On May 29, Lewis Arthur and Veterans on Patrol (VOP)—a Tucson area charity that helps homeless veterans—stumbled upon a makeshift homeless shelter and decided it was a child sex trafficking dungeon. Arthur and company found a barbie doll, straps on a tree they said were used to bind children, Playboy magazines, a stroller, and an empty septic tank. According to Arthur and the group, these were the markers of a child sex trafficking operation.
Now, the group is patrolling interstate 19 in Arizona and demanding that authorities declare a state of emergency. Conspiracy theorists on the internet have pointed to the VOP operation and the discovery of the camp as proof of the Qanon conspiracy theory, which claims that a cabal of shadowy groups funded by various elements of the Democratic party are running a worldwide child sex slave trafficking operation. It’s like Pizzagate combined with The DaVinci Code. A representative of the Tucson Police Department told Motherboard over the phone that an investigation of the area revealed no evidence of human trafficking.
The conspiracy theory started on 4chan’s /pol/ board in October of last year when an anonymous user started posting cryptic messages. The user claimed to be a highly placed government official who was sitting on a wealth of information about the sex cult. From there, it gets complicated.
Qanon has been percolating on the internet for a year now and it’s a weird conspiracy theory that has no shreds of actual evidence behind it. But that doesn’t stop people from believing it. And—as Pizzagate showed when a shooter showed up at a pizza parlor in Washington DC with a rifle—internet conspiracies can have real-world consequences.
Arthur and his team didn’t begin the hunt for pedophiles with Qanon in mind, but Arthur has thanked the Qanon community in several videos and, on June 3, the VOP’s official Facebook page posted a link to a Qanon 8Chan thread. “Post all photos gathered as evidence,” the post said. The 8chan thread contained numerous references to Qanon, the Illuminati, and the occult.
On June 4, Infowars guest and founder of Veterans For Child Rescue, Craig Sawyer posted his take on the situation to YouTube—he thinks VOP discovered a child sex trafficking site. Sawyer has made a name for himself investigating what he says are pedophile conspiracies, and he often reposts references to Qanon and its assorted conspiracies on Gab, a Twitter alternative popular with the right. In a June 5 Facebook live video, Arthur said he didn’t want to talk to the media, and authorized Sawyer to handle media queries about the situation. I attempted to reach Sawyer for comment via Facebook and email, but didn’t hear back.
I reached Arthur by phone on June 6. “You have one minute,” he said when he picked up the phone. I got halfway through my introduction before he cut me off. “If anyone from the media has questions they have to come down and volunteer for seven days.” He then hung up the phone. I followed up via Facebook messenger but have not heard back.
Arthur has been around town demanding the police take action. On June 6, he went to the police department and streamed the interaction via Facebook live. The police politely engaged with him and promised to follow up on any leads he might find. “My city is aware of what I’m getting ready to do,” Arthur said after leaving the station. He then promised that searchers would find child pornography in the area if they would only look for it, and begged for volunteers to come to Tucson and join the cause.
Arthur, VOP's leader, is putting out missives on Facebook. He wants people to send supplies and come join what he says will be a three-month operation. On June 3, he posted a video from the top of a tower. He refused to come down until the police agreed to search the area around the homeless camp with dogs trained to find dead bodies.
This isn’t Arthur’s first time looking for attention from America’s militia movement. Arthur was at both the Bundy standoff in Nevada in 2014 and the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016.
“In a movement that’s full of drama queens, he’s the empress,” JJ MacNab—a fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism—told me over the phone. “He’s not going to get the militia that he’s hoping for because he is persona non grata in that movement. He’s the only person to be kicked out of Bundy Ranch and Malheur.”
Again, the Tucson Police Department told Motherboard it has found nothing to suggest that human trafficking has happened at the site. In its videos, VOP pointed to straps of cloth bound around trees as evidence of makeshift shackles for victims. It pointed to a stroller as evidence that children had been in the area.
“Lots of times people in homeless camps will use tether straps or cloth, anything to help hang clothing, food or even trash to keep it off the ground and away from animals,” Tucson Police Sgt. Pete Dugan told Snopes. “You will see myriad types of things that they collect and use. There was a crib there that had a bunch of stuff in it along with all kinds of different things. But there was no evidence of any human trafficking or any criminal activity in that area.”
The Tucson Police Department representative also told Motherboard that the Police became aware of the camp on May 29, and went to search the area. “Detectives, and command staff conducted a thorough inspection of the site, spoke to the reporting parties, and collected evidence,” the Tucson police department said in a June 4 press release. “Based on the department’s investigation to this point, there is no indication this camp is being used for any type of criminal activity, including human trafficking. Yesterday, an unsubstantiated assertion was made that a body might be buried at the site. A cadaver dog was used to check the area with negative results.”
On June 6, in the video Arthur posted from the police station, cops revealed that they had responded to a call from concerned drivers along I-19 who saw men posted on a billboard with AR-15s overlooking the highway. The cop then explained, calmly and patiently, that the camp had been constructed by property owners sympathetic to the plight of immigrants crossing over the Mexican border. They wanted people to have a shelter along the hard trek through America. The site has since been bulldozed.
Agents with the Department of Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcement had also been to the area to investigate. It told local news station KGUN that, “they are familiar with the site as a homeless camp and are continuing to monitor it. They say they have found nothing that would validate the claims of possible human trafficking.”
Yet Arthur and the VOP continue to patrol the area on the hunt for pedophiles. Arthur posted a video at 12:30 EST from a local UPS on June 6 where he showed supplies people had sent to help the mission. Some of it will go to help homeless veterans. Arthur also said he had two patrols out looking to rescue children. “We’re encouraging everyone to come down. We’ve got a lot of territory to cover,” Arthur said in a Facebook live video. “This doesn’t stop. We’re still running nonstop 24/7. If you’re sitting there wondering, ‘are we still gonna be there tomorrow,’ we’re going to be here until these individuals are found or they’re so dismantled and disrupted that they can’t do this.”
VOP is well known in the community, and has done a lot of good work, according to people who have worked with its members. Normally, VOP patrols Tucson’s highways, bridges, and tunnels for homeless veterans. When it finds someone, it does what it can to get them back on their feet. For the moment, it has shifted to chasing down internet conspiracy theories.
“Their hearts are in the right place, but I’m not sure about the method,” Bruce Hamilton, the director of Tucson Veterans Serving Veterans, told me over the phone. “I work alongside them every other day. They do great stuff.”
Hamilton said he understands VOP and Arthur’s concern but he thinks they have made a lot of assumptions about what they’ve found. “These guys are reactionary,” he said. “They’re very high strung. But they’re on a mission, they’re looking for vets all over the place but their methods are different.”
Hamilton hasn’t seen a large influx of outsiders coming to help VOP hunt down pedophiles, nor does he think the group is particularly dangerous.
But Qanon is dangerous. It’s a new spin on an old American cultural myth—cabals of elite predators who prey on children. There’s no actual evidence to back any of this up, but the fantasy has persisted online for more than a year and now it’s made the jump to real life. Arthur and VOP are patrolling the Arizona desert, chasing shadows and bothering local law enforcement, egged on by anonymous conspiracy theorists following their every move from behind a computer screen. So far, no one has been harmed, but what's happening in Tucson right now is a good reminder that the tentacles of crazy internet conspiracies reach into the real world.