When the deputies came to seize the place. . .
SUN., MAY 18, 2008 - 1:27 AM
Bob Bayliss is a little guy of 60 years with long, grey hair. He is a crack shot, has an uncanny knack for cables and radios and computers, is amiable but wary in conversation, not much of a joiner, respectful but opinionated.
His friend Judy McConoughey, a substitute librarian and neighbor who learned from Bayliss how to shoot a gun, said he is only likely to get owly when certain aspects of government are the topic, or when he has been isolated for a while.
So when deputies arrived to serve legal papers to confiscate his rural Viola home in March, after he had been snowed in for most of the winter, something was bound to happen.
"I like him, he is extremely gentle, kind, thoughtful, respectful," said McConoughey, who met Bayliss at the library, and who with her husband until recently lived on a farm near Bayliss' home.
"It's only when he is confronted with what he thinks is illegitimate abuse of the Constitution that he gets very upset."
Deputies — or, as Bayliss describes them, "alleged deputies" — from several counties would consider that an understatement.
Bayliss, facing numerous charges, including attempted homicide, following a motorized assault and shootout at his 18-acre property more than a month ago, spoke publicly for the first time from the Richland County Jail last week. He can't make bail, which may be up to $1 million, doesn't have a lawyer, has no place to live anymore, and the silver he squirreled away for retirement has been sold. The amount — less than $12,000 — was not enough to pay legal fees.
He described how he came to Wisconsin to find a place to live alone in the country after deciding there were too many "non-countrymen" in Illinois. He would not comment directly on why, or if, he shot at deputies.
Numerous public statements from the authorities, who were shot at during an extended confrontation, might be best boiled down to one made by Richland County Sheriff Darrell Berglin; "It was Mr. Bayliss who decided how this day was going to begin and how this day was going to end."
Reflected in slogans
Bayliss said his growing disenchantment with county government — fueled in part by commentary he heard on short-wave radio broadcasts and reflected in slogans he frequently refers to — stemmed from two incidents: a road-widening project that resulted in the loss of his well, which forced him to spend the past several years filling big blue plastic barrels with water from springs and friends' sources; and a visit by Richland County authorities in 2000 to deliver a tax delinquency notice for taxes he said he had already paid.
Bayliss doesn't trust lawyers, or the government, so the prospect of being defended by a government lawyer sets off alarms. He had hoped to hire one on his own, but his income is nil and savings meager. He dismissed a public defender because he didn't think such a lawyer would be objective, an act that might be re-visited.
Daniel Berkos, a Mauston lawyer not involved in this case but a leader in the state's Public Defender system, said Bayliss should have no worries about the objectivity or acumen of a public defender.
"All of our staff attorneys do mostly criminal law and are among the best in the state," said Berkos. "And our use of private bar attorneys chooses from those who do exclusively criminal law and are very qualified."
Without knowing the details of Bayliss' dire financial situation, Berkos said it shouldn't be difficult for him to meet the indigency requirements.
His political views
"I think I own one black leather boot, that's all," Bayliss said with a wry smile during a two-hour interview. He thumbed through state law books while explaining his political views and background. Everything he owns was destroyed in a fire at the cabin he built from scratch beginning in 1974 along Highway G on a hillside outside of Viola.
He said he expects to "be sent to jail for 170 years." (It is 186.5 years, in the unlikely event the maximum sentence is administered for each of the nine felonies he's been charged with.)
Which would be unjust, he adds, because the "media event" that brought three armored cars and scores of deputies to his land to help evict him was unnecessary.
"If they had simply paid what they owed me for the initial intrusions on my land, then I would have paid that second installment of that property tax, but they didn't, they violated me again," he said, explaining why he stopped paying his property taxes seven years ago.
On April 3, it took two approaches by one, then three, armored "rescue" vehicles, a gunfight and tear-gas penetration of a tiny cabin to get Bayliss to crawl through a second floor window and surrender.
It's remarkable that neither Bayliss nor anyone from the 24 police and emergency agencies represented was injured. But the vehicles, called "Bear Cats" and described reverentially in sheriff's news releases as "designed to protect officers in a deadly force situation," were struck and damaged numerous times by bullets. A court complaint claims Bayliss fired those bullets, something he neither admitted nor denied during the interview.
"Did I?" he said, when asked why he shot at deputies.
(Sheriff's reports described Bayliss as refusing to communicate in any way with deputies at the scene.)
A helicopter was also present, but no fire-fighting equipment was allowed to be used — the sheriff said it was "due to the possibility of explosives in and around the residence" — so the house and its contents were destroyed by fire. Bayliss was particularly saddened by the loss of his few possessions (including four short wave radios), and the fact that his friends with whom he worked on the volunteer fire department were not allowed to save his house.
Bayliss faces nine charges stemming from that shootout and an unsuccessful legal paper delivery attempted three days earlier. In that first confrontation, deputies had arrived with "civil process papers" related to non-payment of property taxes from 2000 to 2006. With interest, he owed $6,509.44 in property taxes on his 18-acre parcel, which in 2007 was assessed at $30,500. He bought it unimproved on a land contract in 1974 for about $7,000.
The county has written off the debt, and now owns the property, which will be sold at auction. The county has set a minimum bid of $40,000.
The crux of the property tax dispute goes back to 2000, when Bayliss was recorded for non-payment of property taxes, though he says he did pay the first of two installments to the town treasurer. The problem, he said, was that he had switched his mailing address, but not reported it, from Highway G to a post office box in nearby LaFarge. The mail mix-up resulted in his making the payment late, so deputies arrived with a tax delinquency notice.
They trespassed, he said. He had placed a very clear, large "No Trespassing" sign at the entrance to his driveway after being surprised by census takers. Anyone entering, the sign said, had to pay a $5,000 "land-use fee" and get an entry permit.
"It was the first time I had ever been late paying my taxes," he said, adding that he does not object to paying property taxes. But when the deputies arrived, they were trespassing and to add insult, he had already paid those taxes.
So he sent the department a bill for $5,000.
When the county didn't pay him, he decided he would not pay the county, either.
Asked what he thought the outcome of that decision would eventually be, Bayliss said "I was hoping the people here would eventually obey the law," he said. He had the money, he said.
Bayliss has read the complaints filed against him, which he claims are "all based on lies and distortions," and has appeared in court without incident and participated in discussions about how the case will proceed. Judy McConoughey, who has attended those hearings when possible, said Bayliss "has great respect for the judge."
He did, however, make frequent references in the interview to oaths and constitutional issues and trespassing laws. All are familiar themes in what are commonly known as "sovereign" beliefs. The Internet and short-wave radio are popular sources for that information. There are recent court cases in Wisconsin involving members of groups who place harassing liens on public officials, or refuse to pay taxes based on obscure or false interpretations.
But Bayliss said — and McConoughy confirmed — he is not a member of any groups espousing generally anti-government views.
"He listens to their radio shows and gets a little agitated after doing that all winter," McConoughy said. "He does realize since this all came down that they (on the radio) are basically out there like any other group to make a buck."
McConoughy said she met Bayliss when he came to the Viola village library, "and I found him to be a very intelligent, interesting person.
"He's a crack shot. Most people who know how to handle a gun would say he was really, really good."
He has supporters among his neighbors, she said, "most of whom know him and like him. He is basically a peaceable person, I would take him into my home," she said.
Bayliss said he has a brother, Franklin, who is eight years older.
"Dad's dead, I don't know about Mom," he said.
"I haven't seen him in 30 years," said a surprised Franklin Bayliss, who did not know his brother was in jail.
Franklin Bayliss said he and his brother had a somewhat difficult childhood, as their mother was early diagnosed as a paranoid-schizophrenic and would frequently neglect her medical needs.
"It was hard on all of us," he said, adding their mother now has Alzheimer's and is in a nursing home.
"I think he wanted to get away from all that."
Bayliss said he just wanted to get away.
After high school, Bayliss spent four years in the Navy. After that, he worked for Sharp as a technician and then moved to a job as a troubleshooter for medical instrument repair.
Regarding his move to Wisconsin, he said: "I wanted to live alone, grow a garden. I was part of the back-to-the-land movement, I was one of people who read Mother Earth News magazine."
What's next for Bayliss is legal housekeeping. At his last court hearing, he asked for 90 days to prepare as his own lawyer. Without a lawyer, so far, no bail has been set, though District Attorney William Sharp has said he would ask for $1 million bail. It is also possible Bayliss will have a change of mind about getting a public defender.