How a Teen Prostitute and Beautician Morphed Into a Minuteman American Defense Leader and Alleged Killer
Long before she was accused of robbing and murdering a Mexican man and his 9-year-old daughter in the southern Arizona desert — exposing the Minuteman movement to claims of racial warfare — and long before she told her followers that she saw brown-skinned immigrants as filthy lawbreakers, Shawna Forde was climbing into a car in Seattle to allegedly have illegal sex with a man named Rodriguez.
Then known as Shawna Breitgham, the 17-year-old future border vigilante had worked the city's strolls for at least two years, long enough to know that if a customer introduces himself by groping you, he's probably not a cop (undercover officers are generally bound by no-touch rules). So on that October evening in 1985, after getting into a car on Seattle's Pike Street and riding to an unlighted spot, the shapely, blond teen prostitute picked up the driver's hand and rubbed it against her breasts. Then she reached over and fondled his crotch.
After agreeing to a $50 blowjob, a reassured Shawna said: "Take off your pants." She began undoing the driver's fly.
That's when he took it out. His badge, that is.
"Seattle police!" said vice officer Rodriguez, whose first name, because of old and incomplete records, could not be determined.
It was Shawna's fifth bust since age 11, a run of convictions that included burglary, theft, and prostitution. According to prosecutors, public records, and her family, she has spent a good deal of her life testing how far the law will stretch before it snaps back — something she would, Fagin-like, impart to her own children, says her half-brother Merrill Metzger.
"She taught them both how to shoplift," Metzger says, referring to Shawna's teen daughter and, especially, to her 19-year-old son, who just went to prison on a burglary rap. "Shawna also used them to distract people while she shoplifted."
Shawna shrugged it off, and would later run for City Council in her hometown of Everett, Washington — a shoplifting charge hanging over her head. It was a law-and-order campaign of sorts: During the same period, her son was convicted of assaulting the owner of a beauty salon where she worked.
Given up for adoption as a child, Shawna was raised partly in foster homes and left school early. She wed as a teen and would blaze through three other marriages, four name changes, more court scrapes, and a zigzagging procession of career choices: self-proclaimed Seattle grunge-rock promoter, hairdresser, Boeing worker, youth counselor, cosmetologist, and T-shirt maker.
She finally, according to Metzger, went over the inevitable edge and staged crimes — including her own rape.
And not to her half-brother's surprise, last month yet another cop took out his badge for, perhaps, Shawna's final arrest.
She was now Shawna Forde. The place was southern Arizona, and she had allegedly stretched statutes to their ultimate limit: double homicide in a border-town trailer home. The law has snapped back hard; her fate could be the death penalty.
Today, Forde is being held at the Pima County Adult Detention Center in Tucson. Along with two others, including 34-year-old white-supremacist Jason "Gunny" Bush of Wenatchee, Washington, she's charged with first-degree murder in a plot to steal drugs and money and kill any witnesses. Prosecutors say Forde's motive was to finance her self-anointed border-patrol group, Minuteman American Defense, an anti-immigration posse known as M.A.D.
Prosecutors and family say the woman who just eight years ago was leading a beauty school protest in Everett had morphed into the leader of a small outlaw band, prowling the Mexican border for illegals and drug dealers to rob. In debt after a recent divorce from a man who was the target of an Everett murder attempt, she embarked on an armed crime spree to finance a grandiose scheme: She wanted to buy 40 desert acres she often talked about and grow her tiny team into a Blackwater-style international vigilante force that would battle border jumpers and drug cartels and rescue kidnapped Americans in other countries.
"She sat here on my couch and told me she planned to start an underground militia," Metzger says from his home in Redding, California. "She said she would rob Mexican drug dealers, steal their money, and their drugs. She talked about a store near her in Arizona that kept 40 grand under the counter to cash illegals' checks, and she was going to rob that."
She was also involved in the recent burglary of her half-brother's home and the robbery of a family friend's place, Metzger says, where $12,000 was taken at gunpoint. California authorities recently told reporters they're investigating break-ins in connection with the Arizona robbery and shootings.
"We didn't know whether to believe her or not when she talked about her plans," says Metzger. "She had a habit of lying, of exaggerating. We shrugged it off at first. Then we told police. They were already onto her when the [Arizona] shootings happened. She talked about not only robbing drug dealers, but starting a revolution against the government."
Now a hard-looking 41, Forde is said to be what a witness called the "fat white woman" who emerged at 1 a.m. on May 30 in an armored vest and Border Patrol garb from a gun battle in the southwest Arizona town of Arivaca, an hour down Interstate 19 from Tucson. Raul "Junior" Flores, 29, a suspected drug dealer, and his 9-year-old daughter, Brisenia, were left dead on the floor of their trailer home. The intruders were after Flores' rumored $4,000 drug-money stash, Pima County prosecutors said at a press conference and in court records. Flores' 31-year-old wife, Gina Gonzalez, though wounded three times, survived the shooting and returned fire, slightly wounding alleged gunman Jason Bush as he and the others fled.
Some viewed the killings as confirmation of an April Department of Homeland Security memo warning that economic and political conditions — including the election of a liberal black president — were seeding an American resurgence in right-wing extremism and potential violence. The day after the Arivaca slayings, Kansas abortion provider Dr. George Tiller was shot dead by an anti-abortion, anti-government extremist. A week later, a white supremacist shot up the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., wounding two and killing a guard.
The arrests of Forde, Bush, and a local suspect named Albert Gaxiola, a 42-year-old who authorities say was himself a drug dealer and shared a bed with Forde, left border vigilante leaders competing to see who could disown Forde first. Some claimed they knew she was becoming a loose cannon. Bill Gheen, president of the North Carolina-based Americans for Legal Immigration, had warned on his group's Web site in February that her increasingly bizarre actions could damage the movement's credibility.
But she had long been a welcomed supporter, especially by Jim Gilchrist, an ex-Marine who runs the Minuteman Project, based near San Diego. Even in the wake of what some called her false reporting of a shooting and rape, he said he continued to be a "proud supporter" and called Forde "a stoic struggler who has chosen to put country, community, and a yearning for a civilized society ahead of avarice and self-glorifying ego." A true believer, Gilchrist talked to Forde shortly after the Arivaca shootings and said he took her at her word that she hadn't been involved. But shortly after her June 12 arrest, he announced his "condolences to the victims," and removed some supportive Forde blog items from his Web site.
Though the Pima County Sheriff Department called Forde the "ringleader" of the deadly assault, the "fat white woman" wasn't her, Forde insisted. In her only statement to reporters as she was taken into custody, she said: "I did not do it."
That's something she has told others before, and with success.
After the 1985 Seattle prostitution bust, young Shawna Breitgham denied she offered and agreed to sex, or that she was the owner of an illegal knife found on the car seat next to her, and was eventually exonerated. Her attorney argued that it was Officer Rodriguez who broke the law, committing lewd conduct by squeezing a juvenile's breast. Rodriguez also was a no-show for a court hearing, and the case was dismissed.
It's difficult to determine how that and other life experiences affected Shawna Breitgham's future as Shawna Forde. "She's probably the only one who can answer that," says Everett Police Sergeant Robert Goetz, who is familiar with some of Forde's background. "And I doubt that she's giving any interviews."
But Forde's record and words suggest that, whether they're undercover police officers or from across the border, all Rodriguezes look alike to her.
Plump, butch-looking Shawna Forde had just returned to the Arizona-Mexico border earlier this year, a regular journey she'd taken from Everett for almost three years, staying in motels or with friends. She also wrote regularly — and with little regard for English grammar or spelling — on her M.A.D. blog, in a space she called Shawna's Corner.
"See, there is a new white girl in town . . . this one is not afraid and will not tolerate this, not while I'm on post," she wrote in one entry. "We can all live in fear or we stand strong and tall and look the criminals in the eye and say, 'No more.' I did not get involved in this movement to be a wallflower and as most of you know me you know I'm a hands on kind of gal. We have to do this so if you have area's that are known to be [drug] traffic area's and full of illegal's make a stand start with local law enforcement, take pictures and build a case file."
As the M.A.D. generalissimo — she referred to her missions as "Delta One Operations" — Forde seemed to advocate a legal solution to stopping border-hopping and narcotics shipments. But a vein of paranoia was emerging. "After they cross the border," she wrote of immigrants, "they are taking over areas of our cities, neighborhoods, schools with their way of life witch is: 1 Corruption 2 Lie's 3 Drug dealer 4 welfare fraud 5 stealing 6 Filthiness 7 Gang code of ethics 8 violence 9 no respect for existing Americans 10 Hate. I could continue this list I have seen first hand and have been getting to know people in the Hispanic community so that when they say we should respect the plight of these pour people do not be fooled for one moment they think we are weak and stupid plus we don't speak their language so they operate their own lifestyles under the radar. I would say 90% of all patrons here are illegal some just got her yesterday. These are not proud people they are nothing more than thugs."
Merrill Metzger thinks it was a steady, irrational decline that got his half-sister to such an angry spot. Metzger and Forde share the same mother and, he thought, a rational disagreement with the government over its immigration policies.
"I believe all men are created equal, and I have no problem with immigration itself. I just think everyone should stand in line like everyone else to become a citizen," says the 48-year-old apartment manager. That's why Metzger joined Forde's band of border patrollers in 2007, he says, before heading back after six months upon seeing his half-sister's deterioration.
"She was so prejudiced; she said we couldn't eat Mexican food," he recalls. Over the ensuing months, her bunker mentality surfaced, he says, and the "executive director," as she called herself, became obsessed with a need for money and power — a manic version of the dilettante protester Forde had been earlier this decade as a budding beautician.
The Everett beauty academy where she trained hadn't been providing the schooling it promised, she claimed, so she organized a brief walkout of students in 2001. As she told her hometown paper, the Herald, in Everett, "You just can't give a leg wax or bikini wax without the proper training. You could hurt a client."
Says Metzger, "Both my mother and I [saw] it, the change taking place. She'd come here [to Redding] and each time have wilder ideas about how to stop the government. We played along like we didn't know anything, but we were getting information from her and passing it along to the police, right after her husband was shot, and then the rape."
That made the Herald, too. A few hours after getting out of the hospital in January this year, she called its newsroom and asked if the paper would tell the public about her sexual assault.
After her Seattle days, Forde wed and moved to Alaska, where she had a child who died of sudden infant death syndrome, according to Metzger. Court records show she divorced three times in the 1990s, giving birth to a son and daughter before marrying again in 2000. After the beauty protest, she stepped back into the spotlight in 2006 as "media director" of the Washington chapter of the Minuteman Project. Their battle zone was the tamer Canadian border.
"I will be there to bring attention to Americans that our borders are wide open and we need to secure them," she told the Herald. If she saw an illegal through her binoculars, she said, she would quickly call in the Border Patrol and let them do their job.
Metzger says he was surprised at Forde's emergence in the border-watch movement. She hadn't expressed any strong political positions, although she did occasionally jaw about maybe running for office someday. "I think she had a deep passion for attention, and it didn't matter how she gained it," says Metzger. The anti-immigration movement could provide that opportunity, especially if she found border crashers in places like her local library.
Such a patriotic search for invaders among the bibliophiles of the Everett downtown library was reported online in 2007 by the Reagan Wing, a group of Washington state Republicans who support Ronald Reagan's lesser-government ideals. A 2 p.m. dispatch from May 16, 2007, says: "The Reagan Wing has learned that Minuteman American Defense is, at this minute, positioning personnel at the Everett Public Library in direct response to confidential pleas from Library staff to counterract aparent Terrorist Surveilance from that location, of the Port of Everett. Men described as 'Middle Eastern' have, over a period of days or weeks, repeatedly attended the Library without either reading or checking out books, according to the sources. They have, instead, busied themselves with noting the position of seagoing vessels, port infrastructure and photographing the whole Port of Everett, clearly visable from the Library windows. 'You can see everything from Bainbridge Island to Mukilteo and every Navy ship,' said a Minuteman, from a cell phone on site. 'This is the perfect place to plan a terrorist attack.'"
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate and extremist activities across the country and is headquartered in Montgomery, Alabama, included the incident in a profile of Forde in its Intelligence Report magazine. "Preppy, blonde, and fashionably coiffed, Shawna Forde doesn't look much like a grunge-rock promoter or a border vigilante," the profile begins. "Yet during the Seattle grunge scene's early 1990s heyday, Forde promoted and toured with several post-punk bands. Today, she's traded in her thrift-store flannel for a pantsuit, and her concert posters for Minuteman fliers pronouncing, 'The Great Gringo awakens from siesta.'" (Casey Sanchez, who wrote the profile for SPLC, says he's not certain which grunge bands Forde might have been involved with, and that Forde didn't respond to his request for comment in 2007. Rather, he discovered source material wherein she claimed to have been a promoter.)
The profile, along with news stories from back then, recount how, in the summer of 2007, Forde shared the podium at the Everett Elks Lodge with her mentor Gilchrist, the Minuteman Project co-founder, for an "illegal immigration summit." Before a crowd of 100, Forde remembered her anti-immigrant call-to-arms: "I was in the mall one day and, hey, nobody's speaking English. I realized we had a serious problem. I just got tired of pushing one for English [on the phone]. I decided to do something about it."
Though she failed earlier in an effort to gather signatures for a ballot initiative that would cut off state aid to undocumented immigrants, she announced shortly after the summit her campaign for Everett City Council, running on an anti-immigration platform. She received 5,892 votes to incumbent Drew Nielsen's 10,943 — not bad considering she was mostly a campaign no-show who brushed off her arrest for shoplifting a $3.18 carton of chocolate milk from a grocery store. (She pleaded guilty two months before the election.)
"Shawna always had an issue with stealing," says Metzger, her half-brother. "My niece [Shawna's daughter] told us that Shawna took her as a kid to do shoplifting, and did the same with her son. The fact he's now in prison, I blame on her, not him." (The son, Devon M. Duffey, has racked up several burglary convictions and was sentenced last October to almost three years for trafficking in stolen property.
The 2007 Intelligence Report profile also notes that "Forde's belief that, in two years, undocumented immigrants will 'outnumber real Americans' is mild compared to other statements on M.A.D.'s Web site, such as a claim that Al-Qaeda terrorists are recruiting U.S.-based members of the violent Latino street gang MS-13."
She took that a step further the following year. Members of MS-13 may have broken into her home, she told police, and raped her.
When she called the Herald in Everett on December 30, 2008, Shawna Forde said she was assaulted a day earlier in the same home where her husband had been shot and wounded a week earlier. Someone was out to get them, she suggested — most likely enemies of her border activities.
She didn't make it clear at the time, but she and husband John were separated, though still at times living under the same roof. Records show they split in July 2008. John Forde (who did not respond to a request for comment) filed for divorce in September 2008, and the two of them signed dissolution papers in November; Shawna was living then in Arizona. The divorce was finalized in February.
The split left her with little other than debt. After the pair divvied up assets and obligations, Shawna wound up $78,000 in the hole. Liabilities included $30,000 borrowed from the Boeing Employees Credit Union; most of the remainder was credit card debt. Her husband agreed to pay about $25,000 worth of her bills, but she had no income other than small donations going to her border group, says her half-brother,
On December 22, according to police and news reports, John Forde was wounded when a stranger burst into his home near downtown Everett and began shooting. Forde, who recovered from multiple wounds, couldn't identify his attacker, who was white. Seven days later, Shawna Forde called police from the same home, claiming she'd been jumped in her kitchen by three attackers, knocked out, slashed with a knife, and raped. They could have been Hispanic gangsters, she said, because they scrawled the number 13 on her kitchen floor. That was a possible reference to Mara Salvatrucha, also called MS-13, a Los Angeles-born gang infamous for violence and international drug trafficking.
Though no one seemed to notice, the incident was similar to a supposed attack in Missouri involving a woman from another Minuteman group. Angela D. Wilburn, married to Ozarks Minuteman founder and anti-immigration activist Brian Wilburn, told police in 2007 she had been attacked and raped at her home by three Spanish-speaking men, who then shot her in the knee. Three days later, she admitted making up the tale after accidentally shooting herself while investigating a suspicious noise.
When Forde called the Herald about her attack, she also posted a story about the incident on her group's Web site. It included pictures that seemed to show bruises on her face, legs, and arms. She also posted a hospital report, which, in essence, said she'd been treated after reporting a rape. (The M.A.D. Web site was taken down by its followers after Forde's Arizona arrest.)
Police were puzzled by both assaults and were stuck for leads. Then, on January 15, Forde reported another attack: Someone had shot her while she was walking in an alley near her home, she said. She was taken to a hospital with a bleeding arm, which could have been caused by a bullet, police said. No suspect was identified.
Later, in a long interview with Herald reporter Scott North, Forde changed her story, saying the people who attacked her and her husband might have been revenge-seeking associates of her convict son, because she had told police Devon admitted to "scores of burglaries" and committed crimes "for the rush."
Forde also told North she'd been physically and sexually abused as a child, had mental issues, and had stabbed herself with a small knife while going through the pregnancy of her son. She seemed to blame a lot of her hard luck on others, including minorities, and said she hadn't talked to police about her husband's shooting on advice of her attorney. She denied any role in the shooting: "If I was going to do something like that, I would have done it while I was in Arizona," Forde told the Herald.
It was strange piled upon strange. Everett police Sergeant Robert Goetz says the department still is puzzled by it all. But it has, for now, dropped its rape investigation. "The case has been closed due to insufficient evidence," says Goetz. "We've exhausted all the leads. [Forde] was the only witness." The arm-shooting incident also is on hold.
Police are still examining leads in John Forde's shooting, and they should be focusing on Shawna, says Merrill Metzger. "My son and I went up there [to Everett] after the attacks, and we both noticed that her 'bruises' were doctored with makeup. She's a trained cosmetologist. It was the first thing we said to each other: '[The bruises] are just makeup, fake.' She was all black and blue, but there was no swelling, and the makeup was on so thick it was cracking. I don't know why the police didn't pick up on that. Maybe they did, and are just not saying."
Metzger noticed something else, too: the familiar face of the man Forde was dating at the time. "My son and I looked at each other: 'Why, he looks just like the man in the police sketch, the suspect in the shooting of her husband.'"
Today, Forde is getting questioned by Arizona authorities, but so far she isn't telling them much.
Besides the two counts of first-degree murder, she's charged with first-degree burglary and aggravated assault. On June 29 in Tucson, she, Bush, and Gaxiola pleaded not guilty and were appointed public defenders. (Bush, thanks to information surfacing from the Arizona probe, now is also charged in the 1997 slaying of a homeless Hispanic man in Wenatchee). Pima County prosecutors will decide by the end of August whether the threesome will face the death penalty.
In one of her final M.A.D. missives to supporters after the Everett incidents and before the Arivaca shootings, Forde portrayed herself as victim and urged others to follow her defiant lead.
"You can beat me, rape me, stab me, shoot me, shoot my husband, kick my cat HOLD MY PAST AGAINST ME, slander me, gossip, blog, put me in public square, stripe me naked and cast stones while I bleed from head to toe," she wrote. "I will stay the course and lead in this fight with every once of strength and conviction. I will not waist it on matters that do not pertain to this very mission. It is time for Americans to lock and load."
Forde is probably a bit short of believers these days. At the Pima County jail where she's being held on $1 million bail, a good many prisoners have Latino names. As this story was written, 21 inmates alone went by Rodriguez.
And, yes, authorities confirm, the jail serves Mexican food.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.
- FEMA May Deploy Response Team to Navajo Nation Following Mine Spill
Sat., Sep. 12, 6:00pm
Sat., Sep. 12, 8:00pm
Sun., Sep. 13, 1:05pm
Mon., Sep. 14, 6:40pm
- Phoenix Suspect in Garland Attack Demands New Lawyer, Complains About DNA Testing
- As Arpaio's Trial Approaches, More MCSO Shenanigans Pop Out of the Woodwork