On 8 June 2018, disreputable conspiracy theory web sites doubled down on false reports from earlier in the week, claiming that a child's skull had been found by a veterans' group at the site of a "child sex trafficking bunker" in Tucson, Arizona that was actually an abandoned homeless encampment.
Roughly one week before, Veterans on Patrol, a volunteer group that claims to help homeless veterans, stumbled onto private property located off Interstate 19 and West Valencia Road in Tucson where they found an area littered with belongings, including a crib, bottles of hair dye, and toys. They also discovered straps tied to a tree and pornography in another area of the camp. From that scant evidence, the group decided that it had found a "bunker" used for child sex trafficking and their claims have been spread to credulous followers via emotional (but evidence-free) social media posts and disreputable web sites.
Tucson police investigated and found no evidence of criminal activity. Instead, they determined, the "bunker" was an abandoned homeless encampment — but reports of a "child sex trafficking bunker" have persisted, while VOP and company have continued in their quest to prove the site was used by a pedophile ring.
That quest got a boost on 7 June 2018, when the group found a human skull several miles from the encampment, which they immediately decided was a child's skull and thus proof of all their claims:
Lewis Arthur and Veterans on Patrol have just located a child’s skull in Tucson near the site of the underground bunker found late last week, which contained items associated with child sex trafficking.
After waiting over two hours for law enforcement to show up, 5 sheriff cars arrived on scene and said they were given the wrong coordinates and had tried to return Lewis Arthur’s phone call but was not able to reach him. Arthur confirmed that his phone had died. The sheriff’s office was flooded with phone calls with each caller giving different coordinates.
A map posted to the Veterans’ page shows that the skull was found up the road on the side of the highway from what they claim is the site of the bunker that they previously found, which some reports say was demolished by black vans.
VOP did find a human skull on 7 June 2018, but it is not a child's skull, nor was it found in Tucson or even "up the road." According to Pima County Chief Medical Examiner Gregory Hess, the skull belongs to an adult. It was located in a remote area of Marana, a town more than twenty miles northwest of Tucson. No foul play is suspected at this time.
Although authorities have not completed their investigation, they currently believe the skull belonged to a migrant who died while trying to cross the borderlands. As the Arizona Daily Star pointed out, finding human remains in that region is sadly routine:
It’s in a migrant- and drug-smuggling corridor where dozens of sets of remains have been found over recent years, among the 2,800 that have been found in Southern Arizona since migrant deaths accelerated after 2000.
Pima County Sheriff's Deputy James Allerton told us although the veterans' group reported the skull as part of a "sex trafficking ring," law enforcement was "unable to find evidence of that at all." Allerton told us, "It’s a very remote area heavily trafficked by migrants. Tragically, a lot of people do perish in that area."
Almost 3,000 people perished in the Arizona desert between 1990 and 2016 while making their way through the borderlands in search of safety, according to a 2017 report by Colibrí Center for Human Rights, a Tucson-based non-profit that works to identify remains and locate loved ones of migrants. Border Patrol recorded 6,915 migrant deaths along the border between fiscal year 1998 and fiscal year 2016, according to the center.
The fatalities are due to the fact that the physical barriers that have been built along the border have forced migrants farther east and into hotter, more arid, and more remote areas. Migrants who cross the border in the desert of Pima County, where temperatures soar, do so at great risk. As of June 2018, the remains of 44 migrants of unknown identity have been found in Arizona, 40 in Pima County alone. In 2017, the remains of 128 migrants were found in the state of Arizona according to the data tool HumaneBorders.info — and 118 of those cases were in Pima County.
Baseless claims of pedophilia or vague pedophile rings run by "elites" have circulated on disreputable sites and social media with frequency since the 2016 election season, during which a conspiracy theory that became known as PizzaGate became popular despite its outlandishness. Proponents of that story claimed that Hillary Clinton was running a child trafficking operation out of the basement of a Washington, D.C. pizzeria that had no basement. However, wild claims such as those made by VOP ultimately end up obscuring or distracting from the actual, ugly truth.