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Leah Sottile

Bundyville Chapter Four: The Gospel of Bundy

Illustration by Zoë van Dijk

Leah Sottile | Longreads | May 2018 | 46 minutes (11,600 words)

Part 4 of 4 of Bundyville, a series and podcast from Longreads and OPB.


The best way to get to Bundyville is to drive straight into the desert and prepare to never come back.

The ghost town that used to be home to the Bundy family is reachable only by deeply rutted roads covered with red quicksand so thick that it can suck in even the burliest 4×4 if you hit it wrong.

On the map, Bundyville is actually called Mount Trumbull. But back in the early 1900s, people started referring to it as Bundyville, because, according to one Arizona Republic article from 1951, “every single soul in the tiny village except one person answer to the name Bundy!” There was never electricity, no phones.

Abraham Bundy, Cliven’s great-grandfather established the town with his wife, Ella, in 1916. Their son, Roy, homesteaded there with his own family. And Cliven’s dad, David, was born in Bundyville — a place “perched atop a cold and forbidding plateau at an elevation of 5,200 feet,” according to the Arizona Republic article.

Before World War II, as many as 200 people — mostly Bundys — made their home in Bundyville, despite its remote location. Newspapers took six days to arrive. Four postmasters doled out mail twice a week. There was a school, a general store.

It was a Bundy utopia. A place that was all theirs, a place no one else wanted. And yet, still, it slipped right through their fingers. There wasn’t enough water to sustain them. By the 1950s, the place was mostly abandoned. Little had changed between the time the Bundys arrived and the time they left. “We heard the coyotes howl at night,” one Bundy resident once said, “but did not see a living soul.”

I want to stand in that place — where the family’s curse of loss began and where their anger at the government may have originated. I want to go to the middle of nowhere to see how far this family has been willing to go to live by their own code.

Bundyville still holds meaning for the family. Each year, hundreds of Bundys make a pilgrimage back for a giant Bundy family reunion. It’s like it’s not just a place in the desert, but a state of mind, too.

When Abraham Bundy and his wife arrived there, it must have seemed like it was the only place where they could fathom solace, calm. Far from civilization, far from the reaches of the federal government, the family tried to tame the landscape, farm, and raise livestock for themselves with little forage or water. To live by their own rules. To make an intractable place bend to their will.

I explain all this to a representative at the BLM’s Arizona Strip field office — that I’d like to go to the place the Bundy story started. And she clearly doesn’t think it’s a good idea for me and my producer, Ryan Haas, to go there this time of year. It’s been raining recently, she tells me. I think, so what? I’m from Oregon. But rain is unusual in that part of the Southwest, and it turns the clay-like dirt on the roads into a silty paste known to suck up tires, stranding unprepared people in potentially deadly temperatures until someone can come with help.

I read about an old lady who got lost on the road to Mount Trumbull and almost died before anyone found her. Another article talks about some hikers who’d come across skeletons in the desert there.

The outdoorsy dude-bros at a Jeep rental place in Hurricane, Utah, were skeptical, too: Just before we pull out of the lot in the burliest Jeep they’ve got, one of them throws a shovel into the back for us. “Better than nothing,” he says with a shrug.

The next morning, we wake up at 3 a.m. The way we’re figuring, if we’re going to make it, we’d better go while the ground is frozen. Read more…

Bundyville Chapter Three: A Clan Not to Cross

Illustration by Zoë van Dijk

Leah Sottile | Longreads | May 2018 | 29 minutes (7,300 words)

Part 3 of 4 of Bundyville, a series and podcast from Longreads and OPB.


Since Cliven Bundy took in his first desert breath as a free man this past January, the old cowboy has found himself more in ballrooms and meeting rooms and on stages across the West than back in the saddles he fought so hard to sit in again.

Just two days after his release, he stood in front of the Las Vegas Metro Police Department in Las Vegas, bullhorn in hand, goading the sheriff to come outside: “Is this man going to stand up and protect our life, liberty, and property?” he asked the small crowd gathered around him, smartphones livestreaming his words. The sheriff never emerged.

“My defense is a fifteen-second defense: I graze my cattle only on Clark County, Nevada, land, and I have no contract with the federal government,” Bundy told his flock.

Later that month, on a rural Montana stage flanked by ruffled red curtains, there he stood in jeans and boots and an ash-gray sport coat as a crowd of a couple hundred welcomed him with whoops and whistles fit for rural royalty. “I have a fifteen-second defense,” he said. The crowd listened, rapt.

And there he was again, in February, on an amateur YouTube talk show, in a blue plaid shirt and bolo tie, expounding for well beyond 15 seconds on his ideas about government.

If Cliven Bundy was a star among constitutional literalists after the standoff in 2014, two years in jail transformed the old man and his family into the full-fledged glitterati of the far, far right.

His trademark 15-second defense line is mostly true: Cliven has no contract with the federal government and, yet, continues to graze his cows illegally on public land. Read more…

Bundyville Chapter Two: By a Thread

Illustration by Zoë van Dijk

Leah Sottile | Longreads | May 2018 | 26 minutes (6,578 words)

Part 2 of 4 of Bundyville, a series and podcast from Longreads and OPB.


It’s mid-November, the end of the first week of the trial in Las Vegas. I’ve found that my favorite time of day here is early morning, when the only people to talk to are those calling “good morning!” from the doorways and brick plazas where they’ve slept. It’s when Fremont Street is free of tourists and populated only by guys with hoses whose jobs are to wash away the things that seem always to fill this city street: spilled margaritas and cheap beer and puke.

I’m staying in a cheap casino on Fremont Street in a room that’s not expensive enough to have a coffee maker, which means I have to eject myself into the world without any caffeine, a thing I would never do at home but here I’ve come to look forward to. It’s the only time it’s quiet enough to think, to not lose yourself in the things Vegas asks you to become.

At night on Fremont, blocks from the federal courthouse, you will be offered whatever you need. Booze, drugs, money, beautiful women, beautiful men. Your fortune, told to you in cards. Your name etched on a bottle opener, a license plate, a flashing keychain, a pair of dice. Get drunk. Get high. Get wild. It’s Vegas, baby — a line people repeat here like a mantra in packed elevators, in coffee shops, in the security line of the “fed castle” where Bundy’s followers empty their pockets of change and pocket-size Constitutions before going through the metal detector. When Judge Gloria Navarro strolls to the bench each morning — always late, always carrying an iced coffee — people explain it with a shrug: “Vegas, baby.”

I’ve avoided the Vegas life this week, but on my last night — a Thursday — I stop into a bar on Fremont Street and take the only seat left at the bar, next to a Mr. T impersonator. There’s no court tomorrow, so I’m OK with staying out a little late and seeing what’s so appealing about this city. Vegas at night, despite my resistance to it, is fun — and I’ve had enough to drink with Mr. T that I strike up a conversation with a couple of guys who’ve traveled here from the East Coast to sample the legal marijuana. I ask them if they’ve heard of Cliven Bundy, and one responds immediately, “He’s that cowboy the government is trying to steal land from, right?”

This must be what poker face feels like.

The next morning, I’m a little hungover and way out in the suburbs of the city. I’m sitting in this bright-white, fluorescent-lit office, guzzling complimentary bottles of water. I’m in the office of an ex-Bundy follower who used to be close with the family, Melissa Laughter.. She went to Bundy Ranch in 2014 and to Malheur in 2016. She has spent holidays with the Bundys.

She’s since become a vocal detractor of the Bundys and the wider Patriot movement that supports them. She says the Bundys demand loyalty, allegiance. She has come to think of them as cult leaders.

“A cult is is a blind following of some enigmatic leader,” she says. “They don’t question. They don’t act independently. They act as one.”

Laughter is a devout member of the Mormon church, and the granddaughter of a Utah dairy farmer. She explained what initially attracted her to the Bundys. “I’m like, OK, we have something in common. I’m interested in talking to them and hearing what they have to say,” she says. “So like many people, I was sympathetic to them to begin with.”

Laughter is a staunch conservative — a woman who has run for public office in Nevada as a Republican. She has bright white teeth and wears big cowboy boots with dresses. She’s pro-gun, vehemently anti-marijuana.

She grew up in the church and felt like something was off about how the Bundys talked about the Gospel to friends and family. “We would often have these philosophical religious debates where they would talk about LDS doctrine,” she says. According to Laughter, her differing perspective on church teachings wasn’t well received around the ranch. “They constantly take offense if you say anything against what they’re saying.”

But the Bundys were seeing things in the Gospel she couldn’t understand.

“I’m going to show you something else no one else has but the federal government,” she says. She reaches to grab something from the floor, then plunks a big black binder onto her desk.

“Have you heard about The Nay Book?”

Yeah, I’d heard murmurs of it. I just didn’t think it was real. Read more…

Bundyville Chapter One: A War in the Desert

Illustration by Zoë van Dijk

Leah Sottile | Longreads | May 2018 | 27 minutes (6,900 words)

Part 1 of 4 of Bundyville, a series and podcast from Longreads and OPB.


The place where all the chaos began is a few minutes off Interstate 15 North, where a row of American flags line a curve of rural road and the only sound is the desert wind in their fabric. Two tall flagpoles reach out from a patch of gravel topped with gilded cursive letters spelling out the opening to the U.S. Constitution: We The People.

On them hang several flags, including the American flag, the Nevada state flag, and a blue banner bearing a sharp white V stacked atop a round O — the cattle brand of the last rancher from around these parts, Cliven Bundy. He’s not the only cattleman represented on these poles; a flag bearing the mark of a rancher shot and killed by police flies here, too.

Nearby, just over the Virgin River, a rough road cuts through the dusty Nevada desert. Sandy rocks darken into a deep red all the way out to the horizon, where a dark strip of mountains jut skyward.

Drive down that road and a patch of bright green pops into view — the color of life shrill in a place where everything else looks dead.

It’s here, in Bunkerville, Nevada — in Clark County, about an hour from Las Vegas — that the 72-year-old Bundy owns 160 acres of land: the place where he raised children, grows melons, and rears cattle. A modest house is barely visible from the gravel road. Hay bales are stacked neatly in piles around the property. There’s farm equipment everywhere — hunks of metal weathered by a sun that seems to never set and winds that never cease.

For the better part of the past two years, Cliven Bundy wasn’t allowed to live here. Instead he was housed in a Nevada detainment center, wearing a red jumpsuit and jail-issue orange clogs every day, sleeping in a bunk bed in a room full of other men awaiting trial.

He had been charged with conspiracy to commit offenses against the United States, with assault, extortion, with threatening federal officers.

The trial he faced last fall, in a way, would also decide which of the two distinctly opposite characters Bundy has been portrayed as was real.

There’s Bundy’s version of himself: a rebel cowboy father of 14 and grandfather of 66 who believes the government is determined to either kill him or put him behind bars for life, while also stealing his livelihood.

Then there’s the government’s version of Bundy: a vigilante capable of summoning an army eager and ready to revolt against the federal government.

When it comes to Cliven and the rest of the Bundy Family there are a few points that nearly everyone — no matter how they vote or what side of this case they’re on — can agree:

Number 1: An event of seismic proportions occurred near Cliven Bundy’s ranch in April 2014 when he — believing federal agents were closing in — called people from around the country (many heavily armed) to his aid. Along with them came militiamen: the Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, members of western militias. People call this event a lot of things, but the most common name for it is the Bundy Ranch Standoff.

Number 2: At that time, Bundy owed the federal government at least $1 million in grazing fees. For more than 20 years, he allowed his cows to graze on public lands managed by the federal government despite not having a permit to do so. He fought in and out of court about it, and he lost every time. But he didn’t take his cows off the land. They’re still out there.

Number 3: Cliven’s own sons, Ammon and Ryan Bundy, led their own armed standoff in early 2016 at a federal bird refuge in southeastern Oregon.

And last, but not least, number 4: No matter how hard the federal government seems to try to arrest, imprison, or see the Bundys found guilty of federal crimes, they just can’t get them.

“I do not think there is a jury in this country that will convict us,” Ammon Bundy said to reporters last December outside the Las Vegas federal courthouse. Ammon smiled wide, his arm slung around his mom’s shoulders. “The truth is on our side.”

The truth.

What really is the truth when it comes to the Bundys?

For the past two years, I’ve been reporting on the Bundy Family and people who consider themselves followers. I’ve talked to just as many people who see Cliven and his sons as godly figures — prophets, great historical leaders — as people who see them as terrorists, extremists, and the embodiment of everything that’s wrong with America. There seems to be no middle with the Bundy Family: You either are with them, or you’re not. And how you see the family may say just as much about you as it does about them.

This story is one of alternative facts and fake news — two, three years before those terms entered the common lexicon. It is a tale of conspiracy theories, crooked politicians, and two polarized sides who read the same facts and take away completely different messages.

When you look closely at the actions of the Bundy Family, their history, their religion, the words of their followers — you can find a story that reflects so much about America right now. There are deep divides. Unrest. You can’t talk to the Bundys or their followers about cows or land without also talking about patriotism and the flag and the Constitution and the Bible, too. Their definitions of freedom, patriotism, terrorism, and even the law might be exactly the same as yours, or they might be way, way different. To have a conversation with or about the Bundys, you have to accept that they consider themselves to be the ultimate Patriots and that they don’t acknowledge the federal government’s authority. They are here to tell the federal government what to do, and to tell the rest of us how we’ve been bad Americans.

People call their theories fringe. Others call them insane.

The Bundy name in much of the West can make blood boil. And where some have cast the old man as a crackpot, a flash in the pan, the details behind the family’s anti-government actions are complicated, stretching back decades — a century, even.

But when Cliven Bundy strolled out of jail in the first days of 2018 — cowboy hat on his head, his legs free of shackles — and raised a fist in victory, what just occurred seemed simple. For the second time, the Bundys thumbed their noses at the feds and got away with it. Read more…

A Teen and a Toy Gun

(Illustration by Nicole Rifkin)

Leah Sottile | Longreads | February 2018 | 33 minutes (8,200 words)


The night before Quanice Hayes was shot in the head by a police officer, the skinny 17-year-old was snapping selfies with his girlfriend in a seedy Portland, Oregon, motel room.

Bella Aguilar held her phone close when she clicked off the photos: In one, the 18-year-old girl pushes her tongue out through a smile, her boyfriend leaning over her right shoulder, lips pressed to her cheek, his dreads held back with one hand.

In another, Aguilar cradles her cheek against a black-and-sand-colored gun. It’s fake — the kind of air-powered toy that kids use to pop each other with plastic pellets in indoor arenas. Hayes peeks into the frame behind her.

If you know that the gun is fake, you see a snapshot of two kids playing tough; if you don’t, those photos looks like the beginning of a story about to go terribly wrong.

A few hours later, it did.

It was a cold night in February — a Wednesday. Aguilar and Hayes  snapped photos and danced when friends came by the motel room where the couple had been crashing. They drank cough syrup and booze. There were pills and pot and a bag of coke.

They fired the toy gun at the motel’s dirty bathroom mirror, laughing when they couldn’t get the glass to break.

When the long night caught up with Aguilar and she lay down to pass out on the room’s queen-size bed, Hayes yanked on her arm, nagging her to stay awake. Two friends crashed on a pullout couch; two more were on the floor. But Hayes didn’t want to sleep. He walked outside.

Hours passed. The sun came up. Aguilar jolted awake and felt the bed next to her, but her boyfriend wasn’t there. His phone was — it sat on the table next to the bed. She felt frantic. Panicked. Confused. “I don’t know why, but it was that moment. I just felt really, really bad,” she said last summer, sitting outside a Portland Starbucks where she took drags from a Black and Mild.

She couldn’t remember why Hayes had left. She couldn’t remember so much of the night.

She frantically tapped out a text to her boyfriend’s mother, Venus: Do you know where Quanice is? Read more…