Leah Sottile | Longreads | July 2019 | 45 minutes (9,790 words)
Stella Anne Bulla was born in November 1949 in Asheboro, North Carolina to Dorothy Ann Lemon and Brinford Bulla, a man who served in the Navy and worked for the federal government as a postal employee most of his life. Stella — who, at some point, preferred to be called by her middle name, Anne — was one of five children: brothers, Artis, John and Brad, and a sister, Cara. The children were raised devout Southern Baptists, attending church meetings once during the week, and twice on weekends. Anne wanted to grow up one day and live in a place where she could ride horses.
By high school, Anne adhered to the “higher the hair, the closer to God” school of thought: Where other girls of Grimsley High School smiled with youthful innocence from photos, Anne grinned knowingly, hair teased high and wide into a flipped bouffant.
Later, Anne met a man named Barry Byrd, and the two married, had a daughter, and moved to Stevens County, Washington in 1973, after Barry got out of the Air Force. He took a job in a Colville body shop — finally starting his own in the tiny town of Northport. The Byrds started a band called Legacy. Anne’s brother, Brad Bulla, joined them, playing mandolin, lead guitar, and banjo along with the Byrds’ vocals. The group released two records: Sons of the Republic and, in 1984, Judah’s Advance — which were sold via mail order by Christian Identity groups as far away as Australia. “Legacy is unique in that their music is designed with the Israel Identity image, and is an excellent way to introduce the subject to thousands of people,” the Australian group wrote in a newsletter.
The Judah’s Advance cover features a drawing of a ship bearing down on a rocky coastline, where a stone tablet engraved with the Ten Commandments sat amongst a pile of rocks that had fallen from the sky. In the center, an American flag — bearing just 13 stars and the number 76 — whips in the wind.
On Judah’s Advance, Dan Henry, the pastor at The Ark — the Christian Identity church where Byrds worshipped, but that has also helped produce violent acolytes — read a line of scripture, and the band thanked him in the credits. The producer for the album, they said, was YAHWEH.
The back of the album is even more Christian Identity than the front. Alongside a photograph of the grinning musicians, the band lays out its beliefs: “Our forefathers understood that the establishment of this country was the fulfillment of the prophecy concerning the re-gathering of the nation of Israel,” it explains. The savior, the band writes, was a descendant of the “Judahites”, while “the true children of Israel,” after being freed from captivity, migrated westward, settling in “Scotland, Ireland, Britain and every other Christian, Anglo-Saxon nation in the world today.”
It reads like the liner notes to a Christian Identity concept album, and it made Legacy a popular feature on the Christian Identity and white supremacist conference touring circuit. In 1986, the band played the Northwest Freedom Rally in Richland, Washington alongside a bill of racist speakers. And from 1987 to 1989, the group reportedly traveled yearly to Colorado to play Pete Peters’ Rocky Mountain Bible Camps. Peters had been a guest at The Ark and the Aryan Nations, lecturing on the end of the world, and his hatred for Jews and homosexuals.
But Legacy was more than a band providing musical accompaniment to racists: In 1988, Barry Byrd and his brother-in-law and Legacy bandmate, Brad, were two of just 15 men who deliberated for about a week about their beliefs, and authored a document entitled “Remnant Resolves.”
The document elaborates that the men felt a “spiritual burden”: “This burden was the need and desire to see Biblical principles of government once again established in our nation,” it reads. The men agreed that if they could not come to a consensus on solving that burden, they would not proceed with writing the document.
What comes next are resolutions to fix society for “the remnant” — the way for the chosen people to live in the fullest realization of liberty. Biblical principles should be put into practice at every level of government. The band maintained that in the home, women should be submissive to their husbands. Locally, the civil government should punish evil and protect the good. And at the federal level, taxes need to stop, since you can’t tax what God created.
“It is blasphemous to regard antichrists as ‘God’s chosen people’ and to allow them to rule over or hold public office in a Christian Nation,” it reads. “Aborticide is murder. Sodomy is a sin against God and Nature. Inter-racial marriage pollutes the integrity of the family. Pornography destroys the purity of the mind of the individual and defiles the conscience of the Nation.”
At the end, when it was all down on paper, there they are smiling wide for a picture — as if someone had said “say cheese” when they took it — and all fifteen men signed their names.
A year after the Remnant Resolves, Legacy (now named Watchman) was back on tour, scheduled to play a Santa Rosa, California church affiliated with Dennis Peacocke, a self-described political activist turned leader in the “shepherding movement” — a religious movement in the 1970s and ’80s that involved congregants turning over all personal decisions to a spiritual leader, and has been criticized as cult-like.
The Byrds made more than one trip to Peacocke’s church for Fellowship of Christian Leaders (FCL) conferences. During one visit, they stayed with a church host family: the Johnsons. Rick Johnson would eventually move his family north to Marble in the mid-1990s, and still lives there today.
At the time, Johnson’s son Jesse was just a kid, but he still recalls meeting the Byrds. Something about Anne immediately stuck out to him. “She has these piercing blue eyes,” he recalls. “I remember kind of being off put by that and … just by her presence. Because she didn’t smile very much. She was really intense and when she talked to you it was about what you’re doing to have a better relationship with the Lord. And I was, like, 8.”
Within a week of living at Marble, Jesse Johnson says he and one of his brothers “made a pact that we were leaving as soon as we were old enough.”
But back in 1992, when the Byrds were still working on bringing their vision of a “Christian covenant community” to life, people in Stevens County were nervous, citing concern over the couple’s connection with Pete Peters. People called the group cultish; the Byrds made a brochure that said they weren’t “the least bit cultish or isolationist.” In that same brochure, the couple predicted “cataclysmic events.” At a city council meeting, they claimed to their neighbors that they weren’t racist, and didn’t “condone hatred”— in fact, Barry told the Spokesman-Review that they wanted to create a ministry and a working ranch to “take youngsters” of all races in. The couple claimed they’d severed ties with Peters and that their attendance at the Rocky Mountain Bible Camp was only to play music. They didn’t mention the “Remnant Resolves.” Debate about the Byrds and Peters raged for months in the pages of the Colville Statesman-Examiner.
In May, a Colville man expressed concern in the paper: “We would love to have our fears allayed,” he wrote of the Byrds. “But the trail back to Pete Peters appears to be pretty warm.”
The Byrds attempted to shoot down a list of rumors they were asked to address by Northport’s mayor at a May 1992 city council meeting. They said they had no relationship with Peters, never held white supremacist beliefs, and concluded that people with concerns should come to Marble. Barry Byrd “advised that reading newspapers was not a worthwhile way of attaining accurate information,” according to a report on the meeting.
Meanwhile, in nearby North Idaho, Bo Gritz — a former Green Beret who once ran for President, and who famously served as a liaison between federal agents and Randy Weaver at the end of the Ruby Ridge standoff — attempted to create his own Christian covenant community, called “Almost Heaven.” Some said he modeled it after what the Byrds created at Marble.
Paul Glanville, a doctor, liked the idea, too, when he heard it. He brought his family north to Marble in 1992, several years after meeting the Byrds. He was delivering a presentation on low-cost or free medical care at a Christian seminar when he encountered the couple, who were giving a talk on establishing covenant communities. “They are very charismatic,” Glanville recalls. “I really was interested in this idea of a Christian community where I could practice medicine in what I considered a very Biblical way.”
Once at Marble, he says he enjoyed the close community, the focus on church and family. It felt like his family had moved to the promised land. People would get to church early, chattering with the company of the other people who lived there, hurrying downstairs to stake a claim for the casserole dishes they’d bring each Sunday for a potluck, before rushing up again for church.
But over time, cracks emerged in the smooth veneer of the Marble promise. Nothing drastic, just small fissures that, over time, built up. In the spring of 1997 Glanville noticed a strangely competitive drive behind — of all things — Marble’s softball teams. He says he felt there was a need to win, to conquer all of the other church teams from the area, as if to prove Marble’s superiority. Glanville sometimes skipped the adult games to watch his kids play softball. Soon after, the leaders called an emergency meeting to chastise anyone who skipped the adult games. Glanville found the suggestion that he watch the Byrds’ team over his own child’s bizarre.
After a few years, Glanville started to feel that he hadn’t made a covenant with God so much as with the Byrds. “What they mean by ‘covenant’ is total, absolute obedience to the leadership without questioning, and that the leadership eventually has your permission to question you and scrutinize your life in the most invasive ways that you can possibly imagine,” he says. “They might not start that out from the beginning like that, but they will end up that way.”
From the pulpit, the couple preached about “slander,” about never questioning their leadership, and turning in anyone who did. The Byrds gave sermons about submission, obedience. The word “individual” was sinful — individuality being a sin of pride.
The church leaders would encourage the families there to turn against their own blood — parents reporting on children, children reporting parents, neighbors against neighbors — if that meant preserving perfection at Marble.
Glanville says his own children went to Marble’s leadership and told them that he was skeptical of their intentions and teachings. By the summer of 1994, he says, “My kids and wife had been totally brainwashed.” He continues, “They were turning me in to Marble for negative talk.”
But even he didn’t understand how quickly he’d lost them: When he finally decided to leave, Glanville was shocked that his wife and family refused to come with him. “My wife filed for divorce when I left. And my kids basically all signed the divorce papers,” he says.
“I could do a lot of things in this church,” Barry Byrd said in one 1994 sermon. “I have the authority. I could misuse it. I could manipulate you and intimidate you, which you know, I’m sure we’ve done some of that. Not meaning to, but that’s just part of the deal.”
The pulpit too, was Barry Byrd’s megaphone for talk of a country ruled by Biblical law, of the sins of the government, about the entire reason Marble was here at all.
“We’re fighting for something that much blood has been shed for, beginning [with] the blood of Jesus,” he said. “If the spirit of the Lord does not reign supreme and this book is not the law that governs all of life and living, then there is no peace and there is no liberty!” He spoke of righteous anger and “holy hatred” for those getting in the way of “the government of God.”
Byrd even glorified martyrdom as a way to achieve the church’s goals: “So you see, I don’t have any problem being martyred if I know it’s what God’s called me to. If I know that my blood is going to water the tree of Liberty and build for future generations, I would gladly give my life today.”
Two decades since he left Marble broken-hearted, alone, Glanville still sometimes hears the Byrds’ words in his head, nagging at him, pulling him back to that time, making him question how he could have fallen under the place’s sway.
His mind goes back to the moments he still blamed himself for not being perfect. Times when Marble convinced him he was the problem, meetings when Barry Byrd stood over him shaking a fist, making him believe he was lucky they were being so patient with him.
“And you could say ‘well why did you put up with that?’” he tells me this spring. “A lot of people who are trying to leave a cult have magical thinking. That if they just could say the right thing, or do the right thing, the leaders will suddenly see the truth and repent and everything will be alright.”
Back in 1988, when the Byrds’ band was on tour, Anne Byrd’s own brothers, too, were positioning themselves as chosen ones.
The Bullas were a family of prophets. It was as if they believed their ears were calibrated to pick up the unique pitch of the Lord’s voice.
Anne’s eldest brother, Art Bulla, at the time, was living in Utah and had converted away from the family’s Southern Baptist roots to his own racist interpretation of Mormonism. He found himself maligned from the mainstream LDS church in the early 1980s when he called himself “the one mighty and strong,” claiming he was receiving revelations. He also expressed his belief in polygamy, but admitted he’d had trouble recruiting women to marry him. He split from the church when it started ordaining blacks.
Art Bulla, who I reached by phone at his Baja, Mexico home, says he visited his siblings Anne and Brad Bulla, and his brother-in-law Barry, in the early days of their Marble community. And though he says his sister and Barry were still practicing racist Christian Identity beliefs — which he points out he actually agrees with — he thought the couple seemed to be controlling the people who would form Marble.
“Barry had a very strong personality, and Anne did too, and so they were able to hornswoggle if you will, the gullible,” he says. “I had suspected that Anne had gone too far with the controlling thing.”
Art Bulla tells me he’s the only prophet in the family — not Anne and not their brother I found who pastes notes that say “God’s only priest” to cutouts of naked women and posts the pictures to Twitter. Art says he is the chosen one.
“[Anne] always felt that she had to be in competition with me. And since I’m receiving revelations, then she’s got to receive revelations, too,” he says, “You see what I’m saying?”
By the late 1990s, Paul Glanville, the doctor who had come to Marble hoping to bring God into his medical practice, was hardly the only person questioning Marble’s leadership, and the Byrds’ true intentions for the community. According to letters written during this time, between 1997 and 1998 Anne Byrd excommunicated her brother and Legacy bandmate, Brad, and his family. (Requests for comment by Brad Bulla were not returned.)
The excommunication drew the attention of Jay Grimstead, an evangelical scholar who had briefly lived in the Marble community and become known for pushing dominionism. Grimstead wrote several letters to the Byrds detailing his concern for what he saw as the community’s increasingly authoritarian structure.
In one letter to Barry and Peacocke, from September 1997, Grimstead wrote that Marble “is a clear, ‘top down’ monarchy that is governed primarily by a queen, ‘Queen Anne,’” he wrote. “The people at Marble live in great fear of displeasing the Byrds, particularly Anne.”
Grimstead also excoriated Barry for not publicly condemning Christian Identity, which he referred to as “weird, unbiblical stuff.” He was even being told by Marble members that the ideology was still being discussed in 1997.
In January of the next year, he wrote to Anne and Barry: “Please respond in some way to the letter of grave concern wherein I told you I was receiving an increasing amount of evidence that Marble, under your leadership, was fast becoming an authoritarian cult,” he wrote.
Grimstead, with each letter, begged for answers, and grew more suspicious. “I am having more and more concern about the mental health (sanity, ability to process reality, etc) of both Anne and Barry, but Anne in particular,” he wrote in a letter to Peacocke.
That same year, letters came to Grimstead, too — not from the Byrds, but from families who’d left Marble. They wrote of financial manipulation, of tithes that went to the Byrds (one person told me their partner tithed tens of thousands of dollars without their knowledge, and racked up a credit card bill of $55,000), of public confessions of sins that would later be weaponized against members. “No one was ‘forced’ to do it. Yet we all did,” one person wrote of these public confessions, where even children would allegedly confess dark thoughts. “What else could any of us done? Barry and Anne knew best. We trusted them. They were hearing from God, they told us.”
People who’d gotten away still feared Christian Identity was the agenda driving the church, despite what the Byrds had said about leaving the ideas of Peters and the Ark behind. One man, who had adopted non-white children, wrote to Grimstead, recounting a meeting with the Byrds. “Barry stated he did not believe in interracial marriage and that our non-white children would not be allowed to marry any of the sons and daughters at Marble, and that we would have to have faith that God would provide them with mates of their own race,” he wrote.
But by the fall of 1998, 15 men signed a letter on FCL letterhead saying that Grimstead’s questioning of Marble’s intentions forced the organization to “mark him.” They called him a “factious and dangerous man” and sided with Marble. Among those signatures were Peacocke’s and — in the same loopy letters that marked the Remnant Resolves — Barry Byrd’s.
I wrote Grimstead this past spring, to see if he’d talk about that time, about those letters, that mark placed on him by his good friends. Grimstead’s response was curt: “If you have any of my letters from those years … my opinion of the Marble Fellowship under the Byrds has not changed,” he wrote in an email. “What I said in those letters is still true and provable as far as I know and I was never proven wrong in what I said.”
He declined to comment further. He is “too busy with positive work for the Kingdom.”
Jesse Johnson is 33 years old now, and for years he lived in Los Angeles, where he attended art school and came out as gay. He lived at Marble until he was 17, when he was excommunicated, and left to live with his maternal grandmother. For years prior, Johnson says his grandmother begged his mother to leave, believing Marble was a cult. She didn’t listen.
I meet Johnson in the spring of 2019, at a small house in Northport, Washington. A dog gnaws at a bone under the table. We’d been talking on the phone for months about his time at Marble. He tells me about a childhood dictated by fear of the Byrds, and an exclusion of the outside world. “The world is evil and the government is evil, and their whole thing is wanting to get back to Puritan America,” he says. “They would talk about that all the time: the founding fathers and how this isn’t what they wanted.” Johnson says leaders continually reminded the congregation of what happened to the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas — how something like that could play out at Marble, too. He recalls being told the community was on a federal watchlist. “I’m pretty sure that was all made up,” Johnson says, “but they were telling us that, so it was almost like stirring up the fear … are we next? Maybe we should prepare. That was definitely talked about from the pulpit, like, what we would do when — it wasn’t if — it was when the world collapses.”
Church was a harrowing experience: In one instance, Johnson says he was locked in a basement with all of the other children, who were told only to emerge only when they were speaking in tongues. “One of my friend’s dads whispered in my ear ‘just make something up,’” he remembers when he was one of the last in the room.
Teenagers were expected to follow stringent courtship rituals, which condemned even the smallest displays of affection, like hand holding, and punished offenders by garnishing their wages or with physical labor making repairs or cleaning leaders’ homes. Every year, a “purity ball” celebrating chastity was held for teenagers, and formal etiquette lessons were given. Homosexuality was not tolerated in the community — Johnson tells me stories of boys who were sent to conversion therapy. I hear stories of suicide.
Punishment for children was constant and rules were always changing. Johnson says one day, he suddenly found out the Byrds had been made his godparents. “When I found that out it was kind of off-putting because if anything ever happened to my parents, the hope was that we wouldn’t have to be at Marble anymore.”
When families left or were forced out, “they were basically dead to God, dead to the community,” Johnson says. “To have contact with them would be hurting Marble.” Some people wanted to leave, but couldn’t sell their homes. Marble had the first right of refusal.
Several women who were raised there spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, expressing fear for the safety of family members still involved in the community. From all of them, I got the sense that to be a female at Marble is a particularly cruel experience: a life of shaming, abuse, and fear. They weren’t allowed to show skin — even swimsuits were deemed inappropriate. “We couldn’t show our arms. It was our job to protect the men from having bad thoughts, so we had to cover ourselves,” one woman said. I heard stories of physical and sexual abuse. Another shared a journal entry with me. “It was called Marble, and like the stone, it was beautiful and soft to touch and wrapped you up in its pure form,” she wrote, “But held the capacity to crush you under its cold weight, so that even if you escaped, the scars would never heal properly.”
One woman claimed that when she was 4, she was molested by an older boy in the community, but her parents were told not to go to the police, that Marble would handle the problem on their own. Confused about why she felt the community didn’t take action, she swallowed a bottle of pills one day when she was 12 in a suicide attempt — but survived. “I didn’t tell my parents until a year or two later,” she told me. “I definitely did not want to continue living like that.” Today, she says she can’t even walk into a church without feeling overwhelming, paralyzing fear.
“I’ve gone back [to Marble] once or twice,” she said. The people “literally look like zombies walking around. They look like… just zombies. They don’t have a soul. They don’t have any control of their lives. They’re just being little robots for Barry and Anne.”
Children allegedly grew up handling firearms — something that is not unique or strange about living in a place as rural as Marble. But “most people around here with guns aren’t talking about the end of the world or having to protect themselves from the government,” Johnson tells me. “I don’t think tomorrow they’re all gonna take up arms… my concern is there are certain people that are impressionable, especially some of the younger people, and they do have access to quite a lot of guns.”
But not everyone sees harm in the way things are run at Marble. Zion Mertens moved there when he was 6 years old, leaving briefly. He moved back as an adult with his own children, but doesn’t attend the church. He says today about half the community is like him. I ask him if Marble is a cult, and he says no but then offers this: “I prefer to avoid groupthink,” he says about the church. “I try to avoid it. So it’s not really so much that I disagree with them, it’s that I don’t really like sacrificing my own identity to the identity of a larger group.”
Mertens says he’s never caught a whiff of Christian Identity there, despite volunteering that the Byrds used to attend the Ark. “That place is, without a doubt, a white supremacist group,” he says. But things like homosexuality definitely are condemned. He doesn’t disagree completely with the Byrds on that, and he says it’s grounded in the leaders’ hope to make society “better.”
I ask about how the outside world is supposed to reconcile his feeling that Marble isn’t racist with the guest appearance of a neo-Confederate racist preacher, John Weaver, in 2015. He says that surprised him, too. “I actually really don’t have an answer on that one,” he says. “I had never encountered anything like that there, so when I ended up finding out that was his background, for me it was kind of like a little bit of a shock.”
But it’s clear it didn’t bother people in the community enough for them to speak up. I get the sense that maybe it’s just easier to turn a blind eye. Pretend it’s not there — to only see the place for the Christian, patriotic flowers pushing through the surface, not the roots of where they come from.
Jesse Johnson was excommunicated for not attending “prep school,” what Johnson describes as a religious pre-college program held at Marble to prepare young people to rebuild society after an “inevitable global and national conflict.” Later, when he came out as gay, he received a barrage of scornful emails from the Byrds and people still living at Marble. He changed his email address, but his family continued to shun him.
“I was informed by my family that I wasn’t allowed contact with any of my siblings,” he says. “One day I called just like crying and begging if I could just talk to one of my brothers and sisters. And [my mom was] like ‘yeah, change your lifestyle and come back to God and we can talk about it. But I’ve got to go to church,’ and then she just hung up.”
Life on the outside was not easy for Johnson. He says he was homeless for a while. “They say ‘you’re going to leave and everything’s gonna go wrong for you and everything is gonna be horrible until you come back,’” he says.
“Were they right?” I ask.
“No, not at all,” he says. “I don’t think anyone who’s left has had an easy time. And I think the majority of people I’ve talked to they say they felt like we were part of a psychological experiment… we were the guinea pigs.”
Paul Glanville, the doctor, agrees. Today, he’s reconciled with most of his children, but his ex-wife and one of his sons still live near Marble. He says he believes Marble is a cult that took away his family.
Johnson, too, has gone to great lengths to open communication with his parents again. A few years ago, Johnson moved back to the rural area after spending 14 years away. By then, his siblings had left Marble. His family was talking to him again. But his parents remained in the Marble community. “My mom and I had to come to an agreement that she wouldn’t talk about my sexuality and I wouldn’t critique her religion,” he says. “I wouldn’t say it’s worked well but it’s definitely allowed us to have more of a relationship.”
I wanted to understand how Johnson perceived Marble’s growing association with the Patriot Movement, with politicians like Shea. Johnson told me he suspected the Biblical Basis for War was from a Marble sermon. And he says the group is now filled with vehement Trump supporters — which flew in the face of everything he’d told me about how the Byrds felt about the federal government.
“There’s an underlier of something that’s a little more sinister,” he says. It isn’t about loving the government, suddenly, but loving what might come next. “I think it’s more of the fact that [Trump] is destroying everything so quickly. Like maybe this will progress to their revolution that they’re waiting for.”
Trump is, potentially, “bringing the apocalypse,” he says. “They definitely have thought the world was ending a few times and were super excited about it.”
This reminded me of something Glanville had told me, about how people at Marble were always talking about what to do when the end times came. And it sharpens something Matt Shea — their friend and acolyte, who sees the end times as an “opportunity” — has brought up in the Biblical Basis for War and the state of Liberty. They’re the blueprints for a rebooted nation.
I ask Johnson about what Tanner Rowe and Jay Pounder — the guys who made the Biblical Basis for War public — advised me: I’d need to be armed and in body armor to go to Marble. He was excommunicated, but he still offers to take producer Ryan Haas and me there that afternoon. He said that since his parents still live there, it’s not strange for him to be on the property.
When we pull under the gates of Marble, there’s not a person to be seen. Up ahead there’s a street sign: “Liberty Way,” it reads. There are signs for a bunkhouse, a hitching post.
Admittedly, I’m nervous, afraid to have my notepad out, and Haas tucks the microphone away as Johnson’s car crawls up a rocky road, up a hill where he says you can see the whole community. At the top, a group of people are out for a stroll. They stop and stare at the car. For a second, it feels like maybe we’ve been caught.
But Johnson throws the car into park and pops out. He knows everyone here. “Hey, Barney!” he yells and struts toward them with a big smile across his face. They talk for a minute or two, and Johnson comes back. Everything’s just fine. “Have a good one guys!” he calls to them.
We keep driving up the hill and stop at the place a big white cross has been mounted, overlooking the community. Johnson says groups pilgrimage up the hill from Marble, down below, every Easter Sunday.
For a few minutes, we stand there overlooking a patchwork of green fields, under a sky that feels bluer and wider than anywhere I’ve ever been. The sound of chickens clucking carries its way up the hill. It’s the opposite of the Branch Davidian compound or the remote cabin at Ruby Ridge. It’s a sparse community of houses. Some are big, beautiful homes — the type that rich people might call “the cabin.” Others are rickety shacks melting back into the earth. The Byrds don’t live on the Marble property, but instead, in the nicest house of them all up one of those side roads Rowe told us to stay away from. Johnson doesn’t disagree with that advice.
“It’s beautiful,” Johnson says, standing there, looking out over it. And it’s striking to me that someone could look out over a place that caused them so much pain, and still see a kernel of good in it. By the end of the day, we’ll have driven all around the property for two hours, and Johnson keeps hopping out of the car to say hello to someone, to tell them he’ll stop by soon, to ask how they are.
He says he figures if he’s nicer than anyone here, no one can hate him anymore — no matter what the Byrds say.
Just before I moved to Spokane, Washington as a college freshman, at age 18, in 1999, a girl at my high school jibed that the place was filled with Nazis — living, breathing white supremacists. I ignored her, figuring that, like myself, she didn’t know what she was talking about.
In fact, both being Oregon-bred white teenagers, we’d both been living around white supremacists our entire lives. The state of Oregon was a haven for Confederate ideas even after the Civil War, a place that, from its very start, was built for whites and whites alone — a part of the state’s history that was omitted from our education. We didn’t learn that the KKK once had a strong presence among Oregon’s state officials. We didn’t know neighborhoods where our friends lived — only decades before — had exclusion laws discriminating against who could own property there.
In January 2011, I thought of that conversation with that girl again.
It was a cold winter morning in Spokane: the day of the Martin Luther King Jr. Unity March, a parade that went right down Main Avenue through the center of the city, and was always filled with kids and people with their arms linked. Sometime that morning, a Stevens County white supremacist named Kevin Harpham planted a backpack bomb on the parade route near a metal bench and a brick wall, a block away from my apartment.
Before the parade could begin, as marchers gathered, milling in the streets, filling the city with energy, Harpham — armed with a remote detonator — strolled amongst the crowd taking photos of himself. But before it detonated, several city workers saw that black backpack, thought it seemed out of place, and they called it in.
Inside the backpack was a six-inch long pipe bomb welded to a steel plate. The bomb was packed with more than a 100 lead fishing weights coated in rat poison and human feces. The backpack also contained two T-shirts commemorating events that took place in small towns in nearby Stevens County.
If those city workers had continued on, ignored the backpack, and that bomb would have gone off, it would have immediately twisted that metal bench into daggers of shrapnel. Those shards and the fishing weights would have rocketed at that brick wall, ricocheting off and firing into the marchers’ bodies. The rat poison — which contained an anticoagulant — would have made sure the people hit wouldn’t have stopped bleeding easily; the feces was likely there to cause an infection in every wound.
At the time, most of my day-to-day life happened in the two city blocks surrounding the bomb site. Police tape closed off the entrance to my apartment building. Traffic was re-routed. When it happened, I remember looking at all the guys in hazmat suits, the bomb robot, the closed streets, and figuring it was a big fuss over nothing. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Violence like what was narrowly missed on Martin Luther King Jr. Day has plagued this part of the Northwest for decades. But that history was something I’d had the privilege to navigate around as a white person living in a majority white city in the whitest part of the country. When I was a kid I had an excuse: No one told me. But as an adult, I’d come to believe that good always had, and always would, prevail.
But white racism in the American West was not a rumor or a chapter of history that had been solved and tied up with a bow. Racists weren’t burning crosses over there, in some other place, wearing KKK hoods, and performing Nazi salutes, wearing swastikas so they could be easily spotted. It seems like such a cartoon image of a racist now, when I think about it. What willful ignorance to think the enemy is always one you’ll recognize, that they’ll always look and act the same.
Those history books I read as a kid never talked about weapons made of rat poison, fishing weights, and human shit. But when Kevin Harpham chose my neighborhood to try to commit mass murder, he didn’t bring a burning cross or a Nazi flag. His hatred had him making that bomb for who knows how long. Investigators later found he bought those weights in batches. Piece by piece. That attempted bombing was my introduction to this entire subject.
I started devouring books and documentaries on the history of North Idaho and the Aryan Nations compound that had, for years, sat within an hour of my home. I read about the militias that had long thrived here in the Northwest, and the conspiracies that inspired them to action. I learned about Waco, Ruby Ridge, the Montana Freemen.
I needed to understand how hate had stayed so alive in America, what the fuel was that kept it burning — not just in the hills of some faraway place, but right here. Hate happened here. Hate happened in the morning. It happened on a Monday.
Five years later, on another cold January morning, another explosive event occurred in my backyard. By then I was in Oregon, back in my hometown.
A group of armed men took over a wildlife refuge in the far southeastern corner of the state. Among them were militias and white racists who had really radical ideas about the federal government, race and religion.
My editor at the Washington Post asked if I could help with coverage. My life hasn’t been the same since.
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In late 2016, I started asking people about the bombing in Panaca — a thing I’d read about, but never heard much about what happened. Finally, in May of 2019, I got some answers.
I’d asked the Kingman Police Department, in Arizona, for documents about the raid on Glenn Jones’ trailer — that’s the guy who blew himself up and the Cluff’s house in Panaca, Nevada. Kingman was Jones’ last address before the bombing. Police reports had talked about his journal, about some writing about LaVoy Finicum — so I asked if I could see it.
They sent over photos of a spiral bound notepad of graph paper with a bright red cover. Inside, Jones had carefully written a note in black marker: “This is for the murder of LaVoy Finicum and all the other Americans who have died for freedom.”
He had flipped the page, and written it again: “This is for the murder of LaVoy Finicum and all the other Americans who have died for freedom.”
He’d done it a third time, and had written the same words.
I needed more pages. I asked Kingman police for more photos, more pictures of his trailer. I wanted everything I could get so I could try to answer this one question I’d had rolling around in my mind: Was Glenn Jones a suicide bomber for the Patriot Movement?
I asked for web searches on his laptop, GPS waypoints on his Garmin. I wanted photos of journals, photos of the trailer, photos of the storage unit. I couldn’t stop thinking about how no one really knew Jones. How people in Panaca just called him “the person” or “the suspect” because, even though he lived in the tiny town for years, no one seemed to really know him.
They said he was quiet, shy, forgettable. They were the same words people used when TV reporters descended on Stevens County, Washington to describe Kevin Harpham — the Spokane MLK Day parade bomber, who was eventually sentenced to 32 years in prison. They’re the same words people used to describe Stephen Paddock, the man who killed 58 people in a mass shooting in Las Vegas in 2017. Or Dylann Roof, when he murdered black parishioners in a church in South Carolina. They’re the same words used to describe people who’ve spilled blood in the name of an ideology from Virginia to Colorado.
Kingman officials told me I’d have to get all that from the FBI. They’d handed most of their files over. For months, I sent requests for comment. Calls went nowhere; I couldn’t tell if my emails were reaching anyone. Finally, I got a response. The FBI said, “It is the policy of the FBI not to confirm or deny the existence of an investigation.”
But two departments had told me the FBI had taken everything over. I knew it was an investigation — wasn’t it? Still, no comment.
I couldn’t believe the story of what really happened there was solely one being kept by Josh Cluff — who had also declined to talk to me. So, in a journalistic hail mary, I told Kingman officials that, well, since the FBI says maybe no investigation even exists, I guess you can send me that evidence now.
On a rainy Saturday, two weeks later, a CD filled with photos arrived in my mailbox.
There was no manifesto, no clear explanation of why Glenn Jones did what he did. They didn’t even send most of the things I’d asked for. But the photos did make the story clearer: Jones was not just a nice guy who blew up a house one time, but a guy who was so invisible to the rest of the world, no one had any idea who he really was. He had navigated nearly six decades on the planet like a specter who’d been walking in the shadows his whole life. No one noticed the guy living in the RV with very little else besides bombs.
At the end, he lived inside the type of camper a family of four might take on a tour of national parks. It was a tight, cramped space — not a place someone appeared to be living, but a space used as a workshop to build explosives.
Every window was covered, and every surface was covered with wires and gun powder, fuses and power tools. If he was truly living there, it was like he was existing inside a junk drawer. The only food in his cupboards were cans of soup, some chips, and some Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. The silverware drawer had no forks or spoons or knives, but pliers, scissors, and wire cutters. The fridge and microwave were spotless. The shower floor was crusted with black gun powder; there was no showerhead.
Investigators hauled bucket after bucket of supplies outside. They stacked huge antique bomb shells on a picnic table, and several metal ammunition boxes that were filled to the brim with gunpowder, fuses snaking out of holes drilled in the sides. There were guns — some modern, some antique. White briefs and socks were folded neatly in one cabinet. A pair of puffy white sneakers sat next to the bed.
Next to denture cleaner and cigarette butts, they found some of his journals: They contained shopping lists, to-do lists, notes about cars for sale, phone numbers for realtors. There were also drawings of bombs, complete with careful measurements of gunpowder, what charges were needed.
I kept flipping through the photos again and again, trying to absorb what story they told about Jones. I did it again: dirty trailer, no food, handwritten notes, stacks of materials.
I was idly staring at a photo of an open notepad, a note telling some unnamed person they’d better watch their back, when I realized the dark handwriting on a previous page was showing through to the other side — a page the police department hadn’t sent me. I zoomed in, flipped the image so I could read it.
It was a letter — a letter written to Josh Cluff, dated July 3, 2016.
Hay Stoupid [sic] —
Remember the $8,000-$10,000 I needed?
I could have leveled out the whole BLM Building — But, NO, you had to get greedy and not pay back any of the $60,000 you borrowed.
Plus, you bet the “farm” you went “All In,” You almost had this Bomb delivered to your houses. Never bet your family on a desperate idiot. Don’t ever assume somebody won’t shoot you + wife + kids over money.
Fuck You, Josh.
I wish I had 2 Bombs. You would [illegible]
But the thing was, ten days later, he had two bombs. He delivered them to Cluff’s house, and told his wife and children to leave before they went off.
I started flipping all of the pages, looking for more shadows left by an invisible man. “We are different than Iran and Syria,” he wrote in one note, “… Another generation doesn’t need to see [illegible] of Waco and Ruby Ridge.” He wrote the word “ranchers” at the bottom of the page, but I couldn’t read the rest. On yet another page, he wrote the name of the man who baptized LaVoy Finicum in the 1960s. It’s Josh’s grandfather.
The letter Jones never sent to Cluff made it clear that he was planning to commit an act of terrorism that would destroy a Bureau of Land Management building. And then, the day before the bombing was supposed to happen, the plan fell apart. Something — or someone — got in the way of that plan. He turned the bomb on Cluff.
But the journal showed Jones was thinking like so many other people I’d interviewed over the years across the West, from a Nevada rancher to a Utah militiaman, to an Arizona widow, to people in Washington who grew up being told the government was out to get them. Jones was writing about revenge and martyrdom and all the things the Patriot movement thrives on.
But he wasn’t always like this. When investigators called his ex-wife, Kathi Renaud, and told her that he died in such a violent way, she was shocked. They hadn’t spoken in years, but it didn’t sound like the guy she’d been married to. She had a hard time even believing it was true — her daughter demanded proof, she tells me, “whatever to make sure that’s really him. You know? Because this is not his demeanor.”
But it really was her ex-husband. And I asked her why she thought Jones changed.
“I think somebody, in my own opinion, I think had to put that into his mind to make him think that, cuz like you know. No, he never talked bad about the government or anything. Nothing bad. At all.” I asked her for names of more of Jones’ family, friends. She gave the name of one guy — who never got back to me — but no one else. No one really knew him.
But someone, she says, along the way must have gotten to him. Put an idea into his head.
The Jones bombing showed me that extremist violence, in some ways, is changing. I talked to one extremism expert after another, asking if they’d ever heard about a Patriot suicide bomber. All of them said no. Some people had committed suicide by cop, trying to go out in a blaze of glory. A guy even once crashed a plane into a building that housed IRS offices on purpose. But a suicide bomber? That would be new.
Adam Sommerstein, who used to be an analyst with the FBI, told me, “that is a particular phenomena I have never seen in either the Patriot movement or the overall right-wing terror movement.”
A suicide bombing is saying something different than an attack. It’s a sign of devotion to an idea. And it says that this idea is important — more important than my life. And by blowing myself up, I believe this idea will reach more people.
But domestic terrorism still seems to be a thing lots of Americans aren’t even aware exists. And now here — with Jones — it was changing, evolving, maybe becoming even more extreme. And yet his bombing barely made the news outside Nevada.
After so-many high profile shootings, the violence at Charlottesville and other ideologically motivated killings in recent years, lawmakers in Washington are pushing for change. They’ve held hearings on white supremacy — even introduced legislation to create a better response to domestic terrorism. They say the government needs more power to stop extremists in this country.
“But that’s absurd,” Mike German, from the Brennan Center for Justice, told me. He’s the one who infiltrated and helped take down white supremacist and militia groups as an undercover FBI agent in the ’90s. He says this discussion about passing new terrorism laws as a way to stop extremist violence is a huge red herring.
“There are 57 federal crimes of terrorism. That’s what they’re called in the United States Code. Of those 57 federal laws of terrorism, 51 of them apply to domestic terrorism as well as international terrorism,” he says. “And if there is a group of intergalactical terrorists, it will apply to them too. It just applies to terrorism. But the fact that it doesn’t say in the law — domestic terrorism — the Justice Department is using that as an excuse to argue for new powers.”
In German’s view, the more of a power grab law enforcement can pull off, the more the government can become like the thought police. And that’s not just anecdotal: He says the government has been doing it against Muslims regularly since 9/11. Someone gets a label and their rights are gone. Historically, those people are brown or black, not white.
German says it’s a flawed thought pattern to want to snatch away the civil liberties of someone who holds racist or radical anti-government views, and thinking that couldn’t also be done to you with the next shift of the political winds. People can hold despicable views — politicizing what thoughts are OK normalizes the continual pushing of the envelope that’s been common since the Twin Towers attack. It’s “the opportunity to target people who you don’t like,” he says.
And I can’t help but think that making the issue of radical violence something that the government needs to fix as a new way for people to make it someone else’s problem. If that law doesn’t pass, things just stay the same. We say, ‘god, why don’t lawmakers do their job?’
But, see, I think that’s a misdirection — putting the onus on powerful people, who benefit from power structures that have just one definition of terrorist. It ignores that radical violence is the end result of the extreme ideas that have crept into our daily lives.
Where, once, conspiracies were stories someone had to seek out, or that came to a person on a flyer at a militia meeting or a gun show, they’re now commonplace in everyone’s home. They come through Facebook feeds, Twitter posts and YouTube videos. And maybe you don’t click on them. You already know they’re crazy. But maybe one of them you do, and so do 1000 other people. A video on guns leads you to a fake news story about firearms regulations, which leads you to Agenda 21, or theories about the New World Order. And maybe something there speaks to a certain pain that feels familiar. You agree just enough — so you post it to Facebook. Your friends like it, and that feels good — so you keep posting things just like it.
And then conspiracy theories aren’t fringe anymore. Online, they become prevailing arguments — things worth entertaining, at the least. They’re noise — noise we’ve all gotten used to drowning out. They’re posts your uncle or your neighbor or brother-in-law is sharing, that your family is liking and re-sharing. And none of those people consider themselves members of the Patriot Movement. They’d never take over a wildlife refuge. They wouldn’t drive away from cops if they got pulled over. But, in daily life, they’re indulging the ideas that have led to instances of violence.
Sometimes those ideas get in the wrong person’s head, and turn violent. And unless it’s directed at you, it feels like someone else’s problem to fix.
It seems like the real battle here is over the narrative. The prize is to get your version of things on top — at the top of politics, at the top of search results — no matter how based in falsehoods and hatred it is.
After I found everything in Glenn Jones’ journal, I called Sheriff Lee, back in Panaca. When we’d sat down in person over the winter, he really couldn’t tell me much about the motives behind the bombing. But as I reported, people kept asking me ‘hey, if you find something out, will you let me know?’ I got the sense they felt a little forgotten — like the biggest thing that had ever happened in their town was the smallest concern to the rest of the world.
Sheriff Lee hadn’t heard of any of the evidence I uncovered — so I read him the entries from Jones’ notebook over the phone.
“My first words are: Wow,” he said, a solemness to his voice I hadn’t heard in any previous interviews I’d had with him. “My second words are: It sure would have been nice to have that shared with another law enforcement entity whose conducting an investigation on this.”
He’s shocked that the target really was supposed to be a BLM office. “And it looks like he had more of an intention than just putting bombs, talking about shooting people,” he says. “This could have been a hell of a lot worse than it was.”
For such a nice guy, Lee sounds pissed — I get the sense he’s not a guy to throw the word “hell” around willy-nilly, too. But I get it: A bomb went off in his tiny town, a place that was always supposed to be this perfect haven of purity in a wild state. And even he can’t give people answers about what happened. The feds never told him.
“Who radicalized him?” he asks.
Glenn Jones said he could have “leveled out” a government building because he believed so much in the story of LaVoy the martyr. He was willing to die for it.
Ultimately he didn’t bomb the BLM. I don’t know why he didn’t carry out his original plan. I don’t know what the FBI knew about him. I do know, though, that during that very same summer, the feds “wanted to push [Keebler] outside his comfort zone to take his temperature” on a bombing… when right here, just a few hours away, Glenn Jones was sitting in an RV making a bomb so large it would shower a town in a mile’s worth of shrapnel.
Lee thinks somebody knew — Panaca’s too damn small for people not to — he thinks they just didn’t say anything, says people might consider it not their business, or figure “nah — not my problem,” he says.
I think until Kevin Harpham’s bomb arrived just down the street from me in Spokane, maybe I was like that, too. Nah, not my problem. Figured domestic terrorists were over there, white supremacists over there.
But now I know, I just wasn’t letting myself see what had always been around me. Until that happened, I think I was trying to protect myself from the from the messy business of dealing with hate, unwilling to acknowledge that white supremacist structures support white people who are willing to be violent in the name of ideology and how those people are rarely called terrorists.
Americans think terrorists are these fictional people streaming over the borders, when in reality, most terrorists are already here — they are white, they are Christian, they were born in America. According to the Anti-Defamation League, 2018 was one of the deadliest years for domestic extremist violence since the Civil Rights era — and almost every attack had some link to a type of right-wing extremism, especially white supremacy. A government assessment of mass attacks in public spaces from that same year also showed that about a third of those attackers believed in a violent ideology — from white supremacy to conspiracy theories, to sovereign citizenry.
But transparency could change how Americans see terrorism. So when instances of violence happen, the government could tell people what homegrown terrorism really looks like. Because every time the feds cover something up, or use questionable tactics, or don’t say anything at all, it hands the Patriot Movement a new victory. It helps them tell their story. The narrative is in their hands. One more thing they could point to and say ‘look, the government always lies to you.’
I think that’s one step in fixing all this, in creating new Patriots — just not the kind in the Patriot Movement.
Maybe real Patriots are the ones who can look at themselves, their own communities, and have some uncomfortable conversations about who they really are. Maybe they’re people who can say something is out of place in their own community.
Like the city workers in Spokane who saw that backpack and trusted their guts to say something, likely saving hundreds of lives.
Or Tanner Rowe and Jay Pounder, who leaked the Biblical Basis for War: two conservative guys who used to work for Matt Shea but weren’t so hypnotized by a belief system that they couldn’t recognize when it was turning into something dangerous.
Or Jesse Johnson, who didn’t turn anyone in, but instead simply turns a cheek again, and again, and again to the people at Marble. Extending a hand out to the people who hurt him, killing them with kindness. Or trying to. They can believe what they want, but he doesn’t have to hate them back.
Because Johnson knows that hate takes work. He was raised in a place where anger and violence were preached as virtues, but grew up to be a man who knows those weren’t the words of God. They were words of people trying to play God.
So each of them took a risk. They all stood up. They all exposed a problem. They stopped living in fear.
They know that in the light, there can be no shadows.
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.
Special thanks to everyone at Oregon Public Broadcasting.