Leah Sottile | Longreads | May 2018 | 26 minutes (6,578 words)
Part 2 of 4 of Bundyville, a series and podcast from Longreads and OPB.
It’s mid-November, the end of the first week of the trial in Las Vegas. I’ve found that my favorite time of day here is early morning, when the only people to talk to are those calling “good morning!” from the doorways and brick plazas where they’ve slept. It’s when Fremont Street is free of tourists and populated only by guys with hoses whose jobs are to wash away the things that seem always to fill this city street: spilled margaritas and cheap beer and puke.
I’m staying in a cheap casino on Fremont Street in a room that’s not expensive enough to have a coffee maker, which means I have to eject myself into the world without any caffeine, a thing I would never do at home but here I’ve come to look forward to. It’s the only time it’s quiet enough to think, to not lose yourself in the things Vegas asks you to become.
At night on Fremont, blocks from the federal courthouse, you will be offered whatever you need. Booze, drugs, money, beautiful women, beautiful men. Your fortune, told to you in cards. Your name etched on a bottle opener, a license plate, a flashing keychain, a pair of dice. Get drunk. Get high. Get wild. It’s Vegas, baby — a line people repeat here like a mantra in packed elevators, in coffee shops, in the security line of the “fed castle” where Bundy’s followers empty their pockets of change and pocket-size Constitutions before going through the metal detector. When Judge Gloria Navarro strolls to the bench each morning — always late, always carrying an iced coffee — people explain it with a shrug: “Vegas, baby.”
I’ve avoided the Vegas life this week, but on my last night — a Thursday — I stop into a bar on Fremont Street and take the only seat left at the bar, next to a Mr. T impersonator. There’s no court tomorrow, so I’m OK with staying out a little late and seeing what’s so appealing about this city. Vegas at night, despite my resistance to it, is fun — and I’ve had enough to drink with Mr. T that I strike up a conversation with a couple of guys who’ve traveled here from the East Coast to sample the legal marijuana. I ask them if they’ve heard of Cliven Bundy, and one responds immediately, “He’s that cowboy the government is trying to steal land from, right?”
This must be what poker face feels like.
The next morning, I’m a little hungover and way out in the suburbs of the city. I’m sitting in this bright-white, fluorescent-lit office, guzzling complimentary bottles of water. I’m in the office of an ex-Bundy follower who used to be close with the family, Melissa Laughter.. She went to Bundy Ranch in 2014 and to Malheur in 2016. She has spent holidays with the Bundys.
She’s since become a vocal detractor of the Bundys and the wider Patriot movement that supports them. She says the Bundys demand loyalty, allegiance. She has come to think of them as cult leaders.
“A cult is is a blind following of some enigmatic leader,” she says. “They don’t question. They don’t act independently. They act as one.”
Laughter is a devout member of the Mormon church, and the granddaughter of a Utah dairy farmer. She explained what initially attracted her to the Bundys. “I’m like, OK, we have something in common. I’m interested in talking to them and hearing what they have to say,” she says. “So like many people, I was sympathetic to them to begin with.”
Laughter is a staunch conservative — a woman who has run for public office in Nevada as a Republican. She has bright white teeth and wears big cowboy boots with dresses. She’s pro-gun, vehemently anti-marijuana.
She grew up in the church and felt like something was off about how the Bundys talked about the Gospel to friends and family. “We would often have these philosophical religious debates where they would talk about LDS doctrine,” she says. According to Laughter, her differing perspective on church teachings wasn’t well received around the ranch. “They constantly take offense if you say anything against what they’re saying.”
But the Bundys were seeing things in the Gospel she couldn’t understand.
“I’m going to show you something else no one else has but the federal government,” she says. She reaches to grab something from the floor, then plunks a big black binder onto her desk.
“Have you heard about The Nay Book?”
Yeah, I’d heard murmurs of it. I just didn’t think it was real.
* * *
After the feds backed away from Bundy Ranch in 2014, leaving the family and their supporters feeling electrified from what they saw as a victory, an Arizona tattoo artist named Brian Cavalier struck up an unlikely friendship with Cliven and his wife, Carol.
Cavalier, who often is referred to by the nickname “Booda,” came to Bunkerville after seeing videos online about the Bundy’s struggles with the Bureau of Land Management. He returned home after the BLM left, but even then he stayed in touch via text message with Cliven and Carol.
He was intrigued by them and their life in the desert, and he decided toe return to Bunkerville. “The Bundys knew I wanted to stay,” he says. “I was looking to start a new chapter, a new life.”
He made a deal to work for the couple in order to buy off a trailer parked on Bundy Ranch. Cavalier became something of a bodyguard for the old man, though he tells me he prefers not to use that word to describe his relationship to Cliven. “I became a friend of the family. I wanted to make sure that Cliven felt safe.”
Cavalier’s job was to drive Cliven to speaking engagements around the West. He’d remind him to take his pills. “[Cliven] was under the impression the government could assassinate him,” he tells me.
During his time at the ranch, Cavalier met Melissa Laughter. They became friends, and she’d come to the ranch to see him.
“I think he was drawn to the grandpa image of Cliven,” Laughter says. “He thought they were wholesome people, good people. Because that’s how they sell themselves at first. I heard many people describe them as the salt of the earth.”
She recalls Cliven asking Cavalier “if he’ll stay there and be his witness,” she says. “I start hearing this witness thing, and so I’m like ding ding ding! LDS term! Because we talk about being a witness to something — so like Joseph Smith is a witness to the truth of the Gospel. It’s a term that’s in our lexicon.”
After nearly a year at the ranch, Cavalier converted to Mormonism on Valentine’s Day 2015: “Cliven baptized me. That’s how much I cared for this man,” he says. (It’s common practice in Mormonism for baptisms to be given by family patriarchs and other adult male members.)
Cavalier recalls driving Cliven and his son, Ryan, to a radio interview about the standoff during the fall of 2014, a few months after the standoff with BLM officers near Bundy Ranch,. In the car, the Bundys flipped through a handmade booklet. They called it “The Nay Book” — a book of photocopied scripture and speeches by LDS prophets that had been assembled by another Bunkerville rancher named Keith Nay. Cavalier instantly took notice.
“The Bundy family did put a lot of stock and thought into this book,” Cavalier told me. “I felt they were using [it] to almost, to justify what they were doing. I was so young in the church I didn’t really know any better.”
Where there is a Bundy, there is always a God.
The day before Ammon Bundy and one of his brothers, Ryan, charged into the empty Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Ammon posted a video to YouTube titled “Dear Friends.” He wanted to tell the world that God had spoken to him — led him here, to this place.
God was upset.
“I clearly understood that the Lord was not pleased with what was happening to the Hammonds,” he said, referring to the Oregon ranchers being brought back to jail to serve out mandatory minimum sentences.
He’s seated at a wooden table inside what looks like a spare bedroom. There’s a vacuum standing in the corner, an Apple laptop open in front of him. As he speaks, sometimes he stumbles, as if he’s reciting a script that was written for him.
“What was happening to them, if it was not corrected, would be a type and a shadow of what would happen to the rest of the people across this country,” he said. “I felt this desire — this urge — to go to the Hammonds’ Ranch.”
In the early hours of the occupation of the refuge, it wasn’t explicitly clear why, very suddenly, a frosted-over bird sanctuary in rural Oregon was surrounded by camouflaged men carrying assault rifles. The world only had Ammon’s words about God — and the threat that the people here were prepared to die.
Reporters pointed cameras and microphones at LaVoy Finicum who was huddling under a blue tarp in the dark outside the refuge’s offices. A long gun sat across his lap.
“I have been raised in the country all my life. I love dearly to feel the wind on my face. To see the sun rise. To see the moon in the night,” Finicum calmly told an MSNBC reporter who crouched at his knee. “I have no intention of spending any of my days in a concrete box.”
“If they come here and try to arrest you,” the reporter began to say. “They point a gun at you and they try to put cuffs on you, how far are you willing to take this?”
Finicum chuckled. “You don’t point a gun at someone unless you’re going to shoot them.”
“You’re out here prepared to die over what principle exactly?” the reporter pressed.
“Our freedoms and our ability to have contact with representatives on a face-to-face basis is gone,” Finicum said. “Let the states manage and govern the things that pertain to the state. … I believe in government, OK?”
He said he was there “to defend freedom.”
You don’t point a gun at someone unless you’re going to shoot them.
Later at daily press conferences, Ammon gave a clearer explanation of what they actually wanted: the refuge and all other federal lands turned over to the people of Harney County, Oregon; the Hammonds freed from jail; the federal government to leave the state; and the federal government to turn all land it owns back over to the states. He said they planned to stay at the refuge for years.
It is no secret that the Bundys, Finicum, and many people who follow them are devout members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They’ve never been quiet about their conversational relationship with God.
But the LDS church in Salt Lake City has only expressed opposition to the family’s headline-grabbing actions. Early on during the refuge occupation, the church issued a statement. “Church leaders strongly condemn the armed seizure of the facility,” it read, “and are deeply troubled by the reports that those who have seized the facility suggest that they are doing so based on scriptural principles. This armed occupation can in no way be justified on a scriptural basis.”
But the Bundy men weren’t dissuaded. At home, their wives were confused about what to make of the statement.
“This upset me,” Ryan Bundy’s wife, Angie, wrote on her blog. But she explained it away — that it wasn’t because of the illegality of her husband’s actions: “I … understood why they had said what they did. … I mean, they can’t have all of it’s [sic] members coming out and taking over federal buildings after all.”
As their husbands held control of the wildlife refuge, the wives of Finicum and the Bundys held down households filled with young children in Arizona, Idaho, and Nevada. Church members pitched in to help them, Angie wrote. “I was way touched because some of them, I know don’t understand or even support some of the things we are doing.”
The Bundys had long been looking to God to find justification for their actions. By 2016, Cliven Bundy and his friends had been consulting Mormon holy books for decades — the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. In those books they found what Bundy interpreted as rationale for his political ideas.
And he helped put that rationale down on paper — to spread the Gospel as he saw it. They called it The Nay Book.
In the holy texts, they’d found an invitation to fight.
* * *
Lots of other reporters in the past couple of years have said the Bundy family’s actions have been intrinsically tied to their Mormon faith, but I’ll admit I always felt like people didn’t have solid proof of that. I’d been reluctant to point to their religion as the answer to why they did what they did.
But The Nay Book provided proof of the link. Though Nay assembled it, the first page of the book is all Cliven Bundy — authored two years after Nay’s death. In an introductory letter, Cliven poses a question: “What is the Constitutional duty of a member of the Lord’s church?” In the pages that follow, he says he believes Nay found justification in the scripture for “defending my rights and my ranch against the federal government’s tyrannical” actions. (Nay’s widow, Marilyn, who has remarried and is now in her 80s, confirmed that the authenticity of the book last December when I wrote about obtaining a copy of it for the Washington Post.)
The book is a color-coded guide that, I found out from talking to experts, seems to speak to people looking for holy justification for their actions. In it, yellow passages show the times the Constitution is referred to as a sacred text within the scriptures. Pink are times Mormons are called to “save and maintain the Constitution.” Purple indicate all the ways the Constitution will be on “the brink of ruin.”
I’ll be honest that I was underwhelmed when I first saw it. Bundy conspiracy theorists had talked about it like it was some lost Holy Grail, but most of it looked like a bunch of photocopied scriptures to me. It was what was at the back of the book that intrigued me though. There was an article titled “Pres. Smith Warns of World Wickedness,” and several speeches and writings by Ezra Taft Benson, including “The Constitution: A Heavenly Banner.”
Benson, in his later years, served as the 13th president of the LDS church. But before that he acted as Secretary of Agriculture during the Eisenhower administration. Benson, today, is also remembered for his strong affinity to the John Birch Society, an organization that has espoused anti-government doctrines.
It shows that even more than any talk of public land and federal overreach, the Bundys’ interpretation of Mormon scripture justifies them in defending their land as a religious necessity.
I started to think the rumors about it were true, maybe the Bundys saw themselves more as holy warriors than cowboy activists.
I called up Kathleen Flake, a professor of Mormon studies at the University of Virginia, to get a sense of what the Nay Book looks like to someone who is a scholar of Mormon doctrine.
She tells me that, to her, the Nay Book reads as “radical libertarian dogma, wrapped in religious references.” It isn’t modern mainstream Mormonism.
“You have to see them as people who are still living mentally in a religion of the late 19th century and early 20th century,” she says. “Their grandparents and parents faced oppression at the hands of the state.
“I think that the Mormon experience with religious discrimination made the Constitution loom large for them,” Flake says. The Nay Book delivers a message: “Mormons are the defenders [of liberty] because we know what it’s like to not have the liberty promised in the Constitution.”
Matt Harris, a professor at Colorado State University–Pueblo who has a book forthcoming on Ezra Taft Benson, says it’s the inclusion of Benson’s writings in the Nay Book that say so much about the family’s beliefs. The Bundys, like many Mormons, believe that America’s Founding Fathers were divinely inspired to write the Constitution. “I think you could say this pretty unequivocally, that nobody in modern Mormonism has done more to advance the idea that it’s an inspired Constitution that Ezra Taft Benson,” he says.
But the book also leans heavily on ideas promoted by a prominent Mormon named W. Cleon Skousen, who, like Benson, spent much of his career writing and lecturing about anti-communist ideas promoted by the John Birch Society. Both men subscribed to a Birch Society idea that the civil rights movement was “a communist conspiracy to form a “Negro Soviet Republic.” Skousen also posited in one controversial book that black Americans were actually not victims and were happier as slaves, and he founded the National Center for Constitutional Studies — which today produces the pocket-size Constitutions the Bundys are so famous for carrying.
Harris says that oftentimes when the Bundys are talking about the Constitution, they’re quoting Skousen and Benson. And those extreme right-wing ideas that the two men promoted — which may have felt normal in the 1950s and ’60s — fell out of favor with LDS church leaders by the 1980s, as the church modernized and expanded to other countries.
“The church had cracked down hard over the years on Benson, and also Skousen,” Harris says. “Right-wing extremism is damaging the church. They’re trying to move the church into communist nations, which is a problem if you call every liberal in the church a commie.”
But it didn’t go away completely. “To this day the church has to deal with these right-wing extremists who are counted among their ranks, including the Bundys,” Harris says.
When I was speaking to Kathleen Flake, I asked her at the end of our call about Ammon Bundy’s YouTube video — if a “type and a shadow” means anything to her. It’s a biblical way of saying foreshadowing, she says — but not in the way a typical religious person might say it.
Flake maintains there are several instances of the phrase in the Bible, but it has recently found receptive audiences among communities concerned with conspiracies and groups led by preachers cautioning that the end of times are near.
“For those who have wished to speak with authority and as to hidden things—biblical prophecies of calamity especially—this is a ‘go to’ phrase,” she says. In one conversation, Flake cites David Koresh, the former leader of the apocalyptic religious cult, the Branch Davidians.
She’s talking about the leader of the apocalyptic religious cult who had a shoot-out, then a 51-day standoff with federal agents in 1993 that ended in a raging inferno and the deaths of 82 of his followers. Koresh was rumored to have had multiple underage wives and was also allegedly stockpiling fully automatic weapons.
“This ain’t America anymore when the ATF has that kind of power to come into anybody’s home and kick doors down and things like that,” Koresh said in a video.
“God speaks to me,” he said. “I have a message to present.”
It would explain why the Bundys in court, or in interviews, never once give any sort of caveat — nothing to the effect of “Call me crazy!” or “Unless I’m misunderstanding something” — that maybe their understanding of the Constitution or the way federal land is managed wasn’t totally accurate. They spoke free of doubt — despite a vast body of evidence that shows it is completely legal for the federal government to own land. That it is completely illegal for Cliven Bundy to be grazing his cows on public land for free.
So if the Nay Book shows that fighting the government is, in a sense, a part of the Bundys’ religion, it also gave me a lot more questions — about Cliven’s claims that his family has been ranching there in Bunkerville since the 1800s.
And I wondered if the Bundys believed they were the last line of defense before the impending apocalypse. If the government coming to get their cows was the “brink of ruin” they’d been waiting for.
Dudley Leavitt was born August 31, 1830, in Eastern Canada, just over the Vermont border — the eighth child to Jeremiah Leavitt and his wife, Sarah.
Religion was important to the Leavitts. Sarah was a practicing Baptist when word of “a strange new sect which claimed their prophet received revelations direct from God” started to catch on in the area. It was the early Mormon church, and after much discussion the Leavitts were attending meetings, finding themselves drawn to this new, American-born faith. They weren’t alone: Other family members, too, had become interested.
Before Dudley was 6 years old, the family was packing up its things to move to Ohio — by then extremely interested in the Mormon faith.
In Kirtland, Ohio, the church constructed a massive temple, and the body of the church gathered there around its prophet, Joseph Smith, a young farm boy who, in 1820, received revelations from God.
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After a two-month journey, the Leavitts arrived in Ohio. But life nearer to the congregation wasn’t much easier. In Kirtland, Mormons continued to see intimidation from people who felt threatened and suspicious of this new, strange faith.
“Often Dudley came home from school with a bloody nose for defending a religion of which he could then have known but little, but to which he was to devote his life,” writes Juanita Brooks, Leavitt’s granddaughter and the author of a 1942 biography Dudley Leavitt: Pioneer to Southern Utah.
But Kirtland, too, didn’t last long for the LDS church.
The Leavitts soon fled Kirtland with the rest of the congregation for Nauvoo, Illinois — 500 miles further west. There they were welcomed by locals who had been aghast at the stories of persecution that the Mormons had faced, particularly in Missouri, where they had been run out of the state for what they believed.
It was there in Illinois that Jeremiah — Cliven Bundy’s maternal great-great-great-grandfather — started a farm, which included “five good cows, so they could have butter and cheese.” But where at first success seemed certain, life did not ease its grip on the Leavitts. “The misfortunes came, not singly, but in battalions,” writes Brooks. Illness plagued them. Cows died.
Despite the persecution the young Mormon church faced, it maintained a strong affinity for the United States government and viewed the creation and signing of the Constitution as a divinely inspired moment on the part of the Founding Fathers. “The Constitution was inspired because it allowed them to live their religion,” Kathleen Flake tells me. “So when the nation didn’t allow them to live their religion, or more particularly when the agents of the Constitution — the lawmakers and the president of the United States — did not protect them, they felt that betrayal very keenly. The Constitution was supposed to protect them.”
Which is why May 1843 and the revelation some LDS members believe Smith revealed that month are so controversial.
It’s called the White Horse Prophecy.
Smith was assassinated in 1844, but decades later, a member of the church named Edwin Rushton came forward, claiming that Smith had revealed a prophecy to him a year before he was killed:
“I want to tell you something of the future,” he recalled Smith saying. “You will go to the Rocky Mountains and you will be a great and mighty people established there, which I will call the White Horse of peace and safety.”
Smith purportedly went on: “Your enemies will continue to follow you with persecutions and they will make obnoxious laws against you in Congress to destroy the White Horse, but you will have a friend or two to defend you and throw out the worst parts of the law so they will not hurt you so much.
“You must continue to petition Congress all the time, but they will treat you like strangers and aliens and they will not give you your rights, but will govern you with strangers and commissioners. You will see the Constitution of the United States almost destroyed. It will hang like a thread as fine as a silk fiber.”
The Constitution “will be preserved and saved by the efforts of the White Horse,” he said, according to Rushton.
You will see the Constitution of the United States almost destroyed. It will hang like a thread as fine as a silk fiber.
The modern Mormon church does not embrace or accept the White Horse Prophecy as church doctrine. Its existence is based on second-hand reports. But Matt Harris says that just because the head of the church didn’t approve the prophecy, it doesn’t mean Mormons aren’t teaching it.
“It no longer represents the values of the 21st-century church,” he says. “I think this is where the sticking point comes. I think what happens is you hear contemporaries of Smith saying they heard him teach [the prophecy]. … There are dozens of people on record saying they heard him teach it.”
The White Horse Prophecy has been referenced continually by high-profile Mormons. “Religious freedom is going to go down the drain, too,” Utah Senator Orrin Hatch said during his run for president in the 2000 election. “I’ve never seen it worse than this, where the Constitution literally is hanging by a thread.”
Conservative talk show host Glenn Beck, who is Mormon, also referenced it in an interview with Bill O’Reilly in 2008, after President Obama was elected: “We are at the place where the Constitution hangs in the balance,” Beck said. “I feel the Constitution is hanging in the balance right now, hanging by a thread unless the good Americans wake up.”
According to Harris, several LDS apostles have taught it — including Ezra Taft Benson.
You can almost picture Cliven Bundy seeing the prophecy as the mirror image of his own life: the “obnoxious laws” of the Bureau of Land Management over a tortoise. The way “a friend or two” would come to defend them — like at Bundy Ranch. The way he, again and again over two decades, petitioned the government over his right to graze the land.
In April 2017, Angie Bundy — wife of Ryan Bundy — posted a collage of photos from the Bunkerville standoff to her Facebook page, the words “One Nation Under God” running over it.
“It has been foretold that the Constitution would hang by a thread. … It is so very true and our family, along with many others who love the freedom it provides are that thread,” she wrote — her tone so much more sure than it was two years before.
If the upcoming trials did not tip in the family’s favor, she wrote, then “that thin thread will be cut.”
* * *
Like many Mormons under the leadership of Brigham Young, the church’s new president after Smith’s death, the Leavitts arrived in the desert of Utah after three months of journeying toward “Zion.”
The Leavitts set foot in this new promised land on Dudley’s 20th birthday, and it was there that he would spend the rest of his life embodying the teachings of the church in this new land. He farmed and settled forts throughout Southern Utah — persisting through floods and raids from Native tribes. He amassed five wives, including sisters Mary and Mariah Huntsman, and — according to Brooks — 48 children. He considered himself a peaceful liaison with tribal leaders. Brooks reports Dudley was considered a calming presence and leader in each community he established — someone who went on several scouting missions into Arizona and Nevada with other trusted church leaders.
Later, Leavitt moved his brood westward once more, to the soon-to-be-named town of Bunkerville, Nevada, selling off a chunk of his Utah fields for $400 to be paid in cattle. He moved part of his family to Bunkerville by 1877, establishing households for his other wives in towns scattered across Nevada and Utah.
According to Brooks’s book, upon arriving in Bunkerville, Leavitt “put everything he had into the United Order — the cattle he received for his land … as well as those he had before, horses, wagons and all.”
The United Order was a way of living communally because “you couldn’t survive out there as an individual,” Flake tells me. “The only way they could sustain themselves physically was through communal life.”
“At first the people lived the United Order very literally, eating at the same table and sharing all things in common,” Brooks writes. Brooks doesn’t mention anyone ranching cattle in those early days; mostly, she says, they were farmers. She details the way cattle were used by the Order during its first harvest: “They cut the first grain with a cradle, threshed it by driving cattle over it on a hard clay floor, and winnowed it in the wind.”
In the first year, the United Order in Bunkerville produced 450 bushels of wheat, 12,000 pounds of cotton on the seed, and 600 gallons of molasses.” In Dudley’s biography, there is no mention of cattle ranching in Bunkerville.
By October 1880, the experiment of the United Order failed. What “begun with such high hopes and noble ideals” became unrealistic for its members. “Having only what his neighbor had, of sharing everything, and holding all property in common would not satisfy many of the members,” Brooks writes. The United Order cashed its members out and dissolved, leaving men like Dudley Leavitt poorer than when they went in. He moved to the next town over: Mesquite, Nevada.
In Mesquite, Dudley continued to farm. He had “pigs and sheep, so they could have meat on occasion.” In addition, Dudley had a contract with the federal government as a mail carrier.
The feds were paying close attention to Mormon country, particularly because polygamy — then an encouraged practice of the church — was illegal. During one raid, his third wife, Thirza, lamented that federal agents were eager to catch Dudley “because he not only broke the law, but was proud of it and made statements to the effect that no power on earth would make him desert his family.”
But Dudley remained a free, practicing polygamist through the end of his days.
In one chapter of her book, Brooks goes to great efforts to describe a massive surprise party thrown for Dudley when he turned 65 and was living with several of his wives about 20 miles away from Bunkerville on a ranch just over the Arizona border.
“There was a bustle of preparation” for the party, Brooks writes. A calf had been barbecued all night in a pit. “Young people hitched up a wagon and went to the field for a load of melons.”
At the party, Dudley stood to address his massive family. He told them what he expected of them, Brooks writes.
“They should live their religion, pay their debts, attend their prayers, … and own their homes. In no other way could they be free.”
His family sat there in the desert on a warm August day, listening to the old man’s words. Leavitt’s children and grandchildren swung under the cottonwood trees, and all around the family piled plates with steaming beef and roast pork, corn on the cob, squash. They ate red slices of watermelon for dessert.
* * *
By 1905, the elderly Dudley Leavitt sold off all of his cows and property, moving back to Bunkerville with his wife Thirza. He often preached to his descendants that they must be prepared, have stores of food in case of disaster. He was certain that very soon “war will be poured out upon all nations.”
He died in 1908, just weeks before his 78th birthday.
Leavitt’s story undoubtedly proves that the Bundys have deep, deep roots at the place where Utah, Arizona, and Nevada come together. Oftentimes Bundy detractors scoff at the idea that Cliven Bundy is a rancher — calling him a melon farmer, instead. And, if anything, the Leavitt story proves the Bundys have truly been growing melons in the desert for generations. But not ranching cattle — not consistently, if at all.
Dudley Leavitt’s kids continued to live their lives in the spirit of their father. His daughter Mary Jane married a man named William Abbott, and had 13 children of her own. Among them was a girl named Abigail.
Abigail, Cliven’s grandmother, wed a man named John Jensen, giving birth to several girls, including his mother: Margaret Bodel Jensen (who went by her middle name). Census records from the 1930s show her family living in Mesquite.
At age 19, Bodel married a man whose family settled Mt. Trumbull, across the Arizona border. In 1948, the couple — David and Bodel Bundy, Cliven’s dad and mom — purchased a ranch near Bunkerville from another couple, Orange Raoul and Ruth Leavitt.
Cliven Bundy always claims that his right to the land around his 160-acre ranch — the ranch passed to him by his parents — is ancestral because it has been consistently worked by his family on his mother’s side since the 1870s, but no records show that’s actually true.
If you spend a lot of time looking at genealogy records, which I do, Orange Raoul Leavitt’s family tree might provide insight.
Orange Raoul’s grandfather, Orange Decatur Leavitt, took two wives back in the late 1800s — both of whom were his first cousins.
One of those cousin-wives was named Thirza — presumably named after her mother.
Thirza Leavitt was the daughter of Dudley Leavitt and his third wife, Thirza.
So, perhaps that’s what Cliven Bundy means when he says his ancestors have been working this land, where his cows now illegally graze, for more than 100 years.
There is no straight line in his ancestry that gives him land rights in Nevada. I tried my best to find it — I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. But no matter how I traced it, I couldn’t find any reasonable way Cliven can claim he has dominion over that land.
But he’s never claimed he has ancestral rights to this land through polygamy — and that’s the only way I can find any tie to the land in Bunkerville. So to make his claims true, you have to accept a family history built on plural marriage and all the things that come with that. Incest. Child brides. Things that were illegal then and are illegal now. But they’re also a real part of history in Cliven’s area of the world. Those were common practices here.
Perhaps that’s why Cliven’s claims to the land through ancestry are always so … vague.
It is December 18, 2017, and I’ve flown back to Las Vegas when it started to look like the trial of the Bundys was going to go belly-up. The government prosecutors, it turned out, had failed to disclose evidence in a timely manner all along — documentation that made the Bundys look not like terrorists, but rather like people defending land they truly thought was theirs.
Ammon and Ryan Bundy would soon walk free after a judge declared a mistrial. As the brothers exit the Las Vegas courthouse, they are surrounded by cameras and reporters. Everyone wants to know: Would they continue to stand off with the government? What’s next?
I’m curious, too, but if I’m being honest, I’ve come here to ask about one thing. Ryan Bundy stands off to the side of the media frenzy, with just a couple of reporters around him. Until this point, I’ve never spoken to the brothers directly. They’ve been behind bars, and my interview requests went unanswered.
“How much did your family’s faith play into your decision to stand up against the government?” I ask.
“Very much so. Because we do believe that our Founding Fathers were also inspired to create the Constitution they did,” he responds enthusiastically. “The principles that are espoused in our government, well, in the government our Founding Fathers set up, is to promote liberty, to promote freedom,” he says without hesitation. “And that is a very fundamental principle of my belief in God, that all men are to be free. That agency — personal agency, the ability to choose for ourselves how we will act in every given situation is an eternal principle that carries on, through life, through now. That’s why we’re here on Earth — is to be tested. To be tried. So our choices matter in our eternal sojourn, so to speak.”
But I stop him: the LDS church issued a statement during the Malheur occupation saying that there’s nothing in scripture justifying the Bundys’ actions. “That’s not true,” Ryan balks. “I’m not gonna speak for the Church, but I feel great support from it.”
Another writer who’s working on a book on the Malheur occupation pipes in. He asks if Bundy feels driven by a specific teaching of Mormon prophets. Ryan says yes.
“Joseph Smith prophesied that the Constitution at one point would hang as if it were by a thread. In other words, the strength that used to hold it up would not be there, that it would be almost into destruction, and that … if it was going to be upheld, it would be this people that would do it.”
“That’s the White Horse Prophecy, right?” I ask.
“Yep,” he retorts.
“But that’s not official church doctrine,” I start to say — but he cuts me off.
“Put it this way,” he says. “Whether the church calls it doctrine or not, we got quotes from several prophets reiterating that. What the church’s official position on it or not, that I don’t know. I take the words of the prophets both modern and previous ones seriously.That’s what I’ve read, that’s what I’ve heard, that’s what I believe.”
And he walks away.
I want to make sure I heard him right, so I get Ryan Bundy’s phone number and ask if we can talk again. He tells me to call him “before daylight.”
So on a dark morning, still in my pajamas, I call to ask him again: Do you truly believe believe in this apocalyptic vision of Smith’s? He says yes.
“This prophecy is taking place right now,” he says. “This Constitution does hang by a thread at this moment, and has for a long time. And that’s pretty evident.”
What’s his evidence, I ask, and as he talks about what happened at Bundy Ranch in 2014, he gets more and more agitated. He recalls being held in jail for two years, how that felt like a denial of his right to a speedy trial — and he starts raising his voice more and more.
“It’s not speedy when they start making exceptions … and keep us in there for seven hundred days!” he says. “If that’s not the Constitution hanging by a thread, I don’t know what is!”
In the background, I can hear one of his children starting to cry.
The White Horse, destined to save the Constitution — this family believes in this, no matter what LDS leadership says.
I’m starting to realize that not only do they believe in the White Horse, they believe it lives in Bunkerville, Nevada.
And its name is Bundy.
* * *
Leah Sottile is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Playboy, California Sunday Magazine, Outside, The Atlantic and Vice.