(Writer’s Note: This is a rough first draft of a new story. I’m working on a new version in 3rd person. In the meantime, what do you think of this 1st person version? PDF available here.)
They ask me about Hollis all the time: “What was he like before the siege?” “Why does he hate the government so much?” “Did you ever think he’d do something like this?”
They ask because they think I know him. “Kevin and Hollis grew up together. They’re still good friends.” True enough on the growing up part. I met Hollis in first grade when we teamed up to keep Kenny Sampson at bay. I’m not so sure on the “still good friends” part. He was gone for 15 years or so, and came back a different man, no longer fat, married to that fireball Rhonda with three kids in tow and a light in his eyes that hadn’t been there before. Still, I thought I knew him. We socialized, barbecued together, drank more than a few beers on my porch. Then Rhonda got arrested, convicted and sent up the river, and this damn siege started.
Now when I Google “Hollis Donelson,” I find “anti-government extremist,” “domestic terrorist,” “tax protestor,” “violent radical,” “Sovereign Citizen,” “survivalist,” hostage-taker,” “man at center of Iowa siege.” I also see “hero,” “patriot,” “soldier,” “oathkeeper,” and (my favorite) “a truly righteous, fire-breathing, Son of Liberty, fighting Tyranny and nourishing the Tree of our Freedom with his own Sweat and Blood,” the latter on websites that prominently feature American flags, the Bible and the Constitution, plus pictures of Obama with horns or merged with pictures of Stalin or Mao.
I hope they’re wrong. But Jesus Christ: he’s locked in there with guns and ammo, explosives, there’s a big American flag flying upside down from the roof, and the shit he posts online is wacko. I know people lose their minds now and then. I have a great-uncle who I remember as a nice, rumpled, pipe-smoking stumblebum, but who apparently went so far off the rails that he ended up in an institution for a few years. Shit happens. But Hollis?
While I investigate and ponder and try to get to the bottom of it, I still have to deal with the questions. I initially tried to give Hollis’s side of the story to the reporters, but no matter what I said, the picture they painted of Hollis (not to mention me) was not what I intended. The TV reports were the worst. Young, overly good looking and blatantly ambitious hacks coating their words in a veneer of objectivity and smarmy insincerity, and yet always managing to convey an impression of our town as a bunch of yokels. After a few too many reports that sounded so similar that I thought they’d accidentally played a tape of an old report (“Wakonkwa is a quiet crossroads town where people still leave their doors unlocked at night. It’s a town where everyone knows their neighbor. Civic-minded, conservative, church-going. Visit the well-preserved downtown early in the evening and you’ll find it’s already shut down, the angled parking spaces empty. And yet to the locals’ astonishment and dismay, this town is the center of national attention after one local citizen, Hollis Donelson, violently refused to give up his property.”), I got annoyed and started refusing to answer their questions. Instead, I’d spout quotations from political theorists and philosophers. “Think we’re a bunch of country bumpkins? I’ll show you.” (This backfired when I quoted Whitman – “Thunder on! Stride on! Democracy. Strike with vengeful stroke!” People took it to mean I supported Hollis. Sometimes I’m a victim of my own self-righteousness.)
It’s now moot: the siege has dragged out for four months and the reporters have moved on. The only one we see now is that young guy from the Des Moines Register. He drops in every week or so and sits around at Jessie’s Diner looking forlorn hoping someone will talk to him. Sucks to be the low man on the totem pole.
With the Feds I had to be both forthcoming and circumspect. What is it people say? “It’s not the crime, it’s the cover up.” I didn’t want to end up locked up for obstruction of justice, but I was reluctant to give them any information that might hurt Hollis. He sure made his own bed, but geez, I’d known the guy so long I couldn’t just bury him. Fortunately for me (and Hollis), it was just him and me talking so they had no way of knowing what we talked about. That allowed me to vaguely hint at his troubled state of mind while covering my own ass by referencing Hollis’s normal law-abiding and gentle nature.
It was a struggle at times. One self-righteous prick of an agent, so uptight I swear he had a broomstick up his ass, kept asking, “What do you think caused him to become radicalized?” As if he were the subject of an experiment, a rat in a cage with white lab coats sticking him with needles. It was all I could do not to go off on the asshole. Poke a bear enough and see what happens. But I managed to keep my big mouth shut for once, partly because I was hungover as shit during the interview.
With my neighbors, I offer a version of “Good Lord, no! I knew Hollis was off-kilter after the whole thing with Rhonda. I mean wouldn’t you go a little crazy if your wife ended up in jail, if she left you in the middle of the trial, if your business went to pieces, if you ended up sitting by yourself contemplating your navel in that big house, your kids shipped off to the in-laws? I’d personally being sucking on the business end of a shotgun by that point. But Hollis? Sweet, mellow Hollis? Opening fire on the cops, setting off bombs, taking Rhonda hostage? I sure never saw that coming.” And they all grunt and agree with me.
The thing is I’m locked in guilt and therefore full of shit. I did see troubling signs but didn’t take them seriously. Like the day I found him installing machine gun emplacements in his house.
I was in my backyard working off the back end of a six-pack. It was only Thursday, but what the hell: I wasn’t driving again until Tuesday. All day I’d been hearing a chainsaw from Hollis’s place. That wasn’t unusual. The property became pretty overgrown during the Widow Larson’s long decline. Everyone was surprised when Hollis and Rhonda bought the place, over 150 years old and a wreck after over 30 years of the widow hanging on in growing isolation and poverty as she tried to squeeze every last bit of juice out of her family’s dwindling fortune, selling off lots one by one to create the neighborhood where I live now, until there was nothing left to sell and she was reduced in the end to taking in boarders – a motley crew around here – one of whom finally found her dead one February morning, frozen like a dead deer after a long winter in her unheated room.
This is to say that the house wasn’t exactly desirable. I like to imagine the real estate agent’s blurb: “This charming pre-1900s house is loaded with features: cold and cold running water, mice feces, doors that don’t fit and a basement that will make The Blair Witch Projectseem like a charming family film.” When Hollis moved back town to start working with his dad and eventually take over the insurance business, he and Rhonda bought a standard split-ranch, the house of choice around here. But when the Larson place came on the market, they bought it and we were all mystified. Not only was it a wreck but it was set back at the end of a long driveway as it was built as the Larson’s farm and then estate, and not as the decrepit centerpiece of a ramshackle unplanned subdivision. Naturally it turned into a grand renovation project, first on the house itself and then on the surrounding property. We all thought he was finished but after Rhonda’s jailing, he started up again and it seemed he had the chainsaw going every weekend and most weeknights.
But when I heard the chainsaw that Thursday, it sounded like it was inside the house. I figured I’d drunk too much and was imagining things, lost in that foggy afternoon drunk feel.
Then a piece of his house popped out and landed in the yard. Hollis had cut a half-moon shape from one beam at the corner. I saw movement through the hole and heard the chainsaw start up again. This time, I saw the blade poking through the wall of the house and once again another crescent of wood popped onto the lawn. Now there were two obvious holes about two feet high and a few inches wide, one on either side of the corner beam. I’ve done a fair bit of remodeling (some that even worked out and some, even more rare, that didn’t end up in a screaming fight with the ex) but for the life of me I couldn’t see the purpose of these holes. But what the hell: it was a quiet afternoon, I was a buzzed, and I hadn’t talked to Hollis in awhile. So I walked back inside, grabbed another six-pack, hooked it onto a couple of fingers and wandered over.
I walked along the street as we have no sidewalks out this way, and then up the driveway. Some previous generation of Larson had built a gateway, local fieldstone in an upsweeping arch on either side of the driveway, with a metal plaque set in the stone. I’d long since stopped noticing this faux-gentry accouterment but walking through it for the first time in years, I realized the arch was gone: all that remained were two unevenly shaped piles of stone. On the other hand, someone had recently gone to a lot of effort to polish up the plaque implanted in the left section. “LARSON, EST’D. 1897” it read. Which made absolutely no sense. Hollis had no relation at all to the Larsons. Why would he polish up a plaque dedicated to people he didn’t know?
Wandering up the driveway past the gate, I could now see the changes wrought upon the property. It looked like the aftermath of a battle: a wasteland of smoldering pits and trees without limbs. The place had been fronted by an orchard in regimented rows but it appeared Hollis had cut down most of the trees and was working to get rid of the rest, having hacked off most of the limbs, which were now strewn in piles at the bases of the trees.
I reached the house and grabbed the old brass knocker in the middle of the front door. It resisted with a nails-on-chalkboard screech and I could barely force it back down. A couple more tries and it loosened up enough that I was able to get some sound out of it. After a few seconds, I heard movement inside but rather than open the door, Hollis called out: “Who’s there?”
“It’s Kevin from next door.”
“What do you want?” Not the reaction I expected.
“Heard you working and thought I’d see if you wanted to help me with this six-pack.”
There was a flutter of movement in the left sidelight. I leaned over to notice it was covered in cardboard inside and the movement was Hollis pulling a piece of cardboard back to take a look outside. Then there was a clicking of locks unbolting and the door opened.
Hollis was borderline gaunt and his eyes seemed to have slipped farther back into his skull so it was difficult to see his expression. Still his voice was friendly enough when he invited me in. I stepped into the front hall, Hollis closed the door behind me and I saw the rifle propped in one corner. Around here, guns aren’t unusual. Leaving a gun propped by the front door is odd. For the first time around Hollis, I felt that creepy feeling of hair standing up on the back of my neck.
Then I caught my first glimpse of the interior. Holy cow. The house had that classic old home layout: a central hallway with a long single room on one side that included a formal dining room and sitting area, and two rooms on the other side (a den and the kitchen, which spread into an extension added onto the back at some point) separated by a small washroom. A staircase ran up one wall. As I recalled from the last time I’d been in the house (to my shame, I couldn’t remember when this had been but at least a couple of years earlier), Hollis and Rhonda had kept this traditional arrangement. Now the furniture was pushed up against the interior walls. Boxes were stacked everywhere along with dozens of containers of bottled water, and grocery bags. A sawhorse was assembled in the living room next to a stack of plywood and 2-by-4’s and sawdust spread in piles on the carpet. A quick glance into the den showed a desk buried under newspaper clippings, magazines, open books, file folders, mounds of loose paper, all spilling onto the floor to join stacks of folders and documents in some sort of order plus numerous empty coffee cups, soda pop and water bottles. The beautiful bookshelves Hollis had built to give the den the feeling of a library in an old mansion were now mostly obscured by tacked-up paper and sticky notes.
The man’s wife had been convicted of numerous federal tax charges and was now doing 68 months in the nearest federal penitentiary 800 miles away in West Virginia. The insurance business started by Hollis’s grandfather was a skeleton, half the customers gone, partly because of concerns that Hollis was into something illegal as well, and partly because he was absent much of the time sitting in the courtroom for Rhonda’s trial. There were constant rumors of charges against Hollis himself, and possible confiscation of what little he had left. And, by all accounts, Rhonda had left Hollis. The man had a right to be a little cuckoo, but the shambles inside the house gave me pause.
Hollis flapped an arm at me and said, “Come on back. Nowhere to sit in here. We’ll go outside.” We walked down the hallway into the kitchen and I started to relax – a little. It looked more or less normal, just a pile of boxes and bags and some sort of vacuum sealer on the kitchen table that seemed out of place.
Hollis reached back and took the six-pack from me, popping two cans out and sticking the rest in the fridge. He had to pop a 2”by4” out of a frame he’d built around the backdoor (“Lock’s broken,” he explained).
“Looks like you’re doing some work on the place,” I said.
“Got a lot of time on my hands,” Hollis replied.
“Yeah, I’ll bet. I was sorry to hear about what happened with the business, and with Rhonda, of course. It’s a crying shame.”
“That’s one word for it. A conspiracy by an illegally constituted entity to unlawfully deprive a man of his property is another way to put it.”
Oh boy. “Can’t do much about the government, I guess, except bitch and try to vote the bastards out next time ‘round.” Like most people around here, I hold no great love for the government, but recognize there are certain things they need to do. I just wish they’d do less of it and a better job at what they do do. During the trial, Rhonda’s views on government had gotten a wide airing. She claimed to be a Sovereign Citizen, whatever the hell that means. Sounded like a dodge to get out of what was obviously an open-and-shut case of simply not paying any taxes for over 10 years. She certainly seemed sincere in the belief, but I didn’t realize Hollis shared her views to this extent.
“I suppose so,” Hollis said, then turned to clank his beer against mine. “Better days.” He relaxed back in his patio chair, put his feet up and took a deep swallow of beer. For an instant, I glimpsed the Hollis I’d grown up with, low-key, sensitive, shy and with that endearing dopey smile. Then the memory disappeared and all I could see was a dried up husk with pale skin radiating bitterness.
“So what are you doing here. All this construction?”
Hollis was quiet for a moment then smiled grimly. “Call it ‘upgrades.’ I’m making upgrades to ensure it remains my house. My castle.”
“Upgrades? Like what? New plumbing? Paint? Wallpaper?”
Hollis laughed hollowly. “Not exactly. I’m reinforcing. Making this place self-sufficient. Got myself some solar panels.” He gestured with his thumb to a tarp-covered stack by the corner of the house. “And a few other surprises.”
“What’re you doing up on the second floor there? I saw holes around the beams on the one corner.”
Hollis looked at me, eyes narrowing until they almost disappeared. “I like you, Kevin, and I’ve known you a long time so I’ll tell you: I’m building machine gun emplacements.”
“I’m sorry. Did you say ‘machine gun emplacements’?”
“You heard it right. You can never be too careful. Lots of bad people out there.”
“Sure, of course, but I’m pretty happy with my Sig Sauer .45. No one’s getting past me when I’m pointing that sucker at ‘em.” I was trying to make light of Hollis’s comments. His sense of humor had always been a bit odd, so I kept hoping he’d drop the gloom and doom face, crack a smile and tell me he was joking. But that never happened.
We knocked off the six-pack and Hollis relaxed enough to shoot the shit about old friends and goings on about town. I never asked about Rhonda. I didn’t have the nerve to go there and he gave no indication of wanting to talk about her. As I swayed down the driveway a few hours later (for after we killed the beer, Hollis pulled out a bottle of good Kentucky sour mash) in the low light of dusk, I felt a sudden tingling down my spine, and a sense of being in someone’s sights. I couldn’t imagine Hollis would do such a thing but the early part of the conversation came back and the words “machine gun emplacements” were on a loop. I had to know. I stopped, as casually as I could, and rotated as though I were just admiring the evening sky over the house. I saw a shadowy movement across one of the holes Hollis had made. But it was hard to see in the gloaming, and I was pretty keyed up so maybe I imagined it.
I haven’t told this story to many people. That’s because the few I have told have had a slightly negative reaction. Like Turner Mandel: “Why the hell didn’t you say something if you knew he was turning his house into a fortress?”
I can only shrug and say “This is Hollis Donelson we’re talking about.” He of the awkward, offbeat humor full of random interjections and oddball twists. Hollis the Heifer. The Hollipotamus. Sweet, goofy Hollis. Even with the cruelty of children, Hollis got a pass. And this was a kid who was – no two ways about it – fat. At least until we got to high school when Hollis joined the football team and overnight went from “chubby” to “stocky” or just plain ol’ “big.” They stuck him on the offensive line and he thrived by the low standards of our regional league. Jesus, he was so big that no one could get past him, particularly once he learned the game, got fit and was discovered to have surprisingly quick moves. Weldon, his father, was a huge fan, having played on some team that made it all the way to the state semi-finals, unheard of for our small school. He thought Hollis was going to get a scholarship and become some kind of a star. I wasn’t so sure. I was a tall wiry bastard back then and moved among the receiver positions on offense, and cornerback or safety on defense. I had a good view of Hollis’s talents and even I could see he lacked the killer instinct to be a really good football player. If I could see that, I’m sure the college scouts (for Weldon actually convinced some scouts to visit) could see it a mile away. No football scholarship for Hollis. But he was smart so he got some small scholarships and grants (and it’s not like Weldon’s business wasn’t doing well – everyone needs insurance and for a long time he was the only game in town) and off to Chicago he went to attend Northwestern. I visited him for a couple of weekends while he was there but we drifted as kids do at that age, and then he ended up working in Arizona so I’d only bump into him occasionally around holidays.
I hadn’t seen Hollis for going on 15 years by the time he moved back to town. And the first time I saw him, I walked right past him in the parking lot of the Home Depot with a simple “Hello” and nod of my head. I didn’t recognize him: Hollis the Heifer had turned into Hollis the Marathon Runner and while you’d never describe him as thin, he’d become a muscular, athletic specimen. It was only when he called my name to turn me around and I heard his snorting, awkward laugh that I realized who it was. He invited me over for dinner and to meet Rhonda.
Observing Hollis that evening was like watching a long-running TV series I hadn’t seen since the first season. I remember my ex watching this show called Melrose Place. I watched the first couple of episodes but found it boring as hell: a bunch of overly nice yuppies sitting around bellyaching. Then a few years later I happened across it and it was like a completely different show. Same characters, it seemed, but now they were all sleeping with each other or plotting murder or both.
Hollis was focused, intense, and his movements had quickened. Teenage Hollis read comic books and graphic novels, watched Monty Python and other oddball British comedy shows, listened to strange old records from his dad’s collection, and showed no interest in history or politics beyond what he needed to pass his courses. This new Hollis was a political animal, freely quoting from sources known and obscure. In spite of my lack of formal education (just a couple of years of community college before realizing how much I could make driving a truck and taking advantage of a loan program for veterans), I always read widely but Hollis put me to shame.
He obviously adored Rhonda and the two of them bantered in a way that made me realize how absolutely hopeless my marriage was. She burst with energy, ready to go off any minute, usually on some humorous tangent, although even on that first night I met her, she did let loose with one darker turn on government overreach. I put that down to the amount of booze we’d thrown back.
When the feds first arrested Rhonda, we had a lot of sympathy for her. The federal attorney was politically ambitious and wanted to suck up to her core constituency of pro-tax lefties, so she decided to make an example of Rhonda. That meant alerting the nearby TV stations and local papers that a big arrest was coming, then perp-walking Rhonda past the cameras at the county jail. We thought it disgraceful. More than a few folks pointed out that we treated rapists and burglars better than that. All Rhonda had done was help people get the best refunds they could on their taxes, and if she pushed things too far, that’s because the government is rapacious and the tax code a piece of shit. She hardly deserved to be treated that way. Then they pushed for super high bail, claiming she was some sort of flight risk and harbored anti-government sentiments. She was a businesswoman with a husband and three children, for God’s sake. She wasn’t going anywhere.
Gradually opinions began to change. First, reporters found posts from Rhonda on various extreme right-wing websites. We poo-pooed these reports at first. We figured any website that didn’t claim the federal government was wonderful and should have even more of our money would seem anti-government to the liberal media. Then we started to look at these sites. This wasn’t just bitching about high taxes or incompetence. This was full-on, conspiracy theory, the government planned 9-11, they’ve got special camps built already to put us in when they declare martial law, we’ve got to fight back with every means at our disposal including assassinations of federal officials, building armed camps, laying down explosives. Bat shit crazy stuff. And mixed in with all the calls for armed revolution, there was a lot of stuff about how the government has no legal right to collect taxes and advice about how to declare oneself a Sovereign Citizen and not pay taxes at all. (I’m not the brightest bulb in the room but I can’t figure how these folks argue their way past the XVI amendment.) Rhonda’s handles were all over these posts: “PatriotLadyRhonda,” “SovereignRhonda,” etc. And that got people to thinking: if the woman is so opposed to taxes (and apparently paid none herself for a number of years), how could she go about setting herself up as a tax accountant and submitting any money at all to the feds, even if on behalf of her clients? This seemed hypocritical, which doesn’t go over well in this town.
Then the federal attorney got her wish and was promoted to a position with the Justice Department in D.C., and they appointed a new federal attorney who was much smarter and much less concerned with his political future. He went after the people who’d used Rhonda’s tax service. He’d sit down with his assistants and an accountant, the client and the client’s lawyer, and take them through their returns, line by line, showing them where illegal deductions had been made and explaining clearly (unlike any tax publication any of us have ever seen) why the deduction was illegal and what the legal justification was. He’d also point out that Rhonda’s work involved more than just taking overly aggressive deductions and write-offs: most of the returns included outright errors in math. I suppose once you’ve decided to rip off the government, you’re not going to pay much attention to your sums. Then he’d hit them with the bottom line: what they owed. Once they’d recovered their breath (and cleaned out their underwear), and their lawyer or accountant told them that, near as they could tell, the total was accurate, he’d hit them with the next phase in his plan: “We’re prepared to reduce the amount you owe, eliminate any penalties, and let you pay over, say, five years, if you’ll testify against Mrs. Donelson.” They dropped like flies and of course word got around town quickly that Rhonda had not only pushed her own anti-government agenda on her clients, but she was borderline incompetent and, by the way, had charged fees based on a percentage of the refund so obviously had a big incentive to take things too far.
And if that weren’t enough, her case attracted a bunch of extremist rabble to town. They set up camp in the town park, half of them dressed in military fatigues and virtually all of them openly carrying weapons. Now we’re a conservative bunch of people. We don’t have a problem with guns. Most of us own them. But we don’t carry them around. You’ll see a rifle in a rack in the back window of someone’s pickup truck but no one carries an assault rifle over his shoulder when he walks into McDonald’s. But these folks made a big deal of their right to carry. They’d march en masse into stores with pistols in holsters and M16 knock-offs over their shoulders, and scare the living hell out of the customers in there. Herb Blankenship put it best: “A bunch of edgy people walking around with that kind of firepower? Sooner or later, something’s going to go boom.”
The local police didn’t know what to do. They had to call the state police for back-up and in turn the FBI got involved since it was a federal case. So suddenly our peaceful little town park was an armed camp. People stopped going downtown, business suffered (not like downtown’s been thriving anyway since the big boxes went in), and the tension went through the roof.
Right before the trial started, Rhonda moved into an apartment near the court. She said it was give her husband and their kids some peace and quiet, and people bought that. Hollis was seen visiting and once the trial started, he was there every day in the front row. But that’s when I had my first suspicions. Little things didn’t add up. Rhonda supposedly moved out to give the kids a break, but then my daughter told me she hadn’t seen the Donelson’s son in her class since school started. I know Hollis and Rhonda had toyed with the idea of homeschooling, but figured they didn’t have the time between their two businesses. Pulling them out during a trial for their mother didn’t make sense. Then I ran into Hollis picking up his mail one morning.
“How are the kids doing with all this?,” I asked.
Hollis closed and locked his mailbox with a sigh. “Confused, I guess. We’ve tried to educate them a bit about how things really work in the world, but they’re still pretty young. Jay’s the oldest and he’s only 10. And then Rhonda and I get going sometimes and, well, you know what Rhonda’s like when she gets a full head of steam.”
I’d never seen the two of them argue or even sensed tension but I suppose when one half of a couple gets indicted, all bets are off. “It’s got to be tough with her on trial and you trying to keep the wheels on the bus.”
Hollis just grunted. “Yeah. Anyway, we decided to send the kids to stay with her parents in Virginia. School year was about to begin and we figured it’d be good to get them down there at the start so they can make friends and try to get into a routine.”
So Hollis was living by himself in that big house while Rhonda stayed in that cramped apartment above the gift shop downtown? That didn’t make sense.
Then I was watching TV coverage of the trial and whenever the camera cut to Hollis, I’d momentarily think it was someone else. He’d be slouched down in the seat, body angled unnaturally, as though he wanted to make himself uncomfortable. Invariably, he’d have an arm wrapped around his stomach supporting the other arm, and he’d have a fist pressed into his face by his nose. Glance at the image quickly and you’d think you were seeing a photo of someone who’d just been punched. He was so scrunched up that if he pressed himself together any harder, I thought he’d disappear.
It finally hit me one day. In the midst of a bunch of motions, the camera switched to Hollis. At that moment, he shifted out of his scrunched position and leaned forward with his elbows on his knees, resting his chin on his hands. His eyes were moist and puppy-doggish. You could all but hear him sigh. And then I saw the Hollis I’d gone to school with, specifically in freshman year when he’d had a terrible crush on Yvonne Desrocher. Being Hollis, he never actually did anything other than sitting around and mooning at her. When she started dating Tommy McShanahan, he looked like a dog that had just been swatted over the nose with a rolled up newspaper.
Then there was the other issue boiling under the surface and spoken of quietly around town. Why was Rhonda on trial while Hollis walked free? Everyone we knew who was married filed their taxes jointly. How could Rhonda have gone years not paying taxes without Hollis knowing? Every couple has their secrets but this was a whopper. It became another reason why we turned against Rhonda. Seeing Hollis alone and desolate in that courtroom created a lot of sympathy for him. And more so for Hollis than for Rhonda, who was loved strongly by the small number of people who loved her, but who rubbed some people so hard the wrong way when she disagreed with them or they didn’t respond to some request (a particular problem in one or two of the stores downtown) that they were glad to see her get her comeuppance, whether they admitted it or not. “How could she have done this to that lovely man?,” I heard more than once.
It was on my very last visit with Hollis, no more than a week before the siege began, that the real story started to fall into place.
I didn’t get an answer from knocking or ringing the bell. Then I heard clunking above. Hollis was on the roof. I stepped back up the driveway but couldn’t see him so I wandered around back. He was up there fiddling around with the solar panels. “Hollis my friend. How goes the battle?,” I called mock jovially. He didn’t respond but simply glanced down and then carefully backed down the ladder to shake my hand.
“Wanted to return the favor from last time,” I said, holding out a full bottle of whiskey.
“That’s fine,” Hollis responded. “I’m all done here. Officially off the grid. They can cut my power, they can turn off the gas, but it won’t make a difference. I’ll still have electricity and heat.”
“Why would they cut your power, bud? Behind on your bills?,” I replied, then realized I’d probably stepped in it. Lord knows what a mess his finances must be in after the trial, the judgment, and the loss of Rhonda’s income, not to mention that some people (or so I heard) had quietly switched their insurance business from Hollis’s company.
“You never know what’s going to happen, Kevin.” Then he looked directly at me: “You just never know.” Hollis went inside to get a couple of glasses and I noticed a difference in his stride, a firmness. Put a gun to my head and I’d be forced to describe it as “resolve.”
Sometime in the course of killing the whiskey, I felt drunk enough to ask about Rhonda. “You been over to visit Rhonda yet?”
Hollis was a sipper, not a gulper, but my question spurred him to suck back his glass. “Nope. No good way to get there other than a 12-hour drive. And Rhonda’s not exactly talking to me.”
I said, “Sorry” because what the hell else can we say at these times? Hollis waved it off. “Don’t worry about it. She’s got good reason to be angry with me.” He reached for the bottle, glancing at me under hooded eyes as he did so. “You understand that none of this would have happened if it wasn’t for me?”
“How do you figure that? Rhonda was the one who ran the tax business. You had nothing to do with it, right?”
“True, but the feds wouldn’t have gotten involved if I hadn’t stuck my nose into her business. See, I didn’t know she hadn’t filed tax returns. She’s a CPA, for Chrissakes. She took care of all that stuff. I never worried about it. Just handed her my paperwork. Then – do you remember that early cold snap we had a couple of years ago? Dropped below freezing in mid-September? Furnace wouldn’t come on so I went down to the cellar to check on it. Pilot was out and I’m poking around trying to find a match and it’s like any cellar, real mess, so I start to move some stuff around and find this little hutch at the back of room. I’d never seen it before and there’s a lock on the door, which is weird. I go back upstairs to the junk drawer and grab all the random keys in there, but none of them work. So I asked Rhonda about it. ‘No idea what that’s for,’ she says. I’m sure she hoped that’d be the end of it but she forgot what a stubborn, curious SOB I am so what do I do but go down there with a crowbar and pop the door open.” He stopped speaking abruptly and resumed drinking whiskey.
“And?,” I prompted.
“And…” Hollis sighed. “And it’s full of money. Thousands of dollars in cash, all stacked up on shelves. Guns – rifles, pistols, ammo. A couple of bulletproof vests. And file folders galore. I poked through it. All financial stuff, ledgers, receipts, etc.
“Of course I confronted Rhonda about it. She was pretty pissy it at first. You know how Rhonda can be when irked. But she was definitely fighting a rearguard action. She knew she’d hidden this stuff from me. She knew she’d lied when I asked her about the closet. Eventually she says, ‘It was better you didn’t know.’ So, of course, I say, ‘Know what?’ And she says, ‘You need to be able to deny anything if the government comes for us.’ So I say, “What in the fuck are you talking about?’
“Anyway, long story short, and after hours of talking and yelling and crying, it comes out that Rhonda hadn’t filed tax returns for years. Says she’d done a lot of research on it and the federal government has no statutory authority to collect income tax. She’d paid any other business taxes and all the state and local stuff, but nothing federal. I knew she had some pretty strong beliefs about government – hell, I don’t disagree with her myself anymore – but no idea how far she’d gone with it. All I could think was, ‘We’re fucked.’ They’ll find out inevitably and take us for everything.
“I tried to convince Rhonda to come clean. ‘Let’s get out in front of it, talk to a lawyer, go to the government, find out what we owe and pay them off.’ It’s not like we didn’t have the money. I hadn’t done a detailed accounting but just glancing at the stacks of cash down there, she’d squirrelled away at least $200,000.”
“So what happened? Did Rhonda agree to talk to the government?”
“Nope. Wouldn’t budge. So I decided to take matters into my own hands. Naïve bastard that I am, I figured the feds would be glad to hear from me. ‘Here’s someone bringing us cash. Woo-hoo!’ Wrong answer. And I stupidly reached out on my own. Didn’t call a lawyer. I didn’t hear anything for the longest time. I wish I could have forgotten about it but it really weighed on my mind. Made me pretty cold to Rhonda, too. Then I come home one day to find a swarm of IRS agents in the house executing a warrant. Took all the files and cash from the closet and a bunch of other stuff. They sent me an inventory later but they could have totally ripped us off for all I know. Rhonda got all up in arms about them invading our space and stealing our property, but there wasn’t anything she could do about it. Then she started speculating about how they’d even known about us and especially known about the closet. I had to ‘fess up that I’d sent the letter to the IRS and probably set off the whole thing.
“She didn’t talk to me for a week and then they arrested her. I’m still not sure why they only arrested her. But then even now I don’t know exactly what was in all those files, and maybe they gave me a break because I basically turned her in, even if I didn’t mean to. That’s why she moved out before the trial. She’s filed for a divorce now.”
I commiserated with him. After all I’m divorced myself, although for much more mundane reasons than accidentally getting my wife locked up. But it was the final thing that he said on the subject that came back to me later: “She’ll come back to me. I just need to demonstrate my true commitment.” He didn’t look at me when he said this, but merely glanced around his property with a tight-lipped smile.
I was home when the siege began. I’d come in late from a run down to Tennessee. I probably should’ve pulled over and crawled into my sleeper, but I was worried about missing my kid’s ballgame the next day so I kept pushing and got home at 3 in the morning. I forgot to close the blinds and was in one of those restless, sticky morning coma sleeps, dreaming disjointedly about fantastical creatures that combined elements of elephants, dinosaurs and jungle cats, and were able to shoot spear-like weapons from their trunks in a rapidfire way. The thumping of these spears hitting trees gradually shifted into a realization that I was hearing gunfire. It was sporadic at first: a few cracks from rifles and higher pitched sounds from pistols. And then, Holy Mother of God, a machine gun opened up, and my heart matched the staccato hammering as I jumped out of bed and ducked below the edge of the window.
The gunfire stopped and I raised my head to look through the window. The trees blocked any view. Then I heard a loudspeaker. It was a distorted but sounded like Hollis’s voice: “Attention. You are violating this sovereign space and the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America. You have no legal, moral or Godly authority to occupy this my sovereign property. If you do not retreat, I will defend my castle by all means necessary, including through use of deadly force.”
He repeated the words verbatim. When it started a third time, I realized it was a recording. A bullhorn squawked in response but with the volume of Hollis’s loudspeaker, I couldn’t hear what they were saying.
I decided I’d be better off downstairs, although the gunfire seem to have stopped. I opened the sliding back door cautiously so I could hear and then went into the living room so there was as much house as possible between me and any stray shots. I needn’t have worried: the initial gun battle was over and the siege had begun. After ten minutes of sitting there listening to Hollis’s loop, there was a pounding at the door: the cops were there to evacuate the neighborhood.
Unlike the later incident with Rhonda, there were no camera crews on hand. Who would have cared about a standard property seizure? It happened plenty of times in the Great Recession. The only video evidence is from a dashboard cam in the county sheriff’s cruiser. And the car was parked at the top of the circular driveway parallel to the front of the house so it’s mostly a static shot of Hollis’s lawn and the trees between his place and mine. You can only see a small corner of the house on the far right side of the frame.
There’s no sign of anything wrong as the car moves up the driveway toward the house and then turns to halt by the front door. There’s a brief bit of camera movement as the car rocks when the deputy gets out. Then he passes briefly in front of the camera and out of sight to the right. Then nothing but muffled background voices for a couple of minutes until a sudden burst of gunfire. The deputy skids past the hood of the cruiser unholstering his weapon and then returns fire from behind the car while other gunshots echo in the background. Then nothing but the repetition of Hollis’s message, garbled radio transmissions and police bullhorns. After a 15-minute standoff, the deputy hops in the car and drives away at high speed.
And that’s it. You can’t see Hollis. You can’t see any police other than the brief images of the one deputy. You can’t tell that all four officers – two deputies and two Federal marshals – had to cram into the one cruiser to escape after Hollis perforated the engine block of the marshal’s car with one of the two .50 caliber machine guns he’d somehow acquired. So I only have the official stories and Hollis’s online posts to understand how this started. The funny thing is that there’s really not much difference in the actual events described in either version. Only the wording varies.
The Feds attempted to serve Hollis with the property seizure notice but he managed to duck the first few attempts. Then the sheriff set up surveillance and caught Hollis by his front gate. He took the papers without a word, even when the sheriff warned him that he had only seven days to vacate the property. On the duly authorized date, they showed up, Hollis drove them off with gunfire (not coming close to hitting anyone apparently – he’s not a killer, our Hollis), and the Wadonkwa Siege was underway.
“Would this be another Ruby Ridge or Waco?” was the big question in the early days, before it became apparent that the Feds had learned their lessons and were perfectly willing to wait Hollis out. In the town itself, we were more flabbergasted than worried. Hollis never sounded radical like Rhonda. This is the period when people started asking me questions and sending the media my way. I was stuck on the highway north of town in a tiny room in the decrepit Rainbow Lodge (named, I’m guessing, not for the natural phenomena but for the amazing variety of colors in the stains on the walls, furniture and bathroom tub) until the cops figured it was safe for me to move back home. The rest of my neighbors had found temporary lodging with family or friends but I had no local family left and I didn’t want to make it awkward for my friends, since most of them had sided (understandably given my behavior) with my ex in the divorce.
After my last two encounters with Hollis, I was less surprised than everyone else, but the whole thing nagged at me since I hadn’t taken him seriously and still couldn’t believe he was that crazy. Then I noticed something strange in a TV report. One of the big news networks had sent a helicopter up. Even from a distance and a poor angle (the FBI wouldn’t allow them to get too close – understandable given Hollis’s possession of a .50 cal.), you could get a decent view thanks to all the space Hollis had opened around the house. The reporter opined that Hollis had created “an effective field of fire” to prevent any police from sneaking up on him. Maybe that was his intent but it was the shape that arrested me: it looked like a heart with the house sitting right at the center.
The view of the house was only a brief part of the report so it left me wondering if I’d just imagined it. But I poked around online and found an earlier video from another network. Sure enough, the space around Hollis’s house looked like a heart – and there was some sort of trench that made it look like an arrow through the house.
Then the second incident occurred. This one was captured by three different cameras. All the videos are posted on YouTube so I’ve spent hours looking at the clips and the more I examine them, the more convinced I’ve become that Hollis isn’t an anti-government extremist and he’s certainly not a hostage-taker: he’s just moonsick in love.
Someone in the higher command had the brilliant idea to see if Rhonda would talk Hollis out of the house. The speculation is that they offered to transfer her to minimum security (after they found all the guns and ammo, and her online rants calling for the violent overthrow of the government, Rhonda had ended up in medium security, unusual for a tax evasion case) if she could talk him out.
But Hollis wouldn’t talk to her over the phone. So the same genius decided to bring her to Hollis. (The poor bastard in the Federal Bureau of Prisons who authorized this has since been fired, although no heads have rolled at the FBI.) They spoke to him via cellphone and he agreed to allow them to drive within 50 feet of the house and then talk via bullhorn.
Up to this point, I’m telling you what everyone has already read. Now we can go to the videos. The FBI allowed one selected camera crew to tape from behind the wall at the front of Hollis’s property, probably as a sop to the media who were complaining bitterly about having no access. This angle is almost useless: a large black SUV approaches. This is the vehicle, we’re told, that Rhonda is in. After some consultations and staging, a group of heavily armed agents piles into another SUV. That SUV drives around the first one and disappears up the driveway. The driver of the second SUV can be seen taking a radio call a minute later and then that vehicle heads out of sight. There are a couple of minutes of distance bullhorn squawking, then the always startling impact of the first explosion. The camera shakes and almost pitches over. There’s chaos in the background as the remaining police pick themselves off the ground or run to press up against the wall. Just as the first wave of smoke drifts into sight, the second explosion occurs, even closer, prompting the cameraman to turn and wildly run away. Just as he gets to a safe point and turns the camera back toward the house, you can see an officer in tactical gear helping another officer through the gate and then lowering him to the ground behind the wall.
The second video is from a helicopter so there’s no sound. You see the first SUV head up the driveway and stop halfway up. Men get out and crouch behind the doors. (We learned later that this vehicle was fully armored after the first incident.) Then they climb back inside and the vehicle pulls forward another 20 or 30 feet and turns sideways. Agents exit the car on the side opposite the house and take up positions with weapons pointed at the house while the second SUV approaches. It drives until it’s close enough to the other vehicle to form a T. Then stillness for a minute until a door on the second vehicle opens and an agent emerges with a smaller figure behind him. Then the first explosion goes off and the whole scene is obscured by smoke. As the helicopter begins to move to get a better angle, the second explosion happens and the reporter’s voice pitches into the sound of someone picturing a ratings bonanza and a career-making moment: “There’s been a second explosion. The scene is totally obscured by smoke and we can only hope those brave officers have survived this terrible event.” As the helicopter banks, we catch a brief glimpse of one of the vehicles making an escape. The rapid movement of the car combined with the motion of the aircraft completely draws one’s attention to the vehicle. But sometime around the 20th time I watched this video, I noticed something else. There’s the tiniest of gaps in the clouds of billowing smoke that obscure the scene, perhaps from a gust of wind or just from the acceleration of the police SUV away from the scene. And just before the smoke closes in again, a dark figure appears to move past and toward the house. It has to be Hollis: they kept Rhonda in an orange prison jumpsuit and bulletproof vest, and there’s no way this figure is wearing orange. And the key point is that this person is alone: the smoke has rolled back enough that you can clearly see no one near him.
Why is this important? Because Hollis supposedly took Rhonda hostage, running out from the house under the cover of the smoke in the chaos after the explosions, grabbing her and hauling her back inside the house. If that was the case, then where’s Rhonda in this video?
And finally the third video, the one that put it all together for me. This is from a cable news crew that managed to sneak a remote camera into the house on the opposite side of Hollis’s place from mine. They’d found the owner, Randall Gordon, and convinced him to let them have his keys. (I’m quite sure some money changed hands: Randall wouldn’t give you water to fight a fire without charging for it.)
Although they placed the camera as high up the house as they could, the shot is partially obscured by shrubbery. Still it’s clear enough for me to pick out two crucial details. When the SUV that Rhonda’s in pulls up, two agents in tactical gear get out first. They stand behind the open doors and appear to be speaking with the agents in the first vehicle with their guns trained on the house. Then the agent on the right side of the car opens the passenger door to let Rhonda out. Her hands are cuffed in front and he holds her by one arm. He guides her toward the first vehicle, and then releases her arm. At that moment, the first bomb goes off and everything is obscured.
But if you slow the video down and look at it frame by frame, you’ll notice something odd: as soon as the agent drops Rhonda’s arm, she pseudo-casually glances around, but it’s obvious that she’s examining each agent very carefully. Then her body begins to drop. It’s imperceptible if you watch the video at regular speed as even slowed down, this movement only covers three or four frames.
A few seconds after the second explosion, the smoke clears briefly and there’s Rhonda on her knees next to one of the agents who’s injured. When I first saw this on TV, the reporter stated that she thought Rhonda was trying to help the agent, but at low speed, it appears to me that she’s trying to remove something from the agent’s belt. Then the smokescreen drops again.
The Feds and reporters (whenever they have a slow news days and return to our siege) still refer to Rhonda as a hostage. The media probably doesn’t know any better but I can’t believe the FBI and ATF haven’t gone through the same analysis I have and come to the same conclusions, namely that maybe this whole thing is just a convoluted plot not just to get Rhonda out of jail, but to convince her that he was committed to her cause, to make up for his getting her busted in the first place. For some reason, they’ve stuck with the hostage story.
A month after this, they let us move back into our houses, although we had to sign waivers first. In spite of the crisis next door, I must live in the safest neighborhood in America right now: there are always several vehicles parked along the street, plus a small station they’ve set up in the woods behind Hollis’s house, and agents patrol regularly. I’ll give them credit: they’re really low-key. I occasionally see agents in full tactical gear, but most of them stick to the standard uniform of khakis and dark blue windbreakers with the ever-present Kevlar vests. I supposed they don’t want to play to the whole “jack-booted thugs” viewpoint of Hollis’s antigovernment supporters.
Their presence is so low key that I worry Hollis could get away, slip through the net and vanish. Then one night I realized there was nothing to fear. I was taking the garbage out and noticed an agent having a smoke at the back of a black, windowless van that was often parked on the street. I recognized him from my interviews. “It’s Agent Ramirez, right?,” I said, walking into the middle of the quiet street.
He nodded and crushed out his cigarette on the pavement, then, to my surprise, reached down and picked up the butt with a tissue he pulled from his pants’ pocket. “That’s right, Mr. MacKinnon. How are you?”
We shot the shit for a couple of minutes, and then I decided to put to him the question I’d had on mind for awhile: “So I gotta ask: how are you making sure Hollis doesn’t escape? I mean I see agents patrolling around the property occasionally and I know you’ve got folks stationed on the back side of the property, but what if he decides to make a break for it, say through my backyard?”
Ramirez glanced at me sharply underneath his black bushy eyebrows: “Are you in contact with Mr. Donelson?”
“In contact? With Hollis? How?”
“He posts things on blogs and websites. Anti-government stuff, of course, but occasionally we find something odd, like a recipe for chicken stew. But we can’t figure out how he’s doing it. We haven’t detected any signals from his place. So we’ve started thinking he’s got help. Or else other people are just making things up in his name.”
“Well it’s not me. I got no patience for this extremist stuff. I’d take a look at that bunch of yahoos in the town park.”
Ramirez nodded. “Well, I had to ask. I probably shouldn’t tell you this but since you live next to the guy and have had your life interrupted by this craziness, let me show you how we monitor him.” He motioned me toward the side of the van, slid the door open, and revealed a nerd’s wet dream of high tech equipment. He climbed in and bid me follow him. He introduced me to the other agent in the van and then directed me into a cramped seat.
There were computers and recording equipment. Several complicated looking guns were racked on the back door. But what drew my attention were the monitors that lined one side of the van. Each showed a mess of vivid colors, the full rainbow. Bright, fluorescent, and neon. Reds, greens and blues. “Heat sensors?,” I asked and the agents nodded.
I slowly began to make sense of what I was seeing as, one by one, the unidentifiable shapes took obvious forms to my eyes. It was like sorting out one of those 3D paintings. That red square bordered in yellow? A window. That thin red line? An electrical circuit.
And that shot of red that looks like an upside down guitar? That was a person.
Looking across the six monitors, I could identify two people, not surprising since I already knew that Hollis and Rhonda were the only ones in the house. One was in an upstairs room, barely moving, not lying down but sitting facing a window. The other was in the kitchen moving around. I could see the red rings of a stove burner.
Then the figure in the kitchen moved. I tracked this person across different monitors until it appeared in the upstairs room. She (or he) walked up to the person on guard in the chair, and then squatted down. The two figures leaned close together and the reds and oranges flared and became more intense, crowding out the greens and blues, until it was impossible to tell where one person ended and the other began. There was nothing but a red orb, glowing with the intensity of a sun rising over the desert or the alien sun from any sci-fi movie.
And I knew Rhonda wasn’t a hostage and Hollis was a lot smarter than I realized.
And they weren’t coming out of there anytime soon.