Minuteman Project co-founder Jim Gilchrist was confronted by three associates who had been his closest allies when he arrived at his group's headquarters in Lake Forest in late January.
"Jim," said Marvin Stewart, "the board has terminated you as president."
Gilchrist recalled that it felt like his heart sank to his stomach, prompting him to instinctively yell, "You're all fired."
"No, Jim, you are fired," Stewart said.
Gilchrist, who rose to fame in 2005 as the leader of the citizen group that began patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border for illegal immigrants, soon discovered that the trio had gained control of the Minuteman bank accounts and website. In a recent news conference outside Orange County Superior Court, the three board members said the takeover was triggered by Gilchrist's mismanagement and by missing money, though they provided no evidence of misappropriated funds.
Gilchrist, who denies the allegations, has filed suit in Orange County Superior Court to regain control of the Minuteman Project, claiming that he was illegally ousted from a corporation he formed and was the sole voting board member.
"These are people I would have trusted my life with and they were conspiring against me behind my back," Gilchrist said. "They are kidnapping my child."
The story behind the vote to dismiss America's most famous anti-illegal immigrant fighter contains allegations of hubris and missing money, jealousy and greed, backstabbing and extremism.
It may also be the almost inevitable result of a rapidly growing organization whose membership is swollen with passionate individualists not known for getting along with others.
"They are taking the law into their own hands and doing it in a dramatic way," said Luis Cabrera, a political science professor at Arizona State University. "It's tailor-made for attracting people who want attention and a thrill and want to execute their agenda."
Though others had proposed similar ideas, Jim Gilchrist's battle cry for citizens to guard the border -- amplified in appearances on conservative talk radio shows -- launched 200 Minuteman groups, garnered intense media coverage and set off a national debate on immigration.
Gilchrist's first sortie to the Arizona-Mexico border in April 2005 attracted 200 volunteers, who used cars, trucks, private planes, radios and night-vision goggles to spot illegal immigrants for U.S. Border Patrol agents.
The event drew heavy criticism, including some from then-Mexican President Vicente Fox and President Bush, who called the participants vigilantes. But it also made Gilchrist an overnight leader in the fight against illegal immigration.
Although many of his supporters were leery of the media, which they perceived to be left-leaning and biased, Gilchrist, a one-time journalism major at the University of Rhode Island, welcomed the questions and cameras.
The 58-year-old made a striking appearance with his green eyes and well-coiffed silver hair. At outdoor events, he was partial to windbreakers, polo shirts and baseball caps with military logos or anti-illegal immigration slogans. On television, he wore blue suits with crisp shirts and colorful, but tasteful, ties.
Gilchrist "is the real reason the Minuteman Project took off ... that is what inspired me," said Eileen Garcia, a Laguna Beach resident who helped form a women's Minuteman auxiliary called Gilchrist Angels.
Steve Eichler, former executive director of the Minuteman Project, said that Gilchrist "started with a lawn chair at the border and embarrassed the White House. Millions of people have been affected by him and the Minutemen. Jim Gilchrist is a rock star."
The rapid growth of the Minuteman Project created friction with veteran anti-illegal immigration activists such as Chris Simcox, who had patrolled the Arizona-Mexico border for years in near anonymity. Their relationship initially cordial, he and Gilchrist formed the Minuteman Project, but Simcox left after a month and now runs a splinter group, the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps.
"I think he was jealous and it was clear he wanted my segment of the Minuteman campaign to fail," Gilchrist said.
Simcox declined to comment for this article.
Management of the rapidly expanding Minuteman Project proved to be even more of a headache for Gilchrist, a retired accountant from Aliso Viejo who critics say is not detail-oriented.
Much of his time was spent appearing on radio and television -- 2,700 times in less than three years, according to his organization's statistics. Gilchrist crisscrossed the country speaking at meetings and on panels. He co-wrote a book about the Minuteman phenomenon, and he ran unsuccessfully for Congress.
This left little time to run the organization. "People wonder why we are disorganized," Eichler said. "It's the beginning. We are getting it organized.... We had to play catch-up."
Gilchrist said he also had to manage people at the fringes of the debate on illegal immigration.