years of living there.

Arthur “fictitiously declared, without evidence or corroboration,” that the camp, located on property belonging to Cemex — a Mexican multinational building materials company — “was the site of a sex-trafficking ring.”

“[Arthur’s] various representations and claims were thoroughly investigated by the Tucson Police Department. No evidence of sex-trafficking was located as a result of the Tucson Police investigation,” police stated. “At one point several weeks ago, [he] agreed to vacate the Cemex property. Contrary to this agreement, [he then] chose to return and trespass by illegally occupying the tower on the Cemex property.”

It’s not hard to read the exasperation between the lines here, especially once you realize Arthur had already visited the site months earlier and had found nothing of import. J.J. MacNab, an expert in domestic extremism who has been closely monitoring the situation, told ThinkProgress that Arthur had gone to the encampment in December to conduct a survey, but noted it wasn’t until recently that he suddenly declared it the location of a “child sex camp” run by “Deep State” figures.

The timing was curious, to say the least. “On May 28, VOP’s Facebook page put out a picture bulletin that our new mission is child sex and trafficking,” MacNab explained. “Lo and behold, the next day, his buddies find a child sex camp.”

What’s more, none of the evidence that Arthur has provided in support of the alleged child sex trafficking adds up. Arthur pointed to straps of clothes around trees as evidence of makeshift shackles. MacNab said those straps were used by Ondras to protect against wild boars eating their food. The Tucson Police repeatedly investigated the site, including once with a cadaver-sniffing dog, and found no evidence of any abuse.

Even the Oath Keepers militia — a group not exactly known for their Deep State bias — investigated the site, with one member telling ThinkProgress they had found no evidence of abuse either, although they suggested Arthur might have contaminated the scene. The member notably added that Arthur is known in militia circles for his habit of “grossly exaggerating.”

The VOP was nonetheless persistent. On June 7, members claimed to have uncovered a crucial piece of evidence — a “child’s skull.” The only problem? The skull was found more than 20 miles away from the camp, in an area where migrants frequently perish. Closer analysis also revealed the skull belonged to an adult.

The discrepancy did not stop Arthur’s supporters from inundating the Pima County Sheriff’s Department with calls, claiming police had not done a proper investigation of the scene. “Our command got an overload of phone calls, potentially making it difficult to take actual emergency calls,” Sheriff’s Department spokesman James Allerton told ThinkProgress. “Certainly the group didn’t believe that we had responded quickly enough.”

By mid-July, Arthur’s group, fed-up with the supposed lack of progress in official investigations, decided to use outsourced “hackers” to publish personal information about several members of the sheriff’s department, including the sheriff himself, Mark Napier.

“Several members of our department have had addresses and family information released,” Deputy Allerton said. “Our department realizes we do interact with the public and our names will be made available, however when someone releases personal information [about] our families, this is alarming.”

Profiting off the conspiracy

Equally as alarming as their dogged harassment of public figures and anyone who disagrees with them is the fact that Arthur and his VOP group have been actively soliciting donations from followers to aid their search, and those supporters have responded enthusiastically.

Donors have sent the group gift cards, prepaid Visa cards, and other items Arthur claims they need, like tactical gear, radios and tents. Because VOP doesn’t keep a paper trail of any of these donations, there’s no way to know how much money or how many gifts have been sent, nor have they tracked how the money is being used. MacNab estimates that it’s at least in the tens of thousands.

“If you look at who is following [and supporting them], it tends to be white, middle-aged Christian women,” MacNab said. “These women are just sending him money in droves.”

She added that, in at least one case, a woman used money from her disability check to send Arthur funding, a claim supported by Operation How Do You Sleep, a blog dedicated to “exposing the lies” about Veterans on Patrol.

The surprising demographics are representative of the wider QAnon community who, as journalist Will Sommer noted, tend to be baby boomers.

Some of the gift cards VOP has received to help with their "mission". Credit: Facebook
Some of the gift cards VOP has received to help with their "mission". Credit: Facebook
Amazon packages sent to help VOP. Credit: Facebook
Amazon packages sent to help VOP. Credit: Facebook

While the far-fetched nature of VOP’s theory may seem almost comical, it masks some very real and pressing issues, not only in terms of scamming supporters and doxxing the families of sheriff’s deputies, but also in terms of child sexual exploitation itself.

Both the Tucson Police and Pima County Sheriff’s Department have stated that human trafficking and sexual exploitation among immigrants crossing the border are major concerns. But that issue clearly doesn’t concern Arthur and VOP, otherwise they might not have published a video of his group destroying water stations set up to assist migrants who could otherwise die of dehydration. Arthur has also avoided commenting on the State Department’s warning that Trump’s child separation policy heightens the risk of them being trafficked and sexually exploited.

“When this was big was the same week that people were up in arms about the family separation policy,” MacNab said. “Here we have 60,000 people screaming about [alleged child sex camps] while real horrible stuff was happening on border.”

She added, “[To Arthur and VOP], imaginary children need to be saved. Real children who came from Mexico don’t matter.”