Leah Sottile | Longreads | July 2019 | 25 minutes (6,186 words)
Bill Keebler dumps a sugar packet into his coffee and calmly explains that the government is after him. They’re always watching him — constantly surveilling his every move, he says. He’s even at risk here, inside a Denny’s attached to a Flying J truck stop, about a half hour outside Salt Lake City.
He’s also pretty sure that Bundyville producer Ryan Haas and I are federal agents, posing as journalists. “I’m gonna be honest with you, it wouldn’t surprise me if both of you pulled out a badge,” he says.
Just after 4 p.m. on a frigid February day, Keebler, 60, shuffles toward the back corner table we’d staked out for the interview. He’s about a half hour late, uttering his deepest apologies for getting the time wrong. He’s never late, he says.
Keebler is a raspy-voiced Southerner with skin that looks brittle from working in the sun all his life as a horse wrangler, ranch hand, hunting outfitter, and construction worker. At Denny’s he’s wearing a sandstone-colored canvas work jacket, and his hair sprouts from underneath a khaki Oath Keepers hat, which covers a shiny bald spot on the top of his head. He smokes a lot. Drinks a lot of coffee.
On the phone a few days before, I told him that I’d read the court documents for his case and was surprised by what I saw. I wanted to hear his version of what happened in June 2016 on the day three years before when Keebler believed he was detonating a bomb at a building owned by the Bureau of Land Management, only to find that the bomb was a fake given to him by undercover FBI agents embedded in his militia group.
The bombing itself was shocking. But the part that surprised me at the time was that, despite having pleaded guilty, serving 25 months in jail, and being released on probation, most of his case was still under federal protective order. Keebler’s attorney told me he’s not allowed to say why. I’m at the Denny’s hoping Keebler might be willing to tell me anyway.
In reading about what happened that day in the desert with the bomb, I learned — through the few court documents available — that Keebler was close friends with LaVoy Finicum. He’s the rancher who was a leader at the Malheur occupation, in Oregon, and was shot and killed by authorities after fleeing from a traffic stop.
But before we can talk about that, we’ve got to calm him down. He nudges his head in the direction of a young waiter, walking in a loop around by our table. Under his breath, Keebler says, “We’re being watched.”
“Right now?” I ask.
“A fed or an informant,” Keebler says.
Haas asks if he means the Denny’s server, who’s walking by to see if we need any refills on coffee. That’s the guy, Keebler says.
If there’s so much at risk, why meet us? Why tell your story?
“Because if I don’t it’s going to die with me,” he says. “I’ve been on borrowed time for years.” He says he survived cancer, a massive heart attack, and “four heart procedures, looking at a fifth.” That’s not to mention the other stuff — things much harder to believe but that Keebler swears up and down are real, like the federally organized hits on him by the gang MS-13 while he was behind bars.
So I assure him: I’m not a fed. Google me. And I tell him he’s in control of what he says. If I ask something he doesn’t want to answer, something he thinks might get him in trouble, he doesn’t need to respond. He agrees, and for three hours, Bill Keebler gives his side of what happened leading up to that day in the desert with the bomb — a version of the story in which he is the hero, the government is the enemy, and where America is so rapidly nearing its demise, he can almost taste it.
In the three years since the Bundys mobilized a force to take over the Malheur National Wildlife refuge in Oregon, the world has morphed in ways I couldn’t have imagined. For one thing, Donald Trump became the president of the United States. He has increased his attacks on media, stepping up from calling the very newspapers I write for “fake news,” to neglecting to hold the Saudi Arabian government accountable for putting into motion the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
In June 2019, Trump — in a meeting at the G20 Summit — laughed with Russian president Vladimir Putin about journalists. “Get rid of them,” he said. “Fake news is a great term, isn’t it? You don’t have this problem in Russia. We have that problem.” And Putin responded: “Yes, yes. We have it, too. It’s the same.” They both laughed.
Oft-cited research collected by the Southern Poverty Law Center has shown that since 1996, anti-government activity surged when Democratic presidents were in office. Militia groups that claimed to see proof of tyranny thrived in the 1990s — specifically when Vicki Weaver and her teenage son were killed during a standoff with federal agents at Ruby Ridge in 1992, and when the feds stormed into the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, in 1993.
In President Obama, the anti-government movement saw the embodiment of tyranny: someone upon whom they could project their worst fears. They called him a socialist globalist Muslim who, after ascending to the highest seat of power, would bring Sharia law upon the people. There was no proof or evidence to support this. But that didn’t matter to them.
Under Trump, suddenly, anti-government groups are pro-government. Nearly everything about Trump’s rhetoric — from questioning Obama’s nationality, to draining the swamp of elites, to building a border wall, to pushing for anti-Muslim legislation, to zealous nationalism — is lifted from the anti-government handbook.
“It blows my mind. The Patriot militia movement, anti-government movement — however you want to refer to them — under Obama was so concerned about tyranny and executive power … and yet they’ve been some of the most vocal advocates for Trump unilaterally grabbing and exerting executive branch power,” said Sam Jackson, an assistant professor in the College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security, and Cybersecurity at the University at Albany-SUNY. Jackson researches the militia movement — he wrote his dissertation on the Oath Keepers.
“If Obama had talked about declaring a national emergency … they would have been up in arms in a heartbeat,” he said.
So what gives? How do the anti-government go pro-government?
“It makes it really hard to take them at their word,” Jackson told me. “It really makes it seem like all of that was just rhetoric that they deployed in pursuit of other goals that perhaps they perceived would be less popular amongst the American public — whether that’s Islamophobia or anti-immigration or whatever else they’re really interested in. It seems like perhaps now they’re willing to talk about these other things more blatantly than they were in the past.”
Bill Keebler tells us he was born in Mississippi and grew up in Georgia the descendant of a long line of military veterans. During the Cold War in the early 1980s, Keebler says he enlisted in the Army and served in Aschaffenburg, Germany. There, he says, he was on the frontlines of the fight against communism. And it was also during this time — he claims — that he placed third in the 1984 World Championships in Kung Fu.
It’s clear that he’s not the guy he used to be — or at least that the person I’m seeing before me at Denny’s isn’t the fighter he is in his head. Keebler claims that, after winning that championship, he created his own style of martial arts, called “Jung Shin Wu Kung Fu” before a “board of masters,” but the Bundyville team wasn’t able to confirm this.
After years of working on farms and ranches, Keebler found himself in Utah — far, far from home — where he worked as a hunting outfitter, trained horses, and says he became a member of the Utah Oath Keepers. Around Tooele County, Utah, he was so well-known as an ardent prepper and varmint hunter that the Salt Lake Tribune ran a story on his coyote hunting skills. In one scene in the story, Keebler crouches in underbrush and wears camouflage that’s been drenched in coyote-urine scent.
In 2011, he was running a hunting outfitting business called Critter Gitter Outfitters and often posted photos on social media of his excursions into the wild. In one, a muscled, tanned Keebler poses with a baby deer he’d rescued.
Keebler spends a lot of time on the internet — has for years. Online, Keebler makes lots of dad jokes and even more jokes where a woman’s demise is the punchline. In one video he shared on his Facebook page, a blond woman in a white robe pleads with her husband until he hands her the keys of a black SUV with an oversize bow on the hood. When she starts the car, it explodes, the man smiles, and the words Merry Christmas, Bitch fill the screen.
By 2013, Facebook had become a place for Keebler to vent about Obama — “I call him O-bummer,” he told me during one phone call — where he openly shared his belief in an encyclopedic number of conspiracy theories. “FEMA camps are everywhere, Muslims and illegals are taking over, Obama is the biggest Traitor this country has ever known, No Jobs, 16 trillion in [debt] and no relief in sight,” he wrote one February morning. “Anyone protesting Obama is assassinated and turned into a monster by our own media.”
None of this is true — his sources are websites that are notorious for generating fake content. His words dipped in and out of coherence, in and out of overt racism. “Our jobs have all gone over seas to other country’s as they get Fat off our money and we send them aid, weapons and anything else they desire for free. Jets, food what ever they want because we OWE it to them somehow,” he wrote in one such post. “I have been patient, tolerant and offended too much for any more. I am an American, have lived as I will die as my ancestors did, As A FREE MAN. I speak fucking English and you can press 1 and kiss my ass ya muslim, communist Jackasses! If this offends you then I have succeeded in my intentions.”
He signed off on another post: “Stay safe, armed to the teeth, prepared and with God. Bill Keebler.”
Later that month, he wrote that “Someday SOON chit is gonna happen and this country will l;iterally EXPLODE, and when it does it will be a very messy situation… soon BOOM, we will explode. Hope you are prepared.”
By spring 2014, Keebler seemed to have a new personality altogether. He wrote near-constantly about what to do when SHTF (prepper-speak for “shit hits the fan”). He signed his posts “th3hunt3r.” He breathed in false information about the Bureau of Land Management killing endangered species and exhaled posts about the hypocrisy of not letting Cliven Bundy graze his cattle.
Much has been written about the algorithms employed by sites like YouTube, which keeps users on the site — generating more and more advertising dollars — by directing them toward more extreme content. Reporters and analysts often reflect on how this affects young people. But the algorithmic drive toward extreme content has taken hold with a much older generation, too, with guys like Keebler. Online, they can fantasize about who they’ll be when the end finally comes. They water their ignorance and hatred at an online trough with others who think just like them.
In April 2014, Keebler sprung into action after seeing a video on Facebook of a confrontation between Bureau of Land Management agents and protesters who’d assembled at the Bundys’ side — that video I mentioned way back at the beginning of this story, of Ammon Bundy being tased in the midst of a chaotic confrontation. Keebler loaded up his camper and drove several hours south to Bunkerville, Nevada, where he says he set up a mess hall and provided supplies.
“Well, I made it to the ranch, all is well, getting settled in, been intersting so far, and I aint shot no one, YET! lol” he wrote on his Facebook page on April 10 after he arrived.
Once there, Keebler solicited money online to help pay for supplies. He claims he kept hot tempers under control.
“I stopped some people wanted to shoot people,” he says to me at the truck stop. “One of them got mad about it and put a gun in my face. He wanted to start the war. … He said, ‘I’m gonna fire a shot just to get it started.’ … Things were that close. Volatile.”
Keebler also takes credit for ejecting Jerad and Amanda Miller — who would go on to murder two police officers in Las Vegas and die in the midst of a shoot-out with officers inside a Walmart. He claims that if it wasn’t for him, Bundy Ranch would have been a bloodbath. Less than a year later — according to Keebler’s defense attorney’s presentencing memo — an undercover FBI agent was embedded in Keebler’s own militia and then began to regularly talk about stepping into action, about blowing up federal agents and federal properties, and scouting a mosque as a potential target alongside Keebler.
And yet, Keebler never kicked that guy out.
After the militias assisted in preventing the BLM from seizing the Bundy family’s cattle, Keebler left feeling excited about the movement. He lived on Bundy Ranch for about two weeks. “To me it was one of the biggest events in this country … short of the Boston Tea Party,” he says. “It was a wake-up call.”
“After the standoff and everything, we had momentum,” he says, offering his mug to the waiter for a refill. “It started because Cliven Bundy, but we started a movement that had the potential to be tenfold what it was.”
When he came back home to Utah, he quit the Oath Keepers. He proudly recounts a story about trading heated words at Bunkerville with the group’s founder, Stewart Rhodes. Keebler claims he asked whether Rhodes would accept “radical Islamic Muslims” into the group; Rhodes said the Oath Keepers doesn’t discriminate. Back at home, he started his own militia: Patriots Defense Force (PDF).
At the height of its membership, PDF had just seven members including Keebler. They held “field training exercises” where they’d shoot targets. They’d talk about raising “backyard meat rabbits” and chickens, and living off-grid. Mostly, they were a bunch of preppers.
But before PDF was even formed — even had a name — the FBI began to monitor him, according to court documents submitted by Keebler’s defense team. They began immediately upon his return home from Bundy Ranch. The Bureau eventually embedded three confidential informants in his militia and three undercover agents, including two men who went by the names Brad Miller and Jake Davis. Miller and Davis — people Keebler believed to be other God-loving Patriots — were sworn into PDF in May 2015. Excluding Keebler, the FBI agents, and informants, there were — at most — three members of PDF.
According to the defense, one informant was paid $60,000 for his undercover work inside the militia. The stories the FBI agents gave to Keebler must have seemed like he found a gold mine: Davis told stories of his expertise in hand-to-hand combat; Miller positioned himself as an expert in mining and explosives. Another FBI agent played the part of a successful business guy interested in funding a militia.
Unlike all the other times Keebler imagined the government conspiring to snoop on him, this time they actually were — but he was so focused on the “deep state” that he didn’t seem to notice what was happening right in front of his face.
As the FBI surveilled Keebler, he frequently spoke about martial law. “Under marshal [sic] law, Mr. Keebler expected the federal government to turn against the people…” His attorney wrote in his sentencing memo, “He envisioned house-to-house gun confiscations and the government putting ‘undesirable’ and ‘unsalvageable’ people in FEMA camps.”
By fall 2015, Keebler was meeting with LaVoy Finicum. Finicum, too, had been excited by what he had encountered at Bundy Ranch: a group of citizens who believed in Cliven Bundy’s conspiracy theories about the federal government coming to get him.
Finicum, after seeing Cliven Bundy successfully get away with shirking his grazing costs, had recently violated the terms of his own BLM grazing permit — accruing fines for grazing his cattle out of season. Finicum spoke to Keebler about fortifying his property in case of a situation like Bundy Ranch — or maybe even Ruby Ridge or Waco.
“At the Bundy’s we got there after the fact. If we knew it was coming, we could be there prepared,” Keebler says. Finicum was expecting the same. He’d stopped paying his grazing fees after going to Bundy Ranch and assumed the BLM would come get him, too. “We were going to stop them from taking the cattle,” he says. “Now I don’t mean ambush assault and kill and shoot. None of that crap.”
Keebler walks Haas and I through the plan: When the BLM came in, apparently the group planned to dig out the road the agents came in on with a backhoe — making it impossible for them to leave. Miller pushed for the group to instead explode the road, he says. Keebler said that was crazy, and the two traded words over it.
The group, without Finicum, drove toward Mt. Trumbull, where the government says Keebler got his first view of a building owned by the BLM — the remote property that, months later, he aimed to destroy with a bomb.
Over the course of our interview, Keebler mentioned several arguments with Miller. But he always let him stay.
If he was so extreme, such a loose cannon, I had to wonder, why keep him?
Because Miller, Keebler says, paid for gas to go to Arizona to meet with Finicum, and Keebler alleges, even to Washington State for a secret ceremony in which he was inducted into a Coalition of Western States militia by Washington state representative Matt Shea.
According to Keebler and his attorneys, federal agents were basically bankrolling his militia. And the way Keebler sees it, those same federal agents forced him to blow up a government building.
“The FBI covered Mr. Keebler’s expenses on many similar trips. The FBI also made repeated and timely donations to … keep it (and Mr. Keebler) afloat,” defense attorneys wrote. “In the end, Mr. Keebler did exactly what he was induced to do: he picked a target and ‘went on the offense.’”
“They were hell-bent determined to do something, and I guess I kind of let it get in my head,” Keebler says. “Maybe if we did something to kind of let them know that it’s kind of like a warning signal.”
Central to the Patriot movement are many, many theories about people its members believe are involved in a vast conspiracy against the American people. In my reporting, the most common names that came up in Patriot conspiracies (aside from Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama) were BLM agent Dan Love, who led the Bunkerville round-up at Bundy Ranch in 2014, and Greg Bretzing, who was the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Oregon office during the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
After the events at Malheur, Bretzing retired from the FBI, and he now works in security, safety, and corporate affairs for a private company that builds barges and railroad cars. “So, are you plotting a conspiracy with Dan Love against the Patriot movement?” I ask him one morning last winter, sitting in his office.
Bretzing laughs. “No, no. I do know Dan Love.”
Bretzing worked for the FBI for 22 years, for much of that time on terrorism cases, both international and domestic. I want to know how the FBI views and defines international extremist groups differently than domestic ones. The biggest difference, according to Bretzing, is the law.
“There’s clear statutes against violent acts for political purposes or to overthrow a government,” he tells me. The FBI has squads devoted to domestic terrorism — but Bretzing said membership in any group isn’t what will get the feds on your trail.
“Anybody’s political beliefs, religious beliefs, First Amendment rights — none of that is an issue,” he says. “You can be a member of any group you want to be, and it can be a pro anything or an anti anything group. That’s fine. It’s when those groups then take steps to commit violent acts or to break the law or to defraud — that is when the FBI or other law enforcement starts to look at them.”
Someone has to break the law — or look like they’re going to break the law — to get the attention of the FBI. Bretzing is clear: The FBI does not go on fishing expeditions of people it doesn’t like.
I tell Bretzing about the Keebler case; it didn’t ring a bell. But when I tell him more about it, he says it reminds him of a notorious 2010 case in Portland involving the would-be “Christmas tree bomber.” In that case, a young man named Mohamed Mohamud believed he was detonating a bomb that would have caused large-scale fatalities of civilians attending the city’s annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony in the center of the city.
When Mohamud attempted, twice, to ignite the bomb — which was provided by an undercover agent — it didn’t go off. He was arrested immediately. Mohamud’s attorney argued his client was entrapped. Prosecutors argued the violent religious extremist ideology was already in place; they were preventing him from acting on it. He was convicted in 2013 for attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction and sent to prison for 30 years.
“Having undercover agents inside is important to both effectively gather the evidence and to ensure that nothing violent actually does take place,” Bretzing tells me. “If you look at the tapes on Mohamed Mohamud, many, many, many times the undercover agents say, ‘We don’t have to do this. This is not something that has to be done, we can put it off … Are you sure you want to do this?’ Constantly ensuring that this is something that the individual is pushing, not the government. But the reason it’s important to have an agent inside is if an agent wasn’t there with this individual, then [they would] be taking these steps on their own.
“The public would rightfully be unhappy if then a violent act occurs and we didn’t do all we could do to stop it,” he says.
But, how can law enforcement agencies be so sure people will go on to commit acts of violence? And what’s the right way to go after domestic terrorists?
I ask Karen Greenberg, the director of Fordham Law School’s Center on National Security these questions. For years, she’s been examining cases that show an intersection of national security, policy, human rights, and civil liberties issues.
Greenberg is extremely cautious of creating overarching laws that target domestic terrorists. “Washington is looking for is a domestic terrorism statute — that will be a federal one, which we don’t have. We have one for international terrorism, and it’s quite broad in its application,” she tells me. “Part of the reason is they want to be able to have greater surveillance powers.”
To apply that to domestic terrorism cases, she feels, is “a very dangerous road.”
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I call up Michael German to get his perspective. He’s a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice now, but in the 1990s, he was an undercover FBI agent inside militia groups in Southern California and the Pacific Northwest. I want to get a sense from someone who’s been undercover why the feds might home in on a guy like Keebler.
German says that in the years after 9/11, successive attorneys general amended guidelines that gave the feds greater flexibility. They were allowed to open investigations into people they might not have bothered with in previous years. They might look into a guy like Keebler even if they weren’t sure he was committing any crimes. That sounds like the opposite of what Bretzing told me, I say.
“It sounds like from what you’re telling me after 2002 and after 2008 it became maybe a little bit more permissive to go on fishing expeditions of people that you don’t ideologically agree with,” I say to him.
“Right,” he says. FBI agents want to believe they don’t do that, “but clearly evidence shows the opposite.” German rattles off a list of cases and explains to me, “There was a case in Southern California where an FBI informant eventually got sideways with the FBI and came forward acknowledging that he had been directed to probably target Muslim communities in Southern California.” The agent “used listening devices to record people’s conversation when there was no suggestion they were actually involved in any kind of criminal activity,” he says. “So the difference is now that’s allowed.”
German says the FBI doesn’t need an indicator of criminal activity anymore in order to watch a person. All they had to show was that an individual needed to be watched because they fit into the parameters of an established FBI’s mission to stop terrorism. That is, maybe they could commit a terroristic act someday in the future.
“They have continued using that tactic and initially it was mostly used against Muslims but has broadened out because it’s a successful tactic as far as the FBI is concerned,” he says. “My concern with that is you’re targeting the lowest-hanging fruit.”
“I know from my own investigations that there are actually people out there plotting serious attacks who have obtained weapons, who have recruited people who have violent pasts, who are willing to commit violent crimes,” German adds. “Why we’re focusing on people who were so incapable and using the resources of the government to improve their capability of doing harm, rather than focusing on people who are engaging in violence, it’s hard for me to understand that that’s a legitimate use of government resources.”
For years, Greenberg has kept a close eye on international terror cases unfolding in U.S. courts, often with elements that feel similar to Keebler’s: A person believed to be associated with al-Qaeda is surrounded by informants and undercover agents, and the person of interest is given a bomb to ignite in the name of an international terror group.
“So the FBI’s defense on this, and it’s worth thinking about, is ‘Look, I could have been al-Qaeda. I could have been an al-Qaeda operative trained and on-message. … If I could get him to do it, don’t you think an al-Qaeda guy could have gotten him to do it?’ And it works with a jury. It works. Because they say to the jury, ‘Would you have said yes to this guy?’”
In February 2016, one month after Finicum was shot by authorities after fleeing the traffic stop in Oregon, the members of Patriots Defense Force met at a Carl’s Jr. near Keebler’s home. One way this meeting had been viewed was as a planning session for the group’s next steps — ones that could have potentially led to violence.
Put another way, entirely: Keebler’s defense attorney framed this as a meeting at a fast food restaurant with two FBI agents — one of whom taunted him as a coward and pushed him toward action — and a government informant.
According to court documents, at that meeting Miller mocked Keebler, saying that the Patriots and PDF were just a group of “Facebook fuckin’ Nazis” who have a lot to say on the internet, but never take action in real life.
Keebler, in response, suggested the group do some reconnaissance of potential targets in Salt Lake City. Miller — who, don’t forget, was there as an undercover FBI agent — suggested targeting Muslims. According to his attorney, Keebler told Miller he didn’t know how to find any. Miller then offered to google a mosque, and the group drove there in two cars.
Keebler says that once outside the mosque, agents asked him why he wouldn’t bomb it. Keebler claims he pointed to the buildings around it. “I said, ‘I’ll tell you why you can’t. You see that big-ass building behind you over your left shoulder?’” he recalls. “I said, ‘That’s one reason you can’t. You’re never getting out of this place. Second: Look at the terrain.’
“People were walking around coming in and outside, and started playing basketball. And I said, ‘You see that? Those are kids. There’s women and children playing basketball and shit.’ Like, y’all have lost it.”
So, the group moved on. The caravan drove past an FBI building and a Bureau of Land Management office. Miller suggested that they send a mail bomb to it, or use a truck bomb to blow it up. Keebler, again, resisted — and the recon mission ended.
Around this point, even Davis, the other undercover agent, was unsure about the tactics he and Miller were using with Keebler. In text messages presented in court by Keebler’s defense, Davis wrote to his handler, Steve Daniels: “So I was thinking on the drive home. I hope we didn’t open Pandora’s box in a way by taking [Keebler] to a mosque he might not have found on his own. With the case winding down on our end I am worried about our liability if he happens to go back sometime on his own.”
In another message, Davis wrote to Daniels: “I’m all for pushing him, but we can’t sound more radical to him.” Davis expressed concern that it seemed like he and Miller would be leading the recon mission: “To me, that’s what it sounds like we are doing,” he texted.
In another text, Davis noted that pushing Keebler was “grinding” on him. “I wanted to push [Keebler] outside his comfort zone to take his temperature, not lead him to something,” he wrote. “I am not down with giving him all the ideas like when [Miller] told him that we would have to mail a bomb to the BLM office … or drive a car bomb up to it. We can’t be putting crazy ideas into a crazy guy’s head.”
Daniels said he’d listen to the recordings. “I haven’t got the mail bomb stuff. (Yikes),” he wrote.
If it sounds like Bill Keebler was pushed to an act of domestic terrorism by the government itself, that’s certainly what defense intimated during court proceedings. And I tried to get the government’s side of this — filing a FOIA request for the full context of these text messages. But after half a year of waiting for those documents, I still haven’t gotten a response. So I’m stuck with what Keebler tells me, sipping his coffee as he worries our waiter is watching him.
After 26 months of surveilling Keebler, he was handed an improvised explosive device by one of those undercover officers — the same one who said he had an explosives background — and a detonator. Together with the agents, they made the long drive from Keebler’s Utah home, several hours south in the rough desert of Northern Arizona, to an empty BLM building.
Arguably, along the way, Keebler had plenty of opportunities to say stop, turn around, let’s not do this, I can’t. But he didn’t. And when the bomb was placed at the building near Mt. Trumbull by the undercover agent — near where the Bundy’s ancestors once tried to make a home — Keebler’s finger was the only one on the button.
Court documents show differing views on what Keebler was willing to do if people were inside the building. In sworn testimony, Daniels told the court that Keebler and Miller discussed what to do if BLM officers were inside, and Keebler “made a comment of: ‘fuck ‘em.’”
He hit the button three times. An explosion went off, but Keebler was too far away to see that his “bomb” was actually a fake, and the sound he heard was a concussion grenade deployed by the FBI. His lawyer called his intent to destroy the place a “serious property crime.” The government called it a bombing.
I ask Keebler what the federal government, ideally, would look like to him. After Bundy Ranch, what did he decide he’d like to see change?
He says not only does he want the federal government to stay out of the business of individual states, he wants it to be purged of the people he believes are ruining the country. The “deep state,” he says.
“Everybody knows they’ve outlawed prayer in school,” he says. “You can’t do the Pledge of Allegiance in our schools, but now we got Muslims praying in the hallways in our schools and in our classrooms, and teachers are now making kids dress up like Muslims. And —”
“Where is this happening?” I stop him.
“A number of places. Yeah. They have taken over whole cities.
“They want to stop prayer, they want to stop all the American stuff. The Boy Scouts and everything. Make it Islam. They’re out there on the streets right now with hundreds of them bowing, they’ve shut down whole roads, and the cops are standing over them making sure nobody interrupts them. Are you serious? It’s what Bradley tanks are for. You get about 50 rednecks with four-wheel-drive pickups and we’ll end that problem.”
Keebler is advocating for something that sounds like intimidation at best, and slaughtering Muslims in the streets of America at the worst. And it’s all informed by his conspiratorial worldview. Maybe this is the kind of talk that brought the FBI to him.
“They have their own cops now,” he says. They’re arresting Christians, he says, and I’m shaking my head at him. It’s on the internet, he says. “You need to do your homework.”
“Do you think the federal government is involved in that?” Haas, my producer, asks.
None of this is based in fact, but that doesn’t matter to Keebler. “I know damn well they are,” he says defiantly.
It should be no shock at this point to tell you that Keebler is an ardent Donald Trump supporter. He loves him.
“Obama’s not even a black. He’s not African American, he’s Muslim — Kenya or some shit,” Keebler says. “The agreement that they put him in as the president is that he would make way for more Muslims to be up again in the United States. That’s what’s actually come out recently.”
“But who says that?” I press him.
“One of the news — some reporter somewhere,” he says.
“Soros is financing a lot of it,” Keebler says, calmly, like this is a normal thing to believe and I’m thinking, again, about how people can pick ideas like these up from Trump now.
It seems like this is what happens when conspiracies become the language the powerful use to communicate to disenfranchised people aching for a target — an explanation and a reason — for their discontent.
“A lot of this is about the New World Order. Look at the pedophilia going on right now. … It’s all over the internet.” Keebler looks from Haas to me and back again, shocked at our ignorance.
“I can’t believe y’all don’t know none of this stuff,” he says.
But what would be the point of “knowing” something that isn’t real?
Before we leave Keebler, I ask him about the bylaws of Patriots Defense Force — which were presented as evidence against him in his case.
I was particularly drawn to the “alert levels” that spell out how members should react in various stages of emergencies. In the worst-case scenario — a level 5 or “black” situation — the bylaws tell militia members to prepare for the absolute worst: “Get gear, family and haul ass to pre-arranged rendezvous point, or bunker down,” it reads. “THE BALLOON HAS GONE UP!”
“What is the shit hits the fan scenario?” I ask.
“During the Obama administration,” he says, “if he calls martial law I’m not gonna wait till he comes to my town. It’s too late. That would have been a shit hit the fan.”
“So what’s the difference now?”
“I think if Trump declares martial law, it would be in a more controlled manner. He’s not coming after Patriots. He’s not coming after militia,” he says.
“Do you mean he’s not coming after white people?” I ask.
“No. No, see there you go pushing the racist bullshit,” he says, despite the fact that, for two hours, he’s been talking about Muslims in the most hateful terms I’ve ever heard in an in-person conversation.
“What do you think happens if the Democrats impeach Trump or some kind of charges are brought?” he asks us. “What do you think happens? It’s over. All bets are off,” says Keebler.
“What does that mean?” Haas asks him.
“All bets are off,” he smiles. “Take that for what it’s worth. People are wanting retaliation. They want revenge, they want payback for a lot of things. This abortion crap. What happened to LaVoy. What is happening to our children. What has happened to our streets. What is happening in our schools. People want retribution.”
Bill Keebler says he’s never even heard of Panaca, Nevada. Never heard of a Jones, or a Cluff or another bomb in the desert the summer he tried to bomb the BLM building. I’ve learned tons about the Patriots from talking to him, but nothing more about Panaca.
We spend the next week driving through the mountains, through deserts, through towns built by polygamists and pioneers. I see the appeal of life out here. Of disappearing into the wild and forgetting about the rest of the world.
But no matter how many times I use my job as an excuse to disappear into parts of the West I wouldn’t otherwise go to, I always end up feeling a sense of relief when I’m back, sitting in traffic in a city again.
I’m thinking of Keebler the next day, at the TSA checkpoint inside McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas. Where people say goodbye to their family members and start to weave through a long, snaking line, there’s a man who looks as rumpled as Keebler — but isn’t white — seated with three police officers standing around him.
It’s a busy Sunday, there are people and kids waiting in line, watching this scene. Things seem calm, albeit weird. And then the man raises his voice. I’m close enough to hear him yell something about the Constitution, about liberty. And the officers stand him up and restrain his wrists behind his back, then lead him away. The line slithers on.
But something’s different. At the front of the line a TSA agent barks orders: Stand side by side. Walk slowly. As we progress two by two, a thick black dog led by a Homeland Security agent sniffs everyone in a circle. I hear the guy being led away shout something about “We, the People.”
The orders continue. Show your ID. Put it away. Shoes off? No, shoes on. Take out your laptops. Use two bins for all your stuff. Stop. Walk. Wait.
It’s a language we all seem to speak in a dialect that’s always changing, for reasons we don’t know — but what we understand is that this language doesn’t include the words that guy was saying. Or, what he is now likely still saying somewhere else in this airport, in a secret place or room we also know, but don’t really.
I think about Keebler, how I could see him in that same situation here, and how he’s been called a terrorist, and yet still, there’s all these things we don’t know about the government’s role in his story. His case is sealed tight. Why are they keeping it so opaque?
I’m still not convinced a guy like Keebler really could carry out an elaborate bomb plot without ample help. But even so, there’s one thing in court documents that I kept coming back to: that in the hours after Keebler believed he detonated a bomb, as he drove back to Utah, amped up on what he’d just done, he offered a declaration. According to the government, Keebler said after the bombing, “This isn’t about LaVoy, it’s what he stood for.”
In Panaca, police reports said Jones mentioned LaVoy Finicum in the same breath as his bomb. And now here, with Keebler, there he is again.
All these years later, the ghost of LaVoy Finicum continues to push the Patriot movement forward. And yet all this time I’ve been reporting on this movement, I know so little about him. He was the guy who was killed by police, who no one heard hide nor hair of before Bundy Ranch. But what did he actually believe and why is it so persuasive?
I can understand how people who have questions, who never get answers, form their own explanations. How out here in the West, so far from where the decisions are made about how this society works, people can’t figure out how to access the information they need. Everything about Keebler’s case feels Orwellian. He’s a racist, and it’s easy to write him off. But I see now how writing him off means patrolling what he thinks, and that policing certain thoughts — no matter how gross — means a denial of certain rights.
At the airport, I don’t ask questions about which of my liberties are being violated when I go through the security line. I don’t scream and shout about the Constitution when I’m loading my laptop into the bin. Or when I take off my shoes. Or when I put my hands above my head in a machine that seems to suggest it can see through me for things maybe even I don’t know are there.
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.