‘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
By Bob Moser
On Saturday, Dec. 6, mild-mannered Arthur Bixby made a surprise visit to the office of Craig Gagnon, an affable chiropractor who chairs Abbeville's Republican Party. Gagnon had met the Bixbys when Steven came for treatment of a spinal injury suffered on the job.
"I guess they felt a friendship with me because I had family in New Hampshire," Gagnon says. "I thought they were all right — OK folks. Sometimes I'd talk with Steven and he'd get a little blustery, a little wild, but you never figured he'd do anything."
Arthur handed Gagnon a copy of a letter he and Rita had just fired off to several state officials, including the governor. On Thursday, Arthur explained, transportation workers had come to stake out their yard for the highway project. The state had told the Bixbys their home's previous owner had signed a right-of-way — but as always, when the government said something, the Bixbys were convinced it was a conspiratorial lie.
The local transportation department officer had hand-delivered the Bixbys a copy of the original agreement, Gagnon says, but "their position was that it had been doctored by the state. I told Arthur he should go to the courthouse to make sure."
The Bixbys' letter, dated Dec. 3, speculated about the conspiracy against them, ranted about "government ... taking away the rights of the people," accused the state of "fraud!" and contained a thinly veiled threat: "You will be on posted, private property and will be treated as such."
The Bixbys closed with an even stronger message:
"Patrick Henry, of Virginia, said, 'Give Me Liberty Or Give Me Death. Death is not the worst of evils.'
"General John Stark of New Hampshire said: 'Live Free or Die!'
"We, the undersigned, echo those sentiments!"
It was hard to see why the Bixbys were so riled up. While the project would cut off a tiny corner of their front yard, the highway's new direction would give them extra yardage elsewhere — which they could purchase from the state for a token $1.
"They were going to lose some, and they were going to get some back," says state Department of Transportation spokesperson Pete Poore. Arthur Bixby had attended at least one public meeting held by department engineers and officials, who "brought maps and numbers and answered every question about the project," according to Poore.
But when transportation workers had tried staking out the yard, one of the Bixby men had stalked out of the house, yanked the stakes out of the ground and flung them into the middle of the road. "That's when we heard a lot of unkind remarks," says Poore. Unkind enough that workers called the Abbeville sheriff's department to report violent threats — while the Bixbys got busy warning the state that when they said no trespassing, they meant it.
Even after reading the letter, Gagnon wasn't especially worried. "I could see them hollering at the construction workers and telling them to get off the property," Gagnon says. "But I couldn't imagine this."
"This" commenced with another bolt-out-of-the-blue communication from the Bixbys. Around 9:30 that Monday morning, Gagnon's phone rang and a familiar voice said, "Craig, this is Rita. I just wanted to let you know that it's begun, and Steven has shot a deputy."
Thunderstruck, Gagnon managed to ask, "How long ago?"
"About 15 minutes," Rita said, her voice cool and matter-of-fact.
"How's the deputy?"
"I don't suppose he's doing too well right now, since Steven shot him with a 7mm."
'Man, They're So Crazy'
It had begun that morning around 9:15, when Deputy Sheriff Danny Wilson came knocking at the Bixbys' front door. Though officers reportedly had been warned over the weekend that there might be trouble at the little white house on the highway, Wilson had apparently decided to try and defuse the Bixbys before the highway workers showed up.
A former high-school football player known around town as "Danny Boy," Wilson knew the Bixbys, having recently arrested Steven for flashing a trigger finger at ex-friend Noel Thompson, whom he'd been ordered to avoid after threatening his life.
"I'd seen Danny Boy down at Burger King," Thompson says. "He said, 'I locked him up. Thought I ought to lock up the mother, too. Man, they're so crazy.'"
Crazy enough to shoot Wilson square in the chest with a 7mm magnum.
Investigators believe the cannon-like fire of the 7mm blasted Wilson through the door as he tried to reason with the folks inside. Arthur and Steven Bixby then dragged his bloody body inside, barricaded the door, and waited for more trespassers.
After Rita's frightening message, Craig Gagnon had jumped in a car with his business partner and sped down to the Bixbys' house. "When we got there, we saw the empty patrol car sitting in front, idling. I thought, 'Oh my goodness, nobody knows what's happened!'"
As Gagnon frantically dialed 911, he saw a familiar face walk around from behind the house. It was Constable Donnie Ouzts, better known in Abbeville as "Smiley." The 63-year-old Ouzts had recently recovered from heart bypass surgery and happily returned to his beat. As he approached the front door, Gagnon's partner yelled out, "Donnie, hey, they've got a gun!"
As Ouzts turned and started to edge away, Gagnon recalls, "I heard a loud shot coming out of there, bang! Glass came out and landed on the front porch. We figured it was a warning shot, so we ran up toward the little church [across the way]. By that time, a lot of law-enforcement people had come. We learned after a few minutes that Constable Ouzts was laying in the yard, dead.
"It was frightening, unbelievable. The rest of the day was like that, too. You kept thinking, 'Is this really happening?' "
It was. Before long, sleepy Abbeville was wide awake to the sounds of wailing sirens, flying rumors, chopping helicopter blades, and even the roar of an armored vehicle brought in by the State Law Enforcement Division (SLED). The longest, nastiest militia standoff anybody can remember in upstate South Carolina was underway, with Deputy Wilson still inside the house — maybe alive, maybe dead.
Beirut in Abbeville
When SLED Chief Robert Stewart helicoptered in from Columbia to take charge of the hundreds of officers now surrounding the Bixbys' house, he knew he had a "real dilemma" on his hands. The uncertainty about Deputy Wilson made it impossible to storm the house with force.
Making matters even more intractable, Rita Bixby had announced in her morning phone calls that she was holed up in Steven's apartment — along with enough ammunition to mow down the residents of Abbeville Arms, if the cops dared to mess with her son or her husband.
"This thing had been planned all the way," Stewart says, and Arthur and Steven were not going to muck things up by negotiating with the enemy. Throughout the morning and afternoon, police enlisted Craig Gagnon to try and get them talking. He crouched in a squad car out front and talked through the P.A. as a psychiatrist from the state whispered helpful hints in his ear, to no avail.
"We tried all day," Stewart says. "But they wouldn't talk to us. The first thing we heard from them was a gunshot."
That was several nerve-racking hours later, after a state negotiator coaxed Rita Bixby out of Steven's apartment around sunset. As dusk settled in, officers used their armored vehicle to ram through the Bixbys' front porch and door. One of the state's robots was sent through the gash, loaded with surveillance cameras and tear gas, and fed back video of Deputy Wilson, hands cuffed behind his back, blood everywhere.
Then a propane tank, jostled either by the battering ram or the robot, caught fire. Ten officers, Chief Stewart among them, grabbed fire extinguishers and doused the blaze while a SWAT team darted inside the house and pulled out Wilson, who was now declared dead.
No shots had been fired during the rescue. "We figured the people inside must have been dead if they didn't take aim at us," Stewart says. "But apparently they just didn't want the house to burn up with them in it." Just as Stewart and his fellow firefighters retreated to the armored tank, the Bixbys broke the ceasefire with a massive explosion of gunfire.
What ensued was "probably more than I've ever experienced in 30 years" as an officer, Stewart says. "They'd shoot at us two times with that 7mm mag, which sounds like a cannon going off," Stewart says, "and we'd have to shoot back 100 times just to get 'em to stop."
Officers kept running out of ammunition and calling for resupply, which was another tricky proposition. "We'd have to lay down cover fire," Stewart says, "so the resupply people wouldn't get hit."
A mile and a quarter up the road, says bed and breakfast owner Karen Berney, "You could hear it loud and clear, starting and stopping, starting and stopping, sounding like Beirut."
Around 10 p.m., about three hours into the gun battle, officers heard a voice calling from the tear-gassed, bullet-filled house. It was Steven Bixby, miraculously unhurt and ready to surrender. After he'd been secured, a robot was sent inside to find Arthur. Spotted in a back bedroom, he "indicated through the robot that he was injured," Stewart says. Thirteen hours after Deputy Wilson knocked on the Bixbys' front door, it was finally over.
And now the shock could fully set in.