Robert Mercer’s Secret Adventure as a New Mexico Cop
Photo illustration: 731; Photographers: Sylvain Gaboury/Patrick McMullan; STR/AFP/Getty Images
Robert Mercer probably would have flown into Roswell. From there—1,800 miles from home—he would’ve traveled south through the high desert plains of southeast New Mexico, flat as a tortilla, past abandoned homesteads and irrigation machines moving in slow circles.
His phone reception would’ve gotten spotty when he turned left off Highway 285. He would’ve seen the bare limbs of a pecan orchard and a graveyard decked in plastic flowers. At the town hall in Lake Arthur, population 433, he would’ve met Police Chief William Norwood, a barrel-chested man with two spare rifle magazines on his belt. There, Mercer, the fabulously wealthy computer scientist who helped bankroll the election of President Donald Trump, would’ve reported for duty as a volunteer policeman.
If Mercer’s trips to Lake Arthur resembled my recent visit, he might’ve climbed into the passenger seat of Norwood’s police truck, whose black-and-white paint job is fading in the wind-whipped sand. He and Norwood might’ve rolled past the house where someone reported spotting a stolen car—a false alarm, it turns out. While monitoring radio chatter, the plutocrat and the chief might have jawed about the latest news in a town so small it has no stores: the recent pursuit of a motorist across half the county; the record of the high school’s six-man football team; reports of stolen pecans. Pulling up a chair at an Italian restaurant in nearby Hagerman, the chief might’ve urged Mercer to try the lasagna.
For most of the past six years, as Mercer became one of the country’s political kingmakers, he was also periodically policing Lake Arthur, according to the department. If he followed Norwood’s protocols—and Norwood insists no volunteers get special treatment—he would’ve patrolled at least six days a year. He would’ve paid for travel and room and board, and supplied his own body armor and weapon.
Until a few months ago, Mercer, 71, ran what is arguably the world’s most successful hedge fund. He employs a phalanx of servants and bodyguards and owns a 203-foot yacht named Sea Owl. He was the money behind Breitbart News and Steve Bannon, whose fiery populism helped propel Trump to the White House, as well as the data firm Cambridge Analytica, which shaped the campaign’s messages. Shortly after the election, Mercer donned a top hat and welcomed the president-elect to a costume party at his seaside mansion on Long Island. What was a guy like that doing in the desert, wearing a gun and a shiny badge?
I was surprised when I first heard about Mercer’s sojourns in Lake Arthur, but then I’m used to his surprises. During the two and a half years I’ve covered Mercer, I’ve come to think of him as a hard-right version of that guy in the beer commercials, the Most Interesting Man in the World. There seems to be an inexhaustible supply of incredible-but-true Mercer stories, including his pioneering research that begat Google Translate, his funding of a stockpile of human urine in the Oregon mountains, his million-dollar model train set, and his habit of whistling constantly, even during work meetings. The common threads in these stories are a fierce intelligence, a wide-ranging curiosity, and an utter indifference to the judgment of others. The story of his adventures in Lake Arthur, which hasn’t been previously reported, adds yet another strand. It shows just how far a man of means will go to get something he can’t buy: the right to carry a concealed firearm anywhere in America.
The Mercers don’t talk to the press, and Robert Mercer wouldn’t tell me why he started volunteering for the Lake Arthur police. When I went there to see for myself, I found that it was unlike any police department I’d come across. It’s all volunteers, including Norwood, whose day job is with a neighboring department. He’s buttressed by 84 reserve officers, most of whom live hundreds or even thousands of miles away. There are Lake Arthur reservists in San Diego and Virginia Beach. Several are among the most elite soldiers on Earth—former U.S. Navy SEALs. Many are high-dollar bodyguards or firearms instructors, and almost all of them are serious gun enthusiasts. On that count, Mercer fits right in. He once built a personal pistol range in his basement. Through a company he co-owns, Centre Firearms Co., he has a vast collection of machine guns and other weapons of war, as well as a factory in South Carolina that makes assault-style rifles.
Over our own lunch at Piccolino, the Italian place, Chief Norwood passed me a copy of his department’s newsletter, the Blue Heeler. One picture shows reservists training in a two-man sniper-spotter team. The sniper is kitted out in a mesh veil for camouflage and appears to be firing from inside a kitchen. Another shows a door with a hole blasted through it, the result of an exercise in “explosive breaching.” The newsletter gave the impression that Norwood was running his department as a sort of high-octane club for guys who subscribe to Guns & Ammo. It was hard to imagine these skills being put to heavy use in Lake Arthur, where reservists’ official duties include finding lost pets.
Even the coolest drills wouldn’t explain why Mercer would go to the trouble of getting a Lake Arthur badge. With his connections in the gun world, he wouldn’t need to travel all the way from Long Island to have some weekend fun on the range. And if he just wanted to serve the public and wear a uniform, he could choose from several police auxiliary programs without leaving his home county.
Then I learned that in 2012 several of Mercer’s associates had set up a nonprofit in Georgia blandly named the Law Enforcement Education Organization. Among the founders were Mercer’s son-in-law George Wells and Wells’s longtime friend Peter Pukish—both of whom were also Lake Arthur volunteers. Chairing the group was former Georgia Representative Robert Barr, a Mercer lawyer and National Rifle Association board member who got pranked in the 2006 mockumentary Borat. (The movie captures his sour expression when he’s told the cheese he just ate was made from a woman’s breast milk.) Tax records suggest Mercer gave the group’s sister foundation more than $400,000, and his gun company became a sponsor (see note 1, below) . The purpose: to educate local authorities across the country about the rights of off-duty police officers to carry concealed weapons. The group showed up at police conferences and handed out brochures and moon pies.
States vary widely in their approaches to regulating concealed weapons. But in 2004, Congress passed the Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act, declaring that police officers can carry concealed guns in any state with no need of a local license. The law applies to officers who are off-duty and out of their jurisdiction—and includes volunteer reservists.
The law made a police badge an immeasurably valuable item in places such as Suffolk County, N.Y., where Mercer lives, and where concealed-carry permits are granted only rarely. Applicants must prove they face “extraordinary personal danger”; in 2016 the county rejected the request of a man who had helped the FBI take down an outlaw biker gang. Even if Mercer did get a local permit, it wouldn’t be valid if he traveled to New York City or to most other states. For people in Suffolk who want to carry, the Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act is a tantalizing way to cut through all of that—if they can find a police force that will grant them its tin.
Since the law took effect, a few police and sheriff’s departments around the country have been rumored to hand out badges to buddies or in exchange for cash. The gun community calls them “badge factories.” Questions about whether Lake Arthur was such a place swirled last year on a popular gun chat room, after a noted firearms expert from North Carolina who was also a reservist got drunk and accidentally shot his brother-in-law in the leg. (Norwood quickly stripped him of his badge.) It’s not clear exactly when or how Mercer became aware of Lake Arthur’s reserve corps. But he became an officer on Dec. 10, 2011, and since then, Mercer and his son-in-law have supported the town generously. Their foundation underwrote a grant for some Lake Arthur officers to get SWAT training in Las Vegas. Separately, Wells helped start a reserve officers’ association that apparently directed tens of thousands of dollars to the department. (2)
At lunch, Norwood ordered a salad and insisted that his department was no badge factory. “It’s a big help to me, I’ll tell you that,” he said of the reserve program. “It’s better than going out to a domestic violence call way out in the county all by yourself.” Norwood’s head was closely shaved, and he had a hint of reddish stubble on his cheeks. He was dressed from head to toe in black tactical gear, and a patch on his chest gave his blood type as O+. Norwood refused to discuss Mercer or any other individual reservist but said that if a person simply wanted concealed-carry rights, volunteering for his squad wouldn’t be worth the trouble: Department rules require 96 hours of patrol work and 20 hours of training a year. He added that while reservists are encouraged to carry their weapons off-duty for protection, they’re not allowed to use their concealed-carry privileges for outside work. (Later, after I showed Norwood the LinkedIn accounts of two men who seemed to be doing just that—security contractors touting their ability to carry guns anywhere—the men faced “severe” disciplinary action, a department spokesman said.)
Norwood formed the reserve program in 2005, not long after he joined the department. With the nearest backup a half-hour or more away, he didn’t like the idea of patrolling solo, so he turned to a couple of Army buddies for volunteer help. The program expanded by word of mouth. At one point a few years ago, there were almost 150 reserve officers—that’d be a ratio of one to every 2.9 residents—and Norwood, who prefers patrolling to paperwork, acknowledged he wasn’t giving the program the oversight it needed. In 2016 a reserve captain took over administrative duties, tightened up policies, and cut the number of reservists almost in half. Last year, Norwood stopped accepting new members altogether. But even this smaller force is enough to provide him with a visiting reservist or two on any given day, free of charge.
“There may have been some abuses in the past,” said the administrator, Oliver Brooks, who lives 200 miles away and joined us for lunch. “But whenever we find out about them, we take action.”
After a formal request under New Mexico’s open-records law, Norwood sent me documents showing that Mercer, Wells, and Pukish joined on the same day in 2011. Mercer and Wells left the department last September, and Pukish stayed on until February. Brooks said he didn’t know why they left; Pukish declined to comment, and Wells didn’t respond to inquiries.
Many of Mercer’s links to the gun world flow through Wells, who’s married to the youngest of Mercer’s three daughters, Heather Sue. She deserves a beer commercial of her own. A talented placekicker, she made Duke University’s football team in 1995 and then sued the coach for sex discrimination when he refused to let her suit up. She won. Later, after running a bakery in New York with her sisters, Heather Sue moved to Las Vegas and gambled for high stakes. She played $25,000 no-limit hold ’em six-handed at the 2010 World Series of Poker, placing 15th. She married Wells, one of the family’s bodyguards, the next year.
Wells had previously worked as a firearms trainer and a security contractor in Iraq, and he once had a sideline making concealed-carry holsters out of elephant and ostrich skin. Soon after the marriage, he got a new job: Wells and Mercer joined with other investors to acquire Centre Firearms (3), a longtime Manhattan dealer that specialized in outfitting movies and TV shows, and Wells became its president.
Mercer and Wells wanted to expand beyond props, and they soon entered talks with Daniel Shea, a Nevada arms dealer who had a world-class collection of machine guns. His wares included 19th century antiques, a Stinger antiaircraft missile launcher, and the fake grenade launcher that Al Pacino wielded in Scarface, according to documents filed in subsequent litigation. He also rented guns to video game makers. If you play certain Call of Duty titles, you hear their thunder. But Shea was far more than a mere collector: He had brokered arms deals in Jordan and Serbia and trained U.S. commandos on obscure weapons they might face in the field.
Centre agreed to buy the assets of Shea’s company, Long Mountain Outfitters, for as much as $8 million, with Mercer providing the cash, court documents show. Shea stuck around to introduce the new owners to his contacts in the U.S. government and foreign militaries. In a November 2013 business plan, Centre executives described their aim to become “the leading international supplier of arms and training.” As part of their strategy, they wrote, they would “use our relations with government contacts and politicians.”
Wells put his friend Pukish in charge of the Nevada operations, located in an industrial park in a Las Vegas suburb. Pukish is a martial-arts master who once ran a dojo, as well as a training business called Chaos International. In online profiles he claims to be expert in jiujitsu, kuntao knife fighting, and the Japanese healing art of reiki. Meanwhile, in early 2014, Mercer and his partners acquired a warehouse in the Ridgewood neighborhood of Queens, N.Y., and moved much of Centre’s East Coast inventory there. (Ed Leiter, a former owner of Centre who visited the site recently, said the stash includes an Mk 19 belt-fed grenade launcher, capable of hurling 60 explosives per minute. Leiter said he thinks it’s used for training.)
But Centre’s partnership with Shea quickly collapsed. In November 2014, Centre sued Long Mountain Outfitters in Nevada, accusing Shea of keeping guns he was supposed to hand over. Shea denied that and countersued, alleging Pukish was running the business into the ground and that sales trips the two of them had taken to Washington, D.C., Israel, and Jordan had been a disaster. The parties settled the lawsuit on undisclosed terms. Shea left the company, and Centre kept most of his armory. (Through his lawyer, Shea declined to comment.)
While Mercer’s foray into international arms dealing struggled, he moved in another direction: manufacturing guns himself. In 2016, Centre acquired South Carolina’s PTR Industries Inc., the maker of a civilian version of a Cold War-era German battle rifle called the G3. PTR hasn’t disclosed its investors and declined to comment for this story. But according to a person with knowledge of the matter, Mercer appeared at the plant one day in early 2016 and went on an hourslong tour, flanked by Centre executives and a woman said to be Mercer’s nurse. He asked a few questions about the production process but was otherwise silent, the person said. Around plant employees, PTR’s chief executive took to calling the visitor “Mr. M.” (4)
Trump’s victory seemed to vault Mercer to the center of American political power. His two closest political advisers, Bannon and Kellyanne Conway, helped lead the campaign and then moved to the White House, and his daughter Rebekah, who oversees his political and charitable spending, won a leadership role on the transition team. But Bannon has since been cast out of the president’s circle, and Rebekah tossed him from Breitbart News. Liberal activists hounded investors in Mercer’s hedge fund, Renaissance Technologies, until he announced in November that he would step down as co-CEO. And Cambridge Analytica is at the center of a tech and political firestorm after revelations that it improperly harvested the personal data of 50 million Facebook users without their knowledge.
Trump’s win appears to be, at best, a mixed blessing for Mercer’s gun interests. The president supports a House measure requiring states to recognize concealed-carry permits regardless of where they were issued—essentially offering civilians the same workaround Mercer got from Lake Arthur—but after the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., the measure’s chances in the Senate grew dimmer. On the corporate front, it’s unclear if Mercer’s gun company has won any government contracts. And with a gun-rights supporter in the White House, civilian purchases of assault-style rifles have plummeted from Obama-era highs. Remington Outdoor Co., among the nation’s largest gunmakers, declared bankruptcy on March 25.
Mercer didn’t get into the gun business to get rich; the Bloomberg Billionaires Index values his wealth at almost $1 billion. But his family seems to be having fun. They’ve shown off their guns to political allies, taking them to a vault deep under the streets of Manhattan or to the warehouse near Las Vegas and pointing out some of the more remarkable weapons. Visitors, speaking on condition of anonymity, say the spaces are laid out like high-end clubhouses, with fully stocked bars. And in January, Mercer’s manufacturer rolled out a new product: a civilian version of the German submachine gun known as the MP5. It offers a 30-round magazine and an optional threaded barrel for attaching a silencer. It retails for $1,899.
Mercer would’ve used a more modest gun at the marksmanship tests he was required to pass annually to keep his Lake Arthur badge valid. To qualify, he might’ve headed to the local range, in a desolate part of Hagerman, where a bulldozer has piled up berms of earth on three sides. A fellow reservist would’ve planted a man-shaped paper target at a distance and called out instructions, timer and clipboard in hand: “Two rounds, kneeling position.” Mercer would’ve dropped to a knee and fired. “Two rounds, center mass.” Mercer would’ve taken aim, felt the trigger against his finger, and sent two more bullets out into the desert. —With Joshua Green
1. The Mercer Family Foundation reported donations in its 2015 and 2016 tax returns totaling $436,437 to a nonprofit identified as the Law Enforcement Education Fund, located on East Big Beaver Road in Troy, Michigan. There’s no such nonprofit at that address, but there is one with a similar name, the Law Enforcement Education Program. John Walsh, an accountant for that organization, said it has never received money from Mercer’s foundation. The donations appear to have gone instead to the Law Enforcement Education Foundation, a sister organization to the Law Enforcement Education Organization. Both of these groups are based in Georgia and have links to Mercer son-in-law George Wells and Bob Barr, a lawyer who has represented Mercer.
2. Wells was one of the original directors of the Southeast New Mexico Police Reserve Foundation, set up in 2013. The foundation reported raising $93,000 over two years. Under its bylaws, at least half the foundation’s net dues were required to be paid to police departments whose reservists were members. At the time of its founding, all the members were Lake Arthur reservists.
3. A property document filed in New York City in 2014 shows that Mercer and Wells together owned 40 percent of Centre, with the balance owned by theatrical-firearms entrepreneurs Rick and Ryder Washburn, and by Mark Barnes, a firearms lawyer. Mercer and Wells also owned 50 percent of the Queens site.
4. Records on file in South Carolina provide further evidence that Centre Firearms is the new owner of PTR. A vendor to Centre filed a financing statement there in 2016 listing Centre as a debtor, and identifying its address as the site of the PTR plant in Aynor, S.C. In 2017, the same vendor filed another financing statement identifying the debtor as “Centre Firearms Co. (PTR).”