- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 18, 2015

PHOENIX (AP) - 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 transported them across the Mexico 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 to Mexico.

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.

Authorities provided little information about the defendants’ connections to militias.

Court records state they 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.

U.S. Magistrate Eileen Willett said in a court order earlier this month 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.

Cosme Lopez, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona, declined to provide information on the group.

In a separate case, group members had a run-in with law enforcement in 2013 in remote desert south of Phoenix. A man who described himself as a member of the group was arrested after confronting a sheriff’s deputy.

Authorities said three militia members told deputies they were looking for marijuana smugglers. One was arrested for pointing a rifle at a deputy who was apparently mistaken by a militia member as a smuggler. Two others - including Deatherage - were allowed to go free without charges.

In the latest case, 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 spent the next six months talking to Frazier about rip-offs. 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 clothing, 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 Phoenix warehouse and centered on an agreement that Frazier and two other men would steal cocaine and resell it to the undercover officer, according to court records.

Once at the warehouse grounds, investigators say, Frazier stole the cocaine from a vehicle. The trio was eventually arrested at a home.

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 face a Nov. 3 trial.


Associated Press writer Bob Christie in Phoenix contributed to this report.

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