Below, our favorite stories of the week. Kindle and Readmill users, you can also get them as a Readlist.
Transglobal licensed “She Loves You” to a tiny indie, Swan Records of Philadelphia, which released it stateside on Sept. 16. Swan had even less success with the Beatles than Vee-Jay: The song failed to chart at any station, and was roundly rejected by audiences when it was played at all. DJ Murray the K at WINS New York spun “She Loves You” on Sept. 28 in a five-way “battle of the hits,” where it came in third. He continued to play it every night for a week solid, but got no reaction. Swan convinced “American Bandstand,” which broadcast from the label’s hometown, to play the song in its “Rate a Record” segment, where it received a score of 73 out of 100. Worse, the teens on “Bandstand” laughed when host Dick Clark held up a photo of the moptopped Beatles. After that incident, Clark recalled, “I figured these guys were going nowhere.”
On the same September day that Swan released “She Loves You,” Harrison came to the States to visit his sister in Illinois, where he remained totally anonymous. Louise took her brother to a radio station in West Frankfurt, Ill., that had played “From Me to You” at her urging. The station spun a copy of “She Loves You” that Harrison had brought with him, and he was interviewed on-air by the 17-year-old daughter of the station owner, all to no discernible listener response. And when Harrison jammed with a local band called the Four Vests, playing ‘50s rock songs at a dance, no one even thought to ask for his autograph. (Perhaps the most productive thing he did while in Illinois was purchase an album by R&B artist James Ray, which included “Got My Mind Set on You.” Harrison’s cover of the song would become the last No. 1 Hot 100 hit to date by any Beatle when it topped the summit nearly 25 years later.) Harrison returned to England feeling despondent about the Beatles’ chances in America.
–Steve Greenberg, in Billboard in 2014, on how the Beatles finally cracked America in 1964 after a string of early disappointments with radio airplay.
Leah Sottile | Longreads | July 2019 | 25 minutes (6,186 words)
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.”
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 like Bundy 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…
This story first appeared in LA Weekly in 1991.
* * *
The sun did not shine, but it was hot as hell the day a memorial stone was unveiled for bluesman Robert Johnson near a country crossroads outside Greenwood, Mississippi. About seventy-five people filled the tiny Mt. Zion church, a row of broadcast video cameras behind the back pew and a bank of lights illuminating a hoarse preacher as he praised a man who reputedly sold his soul to the devil.
There was no finality in setting the stone. The attention came fifty years too late, and even if his memory is more alive today than ever before, Johnson’s rightful heirs still have nothing but the name. This service was not about the body of the bluesman, which lies in an unmarked grave somewhere in the vicinity; it was about the guitar-shaped wreath provided by Johnson’s current record label, and about the video bite that would be beamed into homes around the country that April 1991 evening.
This week, we’re sharing stories from Steve Kolowich; Stephanie Clifford and Jessica Silver-Greenberg; Taffy Brodesser-Akner; Carolyn Murnick; and Jamie Lauren Keiles.
If you like these, you can sign up to receive our free weekly email every Friday. Read more…
Below, our favorite stories of the week. Kindle users, you can also get them as a Readlist.
* * *