See that mountain range? That’s Table Top. To the west is Sand Tank.” Harry Hughes stands at the northern edge of the ­Vekol Valley, pointing to a stretch of dirt and cactus between Arizona and Mexico. It is an area he once patrolled with J.T. Ready and his citizen group U.S. Border Guard in search of “­narco-terrorists.” Hughes is also a regional director of the National Socialist Movement. He wears desert camouflage and black sunglasses and has an AR-15 slung across his chest. Over lunch two days earlier Hughes seemed mild mannered and nonthreatening. Today, prowling the desert, he is imposing. “That’s where they wait for their ride,” he says, motioning to a secluded area of drainage tunnels that lies directly below Interstate 8. As Hughes explains, this valley is the base of a smuggling corridor that leads up the John Wayne Parkway toward Phoenix.

According to a report by the Anti-­Defamation League, citizen border patrols have operated in Arizona since 1999. Among the first was Ranch Rescue, ­founded by Jack Foote, an ex–Army officer from Texas. While Foote and his early successors were blatantly xenophobic—Foote declared illegal immigration to be a Mexican plot to invade the ­United States—more recent groups including U.S. Border Guard have opted for veneers of ­legitimacy. J.T. Ready registered ­USBG as a search-and-­rescue operation. According to Hughes, Ready deliberately chose a name that would be confused with the U.S. Border Patrol, a federal agency.

In launching Ranch Rescue, Foote tapped into the frustrations of ranchers faced with immigrants sprinting across their properties. Because few crimes were tied to these immigrants, border groups remained small. But right-wing politicians and extremist organizations exploited the nativism sparked by the 9/11 attacks. Compounding anti-­immigrant sentiment was the Mexican drug war and the 2008 credit crisis, which saw Latino immigrants scapegoated. By decade’s end, Arizona was an epicenter of extremism. As one local journalist put it, “Arizona remains the most racist state in the nation.”

Harry Hughes says the National Socialist Movement is a “white civil rights organization.” But he claims USBG isn’t racist. It includes members of various races and religions, he says, and its intent is to prevent drug and human smuggling. Members have even saved lives, he implies. “We found 11 of them out there once in the middle of July, and it was 115 degrees,” he tells me. “We gave them 40 bottles of water, and they were still thirsty.”

But border groups have a history of violence. Two Salvadorans successfully sued Ranch Rescue in 2005, claiming members of the group had beaten, robbed and set a rottweiler on them. In 2011 the leader of Minutemen American Defense was sentenced to death for robbery and the murder of two Mexican Americans, one just nine years old. And despite USBG’s efforts to maintain a positive public image, government documents describe Ready and others holding immigrants at gunpoint and zip-tying them.

Mark Pitcavage, the Anti-­Defamation League’s top researcher, says border groups are motivated by nativism and a “paramilitary fantasy.” The justification these vigilantes give for their ­existence—to prevent drug smuggling—is part of their fantasy, says Pitcavage, in which they “claim the cartels are engaging in an insurgency within the U.S. They portray themselves as the main combatants in an actual war to stop the cartels.”

Jason Todd Ready was a conflicted man. He flirted with a string of ­vocations—the military, Mormonism, Nazism, politics, law enforcement—before launching USBG. At the time of his death last May, at the age of 39, he was a candidate for Pinal County sheriff. Before that he had been a GOP precinct committeeman, ran for Mesa City Council and developed an alliance with former Arizona state senator Russell Pearce, author of SB 1070, the most severe anti-­immigration bill in the country. Through it all Ready remained a white supremacist.

Ready never knew his father. He was born in Lakeland, Florida in 1973 to Ladotha Ready, daughter of a Pentecostal minister from Alabama named Ernest Ready. According to Ladotha, or Dottie, her son was the product of a short relationship she had while separated from her first husband. J.T.’s father had no involvement in his son’s life. But Dottie wasn’t always involved either. Court records show that J.T. was adopted by his maternal grandfather and his wife and lived with them in Alabama as a preteen. J.T., a strong-willed boy who missed his mother, clashed with the strict minister.

Dottie says Ernest would get so frustrated with J.T. that he’d periodically “dump him back on my doorstep,” only to have him sent back again. At 13 J.T. was sent to live with Ernest’s brother in Auburndale, Florida. When he was 15, Dottie, who had remarried to Gary Lee Davis and was living with him and their two children in Lakeland, finally regained custody. According to Dottie, Davis abused J.T. As a lance corporal at Camp Pendleton in the mid-1990s, Ready vanished for eight days. This prompted a court-martial that got him locked up for three months. Soon afterward he was court-martialed again, this time for assault, among other charges. He was thrown out of the Marine Corps.

“If he was racist, I never knew about it,” his mother says. Adam Lindgren, brother of Ready’s ex-wife, Arline, whom he divorced in 2003, told the Associated Press that Ready was “very, very opinionated. He would just keep arguing with you.” Ready became increasingly paranoid. In 2011 he sent an e-mail that said, “I sleep with a loaded shotgun under my bed and a nine millimeter on the nightstand. Mossad or…the Cartel…or some antifacist freak may make a move on me.”

Brittany Mederos, the youngest daughter of Ready’s girlfriend, Lisa Mederos, says Ready “got a sick pleasure out of hunting Mexicans.” Cassandra Olivier, who shared an apartment with Lisa’s eldest daughter, Amber, and Amber’s baby, Lilly, expressed disgust that Ready once bullied Lilly’s father, who is part Mexican, into going on a patrol. Ready would taunt the sensitive Amber by calling her baby “50 percent ugly.”

The politics of hatred: J.T. Ready at a National Socialist rally in Las Vegas.

Dottie admits her son changed when he got to Arizona. “It had to do with that white supremacist or nationalist organization,” she asserts. She blames “someone out there” for “brainwashing” him and says he had become nearly delusional toward the end. When he visited her, she says, “his mind would dwell on that Hitler stuff, and then he would suddenly switch and act normal again.”

On May 2, 2012 Lisa Mederos called the police in Gilbert, Arizona. Sounding nervous but composed, she told the dispatcher she had had an argument with her boyfriend and he was “going ballistic.” Mederos lived with Ready and her daughter Brittany in a small house about 20 miles outside Phoenix. The dispatcher heard two cracks. “Oh my God!” Mederos yelled. The line went dead.

Two minutes later, 19-year-old Brittany Mederos dialed 911 from her bedroom. She had been sleeping when she heard arguing and what sounded like gunshots coming from the living room. When she emerged, she saw the bodies of her mother, her sister Amber and Amber’s baby, Lilly. She ran back into her room and locked the door. “There were gunshots,” she said. “I think they’re dead!”

She was right. Just after one p.m. Ready took a nine-millimeter Beretta and opened fire in Lisa Mederos’s entranceway. First he shot Amber and 15-month-old Lilly. While Lisa was talking with police, Ready shot her twice in the head. Meanwhile, Jim Hiott, Amber’s fiancé, was outside talking on his cell phone. Hearing gunfire, he went to the doorway, where he saw Ready holding his Beretta. He turned to flee, but Ready shot him three times. Then Ready shot himself. Everyone died quickly except Lilly, who died in the ambulance on the drive to Maricopa Medical Center.

The reasons behind the shooting aren’t clear. Cassandra Olivier told police Amber and Hiott wanted to move into Lisa’s house, and Lisa may have asked Ready to move out. Police say a domestic dispute sparked a murder-suicide. This is supported by Lisa’s call and by the medical examiner’s report.

As the sole living witness, Brittany heard not only the gunfire but parts of the argument that preceded it. The shooter “was my mom’s boyfriend, J.T. Ready,” she told police. In an interview with Playboy she said that when she saw her family on the ground, she initially thought they were hiding. “I couldn’t grasp it. My whole body was in shock.” Police escorted her past her dead family to remove her from the house, affording her a second glimpse. Officers described her as hysterical when she reached the squad car.

When asked what attracted Lisa to Ready, Brittany says her mom described him as a romantic who would periodically take her to the mountains or a lake to gaze at the stars. As their relationship progressed, his “good, loving side” was replaced by a quarrelsome one that picked fights “almost daily.” But Brittany still asserts, “If you were wondering if any of us had a clue that he was mentally unstable and capable of murdering, no.”

Still, Ready’s dedication to the cause of white supremacy was conspicuous. He kept a metal swastika as a desk ornament. He marched in National Socialist Movement parades carrying pictures of Hitler and named his dog Blondi after the führer’s German shepherd. Regarding border security, he recommended setting land mines between Mexico and Arizona. At the time of his death he was under FBI investigation for domestic terrorism.

Bill Straus sits behind his desk at the Arizona branch of the Anti-Defamation League. It is two days after the Supreme Court struck down much of Arizona’s SB 1070, and Straus, the regional director, is in good spirits. He is discussing a meeting he attended in 2006 with State Representative Russell Pearce. At the time, Pearce was chairman of Arizona’s House Appropriations Committee, and he was suffering politically for forwarding an anti-Semitic e-mail and for praising a 1950s deportation program called Operation Wetback. The meeting had been arranged by Speaker of the House Jim Weiers. According to Straus, the two Republicans believed if they could get Straus to forgive Pearce publicly, it would take the heat off. Straus and Pearce spoke for an hour, and Straus made it clear what he wanted in return.

“I confronted Russell about the effect his rhetoric was having on white supremacists,” Straus says. “He was the new Elvis to them.” Straus asked Pearce to hold a press conference to repudiate his hostile language. He handed Pearce a file that contained information about the neo-Nazis embracing him, including Ready. But Pearce didn’t hold a press conference and Straus offered no forgiveness.

Pearce wouldn’t denounce Ready for two years.

Pearce had become a star of the far right by articulating Arizona’s rising nativism. In 2004 Proposition 200 required immigrants to provide “satisfactory evidence” of citizenship before voting or collecting public benefits. In 2006 the Bailable Offenses Act prevented illegal aliens from being released on bail if they were ­suspected of serious crimes. Another law turned “self-smuggling” into a felony. And then came SB 1070, a tenet of which allows law enforcement to demand the papers of essentially anyone of Latin descent.

As Arizona’s nativism rose, Ready threw himself into politics. Initially he lived in Mesa and met Pearce while volunteering for Republican causes. In a phone interview Pearce downplayed their relationship, saying, “I thought J.T. was a decent kid when he was first introduced to the district. He was working for a Christian organization. I thought he had a sense of humor and he was good on the issues.” In a statement after the shootings, Pearce said, “At some point in time darkness took his life over.” When asked what he thought had caused that darkness, Pearce said, “How should I know? Don’t ask me.”

The two were closer than Pearce admits. Pearce attended Ready’s Mormon baptism and ordained him as an elder in 2004. In 2007 Ready made a speech in which he suggested putting the National Guard on the border and jerking judges around by their collars. In a video Pearce is seen applauding as Ready rants. In 2010 Ready told an interviewer he and Pearce shared a political strategy by which Ready would push extreme rhetoric as “a bellwether” to see how far Pearce could go. Ready called Pearce a political mentor who taught him how to bring the fringe into the mainstream.

At the Mexican consulate in Phoenix, 2006: J.T. Ready protesting against illegal immigration.

However belatedly, Pearce and the Arizona Republicans finally expelled Ready. The last few years of Ready’s life saw his anger alienate him from almost every group he had been affiliated with. By May 2012 he was unemployed and in a deteriorating relationship. Dottie, aware of his difficulties, offered him a room in Florida, but he said he loved living in Arizona.

May 2 was to be a family day for the Mederos clan. Brittany and Amber had made plans for lunch at a local restaurant, and Lisa and Ready decided to join. But there was another, less auspicious significance to the date: Olivier was moving out of the apartment she shared with Amber, Hiott and Lilly. The rent was no longer affordable, so Amber had mentioned moving in with Lisa. Olivier knew that wouldn’t be easy: On another occasion, Amber “had to literally beg” Lisa to stay there for just one night because Ready opposed it.

On the evening of May 1 a neighbor of Ready’s helped him install screens over the windows. Ready was “high strung,” Robert Kalas told police, and worried about “being invaded.” He also showed Kalas a new bulletproof vest he needed to “get used to.” Meanwhile, Brittany was up all night listening to music and didn’t go to bed until five a.m. When Amber and crew arrived later that morning, an exhausted Brittany asked if they could have dinner instead and went back to sleep. She was awakened by arguing.

“At first I assumed it was the same usual fights,” she says. “But then the yelling turned into screaming. I caught a few words.” What she heard was a shouting match between Ready and the usually nonconfrontational Amber. Ready yelled, “This isn’t your house. You don’t have the right to be here.” Amber hollered back, “This is my father’s house. I have more of a right to be here than you!”

Brittany describes what happened next: “Suddenly, there was screaming. Then I heard gunshots. I had never heard gunshots before, so it didn’t immediately register. I ran to the living room. I saw everyone on the ground. At first I had the ignorant assumption that they had fallen to the floor to avoid the gunshots. I nudged my sister with my foot. Once my foot connected with her limp body, I realized she was dead. They were all dead.”

Mass killers share characteristics. Among them is a sense of isolation; another is training in firearms (many of them served in the military). The most common characteristic, however, is an externalization of responsibility, a belief that others are causing their misery. Take a person who exhibits these characteristics, place him in a culture where intolerance is legitimized, and it’s a recipe for disaster. J.T. Ready both contributed to and was a victim of a culture that exploits fear to cultivate an atmosphere of hate. Groups like the National Socialist Movement and USBG exploit fear of border crime to attract members. Politicians like Pearce stoke nativism for votes and donations. Even corporations—private prison systems, arms manufacturers and security companies—profit from a fearful atmosphere.

There are other victims. “Nobody truly understands the pain of your closest loved ones being taken from you until it happens,” Brittany says. “Most people will hear the story of my family and be sad for a moment and then forget it. But I don’t get that chance. I have to wake up every morning and know this is my life. My broken, messed-up life. I’ll never stop hurting.”