Posted: December 15, 2003
Two law enforcement officers were killed by antigovernment extremists on December 8, 2003, outside of Abbeville, South Carolina, precipitating a 14-hour standoff.
This ADL Officer Safety Bulletin:
Death on a Country Road
"…this is Rita Bixby and I live at 4 Union Church Road...I've talked to you before, and they have; the state has decided they were going to come in and take our property. My husband and my son are there and there is a shootout going on because they're not going to take our land. No one has approached us and asked us if they could negotiate or anything. They just simply came onto our land and started taking it and there is a shootout there."
--Voice mail left by Rita Bixby with the South Carolina's Attorney General's office, the morning of December 8, 2003.
On the morning of December 8, 2003, Abbeville County Sheriff's Sergeant Danny Wilson pulled his squad car up in front of the home of Arthur and Rita Bixby, west of the nearby town of Abbeville. He was there to talk with the couple after state workers, putting down survey stakes nearby as part of a project to widen a road in front of the home, had complained they had been threatened. Leaving the car running, Wilson approached the house and stepped onto the front porch.
The next time any of his fellow officers would see Wilson would be hours later, through the lens of a video camera mounted on a police robot peering into the Bixby's home. The camera showed Wilson, handcuffed, lying in a pool of his own blood. He had been shot upon arriving at the Bixby residence at about 9:15 a.m. According to the county coroner, he had been hit in the chest with a high powered rifle at point-blank range.
Shortly after the shooting, some local residents received phone calls saying that the "first officer has been shot." A few went to the Bixby residence to investigate, and had seen Wilson's idling cruiser. They notified the authorities, who immediately sent more police to the scene. First to arrive, separately, were Sheriff's Lieutenant Deborah Graham and Donnie Ouzts, a constable for a county magistrate. Ouzts, 61, had only recently returned to his job after recovering from bypass surgery.
Ouzts stepped from his vehicle and began to approach the house. One of the citizens who had driven to the residence yelled at Ouzts to take cover. The constable turned around to run away, but was shot in the back. Arriving state troopers drove a police cruiser between Ouzts's body and the house, to block gunfire, then dragged him away, but he died before reaching the hospital.
A deadly standoff had begun.
One of the most chilling aspects to the shootings was that they did not seem to be spontaneous, but rather planned.
Arthur and Rita Bixby, were originally from New Hampshire, whose "Live Free or Die" motto they would repeatedly invoke, but had moved to South Carolina some ten years ago. Their 36-year old son Steven lived with them.
Steven had already had brushes with the law; in fact, an arrest warrant had been issued in New Hampshire for probation violations from traffic convictions (but South Carolina does not extradite people who would serve a sentence of less than a year). In South Carolina, he had been convicted in 1998 of criminal domestic violence.
The elder Bixbys had a different sort of legal record-a history of aggressive litigiousness, including property rights disputes in New Hampshire, where Rita unsuccessfully tried to gain title to a neighbor's property. Even after this failure, she tried to hold a foreclosure auction on the property in question. Rita Bixby was a sovereign citizen who believed in "common law courts" and who left behind copies of the conspiratorial and anti-Semitic newspaper Spotlight when she visited relatives. According to a former New Hampshire neighbor, Rita was the source of the family's extremist opinions. "She was a radical person…she was anti-everything," he told a reporter for the Anderson Independent Mail.
Arthur Bixby was radical, too. In the 1980s, the two were members of a New Hampshire group called the Constitutional Revivalists, until they quit because the group was not radical enough. Arthur Bixby had several run-ins with local authorities, and spent a month in jail in 1981 after a local judge found him in contempt. Bixby was so threatening that the judge was given round-the-clock security. "They did whatever the hell they wanted," the judge's husband said. "They didn't go by the laws. They made their own laws."
The latest development to anger the Bixbys was a plan by the South Carolina Department of Transportation to widen S.C. 72, the road that ran in front of the Bixbys' house. This plan would require that the Department invoke eminent domain to take about ten feet of the Bixbys' property alongside the road. Some days before the standoff, Arthur and Rita wrote letters to South Carolina officials to complain about the road project, alleging that the state illegally obtained a section of the property from its previous owner. According to South Carolina officials, the state had purchased a right of way more than 40 years earlier.
A Revolutionary war general, the Bixbys said in one letter written on December 3, "said 'Live Free or Die!' We the undersigned echo those sentiments." In the letter, they warned that "you will be on posted, private property and will be treated as such," and ended by quoting Patrick Henry: "Give me liberty or give me death. Death is not the worst of evils." Other letters sent did not arrive until after the standoff.
When South Carolina Department of Transportation workers arrived in the area a week before the standoff to survey that section of S.C. 72 and place survey stakes to mark the state's right of way, the Bixbys ordered them to remove the stakes from their property. It was this incident that prompted the visit from Sergeant Wilson.
According to police, the family had prepared for a possible standoff and had even fortified the doors to the house to make it more difficult for police to enter. "This thing was planned all the way," South Carolina's State Law Enforcement Division Chief Robert Stewart later told reporters. "It was to go in motion whenever law enforcement arrived to take over that piece of property."
The Standoff Concludes
Officers on the scene of the shootings immediately called for backup. Before long, nearly 200 state and local officers surrounded the Bixby residence, including SLED's SWAT Team. SLED brought along an armored vehicle, helicopters, and police robots from its Bomb Squad.
Rita, meanwhile, who was at Abbeville Arms, an apartment complex in Abbeville, allegedly threatened to shoot people in the complex if police injured Arthur or Steven. This put police in a difficult situation; not only were there the threats from Rita, but they also had to assume that Wilson might be a hostage inside the Bixby residence. As a result, they could not immediately use tear gas. Police first tried contacting Arthur and Steven by phone, with no success, then later used megaphones. Neighbors also tried. Despite repeated entreaties, there was no response, except gunfire.
Later in the day, a second SWAT team managed to talk Rita and another son out of the apartment, although she refused to help authorities negotiate with her holed-up relatives. Police seized weapons from the apartment and from a vehicle outside, as well as what they described as militia and anti-government literature.
Finally, after dark, authorities made preparations to storm the Bixby residence itself. At 7:15 p.m., an armored vehicle, which had been fitted by a local company with a ten foot steel pipe, was used to knock down a door. Power to outside lights was cut, while police tried to send a robot into the house. The robot got to the door-where its cameras revealed Wilson's dead body to police-but could not enter because of debris. Attempts by police to use the armored car to improve visibility to knock down the front porch ended in a propane grill catching fire. The blaze was put out by law enforcement officers; at this time a SWAT team rushed the door in an attempt to recover Wilson's body.
The robot reentered the house (only to be disabled by the Bixbys); shortly thereafter, gunfire broke out-"more gunfire," said SLED Chief Stewart, "than I've ever experienced in over 30 years." Hundreds of shots were exchanged; police also fired tear gas into the house. Officers had to be resupplied with ammunition several times. At around 10:00 p.m., Steven Bixby surrendered. Later, Arthur surrendered as well. Seriously wounded, the elder Bixby was taken to a hospital.
When police finally entered the house, they found Wilson's body, as well as militia and anti-government literature and suicide notes. They also found eight weapons (aside from Wilson's firearm), ranging from handguns to rifles.
After being taken into custody, Steven Bixby was charged on December 9 with two counts of murder and one count of criminal conspiracy. Rita Bixby was charged with accessory before the fact to murder, criminal conspiracy, and misprision of a felony. Both pleaded not guilty. Arthur Bixby, still in critical condition at a local hospital, had not yet been served with warrants containing charges identical to those brought against his son.
In court, Steven Bixby was unrepentant. "Why did I do it? I didn't do it," he told reporters. "They started it. And if we can't be any freer than that in this country, I'd just as soon die…When are the people going to wake up…and realize you may be next?" Bixby claimed that Wilson kicked in his door after Steven slammed it in his face.
"You're living in your own little fantasy world," he continued. "Ruby Ridge. Waco. This country's shown what it is. I love this country; I just can't stand the bastards in it. It was self defense." Bixby said that law enforcement was supposed to protect citizens from the "communist aggression" of the "bureaucratic dictatorship."
"When you know the government has done wrong…you have a right to revolution," he said, referring to a section of New Hampshire's state constitution. When a reporter asked him if he was part of a militia, Bixby replied that everybody who agreed with the Second Amendment was.
Not Isolated Incident
The deaths of Danny Wilson and Donnie Ouzts were shocking, but they were not the only law enforcement officers to have been killed by extremists in 2003. On July 7, a Michigan State Trooper, Kevin Marshall, was killed during a standoff with a sovereign citizen and member of the Michigan Militia, Scott Alan Woodring, in Newaygo County. Local law enforcement officers had arrived at Woodring's residence to serve a warrant for alleged criminal sexual conduct; Woodring barricaded himself in his residence, refusing to come out. When Michigan State Police later attempted to end the standoff a day later, Woodring shot and killed Marshall and wounded another officer. Woodring escaped the scene of the standoff, but was killed on July 13 by officers tipped to his presence.
Other deadly incidents at standoffs have also occurred in recent years. In November 2001, for example, Apache County, Arizona, sheriff's deputies attempted to arrest William Cooper, a long-time activist wanted by the federal government on tax charges, after Cooper had threatened people outside his home. Cooper opened fire on the deputies, shooting one twice in the head, before being killed himself. The deputy luckily survived.
While traffic stop incidents involving extremists remain one of the deadliest types of encounters, encountering extremists at their residence can also be extremely dangerous, especially for the unprepared or unaware officer, and can lead to violent incidents, standoffs, and even deadly shootings. In some cases, extremists pose such a threat of violence that authorities are reluctant to run the risk of extracting them from their residences. Cooper was a "fugitive in plain sight" for several years on federal charges before local authorities decided to bring him in. In one case in Texas, a "standoff" has been ongoing for years. John Joe Gray, wanted for allegedly assaulting a Texas state trooper in 1999, has been holed up on his farm in Henderson County along with several relatives ever since, relying on food and supplies brought to him by members of anti-government and white supremacist groups. "This is a spiritual battle," Gray told a reporter in 2003. "We don't fear death."
For a variety of reasons, residences are particularly dangerous places for law enforcement officers to encounter angry extremists:
Mitigating the Danger
Extremists may be especially agitated about issues relating to their home, farm, or property, because they may believe that they have an absolute right to do what they want with their own property. When on the losing end of issues such as zoning disputes or eminent domain cases, they may be particularly recalcitrant. Perhaps the ultimate example of this is another New Hampshire-born extremist, Carl Drega, who became infuriated at local authorities due to a zoning dispute over his property. In August 1997, Drega, in a carefully orchestrated series of actions, ambushed and killed two New Hampshire state troopers, then drove into the nearby town of Colebrook and killed a local judge and a newspaper editor who came to her aid. Drega then set fire to his boobytrapped home, before driving away to engage in another shootout on the Vermont side of the border, in which he died, but not before wounding numerous officers. Extremists may not only be angry but desperate in circumstances such as foreclosures or evictions.
Extremists may have spent years stockpiling weapons, ammunition, and food and supplies, as well as fortifying the location. Drega's property, for example, had motion detectors, a bunker, bombmaking materials, guns, and ammunition, among other items. Gordon Winrod, a Missouri white supremacist, built a hidden tunnel under his property (accessible through a secret entrance behind a bookcase in his basement) in which he could hide, if need be, from law enforcement. His grandchildren, whom he had kidnapped and indoctrinated, used the tunnel in a standoff in May 2000. In many cases, searches of extremist residences have revealed dozens of guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition. Often the circumstances of the confrontation, taking place on the extremist's "home turf," are very much of the extremist's choosing, rather than that of law enforcement.
Standoffs Can Become Rallying Cries for Other Extremists. In numerous standoff situations in recent years, law enforcement officers have discovered that some of the people outside the perimeter are just as hostile to law enforcement as those who may be within the perimeter. Often extremists have been able to mobilize support and help, even while in the middle of a standoff, by using telephones, cell phones, ham radio, or the Internet. Extremist sympathizers have sometimes made attempts at harassment or intimidation of law enforcement officers involved in a standoff, and in some cases (the Montana Freeman standoff in 1996 is one example) have even broken into the perimeter to aid those surrounded. In some cases in recent years, prominent extremists have flocked to the scenes of standoffs, even those not involving other extremists, in the hopes of capitalizing on the publicity and turning the confrontations into major incidents.
Confrontations with extremists at their places of residence will always hold potential dangers, but some actions can be taken to try to minimize the threats involved. These include:
Taking written and verbal threats seriously. Authorities who receive letters, phone messages, or e-mails from people expressing, even implicitly, a willingness to kill (or to die) over an issue concerning their property or residence should take such communications seriously, as they may be some of the earliest and most important identifiers of both extremist ideology and a willingness to use violence..
Avoiding precipitous action. If law enforcement suspects there may be the potential for a violent or threatening confrontation, actions that might unwittingly bring on such a confrontation should be avoided. Probably the most provocative such action is the sudden and unexpected appearance of a law enforcement officer on the property of an extremist (and such appearances directly led to the deaths of law enforcement officers at Ruby Ridge and Waco). Extremists may react instinctively and violently to such an appearance, more so than if, for example, they have been notified by a telephone call that someone wants to come out and have a talk with them. Obviously, there will be situations, such as those involving fugitives, where notification may not be appropriate or possible, but law enforcement should be alert to measures that can be taken to reduce the risk of confrontations.
Making accurate threat assessments. If a possible confrontational situation arises, law enforcement should pause to assess what sort of threats, if any, are posed. What is known about the extremist or extremists in question? Issues such as how well armed extremists may be, how many extremists there may be, under what circumstances might they be likely to use force, who among the extremists may be the most likely to initiate violence, and what sort of support the extremists may have in the community (or from outside the community), are all questions that should be answered in advance, whenever possible. Often what appears to be a threatening situation may not be as threatening as originally believed, or sometimes some threats may evaporate while others remain. In the fall of 2003, for example, authorities in Biddeford, Maine, had to deal with the issue of Dorothy LaFortune, who refused to leave a home that had been sold because of unpaid taxes and who called on the militia movement to help her stave off the police. When an Alabama militia leader seemed as if he might be willing to come to her aid, authorities even closed a nearby school for fear of a violent confrontation. In the end, the Alabama threat turned out to be non-existent-the militia leader resigned his position after the FBI came to talk with him about the standoff. However, when police launched a surprise raid in November to remove LaFortune from the house, they discovered a variety of guns and 1,500 rounds of ammunition. So there was certainly still some threat.
Utilizing friends, relatives, and go-betweens. People engaged in standoffs are often completely unwilling to talk to law enforcement, whom they perceive as an enemy, perhaps an enemy attempting to kill them. However, it may be possible to use friends or relatives of the people engaged in the standoff as a way to get them to surrender or at least to begin talking. Sometimes it is even possible to use other extremists for this purpose.
Allowing people to save face. In standoff situations, authorities should look for ways to allow extremists to "save face" and rationalize ways to surrender. During a standoff, an extremist may not wish to die, but may find it difficult or impossible simply to give up. In 1987, when federal authorities successfully negotiated an end to a standoff with members of a white supremacist survivalist compound, and in 1997, when Texas authorities negotiated the end of a standoff with the anti-government Republic of Texas group, negotiators were able to make progress by allowing the persons they were negotiating with to feel that they were treating them more or less as equals (e.g., as enemy commanders or representatives of different governments). Similarly, in situations involving confrontations over issues such as foreclosures or evictions, authorities should never dismiss the possibility of defusing a confrontation simply by removing its cause. Sometimes lending institutions, for example, when approached, are willing to offer alternative solutions. More than one extremist-related confrontation has been successfully resolved in this manner in the past few years.
Making patience a virtue. If a standoff situation exists, authorities should always consider the virtues of simply "waiting people out" rather than trying to end the situation quickly with tactical action. In the past 25 years, history has repeatedly shown, from the Marion, Utah, standoff between Utah and federal officials and a fringe Mormon sect in 1988 to the Woodring standoff in Michigan in the summer of 2003, that tactical solutions to extremist standoffs are often deadly to law enforcement. Whenever possible, negotiation and patience, such as that demonstrated at the successfully resolved Montana Freeman standoff in 1996, should be exercised. Time is rarely more precious than lives.