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 were demanding her son open a gate so that they could go 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 that was about,” Wright told The Daily Beast on Thursday. “It was an echo and reiteration of the lies Steve Bannon’s ‘We Build 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 Texas’s Rio Grande Valley. The center is a sanctuary for hundreds of butterfly species—and a frequent target for conspiracy theorists after Wright and her colleagues opposed the Trump administration’s plans to build a border wall through the middle of the property.
But after last week’s bizarre confrontation with longshot congressional candidate Kimberly Lowe, the National Butterfly Center is closing its doors from Jan. 28 through Jan. 30, in order to avoid a far-right conference that promises to take supporters (including Lowe) on a field trip to the border.
Although the National Butterfly Center is located in Texas, Donald Trump’s proposed wall would run two miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border, bisecting the protected land. In 2019, the center filed a restraining order against the construction project. That court filing made the center a fixation of the far right.
One Trumpist group, the Bannon-backed “We Build the Wall” campaign, targeted the center with conspiracy theories. Brian Kolfage, a leader of the group, repeatedly tweeted that the National Butterfly Center was harboring an illegal sex trade and dead bodies.
“The only butterflies we saw were swarming a decomposing body surrounded by tons of rotting trash left behind by illegals,” he tweeted in 2019. Kolfage was hardly a neutral party. His “We Build the Wall” fundraised more than $25 million by claiming it would construct Trump’s border wall. (Feds say the scheme was illegal. Kolfage and his business partners have since been charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering.)
By late 2019, conspiracy theorists were circulating memes falsely accusing the National Butterfly Center of being a front for sex traffickers. Wright and colleagues faced in-person threats from members of militia groups like the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters, as well as threatening phone calls and emails from a man who was revealed to be a Texas police officer.
So when Wright’s son Nicholas called her about two women trespassing on National Butterfly Center property on Jan. 21, Wright guessed they were affiliated with the conspiracy theory.
Nicholas “said one of the women claimed to be running for Congress and the other claimed to be with the Secret Service,” Wright wrote in an affidavit, reviewed by The Daily Beast. “I asked him to get their names. He returned to tell me I could look her up at ‘Kimberly Lowe for Congress’ on Facebook. I proceeded to look her up and the first thing in her Facebook feed was a Facebook Live video of the two women, broadcasting themselves with children in the car, driving down Scheurbach Road, south of Military, on what is officially ‘Butterfly Park Dr.’”
“Get the f*ck out of my way. Jesus Christ”
— Congressional Candidate Kimberly Lowe
Although Lowe, a longshot congressional candidate from Virginia, has deleted some Facebook videos of her trip to the butterfly center, one remaining video shows her driving near the center and announcing her plans to pass through a gate. In one video, from early on the 21st, Lowe and her colleague “Michelle” watch Border Patrol agents detain migrants, while Lowe describes herself as armed.
“I’ve got my 9mm just sitting right here,” she says in one 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 some of the confrontation.
“You are here to promote your agenda, and your agenda is not welcome here,” Wright says on the recording.
“You’re not for keeping the illegals out?” Michelle counters.
“So you’re not for helping all these poor people in the humanitarian crisis?” Lowe adds. “You’re OK with children being sex trafficked and raped and murdered.”
When Wright asks the pair to leave, Michelle claims that Border Patrol told them that they could enter the property and that, “I’m federal—I work for Secret Service, so nothing is off-limit for me.”
As Wright laughs at Michelle’s claim, Lowe appears to begin narrating a video. “So we’re here with a woman who’s not a very nice person who’s OK that children—”
The audio cuts out as Wright swats at or takes Lowe’s phone. “You did not take my fucking phone,” Lowe says.
In her affidavit, Wright said that “Lowe had her phone up and appeared to be filming me. Given Bannon, Kolfage, the Neo-Nazi, Hardy Lloyd, and their various outlets have published and broadcast images of me, along with threats to the center, me and my children, I panicked. I moved to stop her from doing this, by knocking or taking away her phone and retreating inside the building to wait for the police.”
According to Wright’s affidavit and the audio record, someone shoved her to the ground. “Get the fuck down, bitch,” one of the visiting woman is heard shouting. A scuffle ensues, after which Wright accuses the women of taking her 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 claimed to have Wright’s phone. In her affidavit, Wright said her son went to close the center’s gate to prevent the pair from driving off with the device. She says Lowe nearly hit her son while accelerating toward the gate.
In her deleted video, Lowe appears to drive toward someone, presumably Wright’s son.
“Get the fuck out of my way,” the congressional candidate says. “Get out of my fucking way. Get the fuck out of my way. Jesus Christ.”
Reached for comment, Lowe denied Wright’s account of events.
“In short this woman verbally and physically assaulted us,” Lowe wrote in an email, “stole my phone, kidnapped us, and tried to keep us from leaving, and filed a false police report which the police have already found to be untrue and when she couldn’t get me on anything because this is purely a political attack she is now making up more stories saying I tried to hit her son when he ran to the gate to lock us in and blocked the exit with his arms out. I did not try to hit him!”
Lowe offered to send The Daily Beast her footage of the incident, but then said she was unable to do so, citing a too-large file size.
Asked about Michelle’s claims of being a Secret Service agent, Lowe wrote that “I think the woman [Wright] said it not Michelle.” (Michelle speaks with a Southern accent, distinctive from Wright’s own. On the audio recording, Wright can be heard calling Michelle’s claim “hilarious.”)
Lowe also accused Wright of siccing social media followers on her. But although Wright alluded to the incident in a recent newsletter, in which she announced the Butterfly Center’s temporary closure, she did not name Lowe or offer any identifying details about her.
Instead, the Butterfly Center attributed its upcoming closure to the three-day “We Stand America” rally, which Lowe has promoted on Twitter. That event, which will take place in nearby McAllen, Texas, will feature far-right speakers like former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn. The rally runs from Friday to Sunday, culminating in a “caravan to the border,” where attendees will hold 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 and who warned her “to be armed at all times, or better yet out of town; that we shouldn’t even be at the center because they had planned caravans to cruise to the border.”
The National Butterfly Center will be shut for the weekend. But Wright said the temporary closure is part of a long-term toll extracted from a facility that should be focused on protecting wildlife.
“It’s made it very difficult to focus on our conservation and environmental education efforts,” she said.