You could chalk up some of border militiaman Todd Hezlitt's troubles to bad luck - who knew when he associated with Shawna Forde in 2008 that she would end up killing people the next year and drag his name into the mud?
But his most recent trouble - deputies say the 38-year-old Hezlitt ran away with a 15-year-old girlfriend - seems to be of his own doing.
Hezlitt was arrested in April and accused of two counts of sexual conduct with a minor, a student in the Flowing Wells Unified School District. Then on June 1, the Pima County Sheriff's Department reported that Hezlitt and the girl had both disappeared, apparently together.
He's facing felony charges of sexual conduct with a minor and has violated the terms of his release from jail by contacting the girl, causing an arrest warrant to be issued, Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Sgt. Dawn Barkman said.
It's Hezlitt's latest passage under a spotlight that has repeatedly shown the flaws in a man who made his name in Southern Arizona as an ex-Marine patrolling areas south of Three Points for drug smugglers. Even doing that, he got mixed up with murderers and for a while was falsely rumored to have been involved in a fatal home invasion in Arivaca.
"He was in the wrong place at the wrong time all the time," said Joe Adams, a retired St. Louis private investigator who has run teams of independent border patrollers south of Three Points for years. "He makes stupid decisions."
But Adams added: "Don't underestimate this guy - there's very few people out there that know the desert better than Todd Hezlitt."
Tried law enforcement
Hezlitt served four years in the U.S. Marine Corps and later joined a reserve unit in Phoenix, serving four months in Kuwait and Iraq in 2003. The experience gave Hezlitt a treasured piece of identity. He referred to himself as a ex-Marine Corps martial-arts instructor while running a Phoenix-area studio, his email address contains the letters "USMC," and he ran a business and website called Guerilla Tactics, the motto of which was "preservation of the warrior culture."
But Hezlitt, who is divorced with children, couldn't make the grade when he tried to jump from the military to law enforcement. On April 4, 2008, Hezlitt entered the Pima County Sheriff's Department academy, but records show he began flubbing up immediately.
"He received verbal and written counseling for numerous infractions which occurred during the months of April, May, June and July," says a report by the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Trainings Board. "In addition, he was on academic probation after failing quizzes and exams."
The end came on July 11, 2008, when a deputy arrived at the academy and found a car with its door open in the lot. There was a .45 caliber handgun in a holster sitting on the passenger seat. It was Hezlitt's, and that was a violation of the academy's rules. He was kicked out.
Border militia activity
At the time, Hezlitt was already involved in the activity that would absorb much of his time in coming years - going out on independent, armed patrols of the borderlands, trying to detect smugglers, spending years in teams of off-duty or former military members that Adams organized. That activity brought Hezlitt, a 5-foot 3-inch livewire, into contact with border-militia leader Shawna Forde - and it got him in trouble.
In fall 2008, Hezlitt and Forde both appeared in a news story on Norwegian TV about Americans who were patrolling the borderlands on their own. When Forde and two others were arrested in June 2009 and later convicted of the home-invasion murders of an Arivaca man and his 9-year-old daughter, that appearance led some to believe Hezlitt was involved in Forde's group, Minutemen American Defense, or even the murders.
In a July 2009 email to an Arizona Daily Star reporter, Hezlitt said, "I was never a member of any Minuteman organization or affiliated with Ms. Forde. I am a local guide that does live here in Tucson. And that is what I was doing at the time of this video."
In an October 2009 email, he explained the work he was doing with Adams' crew: "These are not border watch operations that would be similar to anything the minuteman conduct and not volunteer. It is a privately funded intelligence gathering operation. It is a ongoing project. My knowledge of southern Arizona and tracking provides assistance to several agencies and private parties."
Adams said he split from Hezlitt in 2010 because Hezlitt was unreliable.
"He was a great operational guy in the desert, but you had to keep him on a short leash," said Adams, who still does patrol operations on a property between Three Points and Sasabe.
Encounter with agents
Federal agents encountered Hezlitt in Sasabe late on the night of April 1, 2011. He was armed and dressed in body armor. The agents were searching for a man named Tim Foley, because Foley had said he planted improvised explosive devices on border trails - a story that later turned out to be false.
Hezlitt, too, was searching for Foley, says a Border Patrol report from that time: "Hezlitt claims he is performing surveillance on Tim Foley due to the fact that he made contact with somebody from (Border Patrol) Intel and they had told him about Foley's alleged Improvised Explosive Devices deployed in the desert near Sasabe and other erratic behavior. Hezlitt claims he wants to help us run him out of Sasabe and that he no longer associates with Foley."
Hezlitt got a regular job in July last year, hired as a school-bus driver for the Altar Valley School District. Then he was also hired as wrestling coach at the middle school in Three Points.
But on Feb. 1, Hezlitt's gig went sour. He reported to the school district that an assistant wrestling coach had sent sex-related text messages to a 15-year-old girl. The district ruled he had waited too long to report the incident, and they fired him.
Then Hezlitt did TV interviews with Tucson stations and said he was trying to do the right thing when he reported the assistant coach: "Anger went through my head, because I'm a father myself, and I could only imagine if this happened to my daughter," he said of his assistant.
But after Hezlitt turned in the assistant coach, authorities received allegations that Hezlitt himself had dated a 15-year-old.
Now there's a wanted poster for him up in Three Points.
Contact reporter Tim Steller at firstname.lastname@example.org or 807-8427.