The National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas, sent an unusual message to its supporters on Thursday announcing it would close for three days because of threats from supporters of former president Donald Trump.
While that message — and its more eye-popping details, including a visit from a Virginia congressional candidate looking for illegal border crossers and allegedly nearly running over the director’s son with a car — might sound odd for a missive from an insect preserve, for staff and friends of the National Butterfly Center, conspiracy theories and threats have been the norm for more than four years.
The National Butterfly Center first made headlines when it filed a lawsuit to prevent the Trump administration from building its border wall on the center’s property. The lawsuit became such an issue for the administration that Jared Kushner, reportedly, proudly told stakeholders more than a year later that he’d “solved the butterfly thing.”
In 2019, the center and its director Marianna Treviño-Wright filed another lawsuit against We Build the Wall, a crowdfunding organization that Trump associates Steve Bannon and Brian Kolfage used to try to build part of the wall next door to the butterfly center. When the two men were charged in August 2020 with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and money laundering in connection with We Build the Wall, the National Butterfly Center celebrated on Twitter. Bannon and Kolfage pleaded not guilty.
The center’s lawsuit accused Kolfage of defamation after he tweeted what the center says are a number of baseless claims, including that the center was ignoring “the rampant sex trade” and “death bodies” on its property and that sex traffickers were using inflatable rafts to smuggle people to the center’s dock and into the US. Kolfage’s Twitter account has been suspended. He did not respond to a request for comment.
Those tweets are when the threats of violence really started, Treviño-Wright told BuzzFeed News on Thursday. While there have been some “periods of relative tranquility” since 2019, Treviño-Wright said that the threats have started to “ramp back up” recently. Trump supporters are planning an immigration-focused event nearby this weekend and Treviño-Wright said that a former Republican state legislator passed along warnings that she and the center could be targeted by the group. The former legislator did not respond to a request for comment.
So when two women showed up at the National Butterfly Center last Friday asking to see “the illegals crossing on rafts,” Treviño-Wright said, her son at the front desk quickly knew what was going on.
The women identified themselves as Kimberly Lowe, who is running for Congress in Virginia, and a person whom Kimberly referred to as “Michelle,” and identified herself as a Secret Service agent in an audio recording, but whose identity BuzzFeed News could not verify. According to an affidavit that he later prepared for police, Treviño-Wright's son, Nicholas, told the women that they needed to pay an admission fee to enter the property. Michelle, he wrote, told him that she was with the Secret Service and that both women had big sway in Washington, DC, and they wanted to see “the immigrants crossing on the rafts.”
Treviño-Wright said her son came to get her and that she googled Lowe before approaching the women. She provided BuzzFeed News with an audio recording of her interaction with Lowe and Michelle, as well as a recording of a Facebook Live video Lowe posted of the incident as it took place, which has since been deleted.
In the audio recording, Treviño-Wright quickly tells the women their “agenda is not welcome here” and asks them to leave.
“So you’re not for keeping the illegals out?” Michelle counters.
Lowe jumps in as well: “So you’re not for helping all these poor people in the humanitarian crisis? You’re OK with children being sex trafficked and raped and murdered?”
Treviño-Wright again asks the women to leave, and Lowe agrees, but not before adding, “I'm sorry that you're okay with children being raped and murdered.”
From there, things appear to devolve. Michelle again insists she’s with the Secret Service and they leave the building. Outside, Treviño-Wright says, Lowe started trying to record her. Treviño-Wright told BuzzFeed News she’s had her photo posted online by right-wing trolls and faced threats of doxxing, so she really didn’t want Lowe to record her and reached up toward Lowe’s phone. Lowe says she took the phone. Then, Treviño-Wright says Michelle pushed her to the ground. Lowe says Treviño-Wright fell. Either way, Treviño-Wright ended up on the ground and Michelle clearly says on the audio, “Stay the fuck down, bitch.”
Lowe then made a run for her car where she started up the now-deleted Facebook Live video and started screaming for Michelle to get in the car with her. Once Michelle is inside the car, she points out that Nicholas is closing the gate in front of them. In the video, the camera is pointed at Lowe as she hits the gas and the engine revs. Michelle yells, “Whoa whoa whoa, KC!” Lowe looks forward shouting, “Get the fuck out of my way. Get out of my fucking way. Get the fuck out of my way. Jesus Christ.”
Nicholas wrote in his affidavit to police that he had to jump out of the way of the car to avoid being hit. He wrote that he tried to close the gate to keep the women from leaving before police arrived and because he believed they had his mother’s phone.
Lowe denied that she tried to hit Nicholas and accused the Wrights of assault and “kidnapping” for trying to prevent them from leaving and attempting to close the gate. Lowe also sent BuzzFeed News a copy of her Facebook Live video, but a version that cuts off before she speeds up the car toward the gate. She said she took it down because of “an investigation.”
”I was scared and did not approach her son to hit him period,” Lowe wrote in a text to BuzzFeed News, adding that she had her children with her. “I was trying to escape to safety with my children and did not attempt to hit him!!”
Asked why she went to the butterfly center in the first place and accused Treviño-Wright of allowing sex trafficking, Lowe said via text, “Someone suggested I walk to the river to see what may be happening. I came to TX to see what is happening at the border.”
Lowe said she is planning to join a “private border tour” this weekend featuring Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser and one of the biggest proponents of 2020 election conspiracy theories, as part of the pro-Trump events near the butterfly center. But Lowe emphasized that the event was not the reason for her trip.
Lowe repeatedly said that Treviño-Wright's story was a “politically motivated attack” against her. And she did not answer when asked multiple times whether Michelle has any affiliation with the Secret Service or for her last name. “I'm a good person with a big heart putting myself out there to truly help people — I don't deserve this mess from her,” she said in a text.
Both women said that they spoke to Mission, Texas, police about the incident. Lowe said in a text that she was “cleared” by police, but the police department did not respond to a request for comment on whether the case is still open or for copies of police reports from the incident.
But there was a witness. Bob Axford, a Canadian man who said he is snowbirding in Texas for the winter, was standing in the parking lot as the scene played out and confirmed many of the details provided by Treviño-Wright and her son. Axford told BuzzFeed News he did not know any of the people involved in the altercation and had never been to the National Butterfly Center before Friday; he’d just dropped by to confirm its location and grab a map of the property ahead of a planned visit with a friend. He stood behind the women as they talked with Treviño-Wright's son, he said, and overheard that one of them was named Lowe and was running for Congress.
Once he got Nicholas’s attention and got a map, Axford said he went to sit in his truck for a few minutes and take a look at it. “Then I saw a couple minutes later, four people kinda tumble out the door and be at each others’ throats.” He saw one of them fall down and said he believed it was Treviño-Wright, but that he was too far away to see how she fell. He called 911.
Then he saw Lowe get into her car and back it up closer to the others. Once Michelle got into the car with her, he said, “she went full blast … and almost directly at me. I almost got hit there. But I was in a bigger truck than they were,” he said. The car then headed for the gate and Treviño-Wright's son at speed, he said. Axford said he believed Nicholas “probably did” have to jump out of the way to avoid being hit. “It just looked like a commercial,” he said.
Axford said he spoke to police about the altercation and repeatedly called Lowe’s driving “completely reckless.”
“This person should not be an elected official in any way, shape, or form,” he said.
On Friday night, after this story published, Lowe told BuzzFeed News that she was turned away from the border tour because of the “hit pieces” about her trip to the butterfly center, saying that she was being “cancelled by the right.” Lowe said that Christina Hutcherson, the founder of Women Fighting for America, and Arizona state Rep. Mark Finchem, another major proponent of election conspiracy theories, refused to let her on the bus Friday night and told her that she had endangered their event. Neither Finchem nor Hutcherson immediately responded to a request for comment.
Lowe said she had driven all the way from Virginia to spend two weeks at the border. After being turned away on Friday night, she said she was able to get out of her hotel booking and was on the road, driving back home.
This story was updated after Lowe said she was rejected from a border tour put on by Trump supporters.