Joshua Pratchard was enthusiastic about joining Arizona Border Recon, an armed civilian group that patrols the U.S.-Mexico border looking for unauthorized migrants and drug smugglers.
A little too enthusiastic, some people inside the group thought.
Pratchard had driven more than seven hours from his San Diego home to a remote outpost in the southern Arizona desert in January 2018, carrying a silencer and an illegal short-barreled rifle. Though eager to take part in his first mission, he quickly turned irate when he was informed by the group's leader, Tim Foley, that he wouldn't be allowed to have a silencer on his weapon while on patrol. And when Foley explained that militia members couldn't "go hands-on" with unauthorized migrants or physically restrain them, the new recruit "became visibly angry," government prosecutors would later write.
Pratchard's first border reconnaissance mission with the group ended up being his last: Foley, who was concerned about the would-be vigilante's behavior and likely also displeased that Pratchard kept arguing with him about how the militia should conduct its patrols, kicked him out of the group, according to court records. But it wasn't the last time that the San Diego resident would make the long drive out to the Arizona borderlands, and his troubles were only beginning.
Unbeknown to him, one of the other people present for his one and only outing with Arizona Border Recon was a government informant, who tipped off the FBI. That, in turn, led to an investigation into Pratchard, who on Tuesday was sentenced to more than six years in prison for running what prosecutors described as a "firearms and ammunition factory" out of his house, according to the Arizona Daily Star. Though his past felony convictions barred him from owning guns, Pratchard had simply started making his own, explaining in one recorded conversation, "They just get addicting, and you can't stop."
The 38-year-old had wanted to join Arizona Border Recon because he "believed this was a way to give back to his country to help ensure that the border was not overrun by drugs, criminals and an invasion of illegal aliens," his attorneys wrote in a sentencing memo earlier this month. When that didn't work out, he started going on reconnaissance missions with the FBI's confidential source instead, making several trips to southern Arizona so that they could patrol the mountains together.
In a June 2018 hearing in the U.S. District Court for Arizona, FBI special agent Ryan McGee testified that the confidential source had been instructed to keep Pratchard away from any place where that they were likely to spot migrants, and that if they did see any, they should leave immediately. Pratchard, of course, didn't know that, and in one recorded conversation asked if they were likely to run into any "rip crews" - a term referring to bandits who steal drugs, cash, and firearms from people crossing the border. "I'm looking forward to it," he reportedly told the source.
The two got close - the informant even spent a night at Pratchard's home in San Diego, meeting his wife and toddler son. Before long, the aspiring vigilante revealed that he had started making his own guns and ammunition at home, where he had a full armory set up. He engraved the guns with fraudulent serial numbers, he said, picking meaningful dates like his wife and son's birthdays, and gave them to family and friends. The source bought two, paying Pratchard thousands of dollars.
It's unclear how many weapons Pratchard manufactured in his home workshop - authorities only found four guns when they raided his house in June 2018, along with another four firearms that were registered to his wife. But they also discovered that he had the equipment to make many more, and enough gunpowder to manufacture nearly 9,000 rounds of ammunition. Another three guns, and about 300 rounds of ammunition, were seized from Pratchard's Ford F-150 truck.
Initially, the FBI held off arresting Pratchard on federal firearms charges because they wanted to find out how many people he was selling weapons to, and if he was part of a larger gun-trafficking network, McGee testified last year. But ultimately, the agent said, authorities determined that "the risk wasn't worth the worth the reward" when it came to allowing Pratchard to remain in the community. Federal prosecutors, who successfully argued during that same hearing that Pratchard presented a danger to society and should be held without bond, pointed to a recording of him talking to his dog.
"Go get him," he reportedly told the dog. "Go get him. Go get that Mexican."
Before federal agents arrested him outside the Casino Del Sol in Tucson, Arizona, in June 2018, Pratchard had what prosecutors characterized as "a long history of violence, and unresolved anger." He enlisted in the Marine Corps as a teenager, but was dishonorably discharged less than three years later, when he was convicted of selling ecstasy pills. In 2007, five years after his court-martial, he was filmed repeatedly stomping on the head of a man who he had knocked unconscious during a fight at an Oktoberfest celebration in San Francisco, according to court records.
Later admitting that he beat the man "within an inch of his life," Pratchard pleaded guilty to one count of felony assault and was sentenced to three years of probation and one year of community confinement, court records show. In 2014, he was arrested after his wife told police that he had become verbally abusive, telling her that she had five seconds to leave or he was going to hurt her before picking her and throwing her on the bed. The charges were dismissed.
Court records provide little information about how, or why, a confidential government source came to be at an Arizona Border Recon operation last year. At a June 2018 hearing, McGee was circumspect, saying only that the agency occasionally investigates militias when there are allegations that the group is violating the law. When asked if the FBI had infiltrated the group, the agent replied, "We have sources that have reported on that group."
Foley, who couldn't immediately be reached for comment late Thursday, has claimed that Arizona Border Recon is not a militia, though court testimony reveals that the FBI certainly considers it to be one. In past interviews, he has told reporters that the group isn't violating any laws, and he believes the U.S. Border Patrol appreciates their help. Jan Fields, a spokeswoman for the group, told the Daily Star that Pratchard was asked to leave because he broke their rules by using a silencer, and wasn't forthcoming about his medical issues.
In February, Pratchard pleaded guilty to 13 counts, including possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, unlicensed transfer of a firearm and possessing an unregistered firearm. His attorneys argued in their sentencing memo that he likely suffered from misdiagnosed mental illness throughout his life, noting that he was placed in special education at a young age and treated for ADD, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder at various points. Once he got to prison, a psychiatrist diagnosed him as bipolar. Pratchard also had been prescribed opioids after falling from scaffolding and fracturing his back, his attorneys said, and the drugs, which he was still taking at the time of his arrest, led to mood swings and exacerbated his existing mental health problems.
"Mental illness is not an excuse," defense lawyers Dan Cooper and Laura Udall wrote. "It does, however, explain critical aspects of Josh's behavior which seem inexplicable."
On Tuesday, when he was sentenced to 75 months in federal prison, Pratchard tearfully told the judge that he had "made a really stupid decision," the Daily Star reported. He had become so obsessed with making guns that his illegal hobby got in the way of his relationships, to the point that he started making excuses to his wife so that he could skip church, he explained.
"I don't want anything to do with guns anymore," he said. "They are the bane of my existence."
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)
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