At this stage, you will never be able to convince some people that Tucson is not the epicenter of a newly uncovered child sex-trafficking ring.

That theory has been burning across the internet for a week, spearheaded by a local advocate for homeless veterans and aided by credulous local TV news reporting. They pointed to a homeless camp near I-19 and West Valencia Road where there were mysterious straps on trees and a buried septic tank as evidence of child rape.

But there was never any evidence that the claim was anything more than the product of an overactive imagination and online conspiracists. Certainly there were no victims. And when Tucson police came to investigate, they said they found no sign of trafficking in children for sex or anything other than a homeless camp.

Then, on Thursday, Lewis Arthur, leader of the group Veterans on Patrol, went live on the internet to announce that they’d found a skull in the desert. As if they were forensic scientists, they concluded it was the skull of an approximately 9-year-old child. This, to Arthur and the 6,000 people watching live online, looked like the hard evidence they’ve been waiting for of sickos shipping kids through our desert.

Hardly.

The Pima County Medical Examiner determined late Thursday that it was an adult skull. It turns out Veterans on Patrol found the skull while searching the desert west of Marana, about 20 miles northwest of the homeless camp where they claimed to have found a child sex-trafficking site. It’s in a migrant- and drug-smuggling corridor where dozens of sets of remains have been found over recent years, among the 2,800 that have been found in Southern Arizona since migrant deaths accelerated after 2000.

This will not keep the militia circus from coming to town, though. These days, the authorities have no authority with the online hordes. The government, police, the press — old gatekeepers like us have a hard time persuading people that what they are believing is balderdash. Reality is whatever the people on Facebook Live say it is. People who dress like soldiers are treated as if they are authorities, though it’s just a costume.

So now, in addition to Arthur’s requests for people to come to Tucson, the extremist Oath Keepers group has also begun calling for its members to show up here. They are convinced they’ve found what conspiracists have been looking for since 2016 — a place where they can imagine children are trafficked for sex on behalf of villainous global elites, like “the Rothschilds.” And, yes, the fact that our mayor has a last name of Rothschild is deemed somehow significant to the conspiracists.

It got to the point last week that drivers called 911 to report that two men with rifles were sitting on a billboard next to the alleged child-rape site, holding AR-15 rifles, TPD Lt. Brian Parker told Arthur in a meeting that Arthur's friends broadcast via Facebook Live this week. Apparently they were scoping for the child-smuggling cartel, unaware that motorists might find riflemen on a billboard a mite worrisome.

Primed for suspicion

This episode started May 28, when Arthur and a team of colleagues from the group he started in 2015 were searching for homeless veterans, as they do, on the southwest side along I-19. The site looked odd, because there were straps on the trees and a semi-buried entrance to an empty, plastic septic tank, tipped on its side. There were children’s shoes and other weird stuff.

The minute they started thinking children had been abused there, nothing could dissuade them.

But to grasp why they were primed to find evidence of child-sex trafficking, you have to go in different directions: to the militia movement and Pizzagate.

Arthur, whose full name is Michael Lewis Arthur Meyer, has been attracted to the so-called “militias” dating at least back to 2014, when he went to the standoff at Cliven Bundy’s ranch in southern Nevada, pitting armed men loyal to Bundy against federal Bureau of Land Management agents. He also went to the occupation of a wildlife refuge in Oregon in early 2016.

His intent, he told me at the time, was to remove a friend who was there but also to extricate women and children. He ended up being punched and chased away by the occupiers.

Arthur himself is not a veteran, but he and his allies use military lingo, camouflage gear and other trappings to attract veterans and wannabe veterans or cops. People call their style “tacticool.”

Tuesday morning when I went looking for him at the group’s homeless camp near Santa Rita Park, known as Bravo Base, a team of young men dressed in camouflage showed up. They were armed and preparing to head out to the washes to look for homeless veterans.

This is work people have done alone or in pairs, unarmed, for years around Tucson, employed by social-service agencies. But in the Veterans on Patrol vision of the work, it is more of a paramilitary operation than social work. The camp, once a scattering of a few tents, is now a sprawling base lined by a tire barricade sporting dozens of American flags.

And when Arthur talks, he speaks in the anti-government language of the militias. He announced via Facebook Live on June 2, three days into the child sex-trafficking panic: “At 1900 hours Veterans on Patrol is trespassing the United States federal government from the property that the Cemex Corporation has handed over to the cartels.”

He repeatedly demanded that Pima County Sheriff Mark Napier take action, echoing the “constitutional sheriff” theory that the sheriff is the highest law in the land: “Sheriff Napier, you hold more power than the federal government. You are an elected official. We call upon you to come out and help us protect our children.”

Pizzagate and Q Anon

This kind of allegation wouldn’t have had any power, though, if it weren’t for its antecedent, Pizzagate, and the wild story that grew out of it.

Pizzagate was a conspiracy theory that, boiled down, said Hillary Clinton and members of her campaign were trafficking children for sex from the basement of a Washington, D.C., pizzeria.

It turns out, the pizzeria doesn’t even have a basement, as a North Carolina man found out when he showed up armed with an AR-15 to liberate the captive kids and fired a shot into the ceiling.

Pizzagate transformed during the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency into Q Anon. It’s a conspiracy that Trump is secretly leading an effort to uncover child sex-trafficking, including by the Clintons. In fact, Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation is actually leading to the secret indictment of sex traffickers, the conspiracy holds, and the Justice Department has been quietly arresting thousands of pedophiles under Trump’s tenure.

Craig Sawyer has been a believer in Q Anon and he played a role in supporting Lewis Arthur’s Tucson pedophile-ring conspiracy.

Sawyer, a former Navy Seal, has established a group called Vets 4 Child Rescue, which purports to interrupt child trafficking, and came to Tucson after hearing about the alleged sex-trafficking site here.

KGUN 9 interviewed Sawyer and treated him as if he were an expert.

Sawyer declared himself a believer but noted that he had been misinformed — he thought children had actually been found on the site.

Evidence ignored

So it was with a connection to the militia movement and knowledge of the potent public appetite for finding child sex-trafficking rings that Arthur and his team walked into that homeless camp last week. You can see in the two dozen videos he made from the site that once he made his mind up, no evidence could lead him to another conclusion.

Even as he narrated how straps tied to trees were evidence of child rape, the camera showed on the next tree what they were really used for: as loops to hang horizontal poles or belongings from. When a man rode on horseback into the camp and tried to explain that he had been setting up the camp for a homeless friend in recent weeks, Arthur accused him of being part of the cartel trafficking in children.

I talked with one of at least three people who willingly told Tucson police why the site looked the way it looked. Albert Ondras, a formerly homeless man known as Cowboy, lived there as recently as three months ago, he said. Now in an RV in Picture Rocks, Ondras told me he was angry with the allegation that the site had been used for child trafficking.

“We use straps to tie the food up to keep the javelinas away,” he said. “There was no tying of any individuals, children or anything.”

No explanation can persuade Arthur or his legion of Facebook followers. He told me when I caught him briefly Tuesday, “I’ve got more people when I do a live video right now than any (TV) audience in Tucson.”

He’s right. When he goes on his raving tangents online, people believe him. Some supporters are coming, and we’re powerless to stop them.

“We’re going to search the corridor,” he said in one video last week. “I don’t care if it’s from Nogales to the city of Tucson. They entered our backyard, so guess what? We’re going to push their ass all the way back to the other side of that (expletive) border and if we have to go in their backyard.”

Of course, when Arthur found the alleged proof-positive of trafficking — a skull — he was closer to his own backyard in Marana than he was to Mexico. It won’t matter, though, to the thousands of online followers and to the out-of-towners who show up. They’ll view anything as evidence of the child sex-trafficking they’re sure now is centered here.

This column has been edited to specify the source of the report that gunmen were on a billboard.

Contact: tsteller@tucson.com or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter