ABBEVILLE, S.C. (AP) — Bullet holes still pepper a small house on the outskirts of town where two law-enforcement officers died in a gunbattle over a patch of land that the state wanted to take for a highway project.
Property rights advocates will be watching closely today 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.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for Mr. Bixby in the 2003 killings of Abbeville County sheriff’s Sgt. Danny Wilson and state Constable Donnie Ouzts. Mr. 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 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. Some of the property rights advocates who have made Mr. Bixby’s case a minor cause celebre, saying he had the right to defend the 20-foot parcel, were expected to attend the trial.
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.”
In the confrontation at the Bixby home, Sgt. 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 and his body dragged inside, authorities said.
A statement Steven Bixby gave after his arrest said the deputy reached for his gun. A judge said last month that 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,” Mr. Bixby told State Law Enforcement Division agents.
Constable Ouzts was sent to check on Sgt. 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 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 said she knew her family planned to harm officers.