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…