Murder Trial Puts Focus on Land Rights

The Associated Press
Sunday, February 4, 2007; 12:21 PM

ABBEVILLE, S.C. -- Bullet holes still pepper a small house on the outskirts of town where two law officers died in a gunbattle over a patch of land the state wanted to take for a highway project.

Property rights advocates will be watching closely Monday as jury selection begins for the murder trial of Steven Bixby, a 39-year-old New Hampshire transplant who officials say threatened violence against any officer who set foot on his land.

Some residents of the town of 6,000 near the Georgia line fear the trial will reopen wounds and paint the area as a bastion for anti-government activity.

"We were just devastated by the whole situation," said store owner Patricia Pelfrey, shuddering and wrapping her arms around herself as she recalled hearing the shots exchanged that December day in the 14-hour standoff. "Lord forbid we have anything like that again."

Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Bixby in the 2003 killings of Abbeville County sheriff's Sgt. Danny Wilson and state constable Donnie Ouzts. Bixby's father, Arthur, also is charged with murder but is to be tried separately.

Authorities say the Bixbys were angry over plans to widen a state highway that has since taken up some of the land in front of the their home. State transportation officials say the strip of land was purchased from a previous owner decades earlier.

The Bixbys left New Hampshire about a decade ago after participating in a group angry with zoning laws and taxes.

"When I think of the Bixbys, it's like the arc that anti-government folks take," said Heidi Beirich, spokeswoman for the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Alabama-based civil rights watchdog group. "You start not paying your taxes, you start hating the government, you get involved reading publications from patriot groups. So many of them end up committing acts of violence."

Some of the property rights advocates who have made Bixby's case a minor cause celebre, saying he had the right to defend the 20-foot parcel, were expected to attend the trial.

Civil rights watchdogs say part of the case's attraction for people who protest government control is Abbeville's place in U.S. history. One of the first meetings on whether South Carolina should leave the Union took place in 1860 on what is now called "Secession Hill." Confederate President Jefferson Davis held his last Cabinet meeting at a mansion here in 1865, just days before he was arrested.

In the confrontation at the Bixby home, Wilson was the first to die. He had gone there to discuss the family's anger over the road and was shot on the front porch, his body then dragged inside, according to authorities.

A statement Steven Bixby gave after his arrest said the deputy reached for his gun. A judge said last month the statement could be used at his trial.

"We told him to leave because it was private property. After we told him to leave, the deputy reached for and unsnapped his sidearm. The deputy had a real attitude and was not in any mood to talk," Bixby told State Law Enforcement Division agents.

Ouzts was sent to check on Wilson. He was shot as he stepped out of his patrol car and died on the way to a hospital.

Police surrounded the house for the rest of the day, and hundreds of rounds were exchanged.

Arthur Bixby was wounded in the fusillade. No trial date has not been set for him and a prosecutor has not decided whether to seek the death penalty. Rita Bixby, Steven's mother, wasn't home at the time but she was charged as an accessory because authorities say she knew her family planned to harm officers.

© 2007 The Associated Press