Ex-border vigilante Chris Simcox's name now can be added to the list of infamous criminals to emerge from the Minuteman movement. On Wednesday, after deliberating for a day and a half, a Phoenix jury found the onetime anti-immigrant firebrand guilty on two counts of child molestation and one count of furnishing pornography to a minor.
The jury of nine men and three women acquitted Simcox, 55, on the most serious charges of sexual conduct with a minor under the age of 12, for which he could have received life imprisonment. Under the sentencing guidelines for the remaining counts, Simcox faces a presumptive sentence of anywhere from 17 years to 37 years, depending on whether trial judge Jose Padilla chooses to have the sentences run concurrently or consecutively.
Judge Padilla, who set July 5 as the sentencing date, has a reputation among some lawyers for being soft on the defense. He was collegial with Simcox throughout the 11-day trial, during which the defendant represented himself, with assistance from his court-appointed advisory counsel, Kerrie Droban.
Dressed for court in a dark suit and blue shirt, Simcox smiled slightly at the press as he took his seat. After the verdict was read and the jury dismissed, he asked the judge not to delay the sentencing. Despite his conviction, he left the courtroom with what appeared to be a smirk on his face.
Droban later told reporters that she thought Simcox put on a good defense, considering his lack of legal training. But that was being generous. Simcox did not make a single objection throughout the entire trial. His closing statement on Monday was halting and filled with outright fabrications that had to be stricken from the record after Padilla sustained prosecutor Yigael Cohen's many objections.
Three of Simcox's daughters testified against him, including his eldest daughter by ex-wife number three, Alena. He was alleged to have penetrated his child's vagina on three occasions, twice with his finger and once with a stick. These allegations resulted in three charges of sexual conduct with a minor, on which he was acquitted.
Simcox's contentious 2011 divorce from Alena came up during the trial, as did conflicts they had after the divorce. As part of his defense, Simcox accused Alena of animus toward him over issues concerning visitation. This rift likely played into the jury's not-guilty verdict on the sexual-conduct counts.
The strongest testimony against Simcox, the testimony that led directly to his three convictions, came from a neighbor child who lived in the same North Phoenix apartment building as Simcox in 2012 and 2013, a 5-year-old playmate of Simcox's daughters, who were around the same age. Her testimony bookended the trial. Now nearly 9, she took the stand on day one, and the prosecution played the video of her 2013 forensic interview on the trial's final day.
The girl said Simcox molested her on several occasions in the kitchen of his apartment, while his children were in another room. He reached under her clothes to touch her genitals, rubbing his fingers back and forth, she recounted, saying that it stung "like a mosquito" and that she wanted it to stop. At first, she said, she was afraid to say anything, for fear of losing her playmates.
When she told her mother, Michelle Lynch, what was happening, the authorities were notified. A monthlong investigation by the Phoenix Police Department followed, culminating in Simcox's arrest in June 2013. By that time, Phoenix police had contacted Alena and scheduled an interview with Simcox's daughters. Before the interview, the elder daughter told Alena about the alleged abuse.
Police detectives also identified another alleged victim, a neighbor girl who said Simcox bribed her with candy to pull down her pants and underwear and show him her genitals. A charge related to that child was dropped, but she testified in order to help the prosecution to show a pattern of behavior on Simcox's part.
To this end, prosecutors also put Simcox's adult daughter by another marriage on the stand. Linsey Randich, 33, testified that Simcox had molested her three times when she was between the ages of 10 and 14. The last incident occurred in 1998, when, she said, Simcox insisted on giving her a massage that ended with him touching her vagina.
Los Angeles police investigated the incident. Randich said charges were never brought because she hadn't wanted to face her father in court and she was told she would never have to see him again. (Simcox lived in California at the time, while Randich's mother lived in Illinois.) Randich said she hadn't spoken to or seen Simcox in 18 years when she received a call from a Phoenix police detective investigating the current allegations.
Randich proved a convincing witness, and when Simcox testified, Cohen got him to admit on cross-examination to having given Randich a massage and to touching her leg. As Cohen would later point out in his closing statement, Simcox never categorically denied any of the allegations while on the stand, only doing so during his closing argument, which is not considered evidence.
Immediately following the verdict, Lynch told New Times she was relieved that the ordeal was over.
"There's something off about [Simcox]," she explained. "If he had gotten away with all of this, I would have been scared. I'm not any more. And [my daughter] doesn't have to be scared."
She said her daughter knew the jury was deliberating and was worried about the pending verdict, asking Lynch, "What if they don't find him guilty?" Lynch said she'd warned the girl that sometimes "innocent people go to jail and guilty people go free" — a prospect that frightened the child.
"As soon as I said that, she was worried that they were going to send her to jail," Lynch said. "I told her it doesn't work like that. I think she's going to be very happy. She's been through a lot."
An Air Force vet who now is an administrator at a local school, Lynch put up serious resistance in 2013 to a proposed plea deal from the Maricopa County Attorney's Office that would have allowed Simcox to plead guilty to attempted molestation and be sentenced to a total of 10 years in prison.
"My daughter is worth more than 10 years," she said, regarding her early opposition to the deal.
She went public with her grievances, but Simcox ultimately rejected the plea offer. In February 2015, he decided that he would represent himself rather than rely upon public defenders. He also sought to personally cross-examine his child victims during trial, a request Padilla initially granted.
The prosecution, along with local attorney Jack Wilenchik, who was representing Lynch pro bono, fought Padilla's ruling on appeal. For more than a year, the legal wrangling delayed the trial, until Simcox finally dropped his bid in March.
During the trial, Droban questioned the child victims. But Simcox cross-examined all of the other prosecution witnesses, including his youngest daughter (whom he was not accused of molesting), the girl he allegedly bribed with candy, and his adult daughter, Randich.
Interestingly, the issue of whether a self-representing defendant can cross-examine child victims is still unresolved. Earlier this year, Wilenchik petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to address the question, and Simcox has replied to the petition. Wilenchik tells New Times that he expects SCOTUS to decide by June 20 whether to take on the issue.
Though Simcox's star had fallen far from its zenith by the time he was arrested in 2013, it's worth remembering that as the co-founder of the Minuteman Project in 2005 and 2006, he became a right-wing cause célebrè as he encouraged armed vigilantes to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border. Politicians such as Sheriff Joe Arpaio, former state Senate President Russell Pearce, and Congressman Steve King of Iowa, to name a few, cozied up to him. When he abandoned his dark-horse run for U.S. Senate in 2010, he briefly scored a job with the campaign of fellow Republican J.D. Hayworth, who ran unsuccessfully that year in the GOP primary against incumbent U.S. Senator John McCain.
Phoenix attorney Ray Ybarra Maldonado, author of the memoir Born on the Border: Minutemen Vigilantes, Origins of Arizona's Anti-Immigrant Movement, and a Call for Increased Civil Disobedience, was working for the ACLU at the time as an official observer, monitoring Simcox's activities. Maldonado told New Times he wasn't surprised by the verdict.
"The guy obviously has a demented mind," Maldonado said. "Even when I met him back then, you knew someone who moved out to the desert from LA to hunt for immigrants had something wrong with them. This just proves that he not only terrorized people of color from coming across the border, but also young girls."
Maldonado observed that Simcox is not the only former member of the Minuteman movement to commit heinous acts. Ex-vigilante Shawna Forde is on Arizona's death row for her part in the 2009 home-invasion murders of Arivaca residents Raul Flores and his 9-year-old daughter Brisenia. And in May 2012, neo-Nazi and former Minuteman J.T. Ready killed himself and four others in Gilbert; one of the victims was a 15-month-old girl.
Said Maldonado: "These crazy vigilantes, who were out there to uphold the rule of law against people of color, can't seem to follow the law themselves. Politicians and policy makers were taking these people seriously, when time has shown they were really a bunch of loonies."
Indeed, Simcox once was a regular on Fox News and had politicians coveting his endorsement.
Ironically, one of those who curried favor with the Minuteman movement was none other than Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery. The man who heads the office that prosecuted Simcox was running for state attorney general at the time.
On Wednesday, after the verdict was read, Montgomery issued a statement hailing the conviction and praising Lynch's daughter. "This young girl had the courage to come forward to stop the abuse and by doing so revealed his predatory behavior," the statement reads in part. "With this verdict we have been able to seek justice for this victim."
By 2013, Simcox largely had faded from public view. Shortly before being arrested, he was working at Scottsdale-based iMemories, a company that converts home movies into a digital format.
Arizona Governor Doug Ducey is a major investor in iMemories, as New Times reported in 2014. Ducey served as chairman of the board of that company from 2008 to 2012, though his spokeswoman at the time denied that Ducey had any role in the day-to-day operations.
It was while Simcox was working at iMemories and home-schooling his children part time that Lynch met him and allowed her daughter to play with the former kindergarten teacher's children. Lynch says she knew nothing of Simcox's Minuteman past until after her daughter told her Simcox had molested her.
"He just seemed like a nice man," she told a media scrum after leaving the courthouse. "But in the end, he wasn't. The easiest way to gain someone's trust is to be something you're not."
Lynch told reporters that she wasn't upset that Simcox was acquitted on three of the charges involving his daughter with Alena.
"This conviction is for all of the children he hurt," she said, adding, "I hope that he meets karma in prison."
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