Leah Sottile | Longreads | July 2019 | 25 minutes (6,186 words)
When the house around the corner exploded, Richard Katschke and his wife, Karen, were reading scripture. The retired pair looked up from the pages and froze. In another room, a plastic light cover clattered to the floor.
It was a warm Wednesday. Mid-July 2016, about 8 p.m. Outside, a boy rode his bike near South Fifth Street. A man started a lawn mower.
The Katschkes were seated on a brown leather couch in a room they’d added onto their Panaca, Nevada, house years earlier for Richard’s elderly mother — both he and Karen called her “Mom.” She lived there until the Katschkes made her more comfortable at the nearby hospital in her final days, where a quiet nurse would rub her feet with cream and stay by her side, watching the old woman’s eyes for a sign she was ready to be with God.
The Katschkes never imagined that nurse, 59-year-old Glenn Jones, would, in the last seconds of his life, commit a bombing around the corner from their house — a cataclysmic event that would send a family screaming from their home seconds before it exploded and, even now, three years later, would still have no official explanation from federal authorities.
Glen Wadsworth was the last person to see Jones alive. He was pushing a lawn mower across the grass at his childhood home. Inside, his elderly father sat in front of the television.
Ever since Wadsworth was a teenager, he mowed the lawn the exact same way: pushing and pulling the machine from front yard to side yard to back. But for a reason he still can’t quite understand, that July evening he pushed and pulled a different way than ever before: front, back, side.
Wadsworth — a tall man with straight teeth and neatly combed hair who serves as a member of the local volunteer fire department — looked up from his mower to see Jones back a car up to the gray house next door, where Joshua and Tiffany Cluff lived with their three daughters. Jones parked, got out of the car, and waved to Wadsworth. Wadsworth waved back and continued mowing. He didn’t know Jones, but thought he looked familiar from when the Cluffs built the gray house and friends chipped in on the work.
Wadsworth didn’t see or hear Tiffany and her girls run out of the house, screaming into the telephone.
“911, What is your emergency?” the operator said.
“I … Someone … somebody showed up at my house with a bomb,” Tiffany Cluff panted into her neighbor’s phone. “He’s going to blow my house up.”
“Ma’am. Ma’am. Take a breath for me, OK? I can barely understand ya. What is happening?”
“We’re running away from my house,” Tiffany, hysterical, choked on her words. “I grabbed my kids and I ran.”
“He said he was going to kill you?”
“He said he was going to blow the house up.”
“OK, all right, take a couple breaths for me,” the dispatcher said. “Are you away from the home?”
Tiffany couldn’t even finish the word “yes” before the sound of a bomb exploding and the heart-stopping screaming of three little girls flattened any other noise coming through the receiver.
“Oh my god!” she screamed. “He just blew my house up!”
Down the street, Lincoln County Sheriff Kerry Lee — one of Glen Wadsworth’s oldest friends — was out in his yard with his dog when the blast shook his ribcage.
Lee smiles a lot for a cop — a wide, friendly grin under a thick mustache and a flat-top haircut. And in Panaca, he wears a lot of hats: He’s the sheriff, but he’s also the chief of the volunteer fire department and the county coroner. By July 2016, he’d been in law enforcement for nearly 30 years, and he knew that in Panaca, loud noises are often easily explained: a sonic boom from a military aircraft flying low around Nellis Air Force Base or the Nevada Test and Training Range.
But this was different. Normal noises don’t shake you from the inside. The sheriff yanked his dog into the house, grabbed the keys to his patrol rig, and sprinted back out again. He paused, trying to understand why, all around him, it sounded like a hailstorm was falling from the clear blue sky: “I knew something wasn’t right.”
Wadsworth was still mowing. He didn’t hear Jones shoot himself as he sat in the front seat of the car. Maybe the mower drowned out the sharp pop of the gun, or maybe he’d just fired so many gunshots of his own across the dry desert that he had conditioned himself not to flinch at the sound. But when he looked up from his mower and saw the house next door on fire, he sprinted toward it, believing the family was inside. He ran toward the house, but at the front door, it was as if he ran right smack into the palm of an invisible hand. “It was just like a wall. I just couldn’t.”
Another explosion sounded on the 911 call.
Sheriff Lee could see a mushroom cloud billowing when he looked down South Fifth Street. He assumed it had to be a fire, a gas explosion, an exploded transformer. A bomb? Here? In Panaca? Never crossed his mind.
The windows of the Wadsworth home exploded inward and a hunk of Jones’s car rocketed straight toward the old man sitting in his chair, landing just short at his feet. Glen Wadsworth, somehow, wasn’t hit by a thing.
The chipping house next door to the Cluff home inched sideways on its foundation. A chunk of shrapnel careened toward the boy on his bike, hitting him so hard in the shoulder that it knocked him to the ground, but miraculously, only left a small bruise.
The two explosions sent hot metal shrapnel flying upward, curving in long arcs over the remote desert town. A half mile away, debris rained on the high school. The football team, outside doing drills, dropped to the ground. Daggers of shrapnel stabbed into the sides of nearby houses. One piece punched through the roof of a garage, piercing the hood of the car parked inside.
In a town where nothing ever happens, a town where there are no secrets, suddenly there was mayhem.
“It was Glenn Jones,” Tiffany Cluff cried to the 911 dispatcher. “He said he was going to kill himself and blow up our house.”
As Sheriff Lee drove closer, he could see the destroyed house: It looked like a giant had mashed the house with colossal fists and twisted a car into a grotesque tangle of metal, leaving a deep crater in the pavement.
“Cars blow up like that in a movie,” Lee said. “They don’t normally blow up like that.”
Neighbors who’d gathered at the corner of Fifth and Hansen waved the sheriff down. “Stop! Stop!” he remembers them shouting as he pulled up to the scene. “You’re running over body parts!”
Sure enough, there on the ground lay a pair of legs.
It would be 14 hours before investigators would find the rest of Glenn Jones. His torso had flown out of sight, high into a neighbor’s tree.
Though the investigation was transferred to the hands of federal authorities, Sheriff Lee — in another of his roles, as county coroner — inspected the top half of the body when it was fished down from the branches. He was surprised to see two tattoos on the chest.
One clearly read DNR — medical code for “do not resuscitate.” The other was a phone number for the man whose house he had just exploded: Joshua Cluff.
A gravelly town on the sinful side of the Utah-Nevada border, the desert outpost of Panaca was established in the 1860s by Mormon pioneers whose legacies live on in the few street names here and in the last names of the people who still call this place home.
Today, Panaca is like a peninsula of Utah: the only town in Nevada that is dry, and one of just two in the state where gambling is prohibited. If you want a beer, you’ll have to drive 15 miles to Caliente — pronounced around these parts as “Cal-yen-ee” — to get one, at a smoky bar along a peeling downtown strip. Panaca, Caliente — they’re what you picture when you think of a Western town: At night, tumbleweeds blow down the middle of empty streets, coming to rest against a hardware store with deer heads and bobcat pelts on display in the window.
It’s a place where you know your neighbor, and you know that really knowing him means understanding what’s your business and what isn’t.
Most Panacans worship together at an LDS church right smack in the center of town. A single market sells snacks and produce. The streets are pocked and rough. Chickens hustle busily in some yards, horses graze in others. Here and there, piles of junk look like they’ve been battered by desert winds for decades. Next to the high school, a massive mint-green rock formation called Court Rock bubbles skyward, named for the way young folks traditionally have “courted” there; on my visit, a condom wrapper stomped into the silty mud at the rock’s foot suggested that’s still the case.
A sign displaying the Ten Commandments guards the town, as if its presence will keep the Devil out. Panaca may have a Nevada zip code, but Lord knows it’s God’s country.
Panaca is the birthplace of John Yeates Barlow, one of the most influential leaders of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — a group that still practices polygamy. LDS folks here are adamant that they would never want to be confused for FLDS, but most don’t mind having them as neighbors.
Mormonism, after all, is what built Panaca, and polygamists historically have had a place in Lincoln County. In the mid-2000s, essentially with the blessing of the FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs, a group that operated a 3,000-acre ranch more than 40 miles north of the town. The Caliente-Panaca area was a special place for Jeffs: At the Caliente Hot Springs Motel, Jeffs reportedly held underage wedding ceremonies at a moment’s notice.
When the FLDS farm sprung up, Sheriff Lee said the group was clear that they didn’t want the police in their business. So he drove up to introduce himself, shook their hands, and assured them they could call if they needed help. They were “good, good people,” he said, who were living under the direction of Jeffs: “A bad guy. A bad man.” (After a conviction on charges of felony rape was reversed by the Utah Supreme Court, Jeffs was sentenced by a Texas court to life in prison for sexually assaulting two followers — age 12 and 15 — in what his church deemed a “spiritual marriage.”)
Living here means looking the other way sometimes. Picking your battles. More than one Panacan told me they wouldn’t want to speculate about why a bombing occurred in their town, but then offered an opinion anyway: A lot of people here think the bomb was simply a loud, messy expression of a workplace grievance between Glenn Jones and Joshua Cluff.
Jones, for years, did live in Panaca, and worked under Joshua Cluff as a nurse at the Grover C. Dils Medical Center in Caliente — just across the highway from the Caliente Hot Springs. Records from the Nevada State Board of Nursing show Jones’s license was revoked after he failed to “document administration or waste” of three separate doses of morphine in a two-month span. Messages left for Grover C. Dils Medical Center staff for this story went unreturned, but in 2016 one administrator told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that Jones left his job there voluntarily and on good terms. Even so, some Panacans think maybe Jones blamed Cluff, and that’s enough explanation for why he bombed him. Sheriff Lee is skeptical of the whole workplace grievance theory. “I don’t think that was a major reason for the bombing,” Lee said.
After leaving his nursing job, Jones moved several hours south to a blue-and-white-striped mobile home in the Zuni Village RV Park in Kingman, Arizona. His camper, parked in Space #69, was at the center of the park, surrounded by homes with mostly graying retired folks.
Upon entering Jones’s RV the day after the explosion in Panaca, bomb technicians found multiple devices, several of which were “fully functional,” one officer wrote in his report. A neighbor told police they’d seen him carrying a large artillery shell into his RV, but Jones was known to buy items like it in the area, restoring and reselling them to other collectors. So most people didn’t bat an eye.
But police accounts paint a picture of a trailer brimming with bomb-making materials: metal containers, fuses, power tools, smokeless powder. Ammo cans were stacked under his dining room table. Even his shower had projectiles inside.
On a nightstand, investigators found three spiral-bound notebooks each with Jones’s name written on the front. Inside one, he had drawn diagrams for a bomb, which gave investigators reason to believe the devices were originally intended for a different target.
“The entries indicated that Glenn Jones had been approached [by] a subject identified as ‘Josh’ who offered to pay him to construct an explosive device,” wrote one detective.
“The intended target of the device was identified on one page as ‘Forth of July BLM Field Office,’” the detective continued. “The journal entries indicate that there was a falling out between Jones and ‘Josh,’ and that Jones instead decided to target ‘Josh’ with his explosive device, or ‘bomb.’
“Jones went on to document that ‘Josh’ is the cousin of LaVoy Finicum and seemed to indicate this was a possible motive for the planned attack on the BLM Field Office.”
In his office, up the road from Panaca in the town of Pioche, Nevada, Sheriff Lee keeps a large chunk of the bomb — one of the pieces the FBI didn’t seize. Just touching a finger to its razor-sharp edges is enough to draw blood. “These bombs were actually bomb artillery shells made to make shrapnel,” he said, “made to kill people.”
At the heart of what little is known about the events in Panaca was the handwritten documentation left behind by the bomber. It makes clear that Jones had an interest in Finicum — one of the central figures in the so-called Patriot movement, a collection of anti-government groups that includes the conspiratorial militia-types and sovereign citizens who flocked to the anti-government standoffs and way of thinking popularized by the Bundy family. Finicum was only ever in the movement at the end of his life, but he became a martyr for it in his death in January 2016, when he was shot and killed by law enforcement. He was fleeing a traffic stop in Oregon during which authorities intended to arrest the leaders of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation.
The car Jones blew up in Panaca was a rental. When police entered the dark green 2007 Saturn Ion that Jones owned, parked in an Avis rental car parking lot, inside they found out more about Jones and Cluff. There was a 2014 contract for a land purchase with both of their names on it and an agreement for Jones to pay Cluff $50,000.
Two years before the bombing, Jones also deposited $9,000 into an interest-bearing bank account that would mature in one year and, ultimately, be payable at the time of his death to one person: Cluff.
Much like in the rest of the U.S., people in Panaca don’t talk much about domestic terrorism these days. They likely have a better reason to talk about it than other Americans, but Panacans explain the bombing away — that what’s important to remember is that some gesture of holy providence saved them that day.
At the town’s only bed and breakfast, the mother of the kid on the bike — the only person to be hit by shrapnel — served me pancakes and eggs in the morning and mentioned she thinks “angels of our ancestors” were watching over the town that day the bomb went off.
Panacans believe their collective faith in God bent the trajectories of shrapnel to miss Wadsworth and his father. That faith kept shards of glass out of eyes, harnessed flames and surging power lines, and kept the Cluff family alive.
If God saved this town, why think about the bad parts of the story anymore — even if there’s never been an official explanation for what happened? Besides, could domestic terrorism really happen in a place like this, where everyone knows everyone else, where every house is a home?
People laugh darkly about the bombing now: The way, a few days later, a lady caught her dog gnawing on an unfamiliar bone and realized his snack was actually human. The way people still find odd remnants and assume they’re pieces of shrapnel. The way dozens of birds, for weeks, pecked away at some of the Chinese elm trees where Jones’s body parts landed.
Every spring, when Richard Katchske plants a line of flowers along his fence, he digs out twisted nobs of shrapnel from the dirt. Katchske showed me a piece, holding a brownish-black gnarl in his palm. I could have it if I wanted. I declined.
“It’ll be a legacy I pass on to my kids,” he laughed.
Last year, when Bundyville came out, I felt satisfied that I’d found the answers I’d come looking for about the Bundy family and the Patriot movement, and I felt I had a sense of their place in America’s long-standing anti-government movement.
The Bundys created flash points members of those movements could rally around: Their very public confrontation in 2014 near their Bunkerville, Nevada, ranch was borne out of long-simmering discontent with how federal agencies have treated rural people in the American West. In the case of the Bundy family, that was combined with specific gripes about how Mormon pioneers, who tried to flee America in the 1800s to create a new homeland, were treated. Then, in the 1950s, those same people in Nevada, Arizona, and Utah were showered with nuclear fallout without any warning from the government. But the 2014 standoff was also based on a conspiracy theory being pushed by the Bundys: that the feds couldn’t actually own land, and that the Bundys were entitled to graze cattle on public land for free.
So by 2014, when Bureau of Land Management agents came to collect on long-unpaid federal grazing fees — racked up by the family patriarch, Cliven Bundy, as his cattle lived on public land without a BLM permit — the family combined forces with anti-government militia groups willing to point guns at those officials. And it worked. They kept their cows. The Patriot movement declared victory. The feds turned tail.
Then, in 2016, when two of Bundy’s sons, Ammon and Ryan, helped lead the 41-day armed takeover of a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon, it was the sequel to Bundy Ranch. Anti-government groups looking to stick a finger (or a gun barrel) in the government’s eye convened in one location, as if to dare the feds to chase them out. They talked about Waco and Ruby Ridge. They said they were ranchers upset over grazing prices and the arrest and conviction of Dwight and Steven Hammond, two Oregon cattlemen who’d gone to prison for setting fire to federal land. But really, it was an event that brought out kitted-up militia guys and kitted-up guys who wanted to look like militia guys, sovereign citizens, jaded veterans, Islamophobes, white supremacists, and fringe politicians out in force.
One of the few actual ranchers who did come to the Bundys’ side at Malheur was Finicum: a 54-year-old Arizona rancher who assumed a leadership role at the Oregon occupation and was killed there. But in his death, the Patriot movement got a new martyr.
Last year, I thought I knew what that meant, how this concept of “Bundyville,” to me, was a state of mind. You believe whatever you want about the world, even if you know very well it isn’t true — as if by thinking this way you will manifest it into existence. And that felt like a way of understanding the deep divides in America right now.
But then, something I didn’t expect happened.
After we released Bundyville, these conspiracy theories I’d heard about in the Patriot movement — ones that were always there, but never central to my reporting on the Bundy family — started popping into the headlines more and more. The Guardian reported that investigators, upon looking into motivations for why Stephen Paddock committed a deadly shooting spree in Las Vegas, encountered stories of his supposed sovereign citizen ideology and a purported belief that FEMA runs concentration camps meant to round up Americans.
Then, in March 2019, a Florida man named Cesar Sayoc Jr. pleaded guilty to mailing 16 explosives to a dozen prominent Democrats and billionaire investor George Soros. Within the Patriot movement, talk about Soros — who has been the target of conspiratorial rhetoric by Trump — was something I’d heard more than once. But now the President of the United States was known for floating conspiracies about Soros. Last fall, he told reporters he “wouldn’t be surprised” if the caravan of migrants approaching the southern border were paid to come to the U.S. He added, “a lot of people say” the migrants were funded by Soros.
Back in 2016, when I covered the Oregon Standoff trial, I spent a lot of time talking to Patriot Movement supporters outside the courthouse. Our conversations, often, would feel normal until, quite suddenly, they’d take a hard turn; conversations about federal overreach would turn to conspiracies about the so-called New World Order, shadowy cabals of “globalist” leaders, implementation of sharia law, and supposed terrorist training camps in the U.S. They told me about Agenda 21 — a United Nations plan of action, which they believed would use sustainable development to redistribute wealth and turn the U.S. into a communist state. They talked about Uranium One, a conspiracy in which Hillary Clinton supposedly sold uranium to Russia in exchange for donations to the Clinton Foundation.
I wrote them all down, but then threw those notepads into a blue Rubbermaid bin in my office and mostly forgot about them.
But those conspiracy theories kept resurfacing. The day after Sayoc was arrested, another conspiracy theorist was in the news: An antisemite named Robert Bowers, who’d been posting to a social media site largely populated by racists, and stands accused of opening fire in a Pittsburgh synagogue, murdering 11 and injuring 7 — motivated by his apparent belief that Jews are “children of Satan” and were to blame for any problems in the United States.
I’d heard things like this before, too, when learning about how Christian Identity — some followers of which believe that Jews are the spawn of Eve and Satan — drove people to form the Posse Comitatus movement, which considered the northwestern United States as a possible outpost for an all-white nation. People like that have found a home, too, within the Patriot movement.
When I asked Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League, about conspiracist thinking, he offered that a conspiracy theory develops as a way of fitting in with someone’s worldview. Or it can explain a dramatic event with an equally dramatic theory. He uses President John F. Kennedy’s assassination — and more than 50 years of conspiracy theories about what occurred that day — as an example of how the psychology functions. “It’s a psychological thing where what actually happened is simply too simple for someone to be satisfied with,” he said. “The idea that one person killed the president is just not satisfactory to some people. For such a big event like that they seek an equally big and complex explanation.”
Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.
Pitcavage sees conspiracy theories as the beating heart of the anti-government movement: “All the main movements in the Patriot movement are dominated by conspiracy theories.”
Suddenly, these ideas I’d scribbled down a few years ago were becoming a key conversation in America, and they gave me a sense of what the fringe edge of the far right was willing to believe. So when the president floated half-baked stories to push his agenda, they were willing to hop on board.
As steam built during the government shutdown in the winter of 2019 around President Trump’s plan to build a border wall along the southern edge of the United States, I felt like I was watching a Patriot movement passion project come to fruition. Trump, by then, was justifying the wall’s construction by telling tall tales that cartels were sending drugs over the border and terrorists were streaming into the country. Even Rep. Will Hurd, a Republican representative from Texas called bullshit.
One of the Bundys seemed to be talking relative sense on this topic. Throughout the past few years I’ve heard the family continually explain their unsubstantiated interpretation of the United States Constitution — and now Ammon Bundy, of all people, was telling his acolytes that Trump’s rhetoric about “the wall” wasn’t real. He called for compassion for people fleeing persecution, poverty, and fear. Trump, he said, “has basically called them all criminals,” and Bundy urged his followers to see that the president was peddling conspiracies.
“What about individuals? What about those who have come for reasons of need for their families?” Bundy asked in a Facebook video. “The fathers, the mothers, and the children that come here and are willing to go through the process to apply for asylum so they can come into this country and benefit from not having to be oppressed continually?” Bundy scoffed that anyone could actually believe migrants had been paid by George Soros.
Some of his followers were outraged. Chatter went around online about Ammon Bundy being “woke.” My head spun. I called Ammon Bundy at his Idaho home as news outlets were breathlessly reporting that Cliven Bundy’s most well-known son had left the militia movement. I, too, was interested. Here he was, dividing himself from a group of people from which he’d so clearly benefited. Suddenly, the most anti-government of his followers needed to choose who to believe: Bundy, a man who had twice led them in confrontations with the feds, or the commander in chief himself, the literal embodiment of the government. Many chose the president. Even if what Trump was saying wasn’t based in reality, he was pushing an anti-immigration stance they could get behind.
Maybe Ammon Bundy realized that and saw it was a good time to bow out. His family was free. The Hammonds — the other ranchers at the center of the Bundy-led Malheur standoff — got a pardon from Trump last summer. Anti–public lands figures cycled in and out of the Department of the Interior. Bundy’s brother, Ryan, ran and lost his bid for Nevada governor, but otherwise, things were coming up Bundy.
Over the phone, Ammon claimed never to have been in the militia movement, and he told me people with fringe ideas have always been the minority of those who come to his family’s side. “Ninety-eight percent probably or better are people that are very peaceful people,” he said. “At Malheur, we considered ourselves to be on the people’s land, and who am I to say [militias] could come or couldn’t come? That makes it difficult to police yourselves.”
So I asked him: OK, what’s next?
“I had a reporter a few months ago come to my house and he said, ‘I hear you’re building a 100-man army. No! It couldn’t be farther from the truth,” he said. “I was like, ‘I don’t know what I would do with an army.’”
Would he make a “hard stand” again?
“I certainly would if there was an individual or family that I felt would benefit from it. But heavens no,” he said without hesitation. He said he’s “not afraid to do what’s right,” but that as far as another standoff is concerned: “I have no desire, I don’t believe that is where change will be made.”Maybe the Bundys are only anti-government when it’s convenient for them. But — and this sounds crazy even to me — I have to hand it to Ammon Bundy for trying to talk some sense into a historically itchy movement, to use his position to call for calm and normalcy.
And that’s why I realized we had to make more Bundyville. We are living in Bundyville. The truth is not winning. The center is not holding. The anti-government is now pro-president. And as I continued to report on the stories that make up this series, blood kept being spilled around the world in the name of conspiracies. In Pittsburgh, in New Zealand, in Southern California.
The president of the United States is floating conspiracy theories shared by the most radical members of the anti-government movement I’ve been reporting on. By February 2019, at a rally, Trump enthusiastically acknowledged the founder and several members of the Oath Keepers — an anti-government militia — who were standing directly behind him in the front row, grinning underneath their signature black-and-yellow logoed hats.
Maybe even Ammon Bundy doesn’t know the true reach of who came to his family’s side, or who they might have emboldened. The Patriot movement has been violent before, and violent people came to the family’s confrontations with the government, but didn’t get a fight.
So what’s to say the Patriots won’t be violent again, especially if — under federal prosecutors’ scrutiny and an opposing House — Democrats try to impeach Donald Trump? What then?
Lincoln County Sheriff Kerry Lee, to this day, has never gotten a closure report from the FBI or an explanation for why Glenn Jones did what he did, and why, in the days and weeks after the 2016 explosion, Joshua Cluff never provided insight either.
The Cluffs were clearly victimized: Their family barely made it out alive, their house was destroyed, their children were traumatized. They don’t even live in Panaca anymore.
When the media tried to speak to him about what happened, Cluff was confrontational — saying reporters were revictimizing his family. When a TV reporter approached, Cluff jumped into a car that drove away. He gave one “angry telephone interview” to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, in which he told reporters that he didn’t have any idea why Jones did what he did: “Do you know why crazy people do crazy things before they do them?” he asked. He told those reporters the FBI “fully exonerated” him, but my multiple requests for clarification from the FBI went unanswered.
In Kingman, Arizona — where Glenn Jones lived at the time of his death — he was as well-liked by the people there as he was in Panaca, remembered for his deference more than anything else. In fact, no one in Panaca said a bad word to me about Jones; though most wouldn’t even say his name. They referred to him as “the suspect” or “the person.” On the other hand, a few people had choice words about Cluff — the victim of the bombing.
Jones “was a quiet unassuming guy. Never gave us any trouble,” said Kevin McCumber, who has managed the Zuni Village RV Park, where Jones lived, for the past five years. “In fact if you were having a bad day, he would come tell you a joke.”
In the days before the bombing, McCumber said, Jones came to his office and made a surprising offer. “There was a gentleman who lived near him who was suffering and was going through chemo. Jones came over and paid this guy’s rent,” he recalled. Jones was clear: If the guy asks, say you don’t know who paid his rent for him.
The Panaca investigation, within hours of the explosion, became the jurisdiction of the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, among other agencies. Soon, even Lee wasn’t sure what to tell people about what happened on his own street. All he had to go on was a severed torso with a strange tattoo and what he read in the newspapers.
And Cluff wasn’t cooperating either. Lee didn’t know Cluff well — but his mind went to an incident years earlier, when he’d asked him, in his capacity at the hospital, to help with an individual who needed medical attention.
For reasons Lee declined to detail, the state needed to intervene, but that enraged Cluff, who made it clear to Lee that he didn’t think the government should make decisions for people — even if they needed help. “I got a little bit of an eye opening about how Josh felt about government overreach,” Lee told me, picking his words carefully.
In the six months between the Oregon standoff and the bombing at his home, Cluff actively posted on Facebook about his support of the Bundy family and shared posts about the death of Finicum, his cousin. The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported Cluff, at one time, shared several posts from anti-government militia groups.
At one point, Cluff changed his profile picture to Finicum’s signature “LV” cattle brand — something that’s worn on bumper stickers and shirts of Patriots and even tattooed on the bodies of some. Cluff was raised in the same town where several members of the Finicum family live: Fredonia, Arizona — a tiny town on the Arizona-Utah border.
Today, the area where Cluff’s house used to be is just an empty lot filled with mud. I walked the whole perimeter of it, stared at it on a cold winter morning thinking some answer to what really happened there would present itself. But all I got were muddy shoes and nervous looks from a guy standing quietly on his porch across the street, watching.
Earlier this year, I reached out to Cluff on Facebook, and asked for an interview. After a couple of messages, Cluff wrote back:
“We are just happy and not trying to dig up the past,” he said.
I typed out a message immediately — that I wasn’t trying to compromise that happiness, but that it seemed like his side of the story hadn’t come out. What, in his mind, was the truth? Why did Glenn Jones have his phone number tattooed on his body? What did the FBI ask him and Tiffany when they interviewed them? And why — if the answer was so clear that Jones was suicidal and crazy — was the investigation still open? I hit send.
But by then, Cluff had blocked me.
The way Sheriff Lee sees it, there are things the federal government could do better. The last time it was measured, in 2010, about 98 percent of his county was federal land — and, because of that, people there brush up against federal agencies more than most Americans. But that’s not to say they’re anti-government — far from it.
But even Lee can partially understand where the Bundys’ arguments about the feds come from: Lee’s dad’s was a rancher, and the way the BLM decides to handle where they can graze their cattle, what water they can drink, can be frustrating. But people work with the BLM to figure out solutions.
“I feel like we get so tied down with government regulation and oversight that we feel like nothing gets done,” he said. But to take up arms? To point guns? To flee from a traffic stop? That’s crazy.
But that’s the confusion of the Patriot movement, he said.
“You have both in the Patriot movement. I feel like I think you have the normal Joe blow guy [that thinks] the government’s way too big,” he told me. “And then I think you have the one that’s like … ‘We shouldn’t even have the government.’”
Cluff was vocal about his views on Facebook — but did that make him a member of the Patriot movement? Was he the “Josh” Jones was referring to in his journals, in the same breath as bombs and blowing up BLM facilities? Why would Cluff go into business with the man who would bomb him — and then write that off to reporters as the work of a crazy person?
In June 2016, just before the bombs detonated at Cluff’s house, a militiaman in LaVoy Finicum’s inner circle, named Bill Keebler, thought he had a bomb on his hands, too. And he thought he got away with destroying a federally owned BLM building, far out in the Arizona desert.
I asked Sheriff Lee about this — how three weeks before Cluff’s home blew up, Keebler believed he had bombed a federal property. “Two bombs go off in the same summer,” I said. “It seems kind of strange.”
Lee leaned back far in his chair and smiled. “Makes a person think doesn’t it?” he said, hands behind his head. “That’s all I really can say is it makes a person think.”
Leah Sottile is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in theWashington Post, Playboy, California Sunday Magazine, Outside, The Atlantic and Vice.
Special thanks to everyone at Oregon Public Broadcasting.