If Jason Todd Ready had been a run-of-the-mill, delusional, Holocaust-denying racist neo-Nazi who liked to play with guns, I suppose we could could spare an ounce of surprise that, according to the Gilbert police, he killed himself and four others — including a baby girl, her mom, and her grandmother — last week.
But Ready, 39, practically had a buzzing neon sign reading "Destined to Implode" flashing on and off above his head.
Add to this Ready's pattern of intimidating and sometimes criminal behavior, his regular spouting of violent rhetoric, and his yen for running around the Arizona desert with other AR-15-toting national socialists hunting Hispanics, and you essentially had the all-American equivalent of a bomb-strapped fanatic seeking directions to the airport.
In other words, Ready was as subtle as a steel-toed boot to the skull. As horrific as the Gilbert massacre was, it could have been far worse. Authorities discovered a cache of military-issued 40-millimeter grenades at the suburban home where the slayings occurred, which is where Ready was residing.
It's not known whether Ready had a working launcher. But in a photo discovered on the Flickr page for Ready's vigilante group, U.S. Border Guard, the candidate for Pinal County sheriff, onetime Republican precinct committeeman, and former Mesa City Council hopeful points what resembles a grenade launcher at the camera.
A spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives informed me that the weapon in the photograph was a gun augmented with what appeared to be an "improvised attachment made of PVC." Still, you need only conceive of Ready, a rabid anti-Semite, heading for the nearest synagogue with explosives to have an inkling of the bloodshed that he could have wrought.
So you'll pardon me if assurances from the FBI's local special agent in charge, James Turgal, that the bureau was "investigating" Ready for "domestic terrorism" ring hollow. He told Valley news media after the Gilbert massacre that the FBI had been conducting its probe for "less than five years."
Feel relieved that the FBI and other law enforcement are looking out for our safety? Yeah, me neither. Even though they should have been: The bureau and other federal and local agencies were warned repeatedly about Ready over the years.
Moreover, Ready was a media hog whose activities rounding up illegal aliens and threatening to do battle with "narco-terrorists" in the desert were covered by news outlets as varied as Al Jazeera and MTV.
What was the FBI waiting for, an engraved invitation?
Several law enforcement officers I know — some of them high-ranking and working for the federal government — said having an "investigation" open on someone like Ready could be as simple as an FBI agent having a file on Ready on his or her desk.
I asked Turgal about that assertion. What did this investigation entail? Did the FBI tap his phones, bug his house, keep him under surveillance, infiltrate U.S. Border Guard?
"There is no such thing in the FBI as having just a file on someone's desk," Turgal said. "It was an active investigation. And we don't discuss sources or methods or any kind of technique."
There were plenty of signs that Ready already had violated the law. He had posted Internet photos of him and his Hitler-loving friends — guns in hand — standing guard over illegal aliens whom they later turned over to the U.S. Border Patrol.
Were these migrants free to stand up and leave? Were they ever questioned by federal authorities as to their treatment in Ready's custody?
For instance, one photo of two migrants posted by Ready bears the following caption: "Narco-Smugglers, who discard their arms and surrender accordingly, are treated with human dignity."
Another picture of apprehended brown people reads, "Live UDA [undocumented alien] smugglers were captured and turned over to Border Patrol."
When Ready used terms like "surrender" and "capture," wasn't he essentially admitting to the commission of a crime?
I know that when I, in the past, asked the U.S. Border Patrol about its officers cooperating with neo-Nazis, the agency was nonchalant, suggesting that Ready was like any other citizen who spotted aliens in the desert and alerted federal officers.
In addition to statutes against kidnapping, there are federal and state laws regarding the impersonation of law enforcement.
The name of Ready's band of vigilantes sounds sneakily similar to "U.S. Border Patrol." Ready and others in his crew wore gear emblazoned with "U.S. Border Guard" insignia that featured a gold sheriff's star. Ready also had official-looking cards with the same name and insignia.
Wearing camouflage and bearing high-powered weapons, Ready's irregulars easily could be mistaken by average citizens — much less undocumented immigrants who speak no English — for law enforcement or members of the military.
In fact, some of the gear Ready and his men had with them on an outing I accompanied him on bore the label "POLICE," though, admittedly, I did not witness them wearing this gear.
Ready also was seizing drugs and turning over at least some of each haul to the Border Patrol. He had been conducting these U.S. Border Guard forays openly for two years (though he had made outings in the desert for a lot longer).
Wouldn't such easily observable activity have given the FBI, or some other agency, enough information to have sought a search warrant from a judge, such as the one issued after the Gilbert slayings, in which law enforcement seized illegal explosives?
If such a warrant had been served any time before May 2, the four unfortunates whom Ready apparently gunned down still would be among the living.
I conveyed this to Turgal, but he would have none of it.
"The tragedy that happened last Wednesday was because of J.T. Ready," he told me, "because of a tragic, terrible domestic-violence situation — not because of inaction of the FBI.
"The FBI was actively investigating him along with our federal, state, and local partners. To draw one conclusion to the other is inappropriate."
I responded by telling Turgal that I believed my inquiry to be entirely appropriate. And I am not the only one.
Matson Browning is a former detective with the Mesa Police Department who dogged neo-Nazi skinheads, undercover and otherwise, for many years. His success in putting murderous white-supremacist crews behind bars has been documented by this publication and others, including the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Report magazine.
Browning retired in 2010 and now does consulting through his nonprofit Skinhead Intelligence Network. When he was with the Mesa PD, Ready was on his radar, and he says he fed information on possible illegal activities to various local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies.
I asked him what his thoughts were when he heard of the Gilbert massacre.
"It made me sick," he answered. "Not that J.T. did this. But that those four people didn't need to die."
He continued, "All of this could have been avoided. J.T. could've been sitting in jail if the proper support would have been given."
Browning says he "did more surveillance of [Ready] than I even care to imagine." During his time with the Mesa PD, he was the only Mesa cop investigating skinheads, he told me. He stated that he often was met with indifference on both local and federal levels.
One example involved a homicide investigation in which Browning already had suspects lined up to arrest.
"[My supervisor] said, 'Mat, shut up. It's just white people killing white people,'" Browning recalled.
The emphasis always was on black and Hispanic gangs, which Browning also followed. But Browning says he often encountered a disturbing attitude among fellow cops.
"When I started working the white boys, people were telling me, 'White guys don't commit crime,'" he recalled. "'When's the last time a white guy did a drive-by shooting?' [they would ask.] 'When's the last time a white guy held up a liquor store? Or sold crack on the corner?'"
One of his biggest regrets now is that he could not persuade federal or local law enforcement to commit resources to investigating Ready's suspicious activities, which, he says, date back to the early 2000s.
Ready's connections to several prominent East Valley politicians, including former state Senate President Russell Pearce, gave local cops pause, as did Ready's own political aspirations and his border-related activism.
Anti-Mexican sentiment was on the rise in Arizona and the views espoused by Ready overlapped with the views of many average citizens.
A couple of incidents involving Browning and the blowback from them are instructive as to why Ready made the cops nervous. The first was Browning's appearance in March 2007 at a panel discussion of anti-immigration extremism hosted by then-state Representative Kyrsten Sinema and led by Bill Straus, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League of Arizona.
ADL researcher Mark Pitcavage presented a detailed examination of the influence of white supremacists and various right-wing groups and individuals in the anti-immigrant movement.
One of his subjects was J.T. Ready, who then headed a nativist border group called Americans First.
Ready had attended neo-Nazi events, and though he had not then declared as a neo-Nazi, he maintained a profile on the white supremacist social-networking site Newsaxon.org, "an online community for whites by whites."
There, under the handle "Viking Son," Ready kept in touch with other racists and expressed his own vile anti-Semitic and anti-minority views.
This was the first time that Ready, who already was well known in the nativist movement, had been publicly exposed for his extremist associations. The following month, in two separate columns, I wrote about Ready's attendance at a meeting of the anti-immigrant group United for a Sovereign America and discussed Ready's far-right associations ("Bigot Bash," April 19, 2007, and "Ready Racist," April 26, 2007).
I hasten to add that Ready already was familiar in the Valley as an unstable, wanna-be Republican politician who had been involved in a bizarre shootout with an undocumented Mexican national, and whose past criminal history — including having been twice court-martialed while in the U.S. Marines and later booted with a bad-conduct discharge — were documented by the local news media.
Browning himself never mentioned Ready by name at the forum. But his depiction of a Minuteman movement riddled with right-wing extremists enraged the nativists in the audience.
"Our border groups call it special ops; our skinheads call it hunting," he asserted at the time about the movement's activities. "It doesn't matter what you call it — it is the same thing. It is terrorism. It is domestic terrorism. It has always been domestic terrorism. And it will always be domestic terrorism, until it's stopped."
The detective had been given permission to address the forum by then-Mesa Police Chief George Gascón. Nevertheless, when several local nativists, and even one neo-Nazi from California, complained in writing to the Mesa PD that Browning was a "dirty cop," the department launched an internal investigation of Browning ("Lynch Mobbers," January 17, 2008).
Ultimately, Browning was cleared, but the department's actually taking such complaints seriously shows how touchy the subject of a nativist-skinhead overlap was for them.
Ready's hostility toward Browning also was motivated by an April 2007 incident in which Ready was pulled over by the Arizona Department of Public Safety for driving with fictitious license plates. In his vehicle, among white-power literature, was a 9-millimeter Beretta, a device that allowed Ready to change red traffic lights to green, night-vision goggles, and a map.
As Ready was under arrest, Browning became involved in the investigation. He obtained a search warrant to have Ready's car seized, suspecting that he had transported explosives in it. Browning says he had the car's rug sent to the ATF for analysis.
The agency later returned the rug, Browning said, without a determination of whether there were traces of explosives.
Meanwhile, Ready went on a campaign against his pursuer, appearing at a Mesa City Council meeting to denounce Browning and mentioning Browning by name and badge number in Ready's most infamous speech ever.
The speech occurred on June 16, 2007, during a nativist rally at the Arizona Capitol. Dressed in a suit and an American-flag tie, Ready offered what can only be described as a blueprint for American fascism: U.S. Marine divisions blocking borders and ports to fortress America, with one division left free to mop up the interior.
"We are not going to ask anymore," Ready told an enthusiastic crowd, some of whom had been present to oppose Browning's March lecture. "We're going to start yanking people out by their collars."
Whose collars would be jerked? All those "out of touch with reality" on the subject of illegal immigration, including recalcitrant members of the judicial branch "in their little fancy black dresses."
The pumped-up crowd applauded it all, including Ready's slam of Browning's use of the term "domestic terrorism" at the ADL event. Ready's tirade was taped and can be seen online.
Among those smiling and clapping were state legislators Russell Pearce and John Kavanaugh, both in the House at that time.
Covering the rally for New Times, I followed Pearce and Ready after the latter's speech as they worked the crowd together. I took photos of them shaking hands and slapping backs.
I have detailed Ready and Pearce's close relationship many times. Ready referred to Pearce as a "surrogate father," and Pearce once mentored Ready and endorsed his run for the Mesa City Council.
And as I revealed in a 2010 column, Pearce helped induct Ready into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ("The Company He Kept," December 16).
Despite all the revelations concerning Ready, Pearce maintained ties with the national socialist until August 2008, when he was forced to publicly disavow Ready during a contentious GOP primary battle for the state Senate.
However, the Pearce-Ready connection was indicative of a larger problem than just Pearce's poor judgment in friends. It represented the willingness of anti-immigrationists to accept dangerous reactionaries into their midst.
Long before Ready began parading with swastika-wearing members of the National Socialist Movement, he had advocated placing a minefield on the U.S.-Mexico border, and he had been involved with vigilante outfits such as Ranch Rescue and that group's sketchy members, including heavily armed wack-job Jack Foote.
Eventually, as I and others used Ready's presence in local anti-immigration groups, like United for a Sovereign America, to expose the larger problem — a tsunami of rage, racism, and bigotry sweeping Arizona — Ready became persona non grata at nativist events.
Ready's activities took an even harder turn toward the right. He attended white supremacist events here and in other states, he became for a short time a member of the National Socialist Movement, the largest neo-Nazi organization in America, and he actively recruited for the NSM.
One of those Ready recruited to the NSM was Jeff Harbin, son of Jerry Harbin, a well-known local white supremacist. On January 14, 2011, following an FBI investigation, Jeff Harbin was arrested and charged with possession and transportation of 13 improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. He's now doing two years in the federal pen after copping a plea deal.
Interestingly, one of the attachments to the U.S. Attorney's indictment of Harbin was an online article by then-independent reporter Nick Martin on Ready's chasing "narco-terrorists" in the desert and his continued call for landmines on the border.
The article seemed to dovetail with Harbin's admission that the IEDs he had created were meant for some unexplained use on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Browning tells me he suspects Ready of murdering illegal immigrants in the desert. He noted that far-right radicals had discussed creating an international incident on the border that would result in its being closed. The FBI also has mentioned, vaguely, that it investigated Ready in regard to deaths in the desert.
Why didn't the FBI seek a search warrant for Ready's home or have a local or state agency do the same? Browning thinks this would have been easy enough to achieve with information from confidential FBI sources. In his 20 years of law enforcement, Browning says, he never has had a judge turn down a request for a search warrant.
And if the FBI had raided Ready's domicile, they may have discovered the same or similar illegal explosives as they did after the multiple murders, and Ready would be in prison, unable to spill innocent blood.
I know that the FBI had at least one confidential source close to Ready. The reason I know this is that I indirectly sent the source the FBI's way in 2009.
In late summer/early fall of that year, a Minuteman and border activist I knew contacted me with information on Ready's activities. His name is David Heppler, and though we were on opposite sides of the immigration debate, we were always friendly.
Perhaps that's why he decided to call me one night, nervously describing an encounter he'd had with Ready and others at the home of an associate.
Ready took Heppler into his confidence that evening, describing the group's intention to drive into South Phoenix on a Friday night disguised as officials with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and look for a house or yard party to raid, during which several Hispanics would be killed.
"The purpose of DHS uniforms was, no one's going to question them," Heppler recalled recently. "After it happened, if the police pulled them over and saw them in uniform, they would keep going, because they were already responding to the shootings."
Heppler said Ready and the others had written up their plans, had drawn up a list of the equipment they planned to obtain, and had estimated how long it would take them to get to South Phoenix and back. They wanted Heppler to join them and go on "dry runs" to clock the scenario Ready was envisioning.
As this was information that would take me time to verify, and since people's lives might be in danger, I decided, with Heppler's permission, to contact a cop within the Phoenix Police Department and have him call Heppler.
Heppler later spoke with Phoenix police officers, who in turn handed over the case to the FBI. Heppler agreed to become an informant (he says he was not paid) and agreed to wear a recording device and allow his phone to be tapped.
I stayed in contact with Heppler on and off over the next several weeks, and he related that he, Ready, and others had begun to go on these dry runs into South Phoenix. At one point, he told me, he was scared that the FBI was not keeping Ready under surveillance as these practice trips were occurring.
There seemed to be a lack of communication between Heppler and his FBI handler, so after much maneuvering, I was able to get a message to Heppler's contact, asking that he call me.
I won't reveal the agent's name, but suffice it to say he would be familiar to many in law enforcement in the Valley.
The agent tersely confirmed that he was taking Heppler's information seriously, and I left it at that.
Problem is, Heppler had made a big mistake. He had confided to a business partner who knew Ready that he was working undercover. The business partner thought Heppler was lying and went to both the FBI and to Ready with Heppler's story. The FBI told the partner the agency was not working with Heppler.
Some of these details are recounted in documents on file with the Maricopa County Superior Court, where Heppler sought and obtained an order of protection against the business partner.
The business partner's response involves his going to the FBI and the FBI's denying involvement with Heppler.
As a result of the business partner's actions, Ready went to Heppler's home and confronted him, according to Heppler — who said he denied all and that Ready seemed to buy the explanation.
The FBI, of course, wasn't happy that Heppler had discussed his volunteer undercover work, and, Heppler says, the FBI agent eventually yelled at him over the phone.
"They were pissed because [others] found out," Heppler told me recently. "They said I jeopardized the case and they [couldn't] protect me. They just made some serious threats on the phone: 'If you say anything about this to anybody else we're going to come after you.'"
Heppler never heard from the FBI again.
When I asked an FBI spokesman about my conversations with Heppler and with one of the FBI's agents, he declined to comment.
I cannot verify all of Heppler's tale. Some in law enforcement tell me they didn't believe Heppler's account of the dry runs. However, Heppler had certain advance information on Ready's activities that I was able to confirm.
For instance, Heppler told me Ready was planning to attend a demonstration in Riverside, California, before Ready had even set out on the trip with his fellow NSM members. Heppler had told me what Ready would wear and that Mike Harris, a former Republican candidate for governor, whose neo-Nazi activities I later discussed in a column, would be along for the ride ("SS Ignorant," November 19, 2009).
Both the FBI and Ready wanted Heppler to participate in the rally, Heppler claims. But he refused, telling them he didn't want to be associated publicly with the NSM.
What can be made of all this? Well, Browning says he alerted the FBI and other federal and local law enforcement agencies that Ready should be targeted.
I know of others who had done the same, and I know that Heppler was helping the FBI at one time. Though what, if anything, the FBI did before or after they dropped Heppler is unknown.
Ready's activities were well publicized, with groups such as the ADL and the Southern Poverty Law Center ringing the alarm. Several law enforcement organizations could have done something about Ready.
Yet nothing was done to stop him before he killed.
Could the feds or local police have anticipated Ready's eruption in a deadly fit of domestic violence? Maybe not. But they knew he was likely to erupt. Or they should have known.
Ready was a wily and often intimidating individual. He could be amusing and amiable when he wanted to be, but beneath that façade lay a whirling dervish of hate, always on the edge of emerging.
I think he was on guard to show himself in the best light whenever we met, spoke on the phone, or corresponded via text message. Still, occasionally he would let slip anti-Semitic or racist asides, and it was evident that he believed them. Deeply delusional, he longed to be a hero, though his own proclivities and prejudices made him a villain.
More than once, he claimed to be an informant for a federal agency, though he would not tell me which one. He mentioned having a "handler" and how other cops sometimes risked blowing his cover.
Would it surprise me if Ready had been an informant for some law enforcement agency? Not really. However, I tend to think that Ready was a braggart who — as his quixotic campaign for Pinal County sheriff demonstrates — aspired to be in law enforcement.
Perhaps, somewhere in his twisted brain, he believed his own bull, just as he may have believed that he was really fighting narco-terrorists or, in his final moments, that killing a half-Latina child was the right thing to do. (Along with Ready's girlfriend, her daughter, and her daughter's boyfriend, one of the victims was the daughter's baby).
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Ready's dalliance with Mormonism aside, Browning describes his onetime quarry as a "die-hard Odinist," albeit of one with a racist bent.
"J.T. believed he was a warrior," Browning says. "So he [believed he] was going to . . . be carried away by the Valkyrie up to Valhalla, where he could fight the battles every day and drink the mead at night."
And what about killing the baby girl?
"If you kill a 2-year-old [who's] half-Mexican, you're going to go to Valhalla," Browning says of Ready's neo-Nazi mindset. "If you go outside and you kill yourself [as Ready did], you instantly become a martyr."