New 'pizzagate'-style conspiracy brewing in Arizona
Conspiracy theorists have found a new outrage to respond to, this one in Tucson, Arizona.
An armed group called Veterans on Patrol is demanding that authorities recognize a homeless camp they found on private property to be a child sex-trafficking camp.
Authorities have found no evidence that there was a child-sex camp on the site, even though they have brought in investigators and a police cadaver dog to search the area. But the lack of evidence has done nothing to prevent these claims from catching on among far-right online conspiracy theorists.
The speed at which these accusations have spread is yet another example of how fringe beliefs, nurtured in dark corners of the internet, can blossom in a deeply polarized era.
On Thursday, a video was posted on Veterans on Patrol's Facebook page in which the group's leader, Michael Lewis Arthur Meyer, said he had stumbled upon the encampment after blowing a tire on an interstate highway. Meyer, who is not himself a veteran, said his group went searching for homeless veterans in a wooded area of private property on an old cement plant.
The group found an encampment with tarps tied to trees amid general debris and clothing, as well as children's items and an underground portion of the camp — an old tank that had been partially buried — that Meyer said was evidence that children were being held prisoner. Meyer also pointed to straps on trees as evidence that they had found a "rape tree."
Followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory — an elaborate offshoot of the debunked "pizzagate" conspiracy theory, which claimed Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring in the basement of a pizza shop that had no basement — have been particularly gripped by Meyer's claims. The "pizzagate" theory inspired one person to fire an AR-15 rifle in the restaurant.
The camp has become part of a theorized plot linking the homeless encampment to some of the most common targets of far-right conspiracies: the Clintons, the Rothschilds and George Soros, among others.
The group, organized under the hashtag #OperationBackyardBrawl, has been active on social media, with its original Facebook video viewed more than 700,000 times. The group's actions were enough to get the attention of local media, as well as the British tabloid The Sun.
Subsequent livestreams following the so-called search operation have garnered over 2.5 million views. Hundreds of original videos from supporters have been uploaded to Youtube.
Meyer's claims have also begun to take hold on the far right. The group's cause was amplified by Craig Sawyer, a leader of Veterans for Children Rescue, a nonprofit that says it is dedicated to eliminating child sex trafficking. He is also a frequent guest on InfoWars, the radio show hosted by Alex Jones that often traffics in conspiracy theories.
"There's just a lot of creepy evidence and information," Sawyer said in a video posted to his YouTube channel.
An article on Infowars that tried to connect the dots between the owners of the camp property and the Clintons has been taken down. The Gateway Pundit, a fringe news website that has promoted a variety of conspiracy theories, also has an article credulously repeating Meyer's claims and connecting the land to the Clintons.
Snopes.com,the fact-checking website, also weighed in, finding the claims of Meyer's group to be false.
The Tucson Police Department told NBC News that it had sent officers, detectives and a command staff to investigate but found "no indication" that the camp was being used for anything criminal, including human trafficking. When Veterans on Patrol claimed bodies might be buried on the site, the police sent a cadaver dog, which found no such evidence.
"Obviously, Tucson is a desert. We don't have a lot of shade, so these kinds of camps are very common," a police spokesman said, explaining the underground portion of the encampment. As for the straps, the spokesman said: "We see those in every homeless camp we encounter. They look the same as other straps that were holding up parts of the structure."
Laurie Mazerbo, chief program office of Our Family Services, a nonprofit that helps homeless families and the victims of human trafficking in the Tucson area, said that the encampment "looked a lot like any other camp we see in our desert" for homeless people trying to escape the heat.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement also investigated the veterans' group's findings and found no evidence to substantiate them.
The fact that authorities found no evidence to support Meyer's claims have not slowed him down. Meyer contends in his videos that local law enforcement has destroyed evidence of child sex trafficking at the camp, but can still generally be trusted. The federal government, however, described on the group's Facebook page as "corrupt," could be hiding something nefarious at the camp, Meyer suggests.
On Wednesday, Meyer livestreamed a meeting with an officer at a Tuscon police station where he asked for footage of the cadaver dog being used.
Meyer also said in one video that most of his group is unarmed but that some do carry guns. The group is known to carry weapons, and Meyer has been a fixture at several recent high-profile standoffs including at the Bundy ranch and the Oregon Wildlife Refuge in 2016, where he tried to sabotage the ranchers and "liberate" the women and children encamped there.
Meyer's group finds homeless people and invites them to stay in camps Meyer operates in public spaces.
"They're a pretty good little group," Cliff Wade, a homeless outreach specialist in Tucson, said of Veterans on Patrol. "Done a lot of good in our community."
Wade said he often worked with Meyer, providing housing assessments for veterans who had set up in the Veterans on Patrol camps.
"I have no problems working with them, but I stay out of that other stuff," referring to Meyer's side projects investigating sex trafficking.
Reached by phone Wednesday, Meyer hung up without answering any questions. When asked in a text why he hung up, Meyer responded: "Reporters must live with us for one week and not release anything without authorization until their volunteer service is up."
On Facebook, Meyer continued to request reinforcements and supplies (tents and flashlights, as well as prayers) and said that people had come from California, Colorado and Illinois to check out the operation and "offer intel." He said more were on the way.
"This isn't some standoff, it's a search and rescue," Meyer said in a Facebook live video posted Wednesday morning. "And we want to do it independently because of what the government just did to that child sex camp that was a child sex camp."
Asked about the social media response to Meyer's videos, a spokesman for the Tucson police sighed.
"We were trying to avoid all that," he said. "We said we can only do so much. Obviously if there were signs of a crime, we'd love to arrest pedophiles or criminals."