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Commander of armed border group facing weapons charges in NM

Larry Mitchell Hopkins, a member of the militia Patriots of the Constitution is seen here while camped out on the border in Sunland Park, NM. Group members said they are assisting Border Patrol agents who are being overwhelmed due to the dramatic increase of immigrants crossing in this sector. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

LAS CRUCES – The man who had identified himself as the “commander” of an armed group camped near the New Mexico border fence made an initial appearance in federal court on charges of being a felon in possession of firearms and ammunition.

Larry Mitchell Hopkins, 69,  wore a brown Dona Ana County Detention Center jumpsuit and  answered “yes” when U.S. Magistrate Gregory B. Wormuth asked if he understood the charges and his right to legal representation. When the judge asked about any medical problems, Hopkins answered “quite a few medical problems sir. I’m 70 years old.”

Hopkins, also known as Johnny Horton Jr., is from Flora Vista according to the criminal complaint. He has spent about two months living on the New Mexico border at a camp set up by United Patriots of the Constitution. Sunland Park police and FBI agents arrested him Saturday.

“This arrest has absolutely nothing to do with what they’re doing down there, on the surface anyway,” said Kelly O’Connell, Hopkins lawyer.

The criminal complaint is related to unlawful possession of nine firearms and ammunition in his home in San Juan County in November 2017. Hopkins has three felony offenses including possessing a loaded firearm in Michigan in 1996, being a felon in possession of a firearm in Oregon and “impersonating a peace officer” in Oregon in 2006 according to the FBI.

According to the criminal complaint, “witnesses reported seeing members of  the United Constitutional Patriots bearing firearms at Hopkins’ residence.” And the group was “training to assassinate George Soros, Hillary Clinton, and Barrak Obama, because of these individuals’ support of Antifa.”  Antifa is described as ” loose collection of groups, networks and individuals who believe in active, aggressive opposition to far right-wing movements,” according to the Anti-Defamation League’s website.

Outside the federal courthouse in Las Cruces Hopkins’ attorney  said the guns and ammunition did not belong to his client.  O’Connell said he was hired to represent Hopkins late Sunday night but declined to identify who is paying the legal costs.

The Journal interviewed Hopkins, who identified himself as Johnny Horton, for the 8 hours on the border series last month. “We’re always armed. We don’t point our weapons at people. But we’re armed, because we don’t know who is coming across,” Horton told the Journal.

“We talked to Border Patrol, and they said they needed help. They needed eyes,” Horton told the Journal. Border Patrol welcomes tips from citizens who witness illegal activity on the border but cautions people against taking the law into their own hands.

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico raised concerns the group was doing more than watching.  In a letter to the governor and attorney general Thursday the ACLU referred to the men as “armed vigilantes” on the border who were “illegally detaining” hundreds of migrant families at gunpoint and called for an investigation.

The ACLU pointed to videos on social media that showed members of the group in camouflage standing over groups of migrant parents and kids.

“We are detaining people but not illegally. If they do not surrender to our verbal commands, we do not force them to stay with us,” Jim Benvie, the United Constitutional Patriots’ spokesman told the Journal Thursday after learning about the ACLU letter.

On Monday Benvie reiterated the organization is not breaking any laws by patrolling the border with their weapons.

“Our guys are carrying for protection. We’re just a group of volunteer patriots, veterans in law enforcement,”said Benvie.

But he stressed Hopkins was not armed while living at the camp near the border fence.  “He didn’t have a gun. He didn’t bring a gun. Johnny did not bring a gun,” he said.

“He’s a 70-year-old Vietnam veteran who was cooking meals for people at the camp. He was a victim in this,” said Benvie.

Hopkins is being held without bond until his pre-trial hearing in Albuquerque next Monday.