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.”