Former border vigilante Chris Simcox came face to face with one of his accusers in a Phoenix court on Wednesday, May 18: a pretty, 8-year-old girl with long brown hair, who likes to read and used to play with Simcox's two daughters, who are about her age.
She testified about an hour into day one of Simcox's trial on six counts of child molestation and furnishing pornography to minors. She is one of two alleged victims who are set to testify in the case.
The other is one of Simcox's daughters.
The former anti-immigrant activist and onetime Republican U.S. Senate candidate was arrested in 2013. Since then, he has been held non-bondable in the jails of his onetime ally, Sheriff Joe Arpaio. If found guilty, the 55-year-old confronts the possibility of life in prison
Three years ago, Simcox lived in the same Phoenix apartment complex where the girl who testified, then 5 years old, lived with her mom; a teenage brother; her dog, Pups, a chihuahua-beagle mix; and her cat, Hope, who, she says, looks like a tiger. She would routinely go to Simcox's apartment, with her mother's blessing, to play dress-up or hide-and-seek with the Simcox girls.
Under the questioning of prosecutor Yigael Cohen, the girl described how, on several occasions, Simcox asked her to come into the kitchen with him, as her friends remained in another room. Simcox would cup his hand over her privates, moving his hand on her genitals, she said, sometimes humming tunes to himself as he did so.
Asked what she was thinking at the time, she said, "That I didn't like it and that I wanted to run out of there." But she didn't run, because she was afraid her friends, the Simcox girls, wouldn't like her any more. She described it as a "bad touch," but said she didn't tell anyone because she thought it would end on its own.
Finally, she testified, she told her mother about the molestation: "I couldn't take it any more, and I really wanted him to stop."
Seated in the witness box, she initially told the prosecutor that she didn't see her friends' dad in the courtroom. But after being cross-examined by a defense attorney and a courtroom break, she testified that after having to look in Simcox's direction during the cross-examination, she recognized him, identifying him for the court as the man wearing the dark suit and blue tie at the defense table.
Simcox is representing himself with the assistance of his advisory counsel, Phoenix defense attorney Kerrie Droban. Many of the pretrial battles in his case focused on Simcox's desire to personally question his child victims. The prosecution objected, arguing that Simcox's advisory counsel, or Jose Padilla, the trial judge, could do the questioning.
Simcox contended that such an arrangement would violate his right under the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, both to represent himself and to confront his accusers. Judge Padilla agreed, and the matter ended up in state appeals court, with, at one point, the Arizona Supreme Court issuing a stay. Eventually, the case was sent back to Padilla and was headed for another pretrial hearing when Simcox capitulated, saying he would allow Droban to query the alleged victims in his stead.
On Wednesday, Simcox acted as his own counsel for his opening statement and for the cross-examination of the girl's mother, Michelle Lynch. Droban cross-examined the child.
Lynch testified that she thought Simcox "seemed like a normal individual" when she met him, and that she allowed her daughter to play with Simcox's daughters on a regular basis, until her daughter told her that "someone had touched her" and identified Simcox as the culprit. Lynch contacted the Scottsdale Police, and the department conducted a forensic interview of the child. For jurisdictional reasons, Scottsdale turned over the case to the Phoenix Police Department, which investigated for about a month before arresting Simcox.
During his cross-examination of Lynch, Simcox, who must stand behind the defense table while questioning witnesses, attempted to trip up Lynch, insinuating that her daughter might have seen pornography on the computer belonging to her son, who was 15 at the time.
But Lynch, a school administrator, claimed this was highly unlikely. She had been studying for her master's degree at the time, she replied, and was always at home. She also said her son didn't like having his little sister in his room and that the "baby gate" in his doorway wasn't only there to keep out the pets, but his sister as well.
Simcox stumbled when he delved into how Lynch's son would have known about his border activities, making an obscure reference to something the boy supposedly said about Simcox to his sister.
Lynch said "your profession came up" after her daughter had been forensically examined, and that as the family waited for the police to act on the girl's accusation, her son "was terrified" of Simcox and spent his nights "sleeping with a knife under his pillow."
Occasionally, Lynch snapped at Simcox, as when he asked if her daughter thought he was a "bad person."
She replied, "We were dodging you for a month, of course she thought you were a bad person."
Similarly, Simcox tried to suggest that Lynch's daughter had "emotional outbursts" before the alleged molestation. Lynch shot back, saying that such outbursts had begun after the child had spoken with police detectives. Lynch testified that owing to what happened, her daughter goes to counseling. She said the girl has not seen Simcox's daughters since disclosing what happened, and that she herself had no contact with Alena, Simcox's ex-wife and the mother of his daughters, prior to the allegations. Afterward, she said, they'd spoken once on the phone.
During her cross-examination of the child, Droban seemed to be hunting for evidence that the witness had been coached. Droban asked the girl if her mother had ever talked to her about the allegations against Simcox. The girl said that they had in the past: no more than three times, but less than 10 times. Did they talk about the case this week? No, the girl replied. "Did she tell you what to say?" asked Droban. Again the girl said no. Droban was able to get the girl to admit that her memory of the alleged molestation was better during the forensic interview, when she was 5, than it is now, when she's 8, going on 9.
Yet to testify are Alena and her children, as well as another playmate from the same apartment complex, who says Simcox bribed her with candy to expose herself. Simcox initially faced molestation charges involving this last girl, but they were dropped by the prosecutor.
Simcox will also be confronted by an adult daughter, who is scheduled to testify for the prosecution about allegations that Simcox fondled her when she was 14. Those allegations were first made public in 2006, in the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Report magazine.
In his opening statement, Simcox claimed that he has been "falsely accused," and that the alleged victims had been "coached" by adults who "used the children for their own inscrutable ends." Some witnesses will "hide behind falsehoods," he said, and claimed that the evidence would show "a perfect storm of circumstances" that landed him where he is today.
Simcox mentioned his work "on the border" as the co-founder, in 2005, of the Minuteman Project. The Minutemen encouraged armed volunteers to monitor the U.S.-Mexico border. Simcox also discussed having worked as a kindergarten teacher in the past, and how, as such, he had "learned how to protect himself" from being accused of improper behavior toward children.
"I am not guilty of the charges brought against me," he concluded.
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Earlier, in his opening statement, prosecutor Cohen remarked that Simcox "loves little girls," and that he "satisfied" this love by molesting them in secret.
The 16-member jury pool includes only four women, one of whom is African American. Out of the 16, a dozen jurors will be chosen by lot after the trial is completed; the rest will serve as alternates. It's anticipated that Simcox will use his acrimonious 2011 divorce from Alena to raise doubt about the allegations against him. The trial continues Thursday.
[Editor's note: Click this link to read more of Stephen Lemons' coverage of the Simcox trial.]