LAS CRUCES, N.M. — The imprisoned leader of a right-wing militia that detained migrant families in New Mexico first came under the scrutiny of federal authorities in 2017, after the FBI received reports that his group was “training” to assassinate Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and George Soros, according to documents unsealed Monday in federal court.
The militia leader, Larry Mitchell Hopkins, 69, appeared in US District Court on Monday after his arrest over the weekend on a charge of being a felon in possession of firearms and ammunition.
The arrest followed a series of videos posted by Hopkins’s group, which calls itself the United Constitutional Patriots, showing men in camouflage circling and detaining hundreds of migrants in the desert near Sunland Park, New Mexico, and then handing the migrants over to Border Patrol.
The heavily armed militia’s actions have ignited debate over whether its members broke kidnapping laws and effectively acted as a paramilitary force supporting the Border Patrol. Militia members argue that they were assisting authorities to patrol remote areas of the border and carrying out “verbal citizen’s arrests.”
In an affidavit, David S. Gabriel, an FBI special agent, said the bureau was made aware of the activities of Hopkins after receiving reports in October 2017 of “alleged militia extremist activity” in northwestern New Mexico.
Gabriel said that the following month, two FBI agents went to a trailer park in Flora Vista, N.M., where Hopkins was living at the time. With Hopkins’s consent, the agents entered the home and saw about 10 firearms in plain view, in what Hopkins referred to as his office.
Hopkins, who has also used the name Johnny Horton Jr., told the agents that the guns belonged to Fay Sanders Murphy, whom he described to agents as his common-law wife, according to the affidavit. The agents collected at least nine firearms from the home as evidence, including a 12-gauge shotgun and various handguns.
The court affidavit gave few details about the report the FBI received stating that the United Constitutional Patriots “were training to assassinate George Soros, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama because of these individuals’ support of Antifa.” The term Antifa refers to left-wing activists who have clashed with right-wing groups in cities across the country.
Hopkins’s lawyer, Kelly O’Connell, disputed the reports about assassination plans. “My client told me that is not true,” O’Connell said.
He also questioned the timing of the arrest. “My question is, why now?” O’Connell said, noting that the weapons were found in his home in 2017. He suggested that pressure from prominent Democrats in New Mexico may have prompted the FBI to take action.
Hopkins has faced weapons-related charges before, according to court documents. He was convicted of two felonies in Oregon in 2006: criminal impersonation of a peace officer and felony possession of a firearm. And he pleaded guilty in 1996 in Michigan to possession of a loaded firearm, and was sentenced to 16 months to two years in prison.
O’Connell said Hopkins planned to plead not guilty to the latest charge.
After the 2017 search of Hopkins’s residence in New Mexico, FBI agents contacted the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and determined that none of the firearms collected from the home was manufactured in New Mexico, opening the door to possible additional charges of transporting the weapons in interstate commerce, a federal offense.
O’Connell, who was the host of a conservative radio talk show program in New Mexico until 2017, declined to say who was paying Hopkins’s legal fees.
Hopkins could face up to 10 years in prison if he is found guilty of the new charge. He told the judge Monday that he suffers from various medical problems and gave his age as 70, though court records showed he was 69.
“I’m not a militia specialist,” O’Connell said when asked about the motives of Hopkins and other members of the armed group. He added, “They believe they are helping to enforce the laws of America on immigration.”