Skip to main content Accessibility
The Intelligence Report is the SPLC's award-winning magazine. Subscribe here for a print copy.

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

A 'Patriot' shootout in Abbeville that left two law enforcement officials dead belies the extremism of the 'upstate' portion of South Carolina.

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 f------ n----- 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."

Live Free or Die!
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.

Once a Hotbed...
"The town was so quiet that night," says Karen Berney. "There was nobody on the roads, nobody out walking their dogs. When it happens in bigger cities, it's faces nobody's ever seen before. Here, it was people we'd all seen. You just can't forget that."

Nor can people like Berney ignore the unnerving questions raised by the Bixbys' murderous explosion over a paltry scrap of land. "Is this place a hotbed for this kind of activity?" she asks. "I know there's rednecks and rebels, but — I want to believe no."

It only takes a little digging into the upstate's past — and the past that isn't past — to come to a very different belief.

The first time shots in Abbeville rang out across the world, the ammunition was rhetorical. But the target was the same as the Bixbys': an interloping government. On Nov. 22, 1860, Abbeville staked its claim to be the Confederacy's birthplace when militia companies from across the state convened on a high spot in town, now known as Secession Hill.

It was the first mass meeting to call for secession — and to judge from the next day's account in the Press and Banner, it was a ringing call indeed. "[O]ne sentiment pervades the meeting," wrote the breathless correspondent, "and from the mountains to the sea the cry is echoed back: 'Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God.'"

In an ironic twist, the Confederacy's cradle became its resting place five years later. Confederate President Jefferson Davis, fleeing south from Richmond with a couple of thousand haggard troops in tow, called together the remains of his cabinet in Armisted Burt's big white mansion, now a historic site near Court Square.

According to one first-person account, Davis gamely "urged that a stand should be made." But his cabinet members and the generals in attendance all agreed "there was now no use." The Confederacy's official papers were ordered burned by "Jim the butler," Secretary of State Judah Benjamin promised to toss the official seal in the Savannah River on his way out of South Carolina, and the largest organized rebellion in U.S. history was, for all practical purposes, dead.

But the spirit of secession was anything but moribund. Like President Davis, folks in the upstate had never much cottoned to the notion of surrender. The white people came from tough stock, Scotch and Irish mostly, and had spent decades fighting gory turf wars with the Cherokee Indians who used to command the region.

Their first big stand had been the Whiskey Rebellion in the 1790s, when Irish bootleggers refused to pay federal taxes on their moonshine. After the Civil War, upstate South Carolina became a stronghold for the Ku Klux Klan — so strong that, according to one Klansman in Abbeville, "nearly all" the town's Democrats were night riders in the wake of the war.

In 1876, many upstate rebels traded their white hoods for red shirts, becoming part of the "red shirt rebellion" that elected Democrat Wade Hampton governor, forcefully stripped white and black Republicans of their political power and precipitated a withdrawal of Union troops from South Carolina. The first Red Shirt rally was held in Anderson, the next county north of Abbeville.

Just this past year, the Red Shirt tradition was revived by the League of the South, which conducted "red-shirt pickets" outside both of South Carolina's Democratic presidential debates, holding signs that named each candidate and demanded: "Yankee Go Home."

'Our Little Birthmark'
By the time the Bixbys moved down from New Hampshire, the New South economic boom that began in the 1980s had only made some folks cling more fiercely to their twin strains of extremism — anti-federalist and white supremacist.

Upstate South Carolina remained a fine place for a family of extremists to blend into the woodwork. A fine place, too, to find fellow travelers whose distrust of the government was just as reflexive as theirs.

Soon after the Bixby standoff, the Intelligence Report has learned, the Abbeville sheriff's office had a surprise visitor: Anderson's Robert Clarkson, longtime rabble-rouser, rebel-flag supporter and organizer of tax-protest groups like the Carolina Patriots and the Patriot Network.

Clarkson claimed he wanted to offer "helpful information." Instead, officials say his visit only raised suspicions about the Bixbys' possible connections with other upstate "Patriots."

The Bixbys paid at least one known visit to the League of the South store, and there's plenty of merchandise that might have piqued their interest. Alongside the expected array of "Dixie Forever" t-shirts, shot glasses, pocket knives and pickled goods in Mason jars, the Bixbys would have been able to peruse Patriot publications like The Truth newspaper out of Toccoa, Ga., purchase a sepia-toned portrait of John Wilkes Booth, and delve into conspiratorial literature with titles like "The Empire Comes Back!" and "Our Guns/Our Rights/Our Future?"

Even the League's recruitment materials often read like militia propaganda. After recommending "self-defense through firearm ownership," one pamphlet warns, "Without the ability to force real and potential tyrants to honor our Constitution and Bill of Rights, we will fall into abject servitude, and our children and grandchildren will curse our memory as they toil under a godless, socialist regime. ... Join the League of the South and say, 'Not me, not my family, not my way of life. I choose to keep my rights and live free!'"

Lest this sound too incendiary, the pamphlet adds a disclaimer that seems darkly ironic after what Abbeville saw on Dec. 8. "Remember, it is only the tyrant who fears honest citizens with firearms. Responsible governments have nothing to fear from an armed populace."

The Bixbys' interest in the League — however serious or casual it might have been — has made some Abbevillians think twice about the storefront they're accustomed to looking away from. "The League of the South has always been our little birthmark," says Karen Berney. "It was here, but it didn't make us unhealthy. Now you wonder."

Nobody in Abbeville has more to wonder about than those closest to Deputy Wilson and Constable Ouzts. Deputy Wilson's fiancee, Verteema Chiles, spent Dec. 8 in an agonized wait-and-see mode with Wilson's sisters (two of whom also work in law-enforcement) and extended family. Wilson's National Guard unit was headed to Iraq in January, and he and Chiles were planning — Lord willing — to marry this summer.

"We kept getting bits and pieces from TV, from people in the community," she recalls. "Both officers are dead — no, just one. Danny's been rescued — no, he hasn't. It went on all day. We didn't know anything until late that night, when somebody called to tell us, 'They got Danny Boy, but he might be dead.' So we all bust out crying and consoling each other. And then the sheriff's office said it hadn't been confirmed, so we thought there was some hope left and drove over to the scene.

"And then to have this dude come out and say, 'It's been confirmed.'" She breaks off, momentarily overcome.

Once they knew the deputy was dead, his folks hoped they'd also learn how he died. "They led us to believe he died instantly," says Chiles, "and I want to believe that. But we didn't get to see his body that night — not until that Friday morning, right before the public viewing. It just made you wonder if the rumor was true about him being tortured. I saw a picture that showed bruises on his head. And they put handcuffs on him after they dragged him inside.

"Why would you put handcuffs on a dead man? They told me, well, they thought he could have been faking it or something. But you wonder what happened in that house. My only hope and wish is that he didn't see it coming."

The broader mystery, for the officers' survivors and everyone else in Abbeville, is why anyone had to be killed that day. "I just can't believe Danny died over a piece of land, a strip of land," says Chiles. "I can't rationalize it. Why?"

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."