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A Minuteman meets his hour of crisis

Times Staff Writer

Minuteman Project co-founder Jim Gilchrist was confronted by three associates who had been his closest allies when he arrived at his group’s headquarters in Lake Forest in late January.

“Jim,” said Marvin Stewart, “the board has terminated you as president.”

Gilchrist recalled that it felt like his heart sank to his stomach, prompting him to instinctively yell, “You’re all fired.”

“No, Jim, you are fired,” Stewart said.

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Gilchrist, who rose to fame in 2005 as the leader of the citizen group that began patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border for illegal immigrants, soon discovered that the trio had gained control of the Minuteman bank accounts and website. In a recent news conference outside Orange County Superior Court, the three board members said the takeover was triggered by Gilchrist’s mismanagement and by missing money, though they provided no evidence of misappropriated funds.

Gilchrist, who denies the allegations, has filed suit in Orange County Superior Court to regain control of the Minuteman Project, claiming that he was illegally ousted from a corporation he formed and was the sole voting board member.

“These are people I would have trusted my life with and they were conspiring against me behind my back,” Gilchrist said. “They are kidnapping my child.”

The story behind the vote to dismiss America’s most famous anti-illegal immigrant fighter contains allegations of hubris and missing money, jealousy and greed, backstabbing and extremism.

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It may also be the almost inevitable result of a rapidly growing organization whose membership is swollen with passionate individualists not known for getting along with others.

“They are taking the law into their own hands and doing it in a dramatic way,” said Luis Cabrera, a political science professor at Arizona State University. “It’s tailor-made for attracting people who want attention and a thrill and want to execute their agenda.”

Though others had proposed similar ideas, Jim Gilchrist’s battle cry for citizens to guard the border -- amplified in appearances on conservative talk radio shows -- launched 200 Minuteman groups, garnered intense media coverage and set off a national debate on immigration.

Gilchrist’s first sortie to the Arizona-Mexico border in April 2005 attracted 200 volunteers, who used cars, trucks, private planes, radios and night-vision goggles to spot illegal immigrants for U.S. Border Patrol agents.

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The event drew heavy criticism, including some from then-Mexican President Vicente Fox and President Bush, who called the participants vigilantes. But it also made Gilchrist an overnight leader in the fight against illegal immigration.

Although many of his supporters were leery of the media, which they perceived to be left-leaning and biased, Gilchrist, a one-time journalism major at the University of Rhode Island, welcomed the questions and cameras.

The 58-year-old made a striking appearance with his green eyes and well-coiffed silver hair. At outdoor events, he was partial to windbreakers, polo shirts and baseball caps with military logos or anti-illegal immigration slogans. On television, he wore blue suits with crisp shirts and colorful, but tasteful, ties.

Gilchrist “is the real reason the Minuteman Project took off ... that is what inspired me,” said Eileen Garcia, a Laguna Beach resident who helped form a women’s Minuteman auxiliary called Gilchrist Angels.

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Steve Eichler, former executive director of the Minuteman Project, said that Gilchrist “started with a lawn chair at the border and embarrassed the White House. Millions of people have been affected by him and the Minutemen. Jim Gilchrist is a rock star.”

The rapid growth of the Minuteman Project created friction with veteran anti-illegal immigration activists such as Chris Simcox, who had patrolled the Arizona-Mexico border for years in near anonymity. Their relationship initially cordial, he and Gilchrist formed the Minuteman Project, but Simcox left after a month and now runs a splinter group, the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps.

“I think he was jealous and it was clear he wanted my segment of the Minuteman campaign to fail,” Gilchrist said.

Simcox declined to comment for this article.

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Management of the rapidly expanding Minuteman Project proved to be even more of a headache for Gilchrist, a retired accountant from Aliso Viejo who critics say is not detail-oriented.

Much of his time was spent appearing on radio and television -- 2,700 times in less than three years, according to his organization’s statistics. Gilchrist crisscrossed the country speaking at meetings and on panels. He co-wrote a book about the Minuteman phenomenon, and he ran unsuccessfully for Congress.

This left little time to run the organization. “People wonder why we are disorganized,” Eichler said. “It’s the beginning. We are getting it organized.... We had to play catch-up.”

Gilchrist said he also had to manage people at the fringes of the debate on illegal immigration.

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“There are extremists drawn to this issue on both sides,” Gilchrist said. “And then there are a few real extremists. Their personalities need to be fed with more and more attention. There’s often a jealousy that I’m getting the attention.”

To help, Gilchrist surrounded himself with three allies who would eventually cross him: Barbara Coe, a star in the anti-illegal immigration movement who spearheaded Proposition 187, an initiative -- thrown out by the courts -- that denied government services to illegal immigrants; Deborah Courtney, a crime victim turned gun-rights advocate; and Stewart, a black minister who first joined Gilchrist on the border to show critics that Minutemen weren’t racist.

Coe, 73, had met Gilchrist when she appeared with him on radio shows about illegal immigration and said she soon realized the movement needed this kind of charismatic leader.

“Once he got it in his head he was going to do this, he was very energetic and was able to draw people in,” Coe said.

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Stewart, 55, had taken three days’ vacation from his job at the Veterans Administration in Long Beach to troll the border with a sidearm. (As the founder of My Lord Salvation Ministries, Stewart publishes a newsletter about Christians’ civic responsibilities but does not have his own church.)

Courtney, 46, the gun-rights advocate, met Gilchrist while working on his congressional campaign.

She said she quickly saw that although he was very popular, Gilchrist had trouble as a leader.

“I knew Gilchrist was in over his head,” Courtney said. “He doesn’t pay attention to detail. He doesn’t have the attention span.”

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Gilchrist had incorporated the Minuteman Project in Delaware and made himself the only board member, public documents show. He invited Coe, Stewart and Courtney to serve on the board -- he says in an advisory role; they say as voting members. Gilchrist also appointed three others to the board. None of the new board positions were reflected in the Minuteman’s corporate papers.

By the fall of 2006, the relationship between Gilchrist and his board began to deteriorate quickly.

There were public accusations of secret bank accounts, missing funds, sloppy accounting and donations that had been collected without the full board’s knowledge. None of the claims were made in court and proof wasn’t offered. But the seriousness of the charges drove the former allies further apart.

Coe, Stewart and Courtney said in interviews with The Times that they finally concluded that there was as much as $750,000 missing from Minuteman accounts. They said they filed a theft report with the FBI and asked for an investigation.

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Gilchrist, in turn, says he filed a theft complaint with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, alleging that the dissident board members illegally took money and the Minuteman website from his corporation. The FBI and Sheriff’s Department did not return calls seeking comment.

With tensions rising, the trio of dissenters met in late January, even though Gilchrist couldn’t attend. The three board members allied with Gilchrist said they did not attend because he wasn’t going to be there.

Coe, Stewart and Courtney met at the Lake Forest Minuteman office, which had been locked by Gilchrist. After they said the Pledge of Allegiance outside, they adjourned to a nearby sushi restaurant where they voted to oust Gilchrist.

Three days later, Courtney, Coe and Stewart met with Gilchrist and told him he was out.

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Coe said she was heartbroken and shaken up.

“Nobody will ever replace Jim Gilchrist,” said Coe, who has since resigned from the organization because of her conflicted feelings. “He was an icon of American patriotism.”

In early February, papers were filed with the state of Delaware showing that Stewart was the organization’s new president and Courtney was the new treasurer.

An official with the Delaware secretary of state’s office said no one but Gilchrist could legally make those changes.

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Less than three weeks later, Gilchrist sued Coe, Courtney and Stewart, alleging they illegally voted him out of his organization, misallocated organization funds and commandeered his website. A ruling is expected March 21 on his application for a restraining order against the three.

Gilchrist remains bewildered by the turn of events.

“Before, I just believed we were all in this for the same reasons,” he said. “Now I ask myself what is in the mind of the person standing next to me. This has changed me. I was so open and I wanted to believe in everyone around me. Then I was hijacked.”

Gilchrist says he’ll continue his fight against illegal immigration despite what he sees as a temporary setback.

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“My adversaries still have more wackos than we have,” he said. “This will keep us from moving ahead for a very long time, but hopefully we will triumph in the end. I will stay in this war.”

jennifer.delson@latimes.com


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