War hero turned troll: Man who raised millions for border wall uses social media to attack his detractors
Sept. 29, 2020
"Veteran, war hero, defendant, troll: Man who raised millions for border wall uses social media to attack his detractors" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
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War hero. Veterans advocate. Family man.
It was an image years in the making. Brian Kolfage had lost three limbs in an Iraq bomb blast in 2004, making him the most badly wounded airman to survive the war. He had become a motivational speaker, was the subject of sympathetic news profiles and was even a guest at former President Barack Obama's State of the Union address in 2012.
More recently, 38-year-old Kolfage had positioned himself as a border security visionary after raising $25 million to construct privately funded fences in an effort to help President Donald Trump keep undocumented immigrants from crossing the southern border.
On social media and in the lucrative industry of online news sites dedicated to far-right politics, there's a very different Kolfage, though. One who, over the last decade, has sharpened a strategy of retribution and retaliation against his online critics, asking his legion of followers to “expose" perceived enemies and “make (them) famous," according to numerous interviews, hundreds of screenshots of since-deleted social media posts and court records from two defamation lawsuits to which he was a party.
Kolfage's actions online have spawned an informal support group of individuals who have felt his wrath, including fellow veterans and progressives, as well as some of Kolfage's former conservative allies. His social media activity has forced him to formally apologize to a perceived online critic as part of a court settlement and prompted a judge to issue a warning following his recent indictment on fraud charges.
Facebook has barred Kolfage from its platform for his online behavior, which includes creating multiple fake accounts and linking to “ad farms," a company spokeswoman said, adding that his actions violated “our rules against spam and inauthentic behavior."
Neither Kolfage nor his attorney responded to requests for comment. He's previously said his social media approach is in response to negative comments that others publish about him, such as allegations of fraud.
Kolfage, along with three others, including former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, are charged with defrauding thousands of donors to Kolfage's nonprofit, We Build the Wall. Prosecutors allege the men deceived donors by using Kolfage's public persona and his pledge not to take a dime in salary. Instead, Kolfage pocketed more than $350,000, according to the indictment. The men have pleaded not guilty.
So far, the nonprofit has helped build two private wall projects, including one in the Rio Grande Valley that a ProPublica/Texas Tribune investigation found could topple into the river if not properly fixed and maintained.
Kolfage has unleashed his growing army of followers on critics and opponents of those projects, including local elected and wildlife refuge officials and a priest. Death threats followed.
The National Butterfly Center, next door to the border fence built in the Rio Grande Valley, “openly supports illegal immigration and sex trafficking of women and children," Kolfage tweeted last year. Facebook and Twitter messages calling staffers “pigs," “pathetic filth" and “traitors" poured in. “You will be made to pay," one Facebook follower declared in a message.
To those who know him, Kolfage's online attacks reflect a pattern.
“His whole identity is wrapped up in people rolling out the red carpet for him, in being this war hero," said Lindsay Lowery, who worked for Kolfage for about a year at his Freedom Daily website in 2017. “If anyone challenges that, he gets very nasty and vindictive. Facebook is his echo chamber." Lowery said she left after she grew frustrated with what she called “clickbait" peddled by the right-wing site.
Mary Anne Franks, a law professor at the University of Miami and an expert on the intersection of civil rights and technology, said: “One of the disturbing trends in online harassment is that when you have enough followers or you are notorious enough, you don't actually have to do the dirty work yourself." She added, “All you have to do is throw out some inflammatory comments about a particular person and your followers are going to do the rest."Courtesy of Louis Caponecchia
Though Kolfage is technically barred from Facebook, the world's largest social media platform continues to allow him to reach his 683,000 followers with antagonistic posts because it says a fan page bearing his name is operated by seven individuals across the country and, thus, “he is not posting personally," the Facebook spokeswoman said.
A scroll through Kolfage's fan page shows many of the posts are written in the first person, which Facebook said is allowed since he is not a designated hate figure. As of Sept. 23, the name of the principal page owner was similar to that of Kolfage's wife, Ashley — the same person listed as running Bannon's fan page. But the owner of Kolfage's page was changed to Brian Kolfage after ProPublica and the Tribune asked the Kolfages about it.
Facebook said that is also allowed, even for a barred figure, as fan pages have the option of listing their public figure as owner. A spokeswoman reiterated that Kolfage himself is not the actual administrator since “he does not have access to Facebook because he cannot have a Profile." Facebook did not say how it would prevent Kolfage from accessing the site through the account of someone close to him such as his wife.
Regardless of who is posting, since his indictment, Kolfage has found a new target: the United States Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York.
His Facebook fan page has repeatedly blasted prosecutors as “corrupt" and motivated by politics. A recent Facebook post garnered more than 1,500 angry comments supporting him.
“I see public hangings on the White house lawn," one person commented on a recent post about why the indictment was a political hit job, adding, “Obama should be 1st."
When prosecutors complained that the posts on Kolfage's Facebook page could taint a potential jury pool, his attorney, Harvey Steinberg, argued in a hearing that the First Amendment gave his client the right to comment on the case. Though she did not issue a gag order, U.S. District Judge Analisa Torres said she may do so if the behavior continues.
And it has. Since the ruling, a steady stream of posts on Kolfage's fan page have labeled prosecutors a “wing of Antifa" acting with “malicious" intentions.
Some of those on the receiving end of Kolfage's previous online behavior say they have forever been changed.
Jackie Millinor, 64, a Massachusetts Air Force veteran and executive assistant, found herself in the middle of a social media showdown with Kolfage and his Facebook followers seven years ago. She came onto Kolfage's radar after trying to end the harassment of a 61-year-old woman she had never met. Kolfage claimed the retired union representative had made a disparaging comment against him and veterans in general.
In response to her advocacy for the woman, Millinor said, Kolfage's followers published her address and phone number on Facebook, which was shared widely. She said Kolfage contacted her employer through since-deleted tweets, asking that she be fired for harassing a wounded warrior. She said the attempt didn't work, but the stress landed her in the hospital with gastrointestinal issues that required a blood transfusion.
Millinor is the founder of the informal Facebook support group of those who say they were targeted by Kolfage.
“It broke a piece of me," Millinor said recently. “I'm not the same person now as before, after what Brian Kolfage did to me. My own family members thought I was crazy."
• • •
Massachusetts resident Jan Vrotsos would get on Facebook to play games, wish friends happy birthday and keep up with their lives, she said.
But a 2013 post offering a family her condolences for losing their little girl to cancer — an illness she said she was then battling herself — placed her in the middle of an internet rabbit hole of fake pages, trolls and cyberbullies she knew nothing about.
It turns out Vrotsos had commented on a fake page Kolfage and others had set up to catch the administrator of a satirical liberal page called Republican Family Values that had used a picture with Kolfage's baby as part of a meme making fun of his family.
Someone, it's unclear who, then posted a fabricated comment to Kolfage from Vrotsos calling disabled veterans worthless. “I hope you die a miserable death you worthless fake hero. You and your family will be a burden on tax payers your entire life," the fake message read, accompanied by Vrotsos' profile picture of her standing in front of a sunflower field with her cocker spaniel, Buddy.
The post went viral. It was shared by Kolfage and his followers, along with Vrotsos' picture, email and home address, as well as the phone numbers of her and her mother.
“This lady is enjoying her freedom at the expense of my legs and hand and enjoys bashing wounded warriors," Kolfage wrote on social media. “EXPOSE HER." It was liked by nearly 1,300 people and shared more than 12,000 times.Courtesy of Louis Caponecchia
Almost immediately, Vrotsos' then 81-year-old mother started getting calls to tell her daughter to get her affairs in order. Vrotsos received hundreds of threats, including one that said that they hoped she got “mugged and raped at gunpoint by a aids ridden piece of filth."
Vrotsos filed a police report with the Medford Police Department on Dec. 30, 2013, detailing the harassment. But police told her there was little they could do to help. One officer told her that because of the “1st Amendment and free speech" most of her complaints “except real threats and intentional ID theft" were civil in nature and that she should get an attorney.
“The Medford Police Department simply does not have the resources to investigate all the Internet threats and harassments coming to Jan Vrotsos from around the country and from many different sources," the report concluded.
But what bothered her the most, she said in a recent phone interview, is that the harassers found out where her dad was buried, and that they threatened to dig up the World War II veteran and “piss on his grave."
“I was petrified," she said. She didn't leave her house for weeks. It would be years before she stopped looking over her shoulder, afraid people would recognize her.
Before all of this, she said she had no idea who Brian Kolfage was.
• • •
Born in Michigan and raised in Hawaii, Kolfage joined the Air Force and at one point was stationed at Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas, where he met his wife, Ashley. In 2004, two weeks into his second deployment to Iraq, a rocket exploded a few feet from him, severing both of his legs and his right hand.
The Purple Heart recipient recovered after undergoing 16 surgeries in six months, enrolled in architecture school and often spoke publicly about his experience, becoming the face of resilience and perseverance.
In addition to being former Democratic Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords' special guest to the State of the Union address, Kolfage served on her veteran's advisory council.
“We were just absolutely astounded when we met him," Giffords' then-district director Ron Barber told Cronkite News in January 2012. “His attitude, his positive view of the world despite the fact that he's lost three limbs. It was just extraordinary and inspiring."
A year later, however, Kolfage was sharing conspiracy theories and calling Obama “a halfbreed" on Facebook.
He would soon begin running a number of right-wing websites and Facebook pages that he claimed earned him as much as $200,000 per month, according to text messages reviewed by ProPublica and the Tribune. The sites included sensationalized, photoshopped and in some cases fabricated content, and several were shut down by Facebook for “inauthentic activity" in 2018.
“It got really crazy by the end with photoshopped images all the time," said Lowery, Kolfage's former Freedom Daily employee. “I said I'm not going to profit off of lies."
A text exchange between Lowery and Kolfage viewed by ProPublica and the Tribune shows one example: a fake picture of Hillary Clinton being led away in handcuffs with the headline: “TRUMP'S DOJ JUST DID IT!!! It's FINALLY happening!!!" Questioned about the photo, Kolfage tells Lowery: “it's just a graphic. Best story of the day."
After Lowery quit, Kolfage accused her of trying to lure his employees away to another site, Lowery said. She believes that in retaliation he made false reports to the FBI and her husband's employer that she was a security threat, a claim previously reported by BuzzFeed.
Lowery said that she shared threatening texts from Kolfage, which included the warning to “start hiding your tracks," with the FBI and her husband's employer, and that their inquiries ceased soon after.
Online, Kolfage continued to leave a trail of bullying and personal attacks. While Kolfage has deactivated many of his previous social media accounts, including Twitter, which he closed soon after the indictment, court documents and more recent, undeleted social media activity indicate similar behavior. This week he rebooted his Twitter account to post about the “politically corrupt" case against him.
• • •
That vitriol toward Vrotsos is what caught the attention of others, including vets like Millinor, who went on social media to confront Kolfage in her defense.
It also brought out the worst in people. Some went after Kolfage, leading to mutual online attacks, fake social media pages from both sides, the release of personal information of members of the informal support group and calls from Kolfage to his followers to report them to their employers. Kolfage launched a defamation lawsuit against half a dozen online opponents.
Kolfage and his wife demanded the removal of social media posts calling him names such as Nazi and “pill-addled junky" as part of their defamation lawsuit.
Back then, Kolfage told Fox 10 Phoenix that he felt he needed to take legal action after adversaries started going after his family and tried to ruin the career of his wife, who was a teacher and a model.
“They would say they wished I had died, they said I was a drain on the government system, just really nasty stuff. I started sharing the comments, and it went viral," he said. “Because I was just fed up with it."
The judge ruled in favor of several of the defendants and dismissed the case in 2015. Some defendants reached a settlement with Kolfage that included an agreement to not publish anything about the other and to remove disparaging statements where possible.
As part of the settlement, Kolfage also apologized to Vrotsos for sharing her public information.
“I published Jan's information on my public Facebook page and I regret anything that transpired to Jan as a result of that," Kolfage wrote in a signed statement submitted to the U.S. District Court of Arizona on June 30, 2015.via U.S. District Court of Arizona
On Facebook, Kolfage said he didn't believe Vrotsos had authored the post and blamed trolls whose goal was to cause as much misery as possible. “I want to apologize on behalf of my supporters to Jan, who were sucked into this whirlwind and participated in any malevolent behavior," he wrote. “It is my sincere hope that this can be a learning experience for everyone (including the people who are attacking my family wrongfully) and that we can all put this behind us."
After that experience, Vrotsos says she now tries to be more careful online. “I don't want anything to start up again," she said.
Louis Caponecchia, a Navy veteran who was among those who prevailed after being sued by Kolfage, said many people who tangled with Kolfage have gone into hiding online.
“These are regular people, they've never had 10 angry messages on Facebook before and then to get dozens, your average person has no idea how to deal with all that stuff," he said. “It's pretty easy to scare and intimidate people. Me, I have a big mouth and nothing to lose. I fought back and that really enraged him."
Caponecchia has traded online barbs with Kolfage and his supporters and been temporarily barred from Facebook, which he blamed on Kolfage directing his followers to flag his posts. He also operates a blog aimed at uncovering what he says are Kolfage's misdeeds.
Last year, as Kolfage led his nonprofit's private border wall projects, his social media attacks would escalate even more.
• • •
We Build the Wall's first project was a half mile of fencing in Sunland Park, New Mexico, just outside El Paso, where Kolfage grew furious when local officials halted construction because of a lack of building permits.
“Burn up the phone lines and email guys!" reads a post on Kolfage's Facebook fan page, which also included the address and phone number of Sunland Park City Hall and direct contact information for the mayor and city manager. “Ask them who was paid off by the cartels! WE WON'T STOP! YOU DON'T STOP!"
In response, Sunland Park Mayor Javier Perea said he received several death threats and thousands of messages, some telling him to watch his back or that they were going to release his personal information. “You are one major piece of un American piece of crap," one email read.
He told ProPublica and the Tribune that more than a year later he still had thousands of emails he hadn't gone through.
“Their intention was to bring attention to the issue and fundraising," Perea said, “because shortly thereafter, they were able to fundraise millions of dollars for their project."
The International Boundary and Water Commission, headquartered in El Paso, was also on the receiving end of harassment after agency officials opened a gate We Build the Wall constructed on federal property without permission.
In response, Kolfage encouraged his fan page followers on Facebook and Twitter to call the binational government agency and demand they “#CloseTheGate." He also accused its commissioner, Jayne Harkins, a Trump appointee, of letting unauthorized immigrants into the country and undermining the president.
The commission received hundreds of calls from his supporters.
“The typical message would be somebody would call and say 'open the gate' and hang up," said Sally Spener, a spokeswoman for the commission. “It made it difficult for us to receive other business-related calls and our job."
More than a year after construction of the half-mile stretch of fence, Spener said, We Build the Wall hasn't fulfilled all of the requirements set out by the agency, including an operation and maintenance plan and evidence of financial responsibility for damage or injuries that can be caused by the gate.
In response to questions about his allegations and social media claims, Kolfage told ProPublica and the Tribune in July that the border is loaded with corruption. “It was border patrol agents who alerted us that the very first people to come out strong against our wall were the ones paid off," he wrote in an email.
In the Rio Grande Valley, Kolfage accused the National Butterfly Center of enabling sex trafficking and sent what executive director Marianna Treviño-Wright considered a threatening tweet claiming that there were “snipers in your bushes doing security for our team."
Treviño-Wright, who has filed a defamation lawsuit against Kolfage, said she was unprepared for being publicly labeled a human trafficker. “Once there was blood in the water, his buddies and bots and We Build the Wall donors were sharks."
But she said Caponecchia, a onetime target of Kolfage's, reached out during the social media assault, offering advice and guidance. “I could ask Louis questions and bounce things off of him, what we might anticipate."
A longtime opponent of the border wall, Treviño-Wright said she was forced to take security precautions at her home and office and reported what she considered suspicious activity near the butterfly center to local and federal authorities.
“There is no way to insulate yourself and family from the online attacks or from those people showing up like … militia people," she said. “I think the prosecutors and judges (involved in the Kolfage criminal case) need to understand they now have targets on their backs."
The criminal indictment has brought relief to some of Kolfage's past targets, who say they are looking forward to his trial in May 2021.
“All the fear I've been holding all these years just went away," said Millinor, the Air Force veteran. “I said: 'You know what, I'm not going to hide anymore. Come hell or high water I will be in that courtroom.'"
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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/09/29/brian-kolfage-we-build-wall/.
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