Couldn’t the county simply have paid him for the damage to his well?
That’s the question that urges itself upon me as I sift through the rubble of last Spring’s confrontation in rural Wisconsin between Robert Bayliss and … well, at last count, roughly two dozen local, county, and state agencies.
The anti-Bayliss coalition included elements from no fewer than six SWAT teams and the prominent use of three BearCat (Ballistic Engineered Armored Response and Rescue Counter Attack Truck) military assault vehicles.
Surely, Mr. Bayliss must have been a singularly fearsome fugitive in order to trigger such a huge deployment. One would think as much. And one would be wrong.
Prior to his arrest on April 3, the diminutive and reclusive Mr. Bayliss (either 60 or 61 years old, depending on the media account) lived in a small, ramshackle abode on 18 acres outside Viola, Wisconsin.
We can appreciate just how pathetic and fragile the Bayliss dwelling was by the fact that it was never referred to as an “armed compound” during the police siege.
A former volunteer firefighter who had served as a sonar officer in the Navy, Bayliss had a heart attack about a decade ago. Reputed to be a world-class amateur computer technician, Bayliss had been reduced to grubbing out a meager living by picking apples in the fall and doing whatever other odd jobs he could find.
Press accounts dutifully describe Bayliss (who looks like a much frailer version of Grandpa Walton) as someone who possessed “strong anti-government attitudes,” which — to genuinely intelligent people — is a bit like being singled out for having a healthy immune system. Unlike the stereotypical anti-social recluse of lore, however, Bayliss is considered to be very personable, outgoing, and generally respectful of the preening, oddly dressed, self-important parasites who insist on being called “the authorities” — judges, police, and that ilk.
“I like him,” commented substitute librarian Judy McConoughey about Bayliss following his arrest. “He is extremely gentle, kind, thoughtful, respectful…. It’s only when he is confronted with what he thinks is illegitimate abuse of the Constitution that he gets very upset…. Most [of his neighbors] know him and like him. He is basically a peaceable person, I would take him into my home.”
Eugene Winchell, who picked apples with Bayliss in local orchards, allowed that he was “maybe a little eccentric, but he was good to work with … always with a smile on his face. I don’t think there was a bad bone in his body.”
“I think he was always poor,” says neighbor Al Cutler of Bayliss, “but he wouldn’t take money from anybody. He wired my shed in exchange for firewood. He would help just about anybody who needed help.”
In his previous court appearances — which have been plentiful, for someone who has never imposed on anybody, let alone committed an offense against person or property — Bayliss has displayed tremendous respect for judges and court officials. Given his polite and deferential nature, Bayliss seemed to be the last person who would ever throw a few rounds of lead at local law enforcement officers, as he reportedly did on March 31 when two Sheriff’s deputies invaded his property for the purpose of evicting him from his home.
Last November, the clique calling itself the government of Richland County voted to steal Bayliss’s 18-acre plot because he had declined to pay $5,737.01 in property taxes between 2000 and 2006. Until 2000, Bayliss had dutifully paid out the protection money demanded by the county Camorra, but found himself in trouble anyway: The County Sheriff sicced his deputies on Bayliss to deliver a tax delinquency notice, despite the fact that he had already paid the first of two installments to the town treasurer.
Bayliss was understandably frustrated by the bureaucratic foul-up, and infuriated by the serene arrogance displayed by the deputies when they trespassed on his posted property. In a nice bit of mimicry, Bayliss had put up a sign announcing that those who entered his land had to pay a $5,000 “land-use fee” to obtain an entry permit. So after the deputies left, Bayliss sent the county a bill demanding payment of the delinquent $5,000 fee.
This is a futile gesture, of course, but I’m trying — without success — to identify a moral argument against what Bayliss did. It was his land, owned free and clear since 1979. He was the sole inhabitant and sovereign of his own little polity. In anything other than a strictly positivist sense, why couldn’t he charge for access to his land?
Fanciful as Bayliss’s demand of the Richland County Government may have been, that government’s culpable neglect also handed him a solid, incontestable grievance.
Some time prior to Bayliss’s initial property tax conflict in 2000, a construction crew straightened County Highway G, which runs next to Bayliss’s land. This involved blasting away a limestone hillside. Part of the collateral damage of the blasting was the loss of Bob Bayliss’s well.
According to Al Cutler, Bayliss’s neighbor, the blasts left the well’s submersible pump irreparably damaged, leaving him with no source of water. Cutler also reports that the county refused to restore the well or provide Bayliss with an alternate source of water. He was forced to fill large, blue, plastic barrels with water from local springs.
So it’s no particular surprise when Cutler reports that Bayliss, who was not predisposed toward anti-government sentiment, was “sore at the county.”
Once again, I ask: Why the hell didn’t the Richland County Government, which committed the initial offense by destroying Bayliss’s well, pay for the damage?
The answer, obviously, is: Because they didn’t have to. They have armed men in their employ, after all, who are clothed in the supposed authority to commit acts of violence against intransigent people like Robert Bayliss.
So on March 31, the County dispatched four of their armed employees to serve eviction papers on Bayliss. For his part, Mr. Bayliss — reportedly a “crack shot” — displayed nearly superhuman forebearance in the face of this aggression by aiming his shots above the head of the invaders.
The deputies withdrew; conferences were held; local police officials contacted their comrades in neighboring jurisdictions to organize a militarized response to Bayliss’s defiance.
As described in a press release issued by Richland County Sheriff Darrell Berglin, the operation involved six Sheriff’s departments, one local police department, six SWAT/tactical teams, State Police personnel, a bomb squad, two airborne units, three emergency response teams, and representatives of three state agencies.
All of this manpower was mobilized, remember, to conduct an assault on a solitary aging man who owed $5,737.01 in back taxes.
I’ll bet that the Richland County Government wastes more than that amount each year in needless purchases of refreshments and office supplies.
Conspicuous in the April 3 assault on Bayliss’s home were three BearCat vehicles. Lenco Industries of Penco, Massachusetts, which manufactures the BearCat, proudly reports that the vehicle is fortified with “half-inch hardened steel armor plates, State Department-approved bulletproof windows, blast fragmentation resistant floors, specially designed gunports, roof hatches with rotating turrets, gun mounts and gear storage.”
Bayliss flung a few rounds, and a few “grenade-type devices” (most likely Molotov cocktails) at the lead BearCat, slighting damaging its bullet-resistant windows. Two more of the assault vehicles were summoned to the scene. SWAT operators chased Bayliss into his house, firing numerous tear-gas rounds into it before finally using “less-lethal” rounds to subdue him. The house itself burned to the ground.
Having conquered such a menacing adversary, the local Homeland Security affiliate took a victory lap.
Fist-jabs and chest-bumps were exchanged; beers were hoisted in triumph; press releases were joyously disseminated. The battle-damaged BearCat itself was put on display in LaCrosse County, whose Sheriff’s Department had purchased the vehicle with a federal Homeland Security grant.
You see, the purchase of the BearCat by the LaCrosse Sheriff’s Department had been controversial, because it had been arranged without the County Board of Supervisors being notified.
So much for civilian control over the military — even at the county government level.
Apparently, only the Sheriff and a couple of his cronies were aware of the grant and how it was spent. After the purchase became known, County Supervisor Jill Billings quite sensibly suggested that it be turned over to the local National Guard unit. This provoked a theatrical display of pious outrage from Supervisor Karl Haleverson, a former sheriff.
“Don’t we care about these law enforcement officers?” simpered Halverson. “Boy, sometimes I think I’m on Mars.”
The Board of Supervisors eventually issued a resolution (.pdf) “authorizing” the purchase after the fact. Of course, the County Sheriff and other local clients of the Homeland Security State believe that the BearCat purchase was entirely validated by the successful siege of Robert Bayliss’s home.
Of course, the BearCat acquisition, like the purchase of hundreds of thousands of dollars of hi-tech gear with federal funds, was justified as a counter-terrorist measure — as if the minions of the omnipotent troglodyte Osama bin Laden regarded rural Wisconsin to be a critical target of the global jihad.
The inaugural use to which that armored assault vehicle was put was much more illustrative of the priorities and function of the Homeland Security State, which is to maintain terror — not only the politically profitable fear of outsiders, but the tacit fear that commands submission to the State’s demands. The amount Bayliss owed was less than trivial, but his defiance — rooted in a very plausible set of grievances — could have proven contagious if not properly dealt with.
As helicopters circled Bayliss’s besieged property in the distance, and smoke arose from his ruined house, a resident of the nearby town of Viola commented to a reporter: “This could happen to anybody.” That’s precisely the message the local Homeland Security affiliate meant to send.
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