2003 standoff in Abbeville, South Carolina
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Coordinates: The 2003 Abbeville right-of-way standoff was a 14-hour shootout that took place on December 8, 2003, in Abbeville, South Carolina, between alleged extremists and self-proclaimed "sovereign citizens" Arthur, wife Rita, and son Steven Bixby; and members of the Abbeville city police department, the Abbeville County sheriff's office, the South Carolina Highway Patrol, the South Carolina Department of Transportation, and the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division.
The standoff, which resulted from a dispute between the Bixbys and the state of South Carolina over surveying during the planning of a highway widening project, resulted in the deaths of two lawmen, Abbeville County Deputy Sheriff Sgt. Daniel "Danny Boy" Wilson, 37, and State Constable Donald "Donnie" Ouzts, 61. All three Bixbys were taken into police custody after surrendering late in the evening of December 8. On February 19, 2007, a Chesterfield County jury found Steven Vernon Bixby (born August 17, 1967) guilty on 17 counts, including both murders as well as several lesser charges of kidnapping and conspiracy. On February 21, 2007, this same jury recommended that Steven Bixby receive two death sentences for the murders and 125 years in prison for the lesser charges. Bixby was scheduled to be executed on April 22, 2007; however, the appeals process has not been exhausted. On August 16, 2010, the South Carolina Supreme Court affirmed the conviction of Steven Bixby and the death sentence, and on April 25, 2011, the United States Supreme Court denied Bixby's petition for a writ of certiorari, effectively ending his appeals process. Steven Bixby is currently on South Carolina's death row at the Lieber Correctional Institution in Ridgeville. On October 26, 2007, an Abbeville County, South Carolina jury found Rita Bixby guilty of two counts of accessory before the fact of murder and one count of conspiracy. She was given two life sentences on the accessory charges, and five additional years for conspiracy, the maximum sentence for that crime. Arthur Bixby was found mentally incompetent to stand trial, and subsequently committed to a mental facility.
Events leading to the standoff
The Bixby family lived in Warren, New Hampshire. There, Arthur Bixby was jailed for failure to pay $850, three years after a judgement in a lawsuit. The family's behavior prompted the judge in the case to arrange full-time security. Rita Bixby reportedly had a long history of filing seemingly frivolous lawsuits in New Hampshire courts; one such lawsuit attempted to gain title to land belonging to the Bixbys' neighbors. This suit was dismissed by the court, but an undeterred Rita Bixby attempted (unsuccessfully) to hold a sheriff's sale of the property in question. The Bixbys also frequently attempted to bypass traditional legal processes by filing claims and suits in unofficial "common law courts", claiming that they were "sovereign citizens" and hence had the right to pursue legal action in whatever manner they desired.
In New Hampshire, Steven Bixby was convicted of driving while drunk and without a licence in 1992. In 1994, an arrest warrant was issued when he missed parole check-ins and had failed to pay the fines. He arrived in Abbeville in the 1990s and his parents arrived in 2000. They moved into a small home situated at 4 Union Church Road, near the junction of South Carolina Highway 72, Union Church Road, and Horton Drive, in West Abbeville. The parcel of land surrounding the Bixby residence was subject to a 1960 easement granted by a previous owner, Haskell Johnson, to the state of South Carolina, allowing for the South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT) to expand its right-of-way on the portion of the property adjoining Highway 72, should it desire to widen this highway in the future. It was debated, however, whether Johnson's granting this easement to the state was properly recorded by the Abbeville County register of deeds. When the 1960 easement was granted, it was permissible under state law to record highway right of way instruments in the records vault at the SCDOT headquarters in Columbia. For many years now, the SCDOT has also recorded at local county courthouses. In this situation, the 1960 easement was apparently only on file in the SCDOT records vault, and not at the Abbeville County courthouse.
In the early 2000s, the state of South Carolina began widening Highway 72 from the Georgia state line to just east of Abbeville. Reportedly, the state determined in late 2003 that it would need to enter its easement on a strip of the Bixbys' land approximately ten feet in length to construct the project. Angered by what they claimed was an unconstitutional theft of their property by the SCDOT, the Bixbys sent numerous written appeals to various state officials, arguing that the easement in question had been obtained illegally. Some of these appeals, laced with references to the New Hampshire state constitution, invocations of the New Hampshire state motto, and fierce statements underscoring the Bixbys' seeming willingness to die for their beliefs, did not arrive at state offices until after the standoff had concluded. On November 4, 2003, Rita wrote an email to family and friends which said that if anything was done on their property, there would be two shotguns that "would not be just for show". On Thursday, December 4,2003, the SCDOT officials brought a copy of the easement to the Bixby home and informed the Bixbys that they would act on the easement and take 20 feet of land and that the Bixbys had the option to buy additional footage for the nominal consideration of $1. Rita and Arthur wrote a letter to numerous state officials which closed quoting Patrick Henry ("Give me liberty, or give me death!") and John Stark ("Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils.") and ending with "We, the undersigned, echo those sentiments."
On Friday, December 5, 2003, as officials with the South Carolina Department of Transportation began staking out the portion of the Bixbys' land to be used for the construction of the highway project, the Bixbys posted signs on their property prohibiting trespassing by "govermen [sic] agents and all others". At the trial of Rita Bixby, the prosecution presented evidence that, on December 5, 2003, there was a meeting between Rita, Steven and Arthur Bixby and SCDOT officials Drew McCaffrey, Michael Hannah and Dale Williams to address the Bixbys' concerns. At the trial of Rita Bixby, McCaffrey testified: "I offered to show them the plans detailing who owned the right of way, but Rita Bixby said the plans were all lies." Arthur Bixby also attempted to sabotage survey work by removing stakes from the yard and throwing them into the middle of Highway 72. It may have been about this time that the Bixbys began heavily fortifying their home in preparation for a standoff with police or the government.
Early on December 8, 2003, a highway worker contacted police accusing Arthur and Steven Bixby of making threatening statements, and again disrupting the laying out of survey stakes along Highway 72. Abbeville County Sheriff's Deputy Sgt. Daniel "Danny Boy" Wilson responded to this complaint, arriving at the Bixbys' home around 9:15 AM, only to be shot by Steven Bixby at point-blank range with a 7mm Magnum rifle. At both Steven Bixby's trial and at Rita Bixby's trial, the prosecution presented evidence that Steven Bixby dragged Wilson into the house, used Wilson's handcuffs to cuff his hands behind his back, made a "citizen’s arrest" of Wilson for trespassing and read him his Miranda rights. Wilson was then held hostage for the next fourteen hours, sometime during which he died from his wound. Wilson had been shot by a hunting rifle, which had been fired by Steven Bixby. The shot was fired by Steven Bixby from inside the Bixby home, through a window and struck Danny Wilson underneath his armpit. After making vain attempts to contact Wilson, authorities sent State Constable Donnie Ouzts to investigate. Within minutes, Ouzts was fatally shot as well.
At Steven Bixby's trial, testimony by forensic pathologist Dr. Brett Woodard, who performed the autopsies on the slain officers, gave the jury physical descriptions of the wounds sustained by Wilson and Ouzts. Jurors also viewed the dried, but still blood-stained shirts of the two officers, along with other of their personal effects they carried that day. Woodard described how the bullets entered each of the men, explained the damage they created while inside the body and determined each gunshot as the cause of death. Both men were killed by a "rifle-type" weapon. "There was an entry wound in the (right) back and an exit wound in the front near a left shirt pocket," Woodard said of Ouzts’ wound. "There was also a reopened wound related to recent cardiac bypass surgery, marked by an incision. That incision gave way under the pressure of the bullet."
The bullet that struck Ouzts did so in the back near his spine and right shoulder blade, traveling across the body at an angle — from right to left — hitting his liver and passing through his heart. Death was nearly instantaneous. Wilson was hit just inside of his protective vest, on his left side near his left armpit and left pectoral muscle. "It was a rather large, irregular wound," Woodard said. The bullet traveled through Wilson, striking his aorta artery and breaking his backbone. According to testimony, following the gunshot, Wilson would immediately have lost all feeling below the wound and died shortly thereafter from trauma to the aorta and severe loss of blood. He would have lost consciousness almost immediately after the gunshot wound was inflicted. Woodard also testified that Wilson’s left arm was raised when he was shot. This evidence suggested Wilson could have been knocking on the door when he was hit by the bullet — among other possible scenarios that were offered later in cross-examination by the defense.
At this point, the Abbeville County Probation and Parole Office received a phone call indicating that an officer had been shot. All probation agents in the state of South Carolina are fully certified law enforcement officers, with the same training and arrest powers as all city police, deputy sheriff, highway patrol and SLED officers. Probation Agent Phillip Sears and Agent-In-Charge Ed Strickland responded immediately to the scene, not knowing what had transpired on the property. As first responders to the Bixby home, Strickland and Sears canvassed the property, and quickly located the body of Constable Ouzts lying on the front lawn. The agents summoned reinforcements and began to establish a perimeter around the residence before other law enforcement officers arrived.
In the meantime, Rita Bixby, from the Abbeville Arms apartment rented by Steven, phoned the South Carolina Attorney General's office, leaving the following message with a secretary: "...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." Rita then effectively took the entire apartment complex and its surroundings hostage, threatening to randomly shoot bystanders if either her husband or her son were harmed by the police. At the apartment, Rita had her son Dennis with her.
Throughout the late morning and into the afternoon, members of various law enforcement agencies as well as Abbeville residents who had befriended the Bixbys attempted to negotiate with the family, to no avail. A SWAT unit came from Columbia by helicopter, followed by a South Carolina Law Enforcement Division armored vehicle. At one point, nearly 200 law enforcement agents surrounded the Bixby residence. A constant barrage of gunfire, up to a thousand rounds of ammunition in five minutes, emanated from the small house, thwarting attempts by police to rescue Officer Wilson or capture the residence. So heavy was the gunfire, in fact, that the police had to be resupplied several times with ammunition. Media estimates have pegged the actual number of rounds fired in the tens of thousands. According to South Carolina Law Enforcement Division Chief Robert Stewart, the level of gunfire from the Bixbys was worse than anything he had encountered in his 30-year career. Indeed, many Abbeville residents living over a mile from the site of the standoff reported hearing the continuous gunfire.
By late afternoon, SWAT officers were able to negotiate Rita Bixby's surrender, though she refused to assist in negotiations with Arthur and Steven. Upon searching Steven's apartment and Rita's vehicle, authorities discovered numerous high-powered firearms, as well as a large quantity of what has been described as anti-government literature.
Around 7:15 PM, two hours after Rita's surrender, police breached the Bixbys' front door with a 10-foot steel battering ram attached to a vehicle, breaking a propane line and starting a fire, which several officers extinguished. A surveillance robot, armed with tear gas and 5X intensity pepper spray, was dispatched into the house, but was unable to enter due to the large quantity of debris blocking the front door. The robot was, however, able to return video of Danny Boy Wilson's handcuffed, lifeless body lying in a pool of blood. In an attempt to recover Wilson's body, a SWAT unit stormed the house; surprised by the earlier blaze, the Bixbys were caught off-guard for a moment, as they ceased firing long enough for the officers to drag the body from the house.
By 10:00 PM, after hours of constant firing from both sides and the release of over twenty canisters of tear gas and pepper spray into the nearly destroyed Bixby home, Steven Bixby surrendered to police. About an hour later, a critically wounded Arthur Bixby also surrendered and was flown to a Greenville hospital, where he later recovered.
Upon entering the house for the first time, officers found a total of nine firearms, including Wilson's, as well as a large library of legal texts and articles related to militia uprisings. They also found several different wills made out by the Bixbys, and numerous suicide notes.
On December 9, 2003, Steven and Rita Bixby were arraigned in Abbeville County on various charges related to the deaths of Wilson and Ouzts. Steven was charged with two counts of murder and one count of criminal conspiracy, while Rita was charged with accessory before the fact to murder, criminal conspiracy, and misprision of a felony. At arraignment, Steven said he was acting in self-defense and cited the New Hampshire motto, parts of the Constitution of New Hampshire, and some Federal law. There, he said, "I love this country. I just can't stand the bastards in it." Arthur Bixby was later arraigned on charges similar to those against Steven. Prosecutors originally planned to seek the death penalty for all three Bixbys, but on August 23, 2006, Circuit Judge Alexander Macaulay ruled that the death penalty was not an option in Rita's case, a ruling that prosecutors appealed to have overturned by the South Carolina Supreme Court. In State v. Bixby, 373 S.C. 74, 644 S.E.2d 54 (2007), the South Carolina Supreme Court affirmed the trial court's decision that Rita Bixby was ineligible for the death penalty under South Carolina law because she was merely charged with accessory before the fact of murder.
All three Bixbys were initially held in the Abbeville County jail, awaiting trial. For a brief period in 2005, Steven Bixby was moved to the Anderson County jail; in early 2006, he was moved again to the Lexington County jail, where he remained as of late August 2006, due to a breach of confidentiality regarding his meetings with expert witnesses in the case. Trial dates in the case were pushed back several times from their originally scheduled starts in mid-2004. One reason for the delays was the sudden death of Circuit Judge Marc Westbrook in a September 2005 traffic accident; another reason was the contest between the defense and prosecution over both the venue of the trial and the county from which a jury pool would be selected. In early 2006, Macaulay agreed with Steven Bixby's defense that it would be nearly impossible to seat a truly impartial jury of Abbeville County citizens; in July 2006, Macaulay ruled that potential jurors would come from Chesterfield County.
On February 19, 2007, a Chesterfield County jury found Steven Bixby guilty on 17 counts, including both murders as well as several lesser charges of kidnapping and conspiracy. On February 21, 2007, this same jury recommended that Steven Bixby receive two death sentences for the murders and 125 years in prison for the lesser charges. Bixby was scheduled to be executed on April 22, 2007; however, the appeals process has not been exhausted. On August 16, 2010, the South Carolina Supreme Court affirmed the conviction of Steven Bixby and the death sentence (State v. Bixby, Opinion No. 26871, August 16, 2010). Steven Bixby is currently on South Carolina's death row at the Lieber Correctional Institution in Ridgeville.
While in jail, Steven Bixby wrote over 1,500 pages of letters to his girlfriend. Some of the letters, signed "chaotic patriot Steve", were admitted during his trial.
Despite initial concerns over security at the 100-year-old Abbeville County Courthouse, Eighth Circuit Judicial Solicitor Jerry Peace determined on August 29, 2006, that the trial would be held in Abbeville County. The trial began February 14, 2007 with a jury brought in from 160 miles away.
On October 26, 2007, Rita Bixby was found guilty in Abbeville County Court of General Sessions. Judge Alexander Macauley presided over the week-long trial. Rita Bixby was found guilty by a jury of one count of conspiracy to commit murder, 1 count of accessory before the fact in the murder of Danny Wilson, and 1 count of accessory before the fact in the murder of Donnie Ouzts. The maximum penalty that could be imposed on the conspiracy count was 5 years. The accessory charge carried a mandatory minimum sentence of 30 years to life without parole. Judge Alexander Macauley sentenced Rita Bixby to 5 years in the custody of the Department of Corrections for the charge of conspiracy to commit murder. He sentenced her to life without parole on each accessory conviction. Rita Bixby made no statement to the court, only asking her attorney to advise Judge Macauley that she "is not guilty of these charges". Tearful family members of the deceased who were present for the trial embraced each other in relief at the ruling of Judge Macauley. Rita Bixby, on the date of her sentence, was 75 years old.
On February 22, 2008, South Carolina state transportation officials agreed to name a stretch of state Highway 72 in Abbeville County for Abbeville County Deputy Sheriff Danny Wilson and Abbeville County Magistrate's Constable Donnie Ouzts.
On August 17, 2010, the South Carolina Supreme Court upheld the death sentence for Steven Bixby.
In September 2011, the parents died of natural causes a week apart. On the 5th, Arthur died in at the age of 82. On the 12th, Rita died of cancer at the Graham Correctional Institution. She was 79. The house was demolished in 2018. As of 2021[update], Steven Bixby remained on death row because the drugs used for lethal injection were unavailable.
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