By Morgan Loew
It was a sunny Saturday morning in late August, and the group standing at the far end of the Sierra Vista park looked more than a little like a gathering of military members. The truth was not far off.
They were members of the Arizona State Militia and were holding a new member meeting. Despite its name, the organization is not a part of the state government. It is made up of volunteers with similar viewpoints.
"The state of the country has become very alarming," said the militia commander, a man who did not reveal his true name but went by the call sign Reaper.
"We're here to protect our community, first and foremost. Protect our state, second. And in doing so, that also means curbing the flow of drugs into our cities," said Reaper, as he described the militia's goals.
The ASM has gone on a statewide recruiting drive in the past two months, holding meetings in Sierra Vista, which a CBS 5 investigative reporter attended undercover, as well as Chandler and Kingman.
"We have units forming all over the state, hundreds of people," said Raptor, who described himself as a veteran who worked in military intelligence.
The group's goals are found on its website and Facebook page, which the leaders use as a recruiting tool. But experts who track militia activity say this is a concern.
"I think without social media, the militia movement would be a shred of what it is right now," said Bill Straus, the Arizona regional director of the Anti Defamation League, which tracks militias across the country.
Straus said the movement is on an upswing, thanks, in some degree, to a newer message. In Arizona, militia leaders have focused their recruiting speeches on curbing drug smuggling and protecting the Second Amendment.
"They want to gain supporters. They want to increase their numbers. So they're going to say things that have the greatest mass appeal. But the truth of the militia movement is they're anti-government and they're really anti-minority," said Straus.
Arizona's militia movement has a sordid history.
J.T. Ready was a star of the state's militia groups, until May 2011, when he murdered four people in a Gilbert home, then turned the gun on himself. Among the victims was a 15-month-old girl.
Shawna Forde was also a militia member when she and two accomplices broke into a southern Arizona home and murdered a 9-year-old girl and her father. Forde is now on death row.
Chris Simcox was the founder of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, which was one of the most high-profile militia groups in the country. He is facing child molestation charges.
The latest incident happened in the desert south of Phoenix, along Interstate 8, in August. Investigators say Richard Malley was on a patrol with a militia group at around 10 p.m. when he mistook a sheriff's deputy for a drug smuggler.
The police report says Malley pulled his gun on the deputy and forced him to produce identification. Even after the deputy showed Malley his sheriff-issued patches and badge, the report said Malley continued to point his loaded AR-15 assault rifle at the deputy.
"Here's Richard with his flashlight at the end of his AR, you know? So he's got the cop lit up," said Robert Crooks, who was in charge of the militia operation that night.
Malley faces a felony charge of aggravated assault.
"In reality, it was just the fog of war," said Crooks, who has been using volunteers like Malley all summer in his effort to curb drug-smuggling through the Vekol Valley, which is a major smuggling corridor.
"I've been shot at 23 times in 24 months," said Crooks.
The leaders of the Arizona State Militia say they are trying to change the way militias are viewed. They don't accept felons in their membership, and they say they won't stand for racism.
The group also insists on anonymity for its members. Many of the people at the meeting CBS 5 Investigates attended were military contractors. Some were still on active duty.
At one point, the commanding officer spoke about ways someone could join the group, without being on the rolls. It was a reference to government contractors and other employees who are not allowed to join militias.
"So we have runarounds that will legally allow for membership without the membership," said Reaper. "So you'll pass your polygraph, and everyone can sleep at night."