A watcher sees across the divide

Times Staff Writer

HE senses them out there in the dark, making their moves, trying to outsmart him. He's planted on a hill in the cab of his mud-splattered, jacked-up truck, a greenish 1976 Silverado with roof-mounted motion sensors, holes in the floorboard and a "Don't Tread on Me" sticker in the window. From the cab, he studies the valley below with night-vision goggles, Ruger revolver strapped to his ribs.

"I own the night, brother," says Max Kennedy, a lanky, sunburned man with a scraggly goatee and a voice like a fistful of desert gravel. In his 53 years, he says, he has driven a cab in Miami and ferried fur coats in New York, peddled marijuana and jewelry, played bass in a punk bank and marched with 1960s radicals. He has been a Gingrich Republican and a pagan, a seeker of meaning in the Kaballah and the sayings of Chairman Mao.

In his latest incarnation, he's a Minuteman staking out a small stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border in the beautiful, inhospitable mountains of southeast San Diego County. Untethered to job or family, he's one of three or four hard-core members who camp out here full time, trying to catch illegal immigrants as they cross.

But after 14 months living "in exile from the United States," he might be the most ambivalent of border warriors. His relations with other Minutemen are uneasy, his faith in the mission fraying, his sense of the migrants' desperation increasingly keen. Plus, the desert has its privations. He misses women and chicken cutlets and good conversation.

"Emotionally, I'm burnt," he says. "My human side is beaten down."

Tonight, the desert is still and quiet. Scanning with goggles, he finds no sign of migrants hunkered in the cold, hilly brush, nor of the coyotes who smuggle them ingeniously through the thickets. But it's just 8:30 p.m., and Kennedy can wait all night. He has cigarettes to keep him calm, Coke to keep him alert and a full belly. Earlier, he heated a dinner of chicken, mashed potatoes and canned peas on his propane stove, eating alone in the truck's back seat, his plate on his lap.

He worked in the 1970s and '80s as an electronics technician, he says, but his job got sent overseas. That infuriated him. A couple of years ago he lost his job at a gas station in Cape Cod, Mass., when the company changed hands, and he got angrier still. A lot of his friends were out of work too. He did not know what to do with his fury at President Bush, who struck him as the man to blame. Illegal immigrants were taking jobs from America's poor, he felt, and Bush was letting it happen -- just as, he believed, the president let Hurricane Katrina wipe out the poor of New Orleans.

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HE soon found an idol in Jim Gilchrist, the retired Orange County accountant who co-founded the Minuteman Project citizen patrol. So he gave up his apartment in Cape Cod, crossed the country in a Greyhound and in March 2006 joined the volunteer border watchers Bush has derided as "vigilantes."

The Minutemen gave him the old truck, which became both his bed and patrol vehicle. The job was simple -- spot illegal crossers and let the Border Patrol sweep them up -- but the terrain was hard. He learned how to navigate the network of steep, nameless, unpaved roads in the hills above Campo, to use the radio towers as lookout points and location markers.

The work combined a sandlot war game with angry idealism -- an action-movie fantasy for a man who says he was kept out of the Army by phlebitis, a vein condition. He strapped on the gun for snakes and drug dealers, though he says he has never used it.

"I'm like the Rambo guy," explains Kennedy, who wears cotton work gloves with the fingers cut off. "I been livin' for this my whole life, looking forward to that Mad Max experience, and I found it."

For a while, he felt he'd discovered a sense of brotherhood and purpose, even if it meant sleeping in a cold truck and showering from a rubber bag. For a while, he felt history swirling out here amid the border dust.

Now, Kennedy can barely mention Gilchrist's name without wanting to scream. This year, Gilchrist's board of directors rebelled, alleging that thousands of dollars in Minuteman funds were missing. Gilchrist denied wrongdoing, but Kennedy now believes him a greedy, glory-hungry "poseur," more a politician than a man willing to log hard hours at the border.

The Minuteman Project, which split in two soon after it won national attention in 2005, fractured further. There are now hundreds of loosely affiliated cells nationwide, and the men who haunt the Campo border are a quarrelsome group. Unlike Kennedy, who scrabbles by on a few hundred dollars in donations a month, most others live on pensions, Social Security or military benefits.

Home base is a patch of private land called Minuteman Village, just a dusty clearing with a few campers and old vehicles scattered around a big oak.

The titular head of the Campo Minutemen is Britt "Kingfish" Craig, 58, a one-eyed Vietnam vet from Orange County who continues to support Gilchrist, which made Kennedy quit his group in disgust and declare himself an "independent." For his part, Kingfish accuses Kennedy of "panhandling" to finance his border work, and says, "There's a tension with him, because he can't really afford to do it."

Another fixture is Howard "Ridgerunner" Smith, a 56-year-old retired plumber from Simi Valley, a shaggy-haired former peacenik who doesn't talk much and keeps a Confederate flag in his camper's cracked, duct-taped window.

There's also a guy who calls himself CzechStan, a portly 63-year-old widower and retired electrician who sleeps in a camper in Minuteman Village. Kennedy likes him but bickers with him constantly.

And there's Little Dog, a mysterious loner who lives on a solitary hill, a man others describe -- even by the border's generous standards -- as ornery, possibly crazy and best avoided.

Once in a while Kennedy sees Gadget, a boisterous 64-year-old former fireman who has camouflaged his perfectly nice Toyota Echo by spray-gluing on leafy branches and sand. Gadget, who goes home to San Diego after patrols, says, "I try to get my family out here, and they say, 'Tiger Woods tees off at 11,' 'The Chargers kick off at 12.' "

Most of the time, Kennedy says, he's alone out here. Apart from a zeal for tighter borders, he shares little philosophically with his confederates. A lot of Minutemen lean toward Republicanism and Christianity. Kennedy leans toward Buddhism and socialism, and still keeps Mao's Little Red Book in his dashboard.

"I'm the most isolated guy," Kennedy says.

--

TONIGHT, the moon is brilliant and nearly full. He can exploit the extra visibility. Proud of his prowess, he bows to no Minuteman on the border.

"I'm the best, brother," he says. "I won't deny it. You know why? I've got the wounds, inside and out. I been hit by bottles, rocks. I got calluses. I got sand in my lungs."

Covered with big granite boulders and a thick carpet of sage and cactus, with peaks that rise to 4,500 feet, the harsh and isolated terrain around Campo is easy to get lost in, easy to hide in. For maximum stealth, he's disconnected his brake lights.

A high school dropout from a poor Brooklyn neighborhood, Kennedy is a fount of fierce opinion who calls himself "the ghetto Mensa." His patter drifts from the greatness of Alexander Hamilton to the sexual practices of the ancient Egyptians to the appalling apathy of a society obsessed with "American Idol" -- all those millions "sitting there on their couches, burping out low-fat KFC" while guys like him defend the border.

He never married, and although he has two kids, he knows little about them, which he calls "one of the biggest heartbreaks I have," a loneliness especially sharp around the holidays. He believes he might have made a mark on the world, had affirmative action not thwarted his chances.

At 9:40 p.m., Kennedy is bumping through the dark mountains in his four-wheel-drive, navigating a network of steep, unlit dirt roads. Ahead, he spots an empty water bottle lying on its side at the edge of the road. He rolls to a stop and climbs out to inspect it. The bottle, which glows in the moonlight, is labeled Ciel Purificada. Coyotes fill these bottles with sand to pour over their clients' footprints.

But he thinks this one serves a different purpose: a directional arrow, a makeshift reflector. Kennedy has found many such ingenious markers -- strings of cassette tape tied between bushes to catch the moonlight, bits of glass scattered like fairy-tale breadcrumbs.

The bottle, he notices, has been arranged diagonally, pointing across the road to a spot where the brush slopes into a valley. He follows the pointer, crouches before a low bush with his flashlight and finds a small piece of white tape knotted around a branch: another marker. With it, he finds a footprint and a broken twig.

"That's his foot. The first guy has come through here. He's marked all this." Examining the print, he says, "That's a perfect fit, if I was a little short guy tying that tape."

A big pack of migrants is moving through tonight, he believes. He figures they will cross right here, dip into the gulley and climb out to safety on the roads beyond. If he positions himself on a nearby hill, he can catch them passing right beneath him.

--

AND if he does? What then? He has come to doubt the Minuteman movement's practical relevance. Here he is with a bickering, ragtag cadre of men, patrolling a puny, 9-mile stretch of America's 2,000-mile southern border. Of every 10 migrants he manages to spot, he says, eight will get away before the Border Patrol can reach the spot. The two who are captured just cross again.

He's not sure if he can blame them. In some ways, Kennedy, who ran away from home at 14 and has been on his own ever since, says he feels a kinship with the migrants -- more kinship, at least, than with many of the Minuteman Project's political and financial champions, the "Orange County Republican types."

"They have nice houses and they're rich, and they have no idea what other people live like," he says. "They kind of look down their nose at you."

In fact, he thinks of the migrants not as illegal immigrants but as economic refugees, and admires their cunning. But he figures someone has to stand for all those Americans -- the ones he's known his whole life -- who can never seem to carve out more than a precarious toehold.

Running through the indefinable crazy quilt of his worldview is a belief in vast conspiracies -- 9/11 was orchestrated by U.S. and Israeli intelligence, and the moon landing a hoax -- and a conviction that forces of government and big business have their boot on humanity's neck.

So he'd like to strike a blow for the little guy, somehow. That, he says, explains why he's out here. But since he arrived, his sympathies have expanded in ways that surprised him. "Most of the people jumping the fence are pathetic," he says. "I see the poverty in their faces."

Off his truck rolls, rocking up and down, playing havoc with his bad back. He doesn't trust the medical establishment any more than he trusts the government, and even if he did, couldn't afford a doctor. "If I had $100, I look at that as 10 days on the border, or half of a doctor's payment," he says. For his teeth, he visits a cheap dentist in Tecate, Mexico.

He survives on donations from the Huntington Beach-based California Coalition for Immigration Reform, getting by on as little as $150 a month, much of which goes for gas. There are few human voices to break the desert silence. On his little Grundig radio, he listens to audio of Fox News Channel in his truck. "The Simpsons" and "Family Guy" are highlights of his week, and he says he doesn't mind that he gets no picture.

"I'm not much on visual jokes," he says. "It's usually the lower IQ that gets visual jokes."

By 9:58 p.m. he's planted under Tower 139, where he figures he will be able to spot the migrants crossing right beneath him. He chain-smokes Skydancer cigarettes, which he gets tax-free at the local Indian casino. He keeps the lighted tips low, out of sight.

"They know Sunday night there's not much Border Patrol, so they think they got a free run," Kennedy says. He takes a swig of Coke. "It's like being a kid. It's hide 'n' seek between me and the coyotes."

A voice comes on his walkie-talkie, which is jury-rigged with a piece of wiring to extend its range. The voice belongs to a new Minuteman on the border tonight who calls himself Northstar.

Kennedy hasn't met him and doesn't know whether to trust him. He might be a drug smuggler or a lunatic looking to bust some Mexican heads.

"We're down in La-something Canyon," Northstar says. "We got Mexican voices down in it."

"That's La Gloria Canyon. Let them go past. We're waiting for 'em," Kennedy says. "We found their path already. Hold your ground. Don't scare 'em too much."

Time ticks by. Overhead, power lines crackle. He waits, musing about some of the things he's seen. "It's usually the women who get caught, because they can't run like men can," he says. "And older people. They give up easier."

By 10:15 p.m., his hopes of catching the group have dwindled. He thinks coyotes have intercepted their radio transmissions, that other Minutemen, maybe this new guy Northstar, have killed the operation with excessive chatter. The migrants might be fleeing. He points into the dark eastward mountains. "They're probably heading that way."

Still, he waits. He scans the desert with his goggles. The desolation reminds him of dreams he used to have of nuclear annihilation. After the bombs fell, he sensed he would be one of the survivors. "This is like the post-apocalyptic universe," he says. "It's a battlefield. Sometimes you can't think of a reason to go on."

He waits. Smokes. Scans. The temperature drops. He wants to participate in history. He wonders what it would have been like at Antietam or Gettysburg. He imagines he would feel right at home with Spartacus' army of rebel slaves.

"I know I should be somewhere else," he says, waiting for a sound, a flicker of movement, anything. "I just can't find that niche that I'll fall into perfectly."

A little after 11 p.m., a sound comes from the desert. "Cracklin' bushes, brother! Cracklin' bushes!" He seizes his night-vision goggles and scans. "Where are you? I definitely hear you." He puts his goggles down, disappointed. "Animal. Coyote. Four-legged."

By 11:30 p.m. it's clear that the operation is lost. The border-jumpers have evaded capture, at least for now -- slipped into the east or back into Mexico. He turns the key in his truck and rolls down the hill. "It's really more of a protest than it is an operation," Kennedy says. "It's my only way to give Bush the finger."

--

AT midnight he's keeping warm in CzechStan's camper in Minuteman Village. It's not long before Kennedy is railing about Gilchrist -- just a politician living a comfortable Orange County life, he says, not a man you see at the border. And what about those missing funds?

CzechStan says that neither of them have seen the organization's books, so how can they judge?

"If you can't talk without screaming, you can't be leadership," he tells Kennedy.

"I don't want to be leadership."

"You get upset for nothing."

"Don't tell me what I know about my organization."

Soon, Kennedy is back in his truck, rolling out to another lookout. It's 1 a.m. He talks again about Alexander Hamilton, whom he considers a hero of freedom, and of Che Guevara, whom he considers a hero of the poor, and of the occupation of Iraq, which he considers a profit-driven assault on the world's powerless, and of his bone-deep, nearly uncontainable hatred of Bush. His brain teems with names, connections. He believes he can hold his own against a lot of college-educated types.

"And no one wants me!" he says.

He scans the desert. Nothing stirs.

Later that night, parked at Minuteman Village, he climbs into the back of his truck, unrolls a thin mattress over a rubber pad and squeezes into a frayed nylon sleeping bag.

Sometimes, desert rats climb through the holes in his floorboard. The temperature has plunged nastily. He knows it will not deter the border crossers. He knows they will crouch in the cold mountains for hours, watching for their chance.

He pulls his sleeping bag up to his chest, leaving it unzipped despite the chill. He wants his arms free, in case he has to grope for the Ruger he keeps loaded on the wheel well.

Of late, he's been thinking of a change. Maybe going east. Maybe joining the antiwar movement. Maybe finding something else on the border. He has skills -- electronics, mountaineering, survival. He's heard about a volunteer group called the Border Angels. They are vocal opponents of the Minutemen. They are the enemy. They supply water to immigrants who risk their lives in crossing. He wonders if they can use a man like him.

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christopher.goffard@latimes.com

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