‘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

In tiny Laurens, S.C., the extremism of the 'upstate' region is symbolized by the downtown 'World Famous Redneck Shop and Klan Museum,' a store and meeting place for the Cleveland Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
(Jennifer Warburg)

'Was This An Aberration?'
Shortly after Abbeville's longest day, Steven Bixby left an arraignment hearing and treated local reporters to a vintage Patriot rant. "I love this country — I just can't stand the bastards in it," he bellowed.

Hoping to go down in antigovernment lore, he likened Dec. 8 in Abbeville to the legendary standoffs at Ruby Ridge and Waco — one more example of the governmental tyrant trampling on the rights of the common folk. Asked whether he's currently a militia member, Bixby replied, "Everybody is that agrees with the Second Amendment of the Constitution."

"We're not ruling out a connection" to militia or hate groups, says Sheriff Goodwin. "You've got a lot of folks around here that's antigovernment. You can see them every time you raise taxes!" But he notes that the nature of extremist organizing has changed drastically in recent years.

"Whereas you used to have militia groups where people were proud to say they were members, most people now try to keep their affiliations secret because the government has gotten more interested" — especially since Oklahoma City and 9/11.

"They came out of the closet, and now they've gone back in. They're not like those League of the South people, with that flag flying right out in the open."

The Bixbys may turn out to exemplify the trend toward "closet extremists," agrees Anderson County Sheriff Gene Taylor. "You have a lot fewer Patriot groups now, but that's partly because people don't need to be in a particular group. You can find out whatever you want about taxes and guns and bombs and common law on the Internet."

Steven Bixby was an Internet whiz, says his former friend, Noel Thompson. "He'd stay up all night on the computer, not sleeping. Called himself Master Chaos. He could go in and disrupt things, boot people off, all that." The contents of Bixby's computer were seized after the standoff, along with a pile of literature that investigators will only characterize as "strongly antigovernment."

More details about the Bixbys' brand of extremism will emerge, no doubt, when the three of them go on trial — probably this summer, and likely facing death. Until then, while they wait to see justice done, Abbevillians drive by the bullet-pocked ruin that used to be the Bixbys' house, shaking their heads and puzzling over what it might all mean.

"Was this an aberration?" asks Craig Gagnon. "I don't foresee anything like it happening again. But then again, I certainly didn't foresee this."

For law enforcement, the message seems more clear-cut. SLED Chief Stewart sees the standoff in Abbeville as a bitter lesson — one that local officers, both in South Carolina and elsewhere, damn well better learn.

"There have been a number of events around the country in recent years that indicate when you start hearing this inflammatory language, like 'Give me liberty or give me death,' you better take it seriously. You can't just dismiss people and say they're wackos."

Though the Bixbys took their hatred of government to a shocking extreme, their paranoid beliefs were clearly no aberration in upstate South Carolina. If Arthur, Rita and Steven are allowed to choose their own epitaphs, in fact, it should surprise no one if they quote directly from the tall Confederate monument in the middle of Court Square: "THEY KNEW THEIR RIGHTS AND DARED MAINTAIN THEM."