You can listen to our four-part “Cat People” podcast series on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
It’s a gloomy April afternoon in rural Oklahoma, and I’m sitting on the floor of a fluorescent-lit room at a roadside zoo with Nova, a 12-week-old tiliger. She looks like a tiger cub, but she’s actually a crossbreed, an unnatural combination of a tiger father and a mother born of a tiger and a lion. That unique genetic makeup places a higher price tag on cubs like Nova, and makes it easier, legally speaking, to abuse and exploit them. Endangered species protections don’t apply to artificial breeds such as tiligers. Hybridization, however, has done nothing to quell Nova’s predatory instincts. For the umpteenth time during the past six minutes, she lunges at my face, claws splayed and mouth ajar — only to be halted mid-leap as her handler jerks her harness. Unphased, Nova gets right back to pouncing.
With her dusty blue eyes, sherbet-colored paws, and prominent black stripes, Nova is adorable. But she also weighs 30 pounds and has teeth like a Doberman’s and claws the size of jumbo shrimp. Nova’s handler, a woman with long brown hair who tells me she recently retired from her IT job at a South Dakota bank to live out her dream of working with exotic cats, scolds the rambunctious tiliger in a goo-goo-ga-ga voice: “Nooooo, nooooo, you calms down!” Nova is teething, the handler explains, so she just wants something to chew on. The handler reaches for one of the tatty stuffed animals strewn around the room — a substitute, I guess, for my limbs. In that moment of distraction, Nova lunges. She lands her mark, chomping into the bicep of my producer, Graham Lee Brewer.
“Ooo, she got me!” Lee Brewer grimaces as he attempts to pull away from the determined predator. Nova’s handler has to pry the tiliger’s jaws open to detach her. After the incident, the woman conveniently checks her watch: “OK, you guys, time is up!”
I paid $80 for the pleasure of spending 12 minutes with Nova, but I’m glad the experience, billed as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, is over. On our way out, we pass more than a dozen adult tigers yowling and pacing cages the size of small classrooms. Nearby signs solicit donations. You are their only hope. Sponsor a cabin or compound today! In the safety of our car, Lee Brewer rolls up his sleeve, exposing a swollen red welt. “Look at my gnarly tiger bite,” he chuckles. “I tried to play it off but I was like, this fuckin’ hurts!”
It’s not the first time I’ve seen this world up-close; I spent the better part of eight years investigating wildlife trafficking around the world. During my travels, I visited farms in China and Laos where tigers are raised like pigs, examined traditional medicine in Vietnam, ate what I was told was tiger bone “cake,” and tracked some of the world’s last remaining wild tigers in India. Almost everywhere I went, tigers were suffering and their numbers were on the decline because of human behavior. Until recently, though, I had no idea the United States was part of the problem. Read more…
As Matthew Braga reports at The Verge, we’re flithy rich with land maps, ones that show us “how the planet has changed, and how we’ve changed the planet,” over time, but that’s not the case where land is covered by water. The treasure trove of information to be gleaned from mapping the world’s oceans could help scientists understand climate change. Enter BEN, an automated map-making boat Braga met while it plotted Lake Huron. According to Braga, “we’ve mapped just 9 percent of the world’s oceans to modern standards,” which is “why BEN and vehicles like it hold so much promise.” (Note, the fantastic illustrations in this piece were done by the incomparable Zoë van Dijk. Check out some of her illustrations for Longreads.)
It was just past midnight when the Ironton punched a 200-square-foot hole in the side of the Ohio. It was dark, the waters were rough, and the Ohio, a wooden bulk freighter loaded with flour and feed, was no match for the Ironton, a schooner heavy with coal. The Ohio sank within half an hour, and the Ironton soon followed, taking five of its crew down too.
Their ghostly hulls have sat largely undisturbed at the bottom of Lake Huron since colliding in late September 1894 — just two of the many wrecks that lie in a treacherous stretch of water called Thunder Bay off Michigan’s northeastern coast. Some are so well preserved by the lake’s frigid freshwater that their unbroken masts point definitely towards the surface, rigging still intact. Others have dishes in the cupboards, a century late for dinner. A few years ago, local media reported that divers found a 1927 Chevrolet Coupe amid the wreckage of a steamship, covered with algae and barnacles, but nonetheless pristine. You can thank the rocky shoals, frequent fog, and sudden gales of Thunder Bay for turning what was once the bustling marine interstate of America’s early industrial age into a modern-day museum of Great Lakes maritime history. Locals called it “Shipwreck Alley.”
Divers flock from all over the world to see the wrecks for themselves each year — and last spring, they were joined by an unusual interloper: an autonomous boat named BEN. BEN is a self-driving boat that’s been tasked with making maps, and it was brought to Thunder Bay to help lay bare the long-lost secrets of the lakebed.
Sara Fredman | Longreads | November 2019 | 10 minutes (2,750 words)
What makes an antihero show work? In this Longreads series, It’s Not Easy Being Mean, Sara Fredman explores the fine-tuning that goes into writing a bad guy we can root for, and asks whether the same rules apply to women.
The question at the core of the antihero show has always been what it would take to turn the bad guy — the mobster, the drug kingpin, the Russian spy, the mad and murderous queen — into the hero of the story. And the answer is that our willingness to root for a bad person who does bad things, sometimes to good people, is dependent on a carefully constructed context. Successful antiheroes have all been portrayed in a certain way: as special — particularly skilled at something or somehow different than those around them — and as three-dimensional human beings with unmet desires. They are usually surrounded by even more unsavory antagonists and are invariably trying to survive within an oppressive system they can’t fully understand. Our empathy for them comes in large part from seeing their pain and the forces that oppress them even when they don’t, perhaps especially when they don’t. But our ability to relate to them also hinges on the possibility of redemption, if not its actualization. We see ourselves, however dimly, in antiheroes. Their potential for change is our own. We can stand to watch them do terrible things because we harbor hope that they, and we, can change. Read more…
Sara Fredman | Longreads | July 2019 | 9 minutes (2,492 words)
What makes an antihero show work? In this Longreads series, It’s Not Easy Being Mean, Sara Fredman explores the fine-tuning that goes into writing a bad guy we can root for, and asks whether the same rules apply to women.
Golden Age antihero plots were inextricably tied to marriage and the family. Women were often written as villains, antagonists to their husbands who were humanized by the way they loved and provided for their families, no matter the means. Parenthood in particular fulfilled another key requirement for the success of an antihero show: the perfect balance of power and powerlessness the antihero had to maintain in order to retain our sympathy. There is nothing quite like parenting children to make a person feel like a superhero one moment and dust in the wind the next. Read more…
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. Read more…
To get to the Kingdom of Heaven, drive a long twisting road that dips in and out of wide green fields dotted with hay bales, skim alongside a crooked river and stop at the sign that says Marble Country. A wooden ranch gate — a tall archway of timber and American flags — marks the spot. Keep going past it for 20 more minutes and you’ll leave the country altogether; drive under that gate, and in a way, you’ll leave America, too.
For nearly 30 years, speculation about what goes on beyond the threshold to Marble Country has confused, scared, and angered folks here in Stevens County — a far-flung region of thick forests and dirt roads, cow pastures and low hills deep in the northeastern corner of Washington state.
Before the first barn wall could be raised on the site of a ghost town, people were already whispering. “Religious Group Says Fear Of Cult Unjustified,” a 1992 Associated Press headline read, “Pentecostal Sect Plans To Move Into Ghost Town.”
That religious group, led by a married couple named Barry and Anne Byrd, intended to create its very own Western-themed shining city on the hill: what they termed a “Christian covenant community.” They called it Marble Country, and they built houses and a church — Marble Community Fellowship — and painted “Holy Ghost Town” on an old barn. They raised families, planted crops. It wasn’t just a new town put down in an old place, but an old place resurrected. A brochure said Marble would get into all levels of politics, offer alternative civil courts and an alternative media.
“We are committed to uniting the generations to labor together to bring the dominion of Christ in every area of life,” the Byrds promised in the brochure.
For most of the time Marble Country has existed, the Byrds have hosted an event each summer called the God and Country Celebration. As the Patriot movement has made more and more headlines — between the standoffs at Bundy Ranch in 2014 and Malheur in 2016, and the subsequent trials — the name Marble kept popping up in my reporting. People who’d once been in the movement told me the festival was a gathering of militia bigwigs, Patriot celebrities, and politicians with extreme beliefs. It sounded like some kind of Patriot Woodstock, but it’s closed to the media, so I couldn’t go see it for myself.
In the summer of 2018, Jeanette Finicum was a “special guest” at the festival, bringing with her the message of her murdered, martyred husband. During the weekend, children in cowboy hats and jeans waved big white flags from the Marble stage bearing her husband’s distinct “LV” cattle brand.
Finicum chose Marble as one of the first places to screen LaVoy: Dead Man Talking, a multipart film about her husband. There she delivered a speech that differed greatly in tone from the one she gave when I saw her speak in Salem, Oregon, just six months later. Someone sent me a recording of her Marble speech: She wasn’t the diminutive chuck-wagon mom I’d seen in Salem, but a pissed-off activist with a message ready for an audience who cheered her on.
“The media is not in the business of telling the truth,” she spat into the microphone.
“Their job, their motive, their mission is to create an illusion in order to blur our reality. I was label-lynched by them as a sovereign citizen, anti-government terrorist. Profiled as a domestic right-wing extremist and judged by the American public for standing with my husband,” she said. She told them she was on a watch list. The feds monitored her home.
She never used that word — lynching — when I saw her speak in Salem, but here, both she and Mark Herr, the film’s producer, spoke it as if it were a word created for them. They have been lynched, they told the crowd, again and again. Lynched.
The lynch mob, by their estimation, was the media: inflicting extrajudicial punishment to God-fearing freedom lovers. How dare anyone go after them?
“Your political opponents are using labels and the force of government to lynch you out of existence! What can you do?” Finicum asked. “You can make label-lynching a hate crime.” She told the crowd to lobby state legislators to make Patriots a special class.
“We should be a protected class,” she yelled. “After all, everyone else is!”
To that, the crowd cheered so loud it was almost hard to hear her anymore.
For decades, Stevens County, where Marble Country is located, has served as somewhat of a wooded, mountainous petri dish for conspiracy theories to grow, flourish, and find new hosts. For most of that time, one daily newspaper reporter was there to document the crimes committed by fringe groups who’ve found haven in the Stevens County’s sparsely populated areas. His name is Bill Morlin, and for decades he worked at the Spokane Daily Chronicle, then The Spokesman-Review. Now in his 70s, I first met him in the federal courtroom during the Bundys’ short-lived trial in Las Vegas.
In the spring of 2019, I called him up to get a crash course on Stevens County’s right-wing extremist history. Something that may come as a surprise to people who aren’t familiar with the Inland Northwest is that the Northwestern United States isn’t all rain showers and mountains and Nirvana records, coffee shops and weed stores on every corner.
In fact, Eastern Washington and North Idaho couldn’t be less in line with that image. It’s a deeply conservative area of the West. It’s hot and dry in the summer, cold as hell in the winter. In the past few years, some people have started to call this region the American Redoubt — the nickname survivalists and preppers have given Eastern Washington, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, arguing that it’s a safe haven for libertarians. The term was popularized by James Wesley Rawles, who calls the people who migrated there for that reason “the remnant. Libertarians and preppers from around the country have been encouraged to make a home here. There are even “redoubt realtors” who’ll sell you a house, complete with a bomb shelter.
I came to talk to Morlin about Stevens County, but also about this region as a whole. He came prepared for our meeting with three pages, single-spaced, detailing various murders, robberies, kidnappings, and bombings committed by people from the county.
You can’t talk about the violent history of Stevens County without first understanding the Aryan Nations, a neo-Nazi group who had a compound in nearby north Idaho — two hours from Stevens County. It was one of the first violent groups in the Pacific Northwest he recalls writing about. Morlin tells me about a 1983 cross-burning ceremony at the Aryan Nations he covered.
In the late 1970s, Richard Butler, who would become one of the most famous white supremacists in the country, had set up the swastika-emblazoned compound near Hayden Lake, Idaho, attracting racists from every corner of the country to the Idaho Panhandle. Butler allowed Morlin and a photographer to document the event, which the newspaper had been trying to cover, as a way of attempting to understand who, exactly, was gathering at the compound.
“There was sort of a division, like do we pay these people any attention or do we ignore them?” he recalled of his paper’s coverage of cross burnings. “In fact a columnist at the other newspaper thought we were foolish for writing about the fact that there’d been a cross burning. He was of the school of thought that if you ignore them, they’ll go away, and by writing about them all you’re doing is giving them publicity.
“I have never to this day signed on to that belief system,” Morlin continued. “Neither do major civil rights organizations. They believe that turning the lights on is the only way you can deal with hate groups.”
The cross burning was called the Blessing of the Weapons and was presided over by former Michigan KKK grand dragon Robert Miles. (In 1973, Miles was convicted of conspiring to bomb ten school buses in Pontiac, Michigan.)
“It was very uncomfortable,” Morlin said. As the group of 40 to 50 people lit three crosses wrapped in diesel-soaked burlap, “each person in the circle would walk up with with his weapon … knives or handguns or long rifles. And each of them would be blessed by the master of ceremonies. The ceremony was to signify that these people were committing to the white cause and the fight for the white race that they envisioned was coming any day.”
That night, Morlin didn’t know who exactly all those men were that had their guns blessed in the name of a white war — but soon, he would. They would become known as the Order. It was an all-white underground domestic terrorist organization established by an anti-government extremist and racist named Bob Mathews, who had been actively recruiting people to create a “White American Bastion” in the Pacific Northwest and was motivated, in part, by an extremist ideology called Christian Identity.
It’s an ideology that relies on the belief that Jews are descendants of Cain, and people of color are soulless and “beasts of the field,” while whites are the true “House of Israel.” Some Identity adherents believe Jews are the spawn of Eve and Satan. Butler, too, preached Christian Identity from his very own church at the compound. Around the nation, neo-Nazi groups and the Ku Klux Klan also believed in the radical ideology.
Nationwide, as violent white supremacist fires flared, Christian Identity — time and time again — was the pitch wood making it burn hot and constant.
The men of the Order met at a cabin on Mathews’s Northeastern Washington property which was located in the county next to Stevens County. They “stood in a circle secretly and pledged a blood oath to each other to jointly fight this race war that they believed was coming,” Morlin told me.
Morlin believes the men were inspired by a work of racist, apocalyptic fiction, a novel called The Turner Diaries that details a race war, and that, later, compelled Timothy McVeigh to bomb the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
According to Morlin, the men at the ceremony eventually committed “a litany” of violent acts, most notably the 1984 assassination of a Jewish radio host named Alan Berg, who’d mocked a tenet of Christian Identity — that Jews were evil incarnate — on his Denver talk show. They committed a robbery in Spokane, bombed a synagogue in Boise, and robbed armored cars in Seattle. But investigators were baffled, unable to figure out who was responsible for so much violence.
“This is in an era before the term ‘terrorist’ meant anything to anybody. I mean it’s like ‘Domestic terrorism? What’s that?’” Morlin said.
During a Northern California robbery of several million dollars from an armored car, Mathews left a handgun behind — a mistake that would eventually lead to the downfall of the Order. Mathews died in a shoot-out before the group’s 1985 trial in Seattle, which Morlin covered for the Spokesman-Review.
“A lot of the East Coast networks and newspapers had pretty much ignored the fact that the Order trial had occurred,” he says. “It was really a big deal, but it had happened on the West Coast and it didn’t get the news coverage, in my view, that it would have received if it had been in Florida or New York or Ohio or Pennsylvania.”
In fact, the Order created a new legacy for up-and-coming racists to follow: Today, violent white supremacist groups still cite an adherence to a mission statement called “The 14 Words” — “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children” — which was coined by one of the Order’s members.
The men of the Order weren’t exactly quiet about the ideas that drove them: Mathews and other members of the group were known to convene at a Colorado Christian Identity church led by an anti-Jewish, anti-homosexual, and racist preacher named Pete Peters. Despite its small population, by the 1990s, Stevens County was home to at least two Christian Identity churches: the Ark, near the Canadian border, and another founded by a former Ark acolyte, the Christian Israel Covenant Church. (The Ark is now called Our Place Fellowship; the Christian Israel Covenant Church disbanded in the early 2000s.)
“Those churches taught that white people are the superior race, that Jews are biologically satanic,” Morlin told me.
The churches were small — and though the pastor at the Ark, Dan Henry, told The Spokesman-Review in 1992 that he rejected the “hate mongering” of the Aryan Nations, he also acknowledged preaching antisemitic ideas.
But word had gotten around. People knew who was attending services. So it was common knowledge that the couple trying to start that new Christian covenant community called Marble Country — Barry and Anne Byrd — had attended the Ark for years.
It was like the county knew what was about to happen — that this tiny bastion of hateful ideas was about to cross the rubicon, producing a number of followers who would spill blood in the name of Identity ideology all around the American West.
The racist services at The Ark were attended not only by adults who wanted to hear the sermons of Henry and other extremists, but also often by the children of those people, too. Chevie Kehoe fit the profile of one of those kids. Raised in part in Stevens County, his parents, Kirby and Gloria Kehoe, brought their children to services at the Ark, likely around the same time the Byrds attended. As his children grew older, Kirby Kehoe, an adamant racist, grew increasingly skeptical of the government, pulling his kids out of their Colville, Washington, public school, viewing schools “as a threat,” according to his son. In a 1999 New York Times interview, Chevie said his parents were interested in the notion of a whites-only region preached by the Order’s Mathews, and over time Chevie believed that he himself could bring the plan to fruition in the Northwest. He called the region the Aryan People’s Republic, and began committing robberies and acts of violence in devotion to the concept.
In the late 1990s, he launched a cross-country trip to recruit people to his white region — a trip that turned into a spree of murders, shootings, and robberies.
In 1996, Chevie Kehoe robbed and murdered a man, his wife, and her 8-year-old daughter in Arkansas, then tossed their bodies into the Illinois Bayou. The next year, when police officers in Ohio pulled over Kehoe and his brother, Cheyne, and in two subsequent shoot-outs, Kehoe fired 33 bullets, seriously injuring a pedestrian before fleeing. Both were arrested after a brief manhunt, and Chevie was later sentenced to three consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole.
Even decades after Chevie Kehoe’s imprisonment, the whites-only nation idea that invigorated him, Mathews, and the Order before him, would keep surfacing in new ways and in new forms.
Kehoe is now incarcerated at the ADX Florence supermax prison in Fremont County, Colorado, alongside McVeigh’s Oklahoma City bombing accomplice Terry Nichols and 1996 Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph, who was inspired by Christian Identity to bomb abortion clinics, a lesbian bar, and the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
In 2012, serial killer Israel Keyes, who grew up with the Kehoe brothers and who also occasionally attended the Ark as a child, confessed to committing robberies and murders from coast to coast before reportedly dying by suicide in a jail cell. It’s unclear if his crimes were inspired by any sort of ideology, but during the 1990s, his father wrote a letter of support for both the Byrds and Pete Peters that was published in the local paper.
Keyes wrote that it wasn’t illegal to practice Christian Identity: “It is my understanding that the Marble Community Fellowship has very little to do with the Christian Identity Movement, but so what? Haven’t we as Americans a right to exercise a belief in God and celebrate our white heritage and Christian religion? After all, many Jews consider their race to be God’s chosen people. Is this not racism at its zenith?”
Morlin told me that he reported from a meeting of the Stevens County Assembly — an anti-government militia — in 2012, in which neo-Confederate Pastor John Weaver spoke. Weaver gives racist sermons from the pulpit — sometimes in front of a Confederate flag, sometimes wearing a Confederate flag–printed tie — railing against interracial marriage, and advocating for slavery. By the time of the meeting, he was no stranger to Eastern Washington. In the early 1990s, he appeared at a Spokane conference of white supremacists, during which he promoted his book that urged Americans to break laws should the government become occupied by Jews.
In 2015, Weaver was back in Stevens County to give another speech — this time, he was onstage at Marble Country.
Marble’s God and Country Festival wouldn’t be what it is without a speech from a Washington State House Representative from a district two hours away.
His name is Matt Shea. A clean-cut Army veteran with a law degree, Shea wears thin glasses, dresses in crisply ironed shirts, and smiles tightly. He positions himself as a voice of rural people, but actually represents a district that includes Spokane Valley, a largely suburban city of almost 100,000.
Rep. Matt Shea at a January 2017 gun-rights rally in Olympia, Washington. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
Shea, over the course of six two-year terms, has become a fixture at the far-right edge of what Washingtonians consider Republican. He rarely speaks to reporters — unless they work for publications that have the words “liberty” or “redoubt” in their name. I know more people who’ve done in-person interviews with President Trump than with State Representative Shea, and for years, I worked at newspapers that covered his district.
In order for Shea’s constituents to get an understanding of his ideas, they need to tune into his podcast. The show always takes the same format: Shea reads off some headlines from right-wing news sites, then interviews a guest, while often piping up in agreement with their outlandish theories.
Those guests tend to hold views reflected in the bills Shea introduces in the Washington House. They’re unflinching Second Amendment advocates. This spring, a woman on the program preached abstinence-only sex education and an anti-vaccine “researcher” claimed that child immunizations are contaminated with aborted fetuses.
Mostly, they’re conspiracy theorists and bigots with views Shea parrots. This spring, the legislator hosted a representative from an anti-abortion and homophobic group that has participated in burnings of the Quran. He interviewed a man who spouted talking points from conspiracists who believe in Agenda 21 — a theory that sustainable development is a shady plan hatched by a “New International Economic Order” to control people and take their freedom. Recently, he hosted a conspiracy theorist who believes the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks were actually a “controlled demolition.”
You could say Shea is a lot like Bill Keebler — except he wears a suit and taxpayers pay him a salary.
Shea, for years, has seemed at home among the creators of fake news and conspiracy theories that turn violent. As early as 2009, he made several appearances on conspiracy king Alex Jones’s InfoWars show, where Jones introduced him with reverence. “Representative,” he says, “good to have you on with us.” In that February 2009 interview, Shea and Jones spoke of their belief that the federal government was setting up camps to imprison Americans.
It seems as though in Shea’s world, the country is on the verge of collapse. People will have to fight for their lives. And he intends to be prepared: “If you do not have 5,000 rounds of .223, 5,000 rounds of .22 and a thousand rounds of handgun ammo as a minimum, you’re wrong!” he called from an Idaho stage in 2013.
“We want to prepare for the inevitable collapse that’s gonna happen. And yes, I said that as a politician here onstage. It’s gonna happen! We all know that! The question is, and I think the question should be for all of us, what are we gonna do afterwards? What are we gonna do with that opportunity?”
Apocalypse, government collapse, anarchy — in his world, these are exciting prospects. Opportunities even. A chance at a fresh start, a time to get society back on track.
In this fantasy apocalypse, perhaps being well-prepared and well-armed will be so necessary that the person you were in the past — in the pre-collapse — won’t matter. Money will be obsolete. Laws won’t be enforced. Maybe a violent past will suddenly be seen as an asset.
This might have special appeal for Shea. His ex-wife, who filed for divorce in 2007, alleged that Shea grabbed her so hard during two arguments that he left bruises on her arms. In those same divorce filings, she told stories of a controlling man; by her account, he commanded her to always walk on his left side because a soldier needs to be able to draw his sword from the right. (Shea was in the Army and served in combat, but his wife said he did not traditionally carry a sword.)
Shea did not respond to requests for comment, but when asked a decade ago about his divorce by the Spokesman-Review, he denied any violence and said, “I love my wife and, when I married, I intended it to be for life. Unfortunately, my former wife didn’t and decided to pursue her third divorce.”
In 2011, Matt Shea was involved in a road rage incident in Spokane, in which another driver alleged Shea pulled a gun. In a police report, Shea told officers that as an Iraq war veteran he had to use “evasive techniques” to avoid hitting the man’s car (which Shea described as engaging in “Baghdad driving”), and proceeded to follow it. Shea admitted to officers that he had a gun in his car, that he produced it from a glovebox during the incident, and that he had an expired concealed carry permit. The other driver said he saw the handgun and was afraid Shea was going to shoot him. Later, Shea’s attorney made a deal with prosecutors that resulted in the charges being dropped.
Even now, in a time he surmises is the end of civil society, all of this has become standard Shea stuff. None of his past did real damage to his standing with voters. But it didn’t mean the things he said didn’t set people on edge.
In the spring of 2014, a woman was eating at a Spokane Valley Mexican restaurant when she overheard a conversation between two men at the next table over. Later, she found out those men were Shea and the head of the Oath Keepers militia, Stewart Rhodes.
But sitting there, hearing them, she became so concerned over what they were saying that she took their picture and called the police. According to a police dispatch, the woman overheard “a conversation from a group of males talking about snipers, Clive [sic] Bundy, and public militias.” One of the individuals, she told the police, had “thermal imaging binoculars,” and the group sounded “like they were planning something.”
Still, Shea won the election that year with 57 percent of the vote.
If he could sit in a diner with one of the biggest militia leaders in this country and openly talk about military tactics, it seemed like Shea could be as extreme as he wanted — and it wouldn’t cost him any support. And even some of the most conservative Republicans in Eastern Washington were baffled by how Shea stayed in office.
Two of those people are Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich and a former Republican state legislator from Stevens County, John Smith. In a three-part podcast on white supremacy in the region, the pair suggested that Shea’s involvement at Marble Country was something voters should worry about. It was a part of a deep history of racism and hate that had found a home in this region going way back.
Smith was raised by his grandparents in southern Idaho — and his grandfather was friends with people in the Aryan Nations and in the Order. Their home often had new people coming through the door. He remembered his grandfather laying maps out in the kitchen nook and drawing up plans for “an armed revolt.”
Smith realized on his own the ideology he’d been raised around was rotten and that he had to find a way out of it. He took a job as a ranch hand when he was 16 years old, and as a young adult, he attended church at the Ark. He was later married there, though he says he and his wife have since cut their connections with the church.
But he told me that it’s become something of a mission for him to speak up when he sees ideas rooted in Christian Identity catching on here. Stevens County has a history — he knows it, everyone does, even though racists have always been a fringe minority. And in a podcast with Knezovich, Smith hoped people would hear stories of his childhood as a cautionary tale.
“I grew up in that environment, and that stuff doesn’t wash off you. I acknowledge that darkness might still be inside me,” he told me. He maintains that he’s constantly trying to make sure he’s free of it, that he root out any part of him that might still carry what he learned as a kid — asking friends who aren’t white, who weren’t raised around neo-Nazis, if he’s changed.
“I actively go to them and say, ‘Look at me and tell me, is it still in me? Am I still saying the wrong things? Am I still thinking of this in the wrong way?’ I’m trying to not have that be in there anymore. And maybe part of that is standing up and saying this is not OK.”
Smith, in the video versions of the podcast was small and diminutive next to Knezovich. The latter is a tall, hulking man with a bald head and a sidearm, who shook my hand firmly and didn’t smile once when I interviewed him in a conference room at the Spokane County Sheriff’s office last summer.
He told me he sees Shea’s increasingly conspiratorial rhetoric and the allegations of aggressive behavior against him through a lens of one reality his department deals with regularly: that racism is alive and well in his county. He talked about getting a call one morning that KKK flyers had appeared plastered all over a suburb called Millwood, and about teenagers spouting white nationalist talking points in the hallways of local high schools.
He also talked about threats. Since Knezovich — a member of the local Republican party and a man who twice endorsed Shea — started speaking up about Shea, he has received death threats from people associated with the legislator.
“I’ve got my estate in order. I’ve got my will done. The kids have all been briefed. And don’t take this as me being flippant. Nobody wants to die. I came to grips with death a long, long time ago,” he says. “And there’s been more people than I that have died for this country. And if that’s what it takes for people to wake up to what’s happening around them. All right. I love my nation. And if it takes fighting these people on these terms? Bring it on.”
In 2015, Shea was at the God and Country Celebration again, this time next to John Weaver — the neo-Confederate preacher. The next year, many of the legislators from around the West who sympathized with the Bundys in both 2014 and 2016 showed up to Marble, too.
In some years, Anne Byrd posted photos to Facebook of the people who came to Marble. In the caption of a picture of Val Stevens, a former Washington state rep, Byrd wrote that Marble was “blessed” for legislators to be “standing in the gap” for the people.
By the summer of 2018, in the months before the election when many legislators campaign in their districts, Matt Shea appeared alongside Jeanette Finicum at the God and Country Festival. He talked about an idea he’d been shopping for years in the Washington statehouse: He wanted to secede Eastern Washington and create “a safe haven,” a 51st state called Liberty.
Shea insisted people east of the Cascades just didn’t agree with the values of “downtown Seattle,” so why even try to get along? “I would submit, here in Eastern Washington, we believe in the right of self defense. We also believe the constitution means what it says,” he told another crowd. Seattle doesn’t because, he says, it is filled with communists. “And communism, real communism, has killed more people as an ideology than any other ideology in this history of the world — atheist communism.”
All this time Shea spent up here in Stevens County, far from his district, he wasn’t recruiting any new voters. But it did appear he was amassing a following for a political movement, of which he was a leader and visionary.
So I figured if I really wanted to ask him a question, and get any kind of an answer, I should show up to a gun rally where he was slated to be a featured speaker.
It was a hot August day — a dry heat, as people in Eastern Washington like to say. The rally was to be held at a large, grassy green park on the northside of Spokane — much closer to his district than Stevens County, but still not in it. A place where people play softball and lay out picnics. On this day, a small crowd gathered. For the most part, they wore shirts emblazoned with proclamations of love for guns and freedom, but several wore militia gear and carried militia flags. Several carried AR-15s.
When he was finished, I trudged across the grass, introduced myself, and said I was hoping to ask him some questions: about this 51st State idea and his affinity for speaking at Marble each year. To my surprise, he agreed to talk.
Log onto YouTube and watch Finicum’s end, spliced, paused, and dissected by people who never knew him but who, too, have again and again watched it happen.
When Finicum was killed, law enforcement officers were acting on an opportunity to arrest the leaders of the weeks-long Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation in Oregon. Finicum was one of just a few actual ranchers who joined the Bundys’ occupation. Ranching was Finicum’s dream — something he’d only started doing once he turned 50. He didn’t grow up a rancher, but he intended to die one.
In the final seconds of his life — on the very last day of his 54th year — Finicum proved to be even more of a true believer in the purpose of the occupation than the Bundys themselves.
That frigid late January day, an informant tipped the feds off that cars carrying the Bundys and other leaders would be traveling to Grant County, Oregon for a meeting with citizens and the area’s sheriff, who was allegedly sympathetic to the cause.
But the group never got to the meeting. Before they could arrive, members of the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team and Oregon State Police SWAT team stopped the cars on a remote bend. Ammon Bundy followed law enforcement orders to get out of the car with his hands up, kneel on the ground, and crawl towards the officers. But Finicum refused to surrender.
Suddenly Finicum, who some viewed as a grandfatherly voice of reason back at the refuge, was yelling at the officers from his driver’s seat. He told them: “Back down or you kill me now.”
“Boys, you better realize we got people on the way,” Finicum yelled. “You want a bloodbath? It’s gonna be on your hands.”
In his back seat, the other occupants of the car — Ryan Bundy, a grandmother named Shawna Cox, and 18-year-old gospel singer Victoria Sharp — frantically tried to call people back at the refuge, but realized they’d been pulled over in an area with no cell service.
“I’m going to be laying down here on the ground with my blood on the street, or I’m going to see the sheriff,” Finicum yelled out the window. Finicum told the occupants of the car he would leave, try to get help. “You ready?” he asked.
“Well, where’s those guns?” Ryan Bundy responded, telling the other passengers to duck down.
“Gun it!” Cox said. “Gun it!”
Finicum slammed the accelerator. Driving at over 70 miles per hour, careening around a bend, the sound of bullets pecked at his truck. Up ahead, the FBI and Oregon State Police had blocked the road.
Finicum jerked the wheel — either to avoid hitting the road block, or to speed around it altogether. “Hang on!” he said. The truck crashed into deep banks of snow, sending up a white wave that made it look as if he’d plowed over an FBI agent. Finicum leaped from the truck, hands raised. All around him, officers yelled, “Get on the ground!”
This is all on the internet: Cox’s cell phone captured the conversation and fear in the truck, drone footage shot from above shows the lone white Dodge Ram pickup.
You can see the crash, see the driver’s door fly open. You can see Finicum hop out as he taunts at the police that they’re “gonna have to shoot me.” You can hear the three bullets — bang, bang, bang. Dead.
Every time I watch the video I think I’ll hear some new intonation, some missed revelation, and yet Finicum always dies the same. Three pops. He doesn’t jump or yelp. He simply crumples: a body tense and alive one second, a heavy sack of bones dropped to the ground for eternity the next. A puppet without a hand. Gravity stronger than spirit.
As Finicum stumbled in the snow, he yelled to the officers to shoot him before reaching multiple times toward his jacket. The overhead video captures that. Later, official reports said Finicum had a loaded 9 mm handgun in his inside jacket pocket. The shooting was ruled justified.
And yet now, three years later, a movement of people across America see his death another way entirely: As an assassination. An execution. A carefully-calculated hit on a lifelong member of the LDS church and short-time associate of the notorious Bundy family. Finicum is seen as a friend to men whose favorite part of the U.S. Constitution is the line about well-armed militias. The snowy road where he died is Finicum’s own Golgotha. The FBI roadblock is referred to, in some corners of the internet, as “the killstop.” Read more…
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.”
Keebler hunting coyotes in 2011. (AP Photo/Al Hartmann – The Salt Lake Tribune)
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 likeBundy 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. Read more…
When the house around the corner exploded, Richard Katschke and his wife, Karen, were reading scripture. The retired pair looked up from the pages and froze. In another room, a plastic light cover clattered to the floor.
It was a warm Wednesday. Mid-July 2016, about 8 p.m. Outside, a boy rode his bike near South Fifth Street. A man started a lawn mower.
The Katschkes were seated on a brown leather couch in a room they’d added onto their Panaca, Nevada, house years earlier for Richard’s elderly mother — both he and Karen called her “Mom.” She lived there until the Katschkes made her more comfortable at the nearby hospital in her final days, where a quiet nurse would rub her feet with cream and stay by her side, watching the old woman’s eyes for a sign she was ready to be with God.
The Katschkes never imagined that nurse, 59-year-old Glenn Jones, would, in the last seconds of his life, commit a bombing around the corner from their house — a cataclysmic event that would send a family screaming from their home seconds before it exploded and, even now, three years later, would still have no official explanation from federal authorities.
Glen Wadsworth was the last person to see Jones alive. He was pushing a lawn mower across the grass at his childhood home. Inside, his elderly father sat in front of the television.
Ever since Wadsworth was a teenager, he mowed the lawn the exact same way: pushing and pulling the machine from front yard to side yard to back. But for a reason he still can’t quite understand, that July evening he pushed and pulled a different way than ever before: front, back, side.
Wadsworth — a tall man with straight teeth and neatly combed hair who serves as a member of the local volunteer fire department — looked up from his mower to see Jones back a car up to the gray house next door, where Joshua and Tiffany Cluff lived with their three daughters. Jones parked, got out of the car, and waved to Wadsworth. Wadsworth waved back and continued mowing. He didn’t know Jones, but thought he looked familiar from when the Cluffs built the gray house and friends chipped in on the work.
Wadsworth didn’t see or hear Tiffany and her girls run out of the house, screaming into the telephone.
“911, What is your emergency?” the operator said.
“I … Someone … somebody showed up at my house with a bomb,” Tiffany Cluff panted into her neighbor’s phone. “He’s going to blow my house up.”
“Ma’am. Ma’am. Take a breath for me, OK? I can barely understand ya. What is happening?”
“We’re running away from my house,” Tiffany, hysterical, choked on her words. “I grabbed my kids and I ran.”
“He said he was going to kill you?”
“He said he was going to blow the house up.”
“OK, all right, take a couple breaths for me,” the dispatcher said. “Are you away from the home?”
Tiffany couldn’t even finish the word “yes” before the sound of a bomb exploding and the heart-stopping screaming of three little girls flattened any other noise coming through the receiver.
“Oh my god!” she screamed. “He just blew my house up!”
Down the street, Lincoln County Sheriff Kerry Lee — one of Glen Wadsworth’s oldest friends — was out in his yard with his dog when the blast shook his ribcage.
Lee smiles a lot for a cop — a wide, friendly grin under a thick mustache and a flat-top haircut. And in Panaca, he wears a lot of hats: He’s the sheriff, but he’s also the chief of the volunteer fire department and the county coroner. By July 2016, he’d been in law enforcement for nearly 30 years, and he knew that in Panaca, loud noises are often easily explained: a sonic boom from a military aircraft flying low around Nellis Air Force Base or the Nevada Test and Training Range.
But this was different. Normal noises don’t shake you from the inside. The sheriff yanked his dog into the house, grabbed the keys to his patrol rig, and sprinted back out again. He paused, trying to understand why, all around him, it sounded like a hailstorm was falling from the clear blue sky: “I knew something wasn’t right.”
Wadsworth was still mowing. He didn’t hear Jones shoot himself as he sat in the front seat of the car. Maybe the mower drowned out the sharp pop of the gun, or maybe he’d just fired so many gunshots of his own across the dry desert that he had conditioned himself not to flinch at the sound. But when he looked up from his mower and saw the house next door on fire, he sprinted toward it, believing the family was inside. He ran toward the house, but at the front door, it was as if he ran right smack into the palm of an invisible hand. “It was just like a wall. I just couldn’t.”
Another explosion sounded on the 911 call.
Sheriff Lee could see a mushroom cloud billowing when he looked down South Fifth Street. He assumed it had to be a fire, a gas explosion, an exploded transformer. A bomb? Here? In Panaca? Never crossed his mind.
The windows of the Wadsworth home exploded inward and a hunk of Jones’s car rocketed straight toward the old man sitting in his chair, landing just short at his feet. Glen Wadsworth, somehow, wasn’t hit by a thing.
The chipping house next door to the Cluff home inched sideways on its foundation. A chunk of shrapnel careened toward the boy on his bike, hitting him so hard in the shoulder that it knocked him to the ground, but miraculously, only left a small bruise.
The two explosions sent hot metal shrapnel flying upward, curving in long arcs over the remote desert town. A half mile away, debris rained on the high school. The football team, outside doing drills, dropped to the ground. Daggers of shrapnel stabbed into the sides of nearby houses. One piece punched through the roof of a garage, piercing the hood of the car parked inside.
In a town where nothing ever happens, a town where there are no secrets, suddenly there was mayhem.
“It was Glenn Jones,” Tiffany Cluff cried to the 911 dispatcher. “He said he was going to kill himself and blow up our house.”
As Sheriff Lee drove closer, he could see the destroyed house: It looked like a giant had mashed the house with colossal fists and twisted a car into a grotesque tangle of metal, leaving a deep crater in the pavement.
“Cars blow up like that in a movie,” Lee said. “They don’t normally blow up like that.”
Neighbors who’d gathered at the corner of Fifth and Hansen waved the sheriff down. “Stop! Stop!” he remembers them shouting as he pulled up to the scene. “You’re running over body parts!”
Sure enough, there on the ground lay a pair of legs.
It would be 14 hours before investigators would find the rest of Glenn Jones. His torso had flown out of sight, high into a neighbor’s tree.
Though the investigation was transferred to the hands of federal authorities, Sheriff Lee — in another of his roles, as county coroner — inspected the top half of the body when it was fished down from the branches. He was surprised to see two tattoos on the chest.
One clearly read DNR — medical code for “do not resuscitate.” The other was a phone number for the man whose house he had just exploded: Joshua Cluff.
A gravelly town on the sinful side of the Utah-Nevada border, the desert outpost of Panaca was established in the 1860s by Mormon pioneers whose legacies live on in the few street names here and in the last names of the people who still call this place home.
Today, Panaca is like a peninsula of Utah: the only town in Nevada that is dry, and one of just two in the state where gambling is prohibited. If you want a beer, you’ll have to drive 15 miles to Caliente — pronounced around these parts as “Cal-yen-ee” — to get one, at a smoky bar along a peeling downtown strip. Panaca, Caliente — they’re what you picture when you think of a Western town: At night, tumbleweeds blow down the middle of empty streets, coming to rest against a hardware store with deer heads and bobcat pelts on display in the window.
It’s a place where you know your neighbor, and you know that really knowing him means understanding what’s your business and what isn’t.
On Thursday, July 14, 2016, the day after the bombing, shrapnel lines a previously quiet street in Panaca, Nevada. (Brett Le Blanc/Las Vegas Review-Journal via AP)
Most Panacans worship together at an LDS church right smack in the center of town. A single market sells snacks and produce. The streets are pocked and rough. Chickens hustle busily in some yards, horses graze in others. Here and there, piles of junk look like they’ve been battered by desert winds for decades. Next to the high school, a massive mint-green rock formation called Court Rock bubbles skyward, named for the way young folks traditionally have “courted” there; on my visit, a condom wrapper stomped into the silty mud at the rock’s foot suggested that’s still the case.
A sign displaying the Ten Commandments guards the town, as if its presence will keep the Devil out. Panaca may have a Nevada zip code, but Lord knows it’s God’s country.
Panaca is the birthplace of John Yeates Barlow, one of the most influential leaders of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — a group that still practices polygamy. LDS folks here are adamant that they would never want to be confused for FLDS, but most don’t mind having them as neighbors.
Mormonism, after all, is what built Panaca, and polygamists historically have had a place in Lincoln County. In the mid-2000s, essentially with the blessing of the FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs, a group that operated a 3,000-acre ranch more than 40 miles north of the town. The Caliente-Panaca area was a special place for Jeffs: At the Caliente Hot Springs Motel, Jeffs reportedly held underage wedding ceremonies at a moment’s notice.
When the FLDS farm sprung up, Sheriff Lee said the group was clear that they didn’t want the police in their business. So he drove up to introduce himself, shook their hands, and assured them they could call if they needed help. They were “good, good people,” he said, who were living under the direction of Jeffs: “A bad guy. A bad man.” (After a conviction on charges of felony rape was reversed by the Utah Supreme Court, Jeffs was sentenced by a Texas court to life in prison for sexually assaulting two followers — age 12 and 15 — in what his church deemed a “spiritual marriage.”)
Living here means looking the other way sometimes. Picking your battles. More than one Panacan told me they wouldn’t want to speculate about why a bombing occurred in their town, but then offered an opinion anyway: A lot of people here think the bomb was simply a loud, messy expression of a workplace grievance between Glenn Jones and Joshua Cluff.
Jones, for years, did live in Panaca, and worked under Joshua Cluff as a nurse at the Grover C. Dils Medical Center in Caliente — just across the highway from the Caliente Hot Springs. Records from the Nevada State Board of Nursing show Jones’s license was revoked after he failed to “document administration or waste” of three separate doses of morphine in a two-month span. Messages left for Grover C. Dils Medical Center staff for this story went unreturned, but in 2016 one administrator told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that Jones left his job there voluntarily and on good terms. Even so, some Panacans think maybe Jones blamed Cluff, and that’s enough explanation for why he bombed him. Sheriff Lee is skeptical of the whole workplace grievance theory. “I don’t think that was a major reason for the bombing,” Lee said.
After leaving his nursing job, Jones moved several hours south to a blue-and-white-striped mobile home in the Zuni Village RV Park in Kingman, Arizona. His camper, parked in Space #69, was at the center of the park, surrounded by homes with mostly graying retired folks.
Upon entering Jones’s RV the day after the explosion in Panaca, bomb technicians found multiple devices, several of which were “fully functional,” one officer wrote in his report. A neighbor told police they’d seen him carrying a large artillery shell into his RV, but Jones was known to buy items like it in the area, restoring and reselling them to other collectors. So most people didn’t bat an eye.
But police accounts paint a picture of a trailer brimming with bomb-making materials: metal containers, fuses, power tools, smokeless powder. Ammo cans were stacked under his dining room table. Even his shower had projectiles inside.
On a nightstand, investigators found three spiral-bound notebooks each with Jones’s name written on the front. Inside one, he had drawn diagrams for a bomb, which gave investigators reason to believe the devices were originally intended for a different target.
“The entries indicated that Glenn Jones had been approached [by] a subject identified as ‘Josh’ who offered to pay him to construct an explosive device,” wrote one detective.
“The intended target of the device was identified on one page as ‘Forth of July BLM Field Office,’” the detective continued. “The journal entries indicate that there was a falling out between Jones and ‘Josh,’ and that Jones instead decided to target ‘Josh’ with his explosive device, or ‘bomb.’
“Jones went on to document that ‘Josh’ is the cousin of LaVoy Finicum and seemed to indicate this was a possible motive for the planned attack on the BLM Field Office.”
In his office, up the road from Panaca in the town of Pioche, Nevada, Sheriff Lee keeps a large chunk of the bomb — one of the pieces the FBI didn’t seize. Just touching a finger to its razor-sharp edges is enough to draw blood. “These bombs were actually bomb artillery shells made to make shrapnel,” he said, “made to kill people.”
Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval and Lincoln County Sheriff Kerry Lee outside the destroyed Cluff home on July 15, 2016. (Brett Le Blanc/Las Vegas Review-Journal via AP.)
At the heart of what little is known about the events in Panaca was the handwritten documentation left behind by the bomber. It makes clear that Jones had an interest in Finicum — one of the central figures in the so-called Patriot movement, a collection of anti-government groups that includes the conspiratorial militia-types and sovereign citizens who flocked to the anti-government standoffs and way of thinking popularized by the Bundy family. Finicum was only ever in the movement at the end of his life, but he became a martyr for it in his death in January 2016, when he was shot and killed by law enforcement. He was fleeing a traffic stop in Oregon during which authorities intended to arrest the leaders of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation.
The car Jones blew up in Panaca was a rental. When police entered the dark green 2007 Saturn Ion that Jones owned, parked in an Avis rental car parking lot, inside they found out more about Jones and Cluff. There was a 2014 contract for a land purchase with both of their names on it and an agreement for Jones to pay Cluff $50,000.
Two years before the bombing, Jones also deposited $9,000 into an interest-bearing bank account that would mature in one year and, ultimately, be payable at the time of his death to one person: Cluff.
Much like in the rest of the U.S., people in Panaca don’t talk much about domestic terrorism these days. They likely have a better reason to talk about it than other Americans, but Panacans explain the bombing away — that what’s important to remember is that some gesture of holy providence saved them that day.
At the town’s only bed and breakfast, the mother of the kid on the bike — the only person to be hit by shrapnel — served me pancakes and eggs in the morning and mentioned she thinks “angels of our ancestors” were watching over the town that day the bomb went off.
Panacans believe their collective faith in God bent the trajectories of shrapnel to miss Wadsworth and his father. That faith kept shards of glass out of eyes, harnessed flames and surging power lines, and kept the Cluff family alive.
If God saved this town, why think about the bad parts of the story anymore — even if there’s never been an official explanation for what happened? Besides, could domestic terrorism really happen in a place like this, where everyone knows everyone else, where every house is a home?
People laugh darkly about the bombing now: The way, a few days later, a lady caught her dog gnawing on an unfamiliar bone and realized his snack was actually human. The way people still find odd remnants and assume they’re pieces of shrapnel. The way dozens of birds, for weeks, pecked away at some of the Chinese elm trees where Jones’s body parts landed.
Every spring, when Richard Katchske plants a line of flowers along his fence, he digs out twisted nobs of shrapnel from the dirt. Katchske showed me a piece, holding a brownish-black gnarl in his palm. I could have it if I wanted. I declined.
“It’ll be a legacy I pass on to my kids,” he laughed.
Last year, when Bundyville came out, I felt satisfied that I’d found the answers I’d come looking for about the Bundy family and the Patriot movement, and I felt I had a sense of their place in America’s long-standing anti-government movement.
The Bundys created flash points members of those movements could rally around: Their very public confrontation in 2014 near their Bunkerville, Nevada, ranch was borne out of long-simmering discontent with how federal agencies have treated rural people in the American West. In the case of the Bundy family, that was combined with specific gripes about how Mormon pioneers, who tried to flee America in the 1800s to create a new homeland, were treated. Then, in the 1950s, those same people in Nevada, Arizona, and Utah were showered with nuclear fallout without any warning from the government. But the 2014 standoff was also based on a conspiracy theory being pushed by the Bundys: that the feds couldn’t actually own land, and that the Bundys were entitled to graze cattle on public land for free.
So by 2014, when Bureau of Land Management agents came to collect on long-unpaid federal grazing fees — racked up by the family patriarch, Cliven Bundy, as his cattle lived on public land without a BLM permit — the family combined forces with anti-government militia groups willing to point guns at those officials. And it worked. They kept their cows. The Patriot movement declared victory. The feds turned tail.
Then, in 2016, when two of Bundy’s sons, Ammon and Ryan, helped lead the 41-day armed takeover of a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon, it was the sequel to Bundy Ranch. Anti-government groups looking to stick a finger (or a gun barrel) in the government’s eye convened in one location, as if to dare the feds to chase them out. They talked about Waco and Ruby Ridge. They said they were ranchers upset over grazing prices and the arrest and conviction of Dwight and Steven Hammond, two Oregon cattlemen who’d gone to prison for setting fire to federal land. But really, it was an event that brought out kitted-up militia guys and kitted-up guys who wanted to look like militia guys, sovereign citizens, jaded veterans, Islamophobes, white supremacists, and fringe politicians out in force.
One of the few actual ranchers who did come to the Bundys’ side at Malheur was Finicum: a 54-year-old Arizona rancher who assumed a leadership role at the Oregon occupation and was killed there. But in his death, the Patriot movement got a new martyr.
Last year, I thought I knew what that meant, how this concept of “Bundyville,” to me, was a state of mind. You believe whatever you want about the world, even if you know very well it isn’t true — as if by thinking this way you will manifest it into existence. And that felt like a way of understanding the deep divides in America right now.
But then, something I didn’t expect happened.
After we released Bundyville, these conspiracy theories I’d heard about in the Patriot movement — ones that were always there, but never central to my reporting on the Bundy family — started popping into the headlines more and more. The Guardian reported that investigators, upon looking into motivations for why Stephen Paddock committed a deadly shooting spree in Las Vegas, encountered stories of his supposed sovereign citizen ideology and a purported belief that FEMA runs concentration camps meant to round up Americans.
Then, in March 2019, a Florida man named Cesar Sayoc Jr. pleaded guilty to mailing 16 explosives to a dozen prominent Democrats and billionaire investor George Soros. Within the Patriot movement, talk about Soros — who has been the target of conspiratorial rhetoric by Trump — was something I’d heard more than once. But now the President of the United States was known for floating conspiracies about Soros. Last fall, he told reporters he “wouldn’t be surprised” if the caravan of migrants approaching the southern border were paid to come to the U.S. He added, “a lot of people say” the migrants were funded by Soros.
Back in 2016, when I covered the Oregon Standoff trial, I spent a lot of time talking to Patriot Movement supporters outside the courthouse. Our conversations, often, would feel normal until, quite suddenly, they’d take a hard turn; conversations about federal overreach would turn to conspiracies about the so-called New World Order, shadowy cabals of “globalist” leaders, implementation of sharia law, and supposed terrorist training camps in the U.S. They told me about Agenda 21 — a United Nations plan of action, which they believed would use sustainable development to redistribute wealth and turn the U.S. into a communist state. They talked about Uranium One, a conspiracy in which Hillary Clinton supposedly sold uranium to Russia in exchange for donations to the Clinton Foundation.
I wrote them all down, but then threw those notepads into a blue Rubbermaid bin in my office and mostly forgot about them.
But those conspiracy theories kept resurfacing. The day after Sayoc was arrested, another conspiracy theorist was in the news: An antisemite named Robert Bowers, who’d been posting to a social media site largely populated by racists, and stands accused of opening fire in a Pittsburgh synagogue, murdering 11 and injuring 7 — motivated by his apparent belief that Jews are “children of Satan” and were to blame for any problems in the United States.
I’d heard things like this before, too, when learning about how Christian Identity — some followers of which believe that Jews are the spawn of Eve and Satan — drove people to form the Posse Comitatus movement, which considered the northwestern United States as a possible outpost for an all-white nation. People like that have found a home, too, within the Patriot movement.
When I asked Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League, about conspiracist thinking, he offered that a conspiracy theory develops as a way of fitting in with someone’s worldview. Or it can explain a dramatic event with an equally dramatic theory. He uses President John F. Kennedy’s assassination — and more than 50 years of conspiracy theories about what occurred that day — as an example of how the psychology functions. “It’s a psychological thing where what actually happened is simply too simple for someone to be satisfied with,” he said. “The idea that one person killed the president is just not satisfactory to some people. For such a big event like that they seek an equally big and complex explanation.”
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Pitcavage sees conspiracy theories as the beating heart of the anti-government movement: “All the main movements in the Patriot movement are dominated by conspiracy theories.”
Suddenly, these ideas I’d scribbled down a few years ago were becoming a key conversation in America, and they gave me a sense of what the fringe edge of the far right was willing to believe. So when the president floated half-baked stories to push his agenda, they were willing to hop on board.
As steam built during the government shutdown in the winter of 2019 around President Trump’s plan to build a border wall along the southern edge of the United States, I felt like I was watching a Patriot movement passion project come to fruition. Trump, by then, was justifying the wall’s construction by telling tall tales that cartels were sending drugs over the border and terrorists were streaming into the country. Even Rep. Will Hurd, a Republican representative from Texas called bullshit.
One of the Bundys seemed to be talking relative sense on this topic. Throughout the past few years I’ve heard the family continually explain their unsubstantiated interpretation of the United States Constitution — and now Ammon Bundy, of all people, was telling his acolytes that Trump’s rhetoric about “the wall” wasn’t real. He called for compassion for people fleeing persecution, poverty, and fear. Trump, he said, “has basically called them all criminals,” and Bundy urged his followers to see that the president was peddling conspiracies.
Ammon Bundy in a video posted to Facebook in 2018, which made some internet commenters joke that he was becoming “woke.”
“What about individuals? What about those who have come for reasons of need for their families?” Bundy asked in a Facebook video. “The fathers, the mothers, and the children that come here and are willing to go through the process to apply for asylum so they can come into this country and benefit from not having to be oppressed continually?” Bundy scoffed that anyone could actually believe migrants had been paid by George Soros.
Some of his followers were outraged. Chatter went around online about Ammon Bundy being “woke.” My head spun. I called Ammon Bundy at his Idaho home as news outlets were breathlessly reporting that Cliven Bundy’s most well-known son had left the militia movement. I, too, was interested. Here he was, dividing himself from a group of people from which he’d so clearly benefited. Suddenly, the most anti-government of his followers needed to choose who to believe: Bundy, a man who had twice led them in confrontations with the feds, or the commander in chief himself, the literal embodiment of the government. Many chose the president. Even if what Trump was saying wasn’t based in reality, he was pushing an anti-immigration stance they could get behind.
Maybe Ammon Bundy realized that and saw it was a good time to bow out. His family was free. The Hammonds — the other ranchers at the center of the Bundy-led Malheur standoff — got a pardon from Trump last summer. Anti–public lands figures cycled in and out of the Department of the Interior. Bundy’s brother, Ryan, ran and lost his bid for Nevada governor, but otherwise, things were coming up Bundy.
Over the phone, Ammon claimed never to have been in the militia movement, and he told me people with fringe ideas have always been the minority of those who come to his family’s side. “Ninety-eight percent probably or better are people that are very peaceful people,” he said. “At Malheur, we considered ourselves to be on the people’s land, and who am I to say [militias] could come or couldn’t come? That makes it difficult to police yourselves.”
So I asked him: OK, what’s next?
“I had a reporter a few months ago come to my house and he said, ‘I hear you’re building a 100-man army. No! It couldn’t be farther from the truth,” he said. “I was like, ‘I don’t know what I would do with an army.’”
Would he make a “hard stand” again?
“I certainly would if there was an individual or family that I felt would benefit from it. But heavens no,” he said without hesitation. He said he’s “not afraid to do what’s right,” but that as far as another standoff is concerned: “I have no desire, I don’t believe that is where change will be made.”Maybe the Bundys are only anti-government when it’s convenient for them. But — and this sounds crazy even to me — I have to hand it to Ammon Bundy for trying to talk some sense into a historically itchy movement, to use his position to call for calm and normalcy.
And that’s why I realized we had to make more Bundyville. We are living in Bundyville. The truth is not winning. The center is not holding. The anti-government is now pro-president. And as I continued to report on the stories that make up this series, blood kept being spilled around the world in the name of conspiracies. In Pittsburgh, in New Zealand, in Southern California. Read more…