Leah Sottile | Longreads | July 2019 | 45 minutes (9,790 words)
Stella Anne Bulla was born in November 1949 in Asheboro, North Carolina to Dorothy Ann Lemon and Brinford Bulla, a man who served in the Navy and worked for the federal government as a postal employee most of his life. Stella — who, at some point, preferred to be called by her middle name, Anne — was one of five children: brothers, Artis, John and Brad, and a sister, Cara. The children were raised devout Southern Baptists, attending church meetings once during the week, and twice on weekends. Anne wanted to grow up one day and live in a place where she could ride horses.
By high school, Anne adhered to the “higher the hair, the closer to God” school of thought: Where other girls of Grimsley High School smiled with youthful innocence from photos, Anne grinned knowingly, hair teased high and wide into a flipped bouffant.
Later, Anne met a man named Barry Byrd, and the two married, had a daughter, and moved to Stevens County, Washington in 1973, after Barry got out of the Air Force. He took a job in a Colville body shop — finally starting his own in the tiny town of Northport. The Byrds started a band called Legacy. Anne’s brother, Brad Bulla, joined them, playing mandolin, lead guitar, and banjo along with the Byrds’ vocals. The group released two records: Sons of the Republic and, in 1984, Judah’s Advance — which were sold via mail order by Christian Identity groups as far away as Australia. “Legacy is unique in that their music is designed with the Israel Identity image, and is an excellent way to introduce the subject to thousands of people,” the Australian group wrote in a newsletter.
The Judah’s Advance cover features a drawing of a ship bearing down on a rocky coastline, where a stone tablet engraved with the Ten Commandments sat amongst a pile of rocks that had fallen from the sky. In the center, an American flag — bearing just 13 stars and the number 76 — whips in the wind.
On Judah’s Advance, Dan Henry, the pastor at The Ark — the Christian Identity church where Byrds worshipped, but that has also helped produce violent acolytes — read a line of scripture, and the band thanked him in the credits. The producer for the album, they said, was YAHWEH.
The back of the album is even more Christian Identity than the front. Alongside a photograph of the grinning musicians, the band lays out its beliefs: “Our forefathers understood that the establishment of this country was the fulfillment of the prophecy concerning the re-gathering of the nation of Israel,” it explains. The savior, the band writes, was a descendant of the “Judahites”, while “the true children of Israel,” after being freed from captivity, migrated westward, settling in “Scotland, Ireland, Britain and every other Christian, Anglo-Saxon nation in the world today.”
It reads like the liner notes to a Christian Identity concept album, and it made Legacy a popular feature on the Christian Identity and white supremacist conference touring circuit. In 1986, the band played the Northwest Freedom Rally in Richland, Washington alongside a bill of racist speakers. And from 1987 to 1989, the group reportedly traveled yearly to Colorado to play Pete Peters’ Rocky Mountain Bible Camps. Peters had been a guest at The Ark and the Aryan Nations, lecturing on the end of the world, and his hatred for Jews and homosexuals.
But Legacy was more than a band providing musical accompaniment to racists: In 1988, Barry Byrd and his brother-in-law and Legacy bandmate, Brad, were two of just 15 men who deliberated for about a week about their beliefs, and authored a document entitled “Remnant Resolves.”
The document elaborates that the men felt a “spiritual burden”: “This burden was the need and desire to see Biblical principles of government once again established in our nation,” it reads. The men agreed that if they could not come to a consensus on solving that burden, they would not proceed with writing the document.
What comes next are resolutions to fix society for “the remnant” — the way for the chosen people to live in the fullest realization of liberty. Biblical principles should be put into practice at every level of government. The band maintained that in the home, women should be submissive to their husbands. Locally, the civil government should punish evil and protect the good. And at the federal level, taxes need to stop, since you can’t tax what God created.
“It is blasphemous to regard antichrists as ‘God’s chosen people’ and to allow them to rule over or hold public office in a Christian Nation,” it reads. “Aborticide is murder. Sodomy is a sin against God and Nature. Inter-racial marriage pollutes the integrity of the family. Pornography destroys the purity of the mind of the individual and defiles the conscience of the Nation.”
At the end, when it was all down on paper, there they are smiling wide for a picture — as if someone had said “say cheese” when they took it — and all fifteen men signed their names.
A year after the Remnant Resolves, Legacy (now named Watchman) was back on tour, scheduled to play a Santa Rosa, California church affiliated with Dennis Peacocke, a self-described political activist turned leader in the “shepherding movement” — a religious movement in the 1970s and ’80s that involved congregants turning over all personal decisions to a spiritual leader, and has been criticized as cult-like.
The Byrds made more than one trip to Peacocke’s church for Fellowship of Christian Leaders (FCL) conferences. During one visit, they stayed with a church host family: the Johnsons. Rick Johnson would eventually move his family north to Marble in the mid-1990s, and still lives there today.
At the time, Johnson’s son Jesse was just a kid, but he still recalls meeting the Byrds. Something about Anne immediately stuck out to him. “She has these piercing blue eyes,” he recalls. “I remember kind of being off put by that and … just by her presence. Because she didn’t smile very much. She was really intense and when she talked to you it was about what you’re doing to have a better relationship with the Lord. And I was, like, 8.”
Within a week of living at Marble, Jesse Johnson says he and one of his brothers “made a pact that we were leaving as soon as we were old enough.”
But back in 1992, when the Byrds were still working on bringing their vision of a “Christian covenant community” to life, people in Stevens County were nervous, citing concern over the couple’s connection with Pete Peters. People called the group cultish; the Byrds made a brochure that said they weren’t “the least bit cultish or isolationist.” In that same brochure, the couple predicted “cataclysmic events.” At a city council meeting, they claimed to their neighbors that they weren’t racist, and didn’t “condone hatred”— in fact, Barry told the Spokesman-Review that they wanted to create a ministry and a working ranch to “take youngsters” of all races in. The couple claimed they’d severed ties with Peters and that their attendance at the Rocky Mountain Bible Camp was only to play music. They didn’t mention the “Remnant Resolves.” Debate about the Byrds and Peters raged for months in the pages of the Colville Statesman-Examiner.
In May, a Colville man expressed concern in the paper: “We would love to have our fears allayed,” he wrote of the Byrds. “But the trail back to Pete Peters appears to be pretty warm.”
The Byrds attempted to shoot down a list of rumors they were asked to address by Northport’s mayor at a May 1992 city council meeting. They said they had no relationship with Peters, never held white supremacist beliefs, and concluded that people with concerns should come to Marble. Barry Byrd “advised that reading newspapers was not a worthwhile way of attaining accurate information,” according to a report on the meeting.
Meanwhile, in nearby North Idaho, Bo Gritz — a former Green Beret who once ran for President, and who famously served as a liaison between federal agents and Randy Weaver at the end of the Ruby Ridge standoff — attempted to create his own Christian covenant community, called “Almost Heaven.” Some said he modeled it after what the Byrds created at Marble.
Paul Glanville, a doctor, liked the idea, too, when he heard it. He brought his family north to Marble in 1992, several years after meeting the Byrds. He was delivering a presentation on low-cost or free medical care at a Christian seminar when he encountered the couple, who were giving a talk on establishing covenant communities. “They are very charismatic,” Glanville recalls. “I really was interested in this idea of a Christian community where I could practice medicine in what I considered a very Biblical way.”
Once at Marble, he says he enjoyed the close community, the focus on church and family. It felt like his family had moved to the promised land. People would get to church early, chattering with the company of the other people who lived there, hurrying downstairs to stake a claim for the casserole dishes they’d bring each Sunday for a potluck, before rushing up again for church.
But over time, cracks emerged in the smooth veneer of the Marble promise. Nothing drastic, just small fissures that, over time, built up. In the spring of 1997 Glanville noticed a strangely competitive drive behind — of all things — Marble’s softball teams. He says he felt there was a need to win, to conquer all of the other church teams from the area, as if to prove Marble’s superiority. Glanville sometimes skipped the adult games to watch his kids play softball. Soon after, the leaders called an emergency meeting to chastise anyone who skipped the adult games. Glanville found the suggestion that he watch the Byrds’ team over his own child’s bizarre.
After a few years, Glanville started to feel that he hadn’t made a covenant with God so much as with the Byrds. “What they mean by ‘covenant’ is total, absolute obedience to the leadership without questioning, and that the leadership eventually has your permission to question you and scrutinize your life in the most invasive ways that you can possibly imagine,” he says. “They might not start that out from the beginning like that, but they will end up that way.”
From the pulpit, the couple preached about “slander,” about never questioning their leadership, and turning in anyone who did. The Byrds gave sermons about submission, obedience. The word “individual” was sinful — individuality being a sin of pride.
The church leaders would encourage the families there to turn against their own blood — parents reporting on children, children reporting parents, neighbors against neighbors — if that meant preserving perfection at Marble.
Glanville says his own children went to Marble’s leadership and told them that he was skeptical of their intentions and teachings. By the summer of 1994, he says, “My kids and wife had been totally brainwashed.” He continues, “They were turning me in to Marble for negative talk.”
But even he didn’t understand how quickly he’d lost them: When he finally decided to leave, Glanville was shocked that his wife and family refused to come with him. “My wife filed for divorce when I left. And my kids basically all signed the divorce papers,” he says.
“I could do a lot of things in this church,” Barry Byrd said in one 1994 sermon. “I have the authority. I could misuse it. I could manipulate you and intimidate you, which you know, I’m sure we’ve done some of that. Not meaning to, but that’s just part of the deal.”
The pulpit too, was Barry Byrd’s megaphone for talk of a country ruled by Biblical law, of the sins of the government, about the entire reason Marble was here at all.
“We’re fighting for something that much blood has been shed for, beginning [with] the blood of Jesus,” he said. “If the spirit of the Lord does not reign supreme and this book is not the law that governs all of life and living, then there is no peace and there is no liberty!” He spoke of righteous anger and “holy hatred” for those getting in the way of “the government of God.”
Byrd even glorified martyrdom as a way to achieve the church’s goals: “So you see, I don’t have any problem being martyred if I know it’s what God’s called me to. If I know that my blood is going to water the tree of Liberty and build for future generations, I would gladly give my life today.”
Two decades since he left Marble broken-hearted, alone, Glanville still sometimes hears the Byrds’ words in his head, nagging at him, pulling him back to that time, making him question how he could have fallen under the place’s sway.
His mind goes back to the moments he still blamed himself for not being perfect. Times when Marble convinced him he was the problem, meetings when Barry Byrd stood over him shaking a fist, making him believe he was lucky they were being so patient with him.
“And you could say ‘well why did you put up with that?’” he tells me this spring. “A lot of people who are trying to leave a cult have magical thinking. That if they just could say the right thing, or do the right thing, the leaders will suddenly see the truth and repent and everything will be alright.”
Back in 1988, when the Byrds’ band was on tour, Anne Byrd’s own brothers, too, were positioning themselves as chosen ones.
The Bullas were a family of prophets. It was as if they believed their ears were calibrated to pick up the unique pitch of the Lord’s voice.
Anne’s eldest brother, Art Bulla, at the time, was living in Utah and had converted away from the family’s Southern Baptist roots to his own racist interpretation of Mormonism. He found himself maligned from the mainstream LDS church in the early 1980s when he called himself “the one mighty and strong,” claiming he was receiving revelations. He also expressed his belief in polygamy, but admitted he’d had trouble recruiting women to marry him. He split from the church when it started ordaining blacks.
Art Bulla, who I reached by phone at his Baja, Mexico home, says he visited his siblings Anne and Brad Bulla, and his brother-in-law Barry, in the early days of their Marble community. And though he says his sister and Barry were still practicing racist Christian Identity beliefs — which he points out he actually agrees with — he thought the couple seemed to be controlling the people who would form Marble.
“Barry had a very strong personality, and Anne did too, and so they were able to hornswoggle if you will, the gullible,” he says. “I had suspected that Anne had gone too far with the controlling thing.”
Art Bulla tells me he’s the only prophet in the family — not Anne and not their brother I found who pastes notes that say “God’s only priest” to cutouts of naked women and posts the pictures to Twitter. Art says he is the chosen one.
“[Anne] always felt that she had to be in competition with me. And since I’m receiving revelations, then she’s got to receive revelations, too,” he says, “You see what I’m saying?”
By the late 1990s, Paul Glanville, the doctor who had come to Marble hoping to bring God into his medical practice, was hardly the only person questioning Marble’s leadership, and the Byrds’ true intentions for the community. According to letters written during this time, between 1997 and 1998 Anne Byrd excommunicated her brother and Legacy bandmate, Brad, and his family. (Requests for comment by Brad Bulla were not returned.)
The excommunication drew the attention of Jay Grimstead, an evangelical scholar who had briefly lived in the Marble community and become known for pushing dominionism. Grimstead wrote several letters to the Byrds detailing his concern for what he saw as the community’s increasingly authoritarian structure.
In one letter to Barry and Peacocke, from September 1997, Grimstead wrote that Marble “is a clear, ‘top down’ monarchy that is governed primarily by a queen, ‘Queen Anne,’” he wrote. “The people at Marble live in great fear of displeasing the Byrds, particularly Anne.”
Grimstead also excoriated Barry for not publicly condemning Christian Identity, which he referred to as “weird, unbiblical stuff.” He was even being told by Marble members that the ideology was still being discussed in 1997.
In January of the next year, he wrote to Anne and Barry: “Please respond in some way to the letter of grave concern wherein I told you I was receiving an increasing amount of evidence that Marble, under your leadership, was fast becoming an authoritarian cult,” he wrote. Read more…