Three men affiliated with an Arizona militia group were charged in federal court with trying to replicate a tactic long used by smugglers: Stealing drugs from people who have already sneaked them across the Mexican border.
However, it turned out that the men took drugs from an SUV that federal agents had stocked with cocaine as part of a sting operation, court records state.
Authorities said it was one of three attempted thefts prompted when an undercover FBI officer offered tips to the trio's leader about drugs coming into the country and drug money headed into Mexico, authorities said.
The stings were arranged after the leader, Parris Frazier, portrayed himself to an undercover federal agent as a mercenary who had stolen drugs and money from smugglers and expressed a willingness to kill people during such rip-offs, according to the records.
Frazier, Erik Foster and Robert Deatherage have each pleaded not guilty to a charge of conspiring to possess with intent to distribute more than five kilograms of cocaine. The case was filed on July 23.
Smugglers have long resorted to holding up rival traffickers who have already moved their drugs across the border. The dangerous tactic offers a chance at a big payoff without shouldering the risk of bringing drugs into the country.
Normally, the ploy is used exclusively by smugglers against smugglers.
"The vast majority of the rip-offs that occur in the desert are cartels ripping off cartels or people who are on the receiving end of the drugs and know the delivery is coming," said Neville Cramer, a retired U.S. border agent who now works as a border security consultant.
Terry Goddard, a former Arizona attorney general who focused on border crimes, said he has never heard of smuggling rip-offs being carried out by people affiliated with militias.
"I would have never suspected anything of this nature," Goddard said.
Authorities provided little information in court records about the men's connections to militias.
Court records state the three men were affiliated with the Arizona Special Operations Group, and the investigation began in January when Frazier talked to agents from U.S. Customs and Border Protection during a traffic stop. It was unclear why he was stopped or what was said.
U.S. Magistrate Eileen Willett, who previously denied bail for the defendants, said in a court order that Frazier has connections to the militia community and is anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant.
The magistrate also wrote that Foster is shown in a social media photo for Arizona Special Operations, which the judge described as a militia group.
Cosme Lopez, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Arizona, declined to provide information on the group.
Investigators say Frazier claimed he wanted to help stop border crimes and expressed an interest in talking to someone whom the agents had said provided them with information in the past.
An undercover officer posing as someone who worked in drug trafficking then spent the next six months talking to Frazier about cocaine coming into the country and drug proceeds headed to Mexico, the FBI said in court records.
Frazier is accused of offering the undercover officer a 25 percent cut of whatever money came from a rip-off.
Investigators say they staged three rip-offs of vehicles involving Frazier.
The first came in April when Frazier and an unnamed associate were told there was $8,000 in drug proceeds in a vehicle. The pair carried rifles and wore camouflage, face masks and bullet-proof vests, but they were unable to find the money, court records show.
Frazier is accused of stealing $7,300 from another vehicle three weeks later based on a tip from the undercover officer.
The final sting occurred on July 22 at a warehouse in Phoenix and centered on an agreement that Frazier and two other men would steal cocaine and resell it to the undercover officer for $15,000 per kilogram, according to court records.
Once at the warehouse grounds, investigators say, Frazier stole the cocaine from a vehicle. Authorities said Frazier, Foster and Deatherage fled the scene after they were confronted by a SWAT team.
Authorities abandoned the high-speed chase for public safety reasons, but they used aircraft to keep an eye on the fleeing car. Eventually, the trio was arrested.
James Buesing, Frazier's attorney, and Loyd Tate, Foster's lawyer, didn't return messages Monday seeking comment. John Rock, Deatherage's attorney, declined to comment.
The three defendants face a Nov. 3 trial.
The Associated Press