Authorities in Oklahoma have charged border vigilante Jim Benvie with fraud after The Daily Beast reported he was suspected of running a child-cancer charity scam there.
Benvie, the spokesman for an armed group that calls itself Guardian Patriots, was hit with the new charge after the father of a child who survived cancer recognized Benvie from an article on The Daily Beast and contacted police in Oklahoma.
In an interview, the dad said Benvie has been using his son’s photos and story for years to raise money—but none of that money has gone to his son or his son’s care.
“I've chased him from Georgia to Tennessee and now Texas, Oklahoma, running this scam,” said Eric Cremeens, 47, the father of 11-year-old cancer survivor Ryan Cremeens. “The only thing he's ever done is threaten to sue me when we exposed who he was and what he was doing.”
The drama has added another layer of anguish in an already gutting journey for the family.
That journey began with unusual symptoms and uncertain medical opinions, followed by days of waiting for test results—days Eric Cremeens described as “straight hell.”
Then, finally, there was the diagnosis: rhabdomyosarcoma, a cancerous tumor growing from Ryan’s sinuses inward towards his brain.
Ryan, who was 8 at the time, underwent an open-skull surgery to remove his tumor. Then he had 43 weeks of chemotherapy and seven weeks of proton radiation treatment.
It was agony, but they received loads of help.
The Cremeens’ community in Richmond, Kentucky rallied around Ryan and his family, holding silent auctions and other charity events to help pay his medical bills. Ronald McDonald House Charities set Ryan’s family up in a house in St. Louis for seven weeks while he underwent radiation treatment at a hospital there.
Then there were the athletes. A major Chicago sports fan, Ryan got to meet some of his heroes, including the Bears’ Zach Miller and the Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo. The Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation even donated to Ryan’s family to help cover out-of-pocket medical expenses, Cremeens said. The University of Kentucky football team also invited Ryan to lead the team onto the field, carrying the American flag, before one of their 2017 home games.
“We took him to sporting events and we were just trying to do whatever we could do to make him not think about the being sick and dwelling on that, to try to have positive memories,” Cremeens said. “It's worked. He's a much more self-confident and just resilient child for it.”
Cremeens and his wife, Angie, set up a Facebook page to keep people updated on Ryan’s progress. And that’s how they got reports of a man raising money by using Ryan’s name and photos in other states.
That man, Cremeens said, was Benvie.
Although Benvie never met Ryan, he set up a GoFundMe page using Ryan’s name and claimed at times to have set up a “trust” for the child through BB&T Bank. Screenshots reviewed by The Daily Beast show Benvie at one point was asking for $50,000 through GoFundMe.
Cremeens said he tried to get the GoFundMe page shut down, to no avail. He also reported Benvie to police in Polk County, Georgia after the family got word that Benvie was raising money in Ryan’s name at a gas station there. Police records show an officer took a report but made no contact with Benvie.
Benvie may have never faced a fraud charge at all if he hadn’t gotten involved in border vigilante activities.
Benvie and his group, which previously called itself the United Constitutional Patriots, came to national attention in April after he posted a video live to Facebook that went viral. The video showed his group participating in the capture of what they claimed were 300 migrants in New Mexico, near the U.S.-Mexico border.
The outrage that followed sparked investigations by state and federal authorities in New Mexico. Days later, the self-appointed “commander” of the group, Larry Hopkins, was arrested by the FBI on a weapons charge.
Then in May, The Daily Beast reported that Benvie was facing his own problems with the law in Guthrie, Oklahoma.
Benvie had been arrested in July 2018, allegedly in possession of a stolen Penske rental truck. A police officer wrote that Benvie, at the time of his arrest, had been set up at a restaurant asking for cash to help a child with cancer. He had flyers that read, “Help Ryan Beat Cancer” and “100% of your donations goes directly to Ryan’s trust account at BB&T Bank.”
“It’s believed that Benvie was committing fraud by collecting donations for [a] child with cancer that he was unable to provide any information about,” the officer wrote an affidavit.
In a separate report, police said they seized about $140 that Benvie had collected.
Benvie, however, was initially jailed only on a stolen vehicle charge. He was later freed without having to post bail. Prosecutors did not charge him with fraud.
That is, not until Cremeens got involved.
“When I saw your article, it kind of reinvigorated me again to send email to the chief of police, who forwarded it to their district attorney's office,” he told The Daily Beast. A prosecutor in the Logan County, Oklahoma district attorney’s office then called him and said the office would file a fraud charge against Benvie, Cremeens said.
Court records show prosecutors amended their case against Benvie on June 4. He was charged with a misdemeanor count of attempting to obtain money by false pretenses. That came on top of the felony charge of possessing a stolen vehicle, to which he has already pleaded not guilty.
If convicted, Benvie could spend up to a year in prison on the fraud charge and up to five years for the stolen vehicle charge.
Benvie did not respond to a request for comment sent to his personal Facebook page and he did not answer a call made to a phone number listed for him in court records. Benvie’s attorney, David Bedford, declined to speak about the case but said on Monday he didn’t know about the fraud charge.
“I’m unaware of that and will have to talk about it with the DA,” Bedford said.
The Logan County prosecutor’s office declined to comment.
Benvie is scheduled to make an appearance on Friday in Logan County District Court in Oklahoma and could be arrested on the new charge at that time. A judge has already signed off on a probable cause affidavit for his arrest on the new fraud charge.
Cremeens hopes authorities will be hold tough because of what Benvie allegedly did in Ryan’s name.
“There's no telling how many people he's defrauded and how much money he's gained from this,” Eric Cremeens said. “Him being held accountable for what he's done will be huge. That way everyone can know... that Ryan is not associated with this person in any way, shape or form.”