Marianne Wright was halfway through a conference call on Jan. 21 when she received a startling message from her son.
Two women were on their property and asked her son to open a door so that they could go and see “illegals crossing on rafts”. The women, Wright later claimed in an affidavit, said they were a congressional candidate and a Secret Service agent.
“Immediately we knew what it was,” Wright told The Daily Beast on Thursday. “It was an echo and reiteration of the lies Steve Bannon’s ‘Rebuild The Wall’ campaign published and promoted against us for years.”
Wright is the executive director of the National Butterfly Center, a private nature preserve in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. The center is a sanctuary for hundreds of butterfly species and a frequent target for conspiracy theorists after Wright and his colleagues opposed plans by the Trump administration to build a border wall in the middle of the property.
But after last week’s bizarre showdown with congressional candidate Kimberly Lowe, the National Butterfly Center is closing Jan. 28-Jan. including Lowe’s) on a border excursion.
Although the National Butterfly Center is located in Texas, Donald Trump’s proposed wall would stretch two miles north of the US-Mexico border, bisecting protected land. In 2019, the center filed a restraining order against the construction project. This court record has made the center a far-right fixation.
A Trumpist group, the Bannon-backed “We Build the Wall” campaign, has targeted the center with conspiracy theories. Brian Kolfage, a leader of the group, tweeted several times that the National Butterfly Center housed an illegal sex trade and dead bodies.
“The only butterflies we saw were swarming over a rotting body surrounded by tons of rotting trash left behind by illegals,” he tweeted in 2019. Kolfage was not party neutral. His “We Build the Wall” raised over $25 million claiming he would build Trump’s border wall. (The federal government says the scheme was illegal. Kolfage and his business associates have since been charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to launder money.)
In late 2019, conspiracy theorists were circulating memes falsely accusing the National Butterfly Center of being a front for sex traffickers. Wright and his colleagues were threatened in person by members of militias like the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters, as well as threatening phone calls and emails from a man who turned out to be a Texas police officer.
So when Wright’s son, Nicholas, called her about two women who had trespassed on National Butterfly Center property on January 21, Wright guessed they were affiliated with the conspiracy theory.
Nicholas “stated that one of the women claimed to be running for Congress and the other claimed to be from the Secret Service,” Wright wrote in an affidavit, reviewed by The Daily Beast. “I asked him to get their names. He came back to tell me I could find her on “Kimberly Lowe for Congress” on Facebook. I started looking for her and the first thing in her Facebook feed was a Facebook Live video of the two women, streaming with kids in the car, driving down Scheurbach Road, south of Military, on what is officially ‘Butterfly Park Dr.'”
“Get out of my way. jesus christ”
— Congressional candidate Kimberly Lowe
Although Lowe, a longtime congressional candidate from Virginia, deleted some Facebook videos of her trip to the butterfly center, one remaining video shows her driving near the center and announcing her intention to drive through a gate. In a video, early on the 21st, Lowe and his colleague “Michelle” watch as Border Patrol agents detain migrants, while Lowe describes himself as armed.
“I have my 9mm just sitting right here,” she says in a video.
In her affidavit, Wright said she approached Lowe and Michelle and informed them that they were trespassing on private property. An audio recording, shared with The Daily Beast, reveals part of the confrontation.
“You are here to promote your agenda, and your agenda is not welcome here,” Wright says on the recording.
“You are not to keep illegals out?” Michelle replies.
“So you’re not for helping all these poor people in the humanitarian crisis? Lowe adds. “You are okay with children being sex trafficked, raped and murdered.”
When Lowe asks the couple to leave, Michelle claims the Border Patrol told them they could enter the property and that “I’m Federal – I work for the Secret Service, so nothing’s off limits for me.”
As Wright mocks Michelle’s claim, Lowe appears to start narrating a video. “So we’re here with a woman who’s not a very nice person who’s okay that kids—”
The audio cuts out when Wright knocks or takes Lowe’s phone. “You didn’t take my fucking phone,” Lowe said.
In his affidavit, Wright said, “Lowe had his phone up and appeared to be filming me. Since Bannon, Kolfage, the Neo-Nazi, Hardy Lloyd and their various media published and broadcast images of me and threats against the center, me and my children, I panicked. I moved to stop him from doing this, either punching or taking his phone away from him and retreating inside the building to wait for the police.
According to Wright’s affidavit and audio recording, someone pushed her to the ground. “Fuck you, bitch,” one of the visiting women shouts. A fight ensues, after which Wright accuses the women of taking his phone and refusing to return it. The women leave as another Butterfly Center worker says to call 911.
In Lowe’s now-deleted Facebook Live video reviewed by The Daily Beast, Lowe and Michelle return to their car, where Michelle claims to have Wright’s phone. In his affidavit, Wright said his son went to close the door to the center to prevent the couple from leaving with the device. She says Lowe almost hit her son while speeding towards the door.
In his deleted video, Lowe appears to be heading towards someone, presumably Wright’s son.
“Get out of my way,” the congressional candidate said. “Get out of my fucking way. Get the hell out of my way. Jesus Christ.”
Contacted for comment, Lowe denied Wright’s account of events.
“In short, this woman verbally and physically abused us,” Lowe wrote in an email, “stole my phone, kidnapped us and tried to stop us from leaving, and filed a false police report that the police have already found it wrong and when they couldn’t make me understand anything because it’s purely a political attack they are now making up more stories saying that I tried to hit her son when he ran towards the door to lock us in and blocked the exit with his outstretched arms. I didn’t try to hit him!
Lowe offered to send the Daily Beast her footage of the incident, but later said she was unable to, citing too large a file size.
Asked about Michelle’s claims to be a Secret Service agent, Lowe wrote, “I think the woman [Wright] Michelle didn’t tell. (Michelle speaks in a southern accent, distinct from Wright’s. On the audio recording, Wright can be heard calling Michelle’s claim “hilarious.”)
Lowe also accused Wright of making her social media followers. But although Wright alluded to the incident in a recent newsletter, in which she announced the temporary closure of the Butterfly Center, she did not name Lowe or provide identifying details about him.
Instead, the Butterfly Center attributed its upcoming closure to the three-day “We Stand America” rally, which Lowe promoted on Twitter. The event, which will take place near McAllen, Texas, will feature far-right speakers like former national security adviser Mike Flynn. The rally runs from Friday to Sunday and culminates in a “caravan to the border,” where participants will stage a four-hour rally.
Wright said the event puts the Butterfly Center in the crosshairs.
She said she consulted a friend, who is involved in local Republican politics, who warned her to “be armed at all times, or better yet out of town; that we shouldn’t even be in the center because they had planned caravans to go to the border.
The National Butterfly Center will be closed for the weekend. But Wright said the temporary closure was part of a long-term toll taken from a facility that should be focused on protecting wildlife.
“It’s become very difficult to focus on our conservation and environmental education efforts,” she said.