Decade After S.C. Standoff, Home Is Sold: Former North Haverhill Residents Killed 2 Cops In 2003 Property Dispute

Sunday, December 08, 2013
Abbeville, S.C. — On the 10th anniversary of one of the most intense firefights ever in South Carolina, the home where it happened sits like a macabre reminder of the most horrible day Abbeville has seen in a generation.

The siding is full of bullet holes, doors and windows are boarded up and broken glass is scattered around the overgrown yard — frozen in time like it was that day when three former North Haverhill residents, Arthur Bixby, his wife, Rita, and son, Steven, decided to make a stand to save their land, leaving two officers dead and a community stunned.

The family ambushed the officers — and started a 13-hour standoff — because they were angry that a highway project was going to encroach on 20 feet of their property.

Today, the five-lane road has been long finished. Arthur and Rita Bixby died behind bars within a week of each other in 2011. Steven Bixby is on death row. The family has lost the entire property to the government. What happens next to the home is unclear.

Rita Bixby’s daughter, Debra Keith, of North Haverhill, had been paying the taxes on the home, but she said when she visited Abbeville County to see her mother in prison or get some of her personal items out of the home, she felt people blamed her for what her family did.

In 2011, Keith said, she finally decided there was nothing she could do. No one wanted to buy the house, and the county didn’t have any laws that would allow it to declare it a nuisance, said County Director Bruce Cooley.

“I couldn’t see paying taxes on something I couldn’t deal with,” Keith said by telephone from her home.

So she didn’t pay the $606 in taxes owed on the tiny house. Abbeville County sold the home at auction in November 2012, said delinquent tax collector Dorothy Coates. She refused to release the name of the person who bought the home because the deed turning over control of the land has not been finalized.

The Bixbys moved to South Carolina from North Haverhill after a series of legal troubles. In the early 1990s, Steven Bixby was convicted of at least two motor vehicle offenses and a probation violation, according to news reports following the Dec. 8, 2003, firefight. Neighbors told the Valley News at the time that Arthur Bixby had once stood by with a gun while Rita Bixby argued with them over a property dispute.

The Bixbys bought the South Carolina house and land in November 1999 for $35,000. Workers from the South Carolina Department of Transportation showed them how the state obtained rights to the 20-foot strip of their land decades before, but the Bixbys said that wasn’t recorded on their papers and they didn’t trust the government.

Just days before the standoff, Arthur and Rita Bixby wrote a letter to several state officials, complaining their land was being illegally seized.

“General John Stark, of New Hampshire, said: ‘Live Free Or Die!’ ” the Bixbys wrote. “We the undersigned echo those sentiments!”

When workers placed small orange survey flags in the Bixbys’ yard, the family pulled them out. That prompted Deputy Danny Wilson to visit the next day to mediate the dispute. The deputy was shot in the chest on the front porch, likely as he raised his arm to knock on the door. Steven Bixby dragged him into the home, handcuffed him and read him Miranda rights, according to trial testimony.

Constable Danny Ouzts was shot in the chest in the Bixbys’ yard as he came to check on Wilson.

Steven and Arthur Bixby then bunkered in their home with more than half a dozen weapons, some of them so powerful that the State Law Enforcement Division feared they could pierce the armor in all but their most fortified tank. Hundreds of rounds and dozens of canisters of pepper gas were fired during the 13-hour ordeal, which was so loud, people heard it in downtown Abbeville, more than a mile away. State Law Enforcement Division Chief Robert Stewart, who has since retired after almost 20 years as the state’s top cop, called it the most horrendous gunfight he ever saw.

Arthur Bixby was shot, but recovered. No other police officers were injured.

It is the only time law enforcement officers have been killed in the line of duty in Abbeville County, which was the place where Southern secession was first formally discussed in 1860.

The Anderson (S.C.) Independent Mail reported in 2011 that Steven Bixby was convicted in 2007 of killing Ouzts and Wilson.

Rita Bixby was convicted the same year on two counts of accessory before the fact and two counts of criminal conspiracy in connection with the killings.

Arthur Bixby was ruled unfit to stand trial in 2008 because he had dementia.

Rita Bixby died of natural causes in Sept. 12, 2011, at 79 while serving a life sentence. Arthur Bixby died Sept. 5, 2011, in a mental health facility in Columbia, S.C. He was 82. Both were buried in Warren, N.H., according to their obituaries.

Steven Bixby is being held in Lieber Correction Facility, a maximum security prison in Ridgeville, S.C.

Plenty of people around the county feel confident they know what will happen next.

More than a dozen people talked about how they heard the buyer planned to demolish the home and build a memorial to Wilson and Ouzts on the site. But no one, including Sheriff Ray Watson, had any details on who might build or pay for the memorial.

“All I know is I will be glad when that awful place finally gets torn down,” Watson said.

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