‘Patriot’ Shootout in Abbeville, S.C.. Raises Questions About the Town’s Extremist Past

A 'Patriot' shootout kills two officers, shatters the peace of an Old South town and raises questions about an extremist past — and present

ABBEVILLE, S.C. -- Abbeville looks like the perfect Disney model of a quaint Southern village.

You know it the moment your car wheels clamber over the old brick drive that rings the town's impossibly pretty Court Square.

You know it when you sit in the Pizza House, the only place on the square that serves on Sunday nights, and watch a black waitress lift a plump white baby from her high chair and dance around the dining room holding her gently aloft, like an egg, while her young parents laugh and beam.

You know it when you ask for the local paper and you're pointed to the Press and Banner office, just down Main Street, where you plop 50 cents in an "honor basket" and get a heartfelt "thank you!" from the nearest staff member.

You know it when you sit in Ada's coffee shop and listen to Amanda Dean, the proprietor, poke gentle fun at customers who plague her with their endless complaints about "taxes, and taxes, and taxes, and taxes."

Then you stroll a little ways down Main Street and run smack dab into a Confederate battle flag.

The stars and bars herald your arrival at America's only League of the South store, where proceeds benefit a major racist hate group that calls for a second Southern secession. So much for Disney.

Beneath its graceful surface, Abbeville is less like a Hollywood set than a creation of William Faulkner, the novelist who explored the rot underneath the Old South veneer and came up with the famous observation: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

The past draws people to this self-proclaimed "birthplace and deathbed of the Confederacy," most to visit and some to stay. Some of the transplants come, says longtime police Lt. Det. John Smith, because "you can retire and live pretty comfortable in this poor-ass town."

Abbeville, South Carolina

Some, like League of the South official Paul Griffin, who moved down from Michigan last year to man the League of the South store, come to revel in the undying spirit of secession.

Then there are the indefinables — folks who move here not to revive the Confederacy, exactly, but to live among kindred spirits who despise the federal government every bit as strongly as their ancestors did in 1861.

Call them "Patriots," tax protesters or sovereign citizens — whatever you call them, they're a hearty species that has thrived like kudzu in the piney hills of western (or "upstate") South Carolina since long before the Civil War. Nowadays, there may be more antigovernment extremists in the vicinity of Abbeville than anywhere else in America, with the possible exceptions of the Idaho panhandle and the Ozarks.

An hour down the road in Edgefield, birthplace of both Strom Thurmond and his interracial daughter, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, longtime neo-Confederate stalwart Walter Mims and League of the South Internet whiz Virgil Huston published the South's most incendiary tabloid, The Edgefield Journal, from 1998 to 2002.

The Journal made its mark by blending shrill "Southron" nationalism ("The Klan of the 21st century is spelled N-A-A-C-P," read one front-page headline) with New World Order paranoia ("Disarming U.S. Citizens: the coming UN-led push," read another).

An hour up the road in Anderson, public officials have been fending off "a bunch of darn common-law nuts" — and death threats — since the 1980s. The New South boomtown of Greenville, home to Bob Jones University (where interracial dating was banned until 2000), is a national rallying point for hard-line Christian Right politics, with one of the nation's staunchest anti-gay ordinances and a stubborn refusal to recognize the Martin Luther King holiday.

Sprinkled throughout the upstate is the most radical aggregation of Sons of Confederate Veterans camps in the United States. Ron Wilson, the national commander in chief who's fought to turn the 31,400-member SCV from a respectable "heritage" group into a neo-racist group, is currently campaigning for state Senate from his hometown of Easley, a Greenville suburb.

And just a short piece eastward, in tiny Laurens, another rebel flag on another downtown sidewalk marks the entrance to the "World Famous Redneck Shop and Klan Museum," public store and private meeting place for the Cleveland Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

It adds up to an uncommonly combustible mix — not that the upstanding, law-abiding majority want to believe it. Upstaters, like all good Southerners, are experts at looking away. They know how to avert their eyes from the League of the South store, how to gloss over the tall white Confederate memorial that has pride of place in Abbeville's Court Square, and — above all — how to ignore any signs of troubling weirdness in their fellow citizens.

Looking away gave folks in the upstate a Disneyesque sense of tranquility. But it all blew away on Dec. 8.

Trouble Comes to Town
The Bixbys were trouble with a capital T. Steven was the first of the clan to pop up in Abbeville in the mid-1990s, a beefy blowhard in his late twenties who quickly became notorious around local taverns for hollering about his constitutional rights and bellowing the motto of his home state, New Hampshire: "Live Free or Die!"

Because people in these parts don't like to ask pesky questions, nobody knew what could have possessed Steven Bixby to abandon his cherished home state. (A warrant for his arrest, folks later discovered.) And nobody knew why his elderly parents moved down to join him in 2000. (Threat of foreclosure on their New Hampshire house for failing to pay taxes, folks later discovered.)

The Bixbys had left behind a trail of hard feelings in the mountainous middle of New Hampshire. Rita and Arthur, Steven's parents, had terrorized neighbors and public officials since the 1970s with sham lawsuits, common-law tax protests, and the occasional armed threat. The husband of a state Supreme Court justice who was harassed and threatened by the Bixbys told the Union-Leader they were "a bunch of lunatics."

Stephen Savage, a local police chief who'd tip-toed up to their doorstep several times to serve court papers, told the Intelligence Report the family "made the hair on the back of my neck stand up." A man who spent $10,000 to fend off bogus Bixby lawsuits said Rita, the family's constitutional mastermind, "has been crazy since she was born."

But once they'd landed in Abbeville, folks weren't sure what to make of the Bixbys. "The more Steve would drink, the louder he would get," says Lt. Det. Smith, who befriended the younger Bixby after arresting him during a domestic dispute with his girlfriend. "People would say, 'Well, that's just Steve.' He would say the police was always wrong, especially in his case — but who doesn't say that?

"His mother was kind of like Steve — she didn't like the laws and wanted to see them changed," adds Smith. "But everybody bitches about the government. If you can't bitch about the government, you're not American."

Truck driver Noel Thompson was also a friend. Thompson, who lives "less than a half a football field" from the little white house Arthur and Rita Bixby purchased along busy Highway 72, helped Steven buy a mobile food cart to peddle chicken and chips at fairs and festivals. ("He never made no money at it," Thompson says.)

The Bixbys came over to Thompson's house on occasion, and Rita once tried to leave some of her antigovernment "Patriot" literature. (Back in New Hampshire, she liked to hand out copies of the anti-Semitic conspiracy tabloid, Spotlight.)

"My wife told her to keep it," says Thompson. "But we didn't think nothing much about it. Rita was always writing these letters, and they was always running back North, suing people. I just thought it was old people being grumpy.

"A lot of people, you think they're weird, but you wouldn't think they'd kill somebody."

Thompson's view of the Bixbys changed drastically last September, when Steven called and "threatened to kill my kids because they were walking through Arthur and Rita's yard on their way to the school bus. Called me all kinds of racist names and stuff."

The police report is a bit more specific: "the suspect called the victim a fucking nigger and threatened to kill him."

The harassment led to just one of Steven Bixby's several run-ins with local authorities. Even before his arrest for domestic violence, New Hampshire officials found out where the fugitive had fled. But under South Carolina law, suspects can't be extradited unless they face a sentence of one year or more; Steven Bixby had a variety of driving offenses that added up to only nine likely months of jail time.

New Hampshire officials said they were told South Carolina would charge Bixby as a fugitive from justice. But that never happened, and New Hampshire renewed its arrest warrant this past October.

While Steven Bixby was locked up in Abbeville, one officer says, "He kept hollering about his rights and all that." But nobody thought it was anything but talk. "I never saw any red flags," says Sheriff Charles Goodwin.

Shirley Surrett did. A neighbor of Steven's at Abbeville Arms apartments, Surrett says, "When I first met him, I thought, 'Well, he's just a Northerner and he needs lots of prayer.'" Her opinion changed when Steven threatened "a couple of times to come down here and knock my head off" after listening in on her cell-phone calls and hearing things he didn't like.

"I knew it would happen to somebody someday because he had that temper," Surrett says. "He was one of those people, if he said something, you could bank on it — he would do it." But when she complained to police, "They told me he wasn't a problem."

Surrett wasn't convinced. Whenever she passed by Steven's parents' home on the highway, she could sense trouble brewing. The state was expanding 72, and the project was creeping closer to the Bixbys' front yard. "They had a sign like you'd see for no hunting, no fishing or something," Surrett says.

"I thought, 'This is one time that sign ain't gonna work!'"

The sign was yellow and carried a stark warning: "Trespassing strictly forbidden" by "Govermen [sic] Agents + all others."