J.T. Ready: portrait of enigmatic vigilante at center of Arizona rampage

J.T. Ready, an anti-immigration icon of the extreme right who apparently killed himself and four others Wednesday, sympathized with movements ranging from neo-Nazism to Occupy Wall Street.

By , Staff writer

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    Minuteman Project volunteer J.T. Ready (c.) speaks with 'legal observers' associated with the ACLU along the US/Mexico border west of Douglass, Ariz., in this file photo.
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The death of J.T. Ready, who apparently killed himself, three other adults, and a baby in a murder-suicide rampage Wednesday, adds to the complicated portrait of a controversial icon of the anti-immigration movement.

To some, Mr. Ready was a different kind of rifle-toting rebel – an opportunist who sought to unite disparate grass-roots movements. Last year, for example, he went from leading his Ready’s Rangers on paramilitary excursions deep into the Sonoran Desert to rallying on behalf of Occupy Wall Street in downtown Phoenix.

To others, however, he was the border vigilante whose outlook slowly darkened until his obsession to seal the border included plans for tanks and advocacy for planting land mines.  

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Yet through it all ran the common threads of his underlying ideology: anti-Zionism, racism, and xenophobia.

“Ready was significant because he was at the nexus of [several] extremist movements, including the white supremacy movement and the extreme wing of the anti-immigration movement, and he operated equally well in both spheres,” says Mark Pitcavage, a researcher with the Anti-Defamation League, who has tracked Ready’s activities for a decade. “Toward the end of his life, he was even making connections with the militia movement.”

To many, his hopscotching between radical social movements made him an enigma. But those who knew Ready say he liked attention and realized he could get it by button-pushing. The result was, at times, an peculiar balancing act.

“Ready was someone who was trying to log roll on different logs going in different directions,” says Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University in San Bernardino, who had interviewed Ready extensively. “Unlike a lot of other extremists, he was someone who really wanted to be part in some way of mainstream political action, even though his Hitlerian views were antithetical to even the far conservative part of mainstream politics.”

What bound his many activities, Professor Levin says, was his yearning to inhabit the role of leader. "This is a guy who could only find a home in entities that he exerted significant control over,” he adds. 

After speaking at a Phoenix tea party rally in 2009, Ready and his Ready’s Rangers vowed to protect Occupy Wall Street from police reprisals last year. Similarly, while he clearly aligned with Republicans (he was for a time a Republican precinct committee member), he turned Democrat to run for sheriff of Pinal County. In one of his online manifestos, Ready claimed a liberal, “multicultural” upbringing in a family that included both Democrats and Republicans.

Outward orthodoxy was, in many respects, less important than his inward sense of purpose. “There’s nothing enigmatic about him,” says Mr. Pitcavage. “He was upfront about his opinion.”

Last year, Ready said he was putting neo-Nazism in his past in order to focus on his personal life and his border patrols. But there was evidence that these border patrols were losing some of their reason for being as illegal immigration tapered off. SB 1070, Arizona's controversial anti-illegal immigration law, which is being challenged in the US Supreme Court, had dissuaded border-crossers from entering Arizona, and America’s struggling economy had reduced the incentive for potential illegal immigrants dramatically.

Ready’s leadership along the border also began to darken and fray over time, others say. In 2010, Ready joined a group that passed out fliers at a tea party rally advocating placing land mines along the border. Then last year, a man he recruited into the neo-Nazi movement, Jeffrey Harbin, was arrested for building up a stockpile of explosives to put such a plan into action.

At the scene of Ready's death in Gilbert, Ariz., Wednesday, the presence of several drums of chemicals slowed the investigation as hazardous-materials units had to be called in. Federal munitions experts say they have also found six military-grade anti-tank grenades, which are illegal for civilians to own.

Meanwhile, secret FBI documents published online by the hacker group LulzSec revealed that the government has suspected neo-Nazi groups of already planting fairly complex explosives – in at least one case along a smuggling route. At the time, Ready attached his name to proposals to militarize the border.

“Arizona Statues allow the fielding of most weapons short of nuclear weapons and certain chemical weapons,” he wrote at one point on a website. “Therefore we are already in contact with brokers concerning a .50 cal semi-automatic rifle and a MBT– Main Battle Tank. Yes, you read this correctly. We have a goal to get a Main Battle Tank engaged against the Narco-Terrorists.”

Even after breaking his official connections with the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement in order to run for sheriff of Pinal County, Ready continued to post comments on Stormfront.org, the white nationalist website to which he continued to donate money.

Former state Senate President Russell Pearce, the author of SB 1070 who was ousted last year in a recall election, mentioned Ready's transformation in a statement released Thursday. Ready considered Senator Pearce a mentor before Pearce worked to have him ousted from the Arizona Republican Party for his neo-Nazi beliefs. On Thursday, Pearce expressed his sadness that a man whom he had first come to know as a promising, upstanding ex-Marine had begun to unravel through his associations with extremist groups, hardening and militarizing his ideology.

"At some point in time, darkness took his life over. His heart changed," Pearce writes. "And he began to associate with the more despicable groups in society. They were intolerant and hateful and like so many who knew him from before, I was upset and disappointed at the choices he was making."

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