It is an easy drive to the mouth of Parley’s Canyon. The ascent is so gentle I feel safe glancing away from the highway and back to the valley — to Salt Lake City, laid out in a fastidious grid, the outlines of its commercial center geometric and distinct in the late after noon sun.
In a blink the city is gone from my rearview mirror, obscured by the twisting gullet of the canyon. On either side, the peaks of the Wasatch Range rise in volcanic swirls. Snow begins to fall, one of those freak blizzards that blow in unannounced during the early spring. All I can do is hold to the road, barely creeping through the curtain of flakes until — as quickly as it came — the blizzard stops. The mountains have receded. In their place is a high valley stretching silent, white, and dreamlike beneath the snow.
I follow a well-paved country road west, turning just before the village of Kamas onto Upper Loop Road. And there it is, sitting at the top of an unpaved lane — the Singers’ cabin. It appears innocent, its aging mortar spilling out between the logs just as one of its occupants had described it, like “white frosting on a chocolate cake.”
Weeks before, when I had seen the house on the evening news, it had appeared menacing and inaccessible, the hideout for a family of fundamentalist Mormons who had bombed a church in nearby Kamas. The suspects were the clan’s matriarch, a frail blond woman named Vickie Singer, and her son-in-law, Addam Swapp who, apparently, was married to two of Vickie’s daughters. For nearly two weeks the Singer-Swapps — numbering six adults and nine children — barricaded themselves in the cabin and, armed with an arsenal of handguns, rifles, and sawed-off shotguns, held off an army of county deputies and federal agents. On the 13th day, the standoff erupted into a gun battle that left one officer dead.
As far as I could tell from the muddled accounts coming out of the highlands of Utah, the Singer-Swapps were harboring a complex set of grievances against not only the Mormon Church, but the State of Utah and the United States of America. The bombing of the Kamas Stake Center was apparently intended as a protest against “wickedness.” Beyond that, however, it seemed to have a mystical significance peculiar to this corner of the world. The explosion, which lifted the roof off the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was meant to ring in the millennium, heralding the second coming of Christ — and the resurrection of Vickie’s husband, the late John T. Singer.
“If you’re going up there,” I had been told, “be sure and get there before nightfall. Visitors after dark make them nervous.”
It is well before twilight when I arrive, and driving slowly up the rutted lane, I park in the shadow of several outbuildings. Running along the walkway to the back door is a wire still strung with a makeshift warning system, fruit jars filled with bolts.
On the other side of the door, there is the sound of children laughing. It opens suddenly to reveal a teenaged girl with a long skirt and a lustrous blond braid. She is holding a baby. I recognize Charlotte Swapp from photos taken after her arrest, when she and her sister, Heidi, and their mother were being shuttled from jail to court in chains. She looked at least five years older then, her expression dumb with shock. Charlotte and Heidi were held in custody 12 days before U.S. prosecutors decided that, unlike their mother and husband, they had no active role in the bombing and released them.
Charlotte’s sweet face is radiant with goodwill. “Any trouble finding us?” she asks, ushering me into the living room. It is comfortable and surprisingly middle-class, like some civil servant’s idea of a hunting retreat. The fieldstone fireplace, which occupies one entire wall, appears to be largely for show since the seven-room cabin is heated by an enormous woodburning stove in the kitchen.
Charlotte motions for me to sit on a section of couch upholstered with bold orange sunflowers. She sits nearby cradling baby John Swapp to her thin chest.
“You’re not afraid we’ll take you hostage or anything?”
We laugh. The scene is so absurdly serene I am hard put to imagine how eight weeks earlier the living room was an armed camp. The irony of this seems to elude Charlotte, who talks on about her absent mother and husband as if they were away visiting relatives. What is foremost in her thoughts, at this moment, is not the prospect of her loved ones down in Salt Lake behind bars, but whether she can get Addam’s birthday gift completed in time for the trial. (His birthday happens to fall on the trial date, April 6. This is also, by certain Mormon calculations, the birth date of Christ.)
She had been working night and day at her beading loom, fashioning cuff ornaments for a new buckskin jacket. She clisplays them proudly, two beaded strips bearing a set of arcane symbols.
“What do these mean?” I ask her.
She looks mysterious, then replies with mock exasperation, “You’d just have to know Addam.”
More ambitious than the cuff piece is a larger design that is still on the loom. It seems to be a flag with blue and white stripes and 13 white stars on a blue field. This unfamiliar standard is the work of Charlotte’s older sister, Heidi, who has been hovering on the periphery of this congenial scene like a glowering wraith.
Heidi Swapp is a handsome woman in her early twenties. Ruddy and freckled, she wears her long red hair in a braid like her sister’s. Wherever she moves she is surrounded by a swarm of small children — I count five — whose screeching and tugging have put her in a foul mood. But I quickly perceive that Heidi’s irritation extends to me.
“You write about murders?” she asks. An intermediary has sent her a collection of my articles. “What do you want with us? We’re not a murder.”
Not exactly a murder, I am tempted to say. But Lieutenant Freddie Floyd House was killed on your lawn not two months ago.
I hold my tongue.
The real reason Heidi is so hostile, I suspect, is that she assumes I am a gentile (a term that Mormons apply to any non-Mormon). T0 be a gentile is to mix with and be contaminated by the world. To be one without understanding. But I understand Heidi’s thinking better than she imagines. When I read those strange news accounts of her family’s dangerous, enchanted world, I experienced a shiver of recognition. Not that I had ever known any of the Singer-Swapps personally. They, barricaded against the wickedness in the wilds of Utah, and I, rubbing elbows with it in lower Manhattan, do not exactly run in the same circles. But I, too, was born a Latter Day Saint.
This is not quite accurate. I was born a Reorganized Latter Day Saint — a distinction that requires a few words of explanation. The Reorganization — a singularly graceless designation — refers to a faction that bears somewhat the same relationship to the original Utah Mormons as Reform Judaism bears to the Orthodoxy. The two were splinters of a church that scattered after 1844 when Joseph Smith was shot by an Illinois mob. The largest group followed Brigham Young to Utah. The next largest coalesced around the prophet’s son and settled in what would later become my hometown of Independence, Missouri.
We the Reorganized prided ourselves upon being more enlightened than those people in Utah. The church authorities saw fit to admit blacks to the priesthood as early as 1871 and three years ago ordained women. When I was employed as a guide one summer at church headquarters, l was instructed to inform visitors politely but firmly that the Reorganization never practiced polygamy. (That was true.) Nor, in fact, had Joseph Smith ever preached it. (That was not true. The prophet’s first wife, Emma, devoted her widowhood to rewriting history.) In all respects the RLDS are a rather more easygoing outfit than the Mormons. I never heard of anyone being excommunicated. No one ever broke with the church. They just did what I eventually did. Drifted away.
Although I recall summers of faithful attendance at vacation church school studying instructive stories from the Book of Mormon, my religious training played in the background of my upbringing like elevator music. Now, almost 20 years since last attending church, I can’t remember any particular tune. (Perhaps this is due to the merciful offices of denial.) I am, however, left with one lingering, powerful impression — call it an apprehension — that at any moment, a perfectly ordinary street scene is liable to dissolve into a passion play. A Latter-day Saint — be he Mormon or Reorganized — is taught to admit the possibility of miracles as part of daily life. Every coincidence is fraught with divine import, every hunch is “the voice of God.” In the world of the Latter-day Saint, God speaks to humans as casually as Dr. Ruth chats with call-ins.
Among the more vivid memories of my youth is that of the Wednesday night “prayer and testimony” service, where solid, sensible citizens would stand and report on the wonders that God had worked for them that week. In the grand scheme of things, these were only “little miracles,” which God performed to help ease his children through the trials of everyday life. I remember one Wednesday night, a schoolmate stood and told how her father had been laid off at the plant, and the family larder had been down to one pack of hot dogs. But they had prayed and, behold, the dogs had multiplied to feed everyone. This Miracle of the Frankfurters sounds a little ridiculous as I now tell it, but on that Wednesday night, in a setting of uncritical belief, it sounded perfectly plausible.
There were, of course, unspoken guidelines as to what constituted an acceptable miracle. The modern variety was understood to be more modest in scope than such Old Testament triumphs as raising the dead. To a true believer, such things were still possible. But no one at prayer and testimony would ever have presumed to put God to a test. There was an unspoken fear perhaps, that He’d lost His touch over the centuries. That if one tried to provoke the fireworks of antiquity, one was bound to be disappointed. What struck me so profoundly in reading about the exploits of the Singer-Swapps was that they clearly had wandered over the line from “little miracles” to visions of the millennium, not only accepting the possibility of a resurrection, but actually making plans for it. The Singers were living in a full-blown Second Reality, where God was still a god of major miracles.
Faced now with Heidi’s suspicion, I am tempted to invoke our common Latter-day Saint heritage. She does not, however, seem the sort whose heart might be softened by the prospect of women holding priesthood.
“Well, Heidi,” I proceed gamely. “I would like to hear about your father.”
I do want to hear about Heidi’s father, who was, after all, the man upon whom this mega-miracle was to turn. During the early ’70s, John T. Singer enjoyed a modest celebrity when he took his children out of public school in Marion, Utah. The reasons he gave were diverse. He objected to sex education, he objected to drugs in the schools, he objected to a curriculum that taught equality of the races. Singer chose to instruct his children at home where they would not be polluted by worldliness.
Heidi’s resistance softens visibly at the mention of him. She is now eager to explain.
“My father knew all there was to teaching,” she says. “He taught as long as he pleased. He taught us when he pleased. He taught us arithmetic in our heads and not on paper. Then he’d teach us a hymn. You’d have to do exercise, jog around the hills a little. Some days we’d go out and school was gardening.”
Two of Heidi’s children are now scuffling noisily on the floor. She gives one a quick slap. Embarrassed by this outburst, Charlotte indicates that Heidi has been under some unusual pressures of late.
“I’m going to stand,” Heidi announces abruptly. “I have to stand. If I don’t, Dad died for nuthin’.”
It is not clear what Heidi means by “stand.” It seems that two months ago, she and her family “stood” for something — I’m not sure what — and got the wind knocked out of them. But here Heidi is, up again, seemingly ready for a fight. And all in her father’s name.
Exactly what it was in John Singer’s memory that inspires this fierce devotion — the compulsion to make “a stand” — is only hinted at in his photograph, which rests against a chalkboard above the couch. He is smiling slightly and his expression reveals a curious playfulness. But there is also a steely intractability — the quality that apparently infuriated the town fathers of Kamas during the weeks before he was shot one January morning in 1979.
Singer’s father was a German who came to America before World War II to raise money for the Nazis; his mother, a devout Mormon. This strong-willed pair apparently wore each other out and Herr Singer, intent that his two sons not join the Mormon church, packed them off to Germany where he enrolled them in an SS training school.
John Singer professed to have hated the Nazis and, indeed, to have been expelled from the school for “rebellious behavior.” After the war, he returned to America and later joined the marines, which he did not seem to like much better. John Singer could not endure any form of regimentation.
In his late teens, he was lured to Utah by the offer of work from his father’s brother, Gustav Weller, who owned a considerable amount of land in the Kamas Valley. In that tiny and predominantly Mormon mountain community, Gus Weller was regarded as an eccentric who held dangerous opinions.
Since the late 1800s, the church had been quietly ridding itself of certain embarrassing doctrines, chief among these, polygamy. Plural marriage was one of the holiest tenets of the early Mormon church. The argument went that a man who had one wife possessed such a tenuous claim on eternity that he could only hope to go to the Celestial Kingdom — the highest rung of Mormon heaven — as a minor angel. But the man who spread his seed widely might actually aspire to become a God. For justification, the church pointed to certain Old Testament patriarchs who took many wives. During the late 19th century, however, this apologia did not play well throughout the rest of the country, particularly Washington, D.C., where the territory’s petition for statehood was under consideration. The church foresook polygamy, and Utah was admitted to the Union.
To fundamentalists this was unthinkable hypocrisy. Despite the threat of swift and severe retribution, they continued to espouse polygamy among other discredited beliefs. Gus Weller was one of these malcontents. He taught fundamentalist tenets to a handful of followers in his home on Upper Loop Road. Among those in regular attendance was his nephew.
Mormon fundamentalism, with its appeal to megalomania, found an ardent adherent in John Singer. Years later his family would tell how, as a young boy, Singer had shot a bald eagle, which fell and landed at his feet. He interpreted this as an omen that one day America would bow before him. It must therefore have been the source of some discomfort that by the time he reached 30, he had not only failed to secure the fealty of the nation, but could not even find a woman to marry him. He had gone hat in hand to a number of eligible young women informing them that God had directed them to become his bride only to be rebuffed or chased off by some boyfriend or father.
With Vickie Lemon it was different. One of the most popular girls at South Summit High School, she accepted a date with John Singer and was struck, as she later described it, by his “smell of fresh pine.” He later took her to the cabin he was building on a two-acre plot Gus Weller had given him. She was impressed by his self-sufficiency and impeccable grooming. As she sat on the couch in his unfinished living room she recalled a “perfect peace.”
A few weeks later, they eloped over the border to Nevada. Vickie’s parents were certain that Singer had thrown some sort of spell over their daughter, and dispatched a posse of gun-toting town folk to get her back. But Vickie insisted that she was quite sane and intended to live out the rest of her life with John Singer in his cabin atop Upper Loop Road.
During the early years of their marriage, Singer worked with his Uncle Gus in a television repair shop in Salt Lake City. This lowly occupation, however, did not suit his opinion of himself as a man destined to be a spiritual leader, and he would wander off without warning to teach outlawed doctrine to German immigrants. Gus was dismayed to learn that his protégé was not only falling down on the job but usurping his spiritual prerogatives.
As the breach between the two men grew, so too did Singer’s estrangement from the community. During Sunday services in Kamas he would stand, Book of Mormon in hand, point to passages of discredited doctrine, and taunt, “If you people don’t think this is right, let’s tear it out and throw it away.”
The Mormon church, which esteems conformity above most other virtues, moved to end these challenges by excommunicating the troublemaker. In Mormon society, where social and professional advancement depends on the good opinion of one’s neighbors, John Singer found himself an outcast.
He did not appear to mind. He scorned his scorners, claiming that his questions made them ashamed of having abandoned their own spiritual roots. Eventually the TV repair business failed, and he retired to his little homestead, devoting himself to the business of being a patriarch.
The life that Singer fashioned for himself and his family was partly the product of his romantic imagination, partly paranoia. The frontier had always held a fascination for him as an ideal of self-reliance. He dressed in buckskins, Vickie in long dresses. They raised livestock, kept an orchard, and operated their own flour mill and granary and stocked enough provisions to last for two years. The possibility of catastrophe loomed large in their minds. Like many fundamentalists, Singer was convinced that the economy was on the verge of collapse at which time “mobs” would come up from the city and overrun the farm. Singer often carried a Colt automatic.
In the beginning they had a child a year. Heidi, Suzanne, and John Timothy. When Vickie’s health began to fail, babies came further apart. Charlotte, Joseph Hyrum, Hans Benjamin, and Israel Moroni. John Singer greeted the arrival of each new child with joy. On the first night of its life, the newborn would sleep in an exquisite wooden cradle that Singer had carved with his own hands. John Singer’s children were, as Heidi and Charlotte were fond of telling me, “the apple of his eye.”
Some say Singer’s anger at the public schools began when Heidi’s schoolmates began to tease her about her old-fashioned clothes. For certain, he was not pleased when his oldest girls brought home what he called a “haughty attitude.” Although sex education in the Marion school consisted only of a basic biology course, Singer was appalled that anyone but himself should be allowed to raise with his children the sacred subject of procreation.
The final outrage came one day when Suzie Singer brought home a history text showing George Washington, Betsy Ross, and Martin Luther King on the same page. In accordance with the teachings of Joseph Smith, Singer had taught his children that they should not mingle with blacks (known as “Canaanites” after an ill-favored grandson of Noah). He marched down to the school and led his children out behind him.
In the beginning, the school board deferred to Singer’s wishes, offering to supply textbooks and teaching plans. Singer spurned this assistance, teaching his children “as long as he pleased … when he pleased.” The results, contrary to Heidi’s blissful recollections, were not fortunate. Four years after the Singers left school, the state sent a psychologist up to the farm to test them. Dr. Victor Cline noted that the children were “happy, kind, loving to each other, dutiful to their parents,” but that the drop in their intellectual development was “shocking.” The children registered IQs almost 30 points below their progenitors. As the youths moved into adolescence, the psychologist noted, there was no way that they could be protected from all of life’s unpleasant experiences. “It might be wiser,” he concluded, “to teach the children to cope with these while they grow up rather than let them experience only a protected unreal life at present.”
John Singer would have argued that the life he envisioned for his children was just as real — more real, perhaps — than the one the school system had in mind. He had created on his two and a half acres a self-sufficient world where children obeyed their parents out of love. In one sense, that life was a model of peace and security. Yet that security was illusory. Dr. Cline’s report made it clear that the passionate reliance which the Singers had upon one another was based largely upon fear. Fear of abusive schoolmates, fear of contamination from gentiles, fear of the mobs coming up from the city. Rather than return his children to the world, Singer withdrew them from it altogether.
The state of Utah charged John and Vickie with child neglect. After that, the Singers kept to their property for more than a year, living off supplies from the root cellar and keeping an eye on Summit County sheriff’s deputies who kept an intermittent vigil at the foot of the lane. Vickie was spotted wearing a pistol and a leather holster. Heidi grew proficient with a bow and arrow. Whenever John Singer left the house, he would be watched by one of his family positioned at the living room window with a pair of binoculars.
John Singer could have diffused the hostility by simply answering the complaints against him. He had already incorporated his “school” as a private academy, and had he been willing to make a few more minor concessions, he would have been allowed to teach his children at home. But he refused, insisting it was necessary to make a stand, as the early American patriots had by throwing tea into Boston harbor. And so, declaring his two and a half acres an independent principality, he raised over the cabin a blue and white flag of the same design I had seen Heidi beading the day of my visit. He called it the Flag of the Kingdom of God.
Even when there was a contempt citation out for his arrest, John Singer flouted church and civil law by taking a second wife. This was a woman named Shirley Black who lived on Upper Loop Road. Shirley was 49 and the mother of seven children. She was also married. But in the fundamentalist belief, a woman could be released from an existing marriage if the man was unworthy — in Death of an American, a brief biography of John Singer, Shirley claimed that her husband beat her — and enter into a plural union if it was sanctioned by God. John, Shirley, and Vickie all claimed to have revelations that this was to be. Shirley’s husband was, not unsurprisingly, infuriated when she took four of their children and moved into a little house at the back of the Singer cabin. He vowed to get his children back. The townspeople of Karnas were once again outraged by Singer’s temerity and rallied to the assistance of Dean Black.
On the morning of January 18, 1979, John Singer walked down the lane to the mailbox, when suddenly he found himself rushed by state and federal agents on snowmobiles. The lawmen later claimed that Singer raised his gun to fire and caught a blast of buckshot under his right arm.
Charlotte Singer, who was on duty as sentinel that morning, saw something quite different.
“Dad was aimin’ the gun at them like, ‘leave me alone,’ ” she recalls. “He turned and was runnin’ home. And that was when they shot him … They wanted Dad dead and they murdered him.”
From Charlotte’s mouth it is startling to hear so harsh a judgment as “murder.” Her gentle features contort slightly in a spasm of anguish. It is exactly the expression I had seen on her mother whom I had visited, just that morning, in the Salt Lake County Jail.
My mental image of Vickie had been formed by family photos of her taken during her thirties when she was a pert blond, fragile but tough. Cheerleader turned frontierswoman. But when Vickie took her place on one side of the glass in the visitor’s room, however, I was shocked. She was only 44, yet her mouth was sunken like a crone’s. (She lost her teeth due to various illnesses and, as she placed her faith in God rather than doctors, was still waiting for Him to grow her a third set.) The only suggestion of youth was her shiny blond hair, which, it is said, John Singer loved to stroke by the hour. Most extraordinary, however, were her eyes, a cool and piercing blue.
How, I wondered, does the world look from the other side of those eyes? Does Vickie Singer see the bars and the sorry circumstances of her confinement, or is her gaze still wandering somewhere over the enchanted terrain of a Second Reality?
It is a matter of public record that shortly after her husband’s death, she received a “revelation” that he would return. The night after John Singer was killed, Vickie spent the night listening to her children cry.
“In the early dawn,” Vickie told me, whispering through the mesh, “I felt the most marvelous peace … my husband spoke to me. He said, ‘Vickie. Don’t sorrow. Rejoice. Don’t look back. Look forward to the things to come forth.’ ”
“Did you hear a voice?” I asked. “Did you see something?”
“No,” Vickie replied. “Just a knowing. It’s like a marvelous burning … through your whole body … You can’t hallucinate something like this,” she explains, anticipating my skepticism.
Vickie tells me how during the days after his death, John Singer also comforted his daughters. Charlotte had fallen seriously ill, and her father appeared in a dream one night to explain that “Heavenly Father took me before it hit me.” Thereafter, Vickie came across a passage in the Book of Mormon that planted the idea that her husband had only been “marred,” not killed. She was also convinced that he was the “one mighty and strong,” whom Latter-day Saint prophets foretold would rise up and restore the original church. Each new revelation apparently supported the next until Vickie Singer and her daughters were convinced that John Singer’s return was not just s possibility, but a certainty.
Into this web of grief and expectation stepped Addam Swapp.
Addam was a country boy from Fairview, Utah, about two hours south of Salt Lake. His cousin Roger Bates remembers Addam as a devil-may-care companion. The two of them would go on double dates and Addam, dark-eyed and good-looking, got along well enough with girls his own age. He was not, however, part of the in-crowd. As Charlotte later explained it, “He didn’t try to please people.” Addam Swapp, in fact, had the same stubborn, antiauthoritarian streak that had characterized John Singer.
In junior high, a fundamentalist classmate had quietly introduced him to the discredited Mormon doctrine, which held that Adam, a mere man, had become God. Indeed, any mortal man could become God. It was a concept that appealed as mightily to Addam Swapp as it had to John Singer. After that, Addam read widely among unauthorized texts, which left him with contempt for the religion which he felt had abandoned its origins. He was in high school when blacks were allowed into the priesthood. It left him disgusted. After that, he never again set foot in church.
That was 1978, the same year he first laid eyes on 14-year-old Heidi Singer. It was during the 13-month siege, and she was telling a television reporter who had come up to the farm how her father had kept her “clean from the world.” Addam Swapp told himself, “I’m going to marry that girl.” In fact, he fell in love with the entire Singer family. John Singer, he felt, was one of those few men who “stood on truth.” Addam had decided to load up two guns in his car and go up to help out, but two days later John Singer was dead.
If Addam Swapp had come of age in the mainstream church, he would have been sent on a mission. As a fledgling fundamentalist, however he was denied that formal avenue for spiritual adventure. His father, Ramon, later explained to me that a young Mormon male is usually “full of vim and vigor, and wants to save the world.” The plight of the Singer women, left husbandless and fatherless, appealed to his son’s sense of destiny. “A seed,” as he put it, “in a fertile field.”
A month after Singer died, Addam went up to the farm and introduced himself to the Singer women. Shortly thereafter, he brought his cousin, Roger Bates, who began courting the 16-year-old Suzanne. Addam, for his part, laid claim to Heidi. That fall, the four of them went to the woods behind the cabin and exchanged wedding vows.
The Swapps’ first year of married life was apparently rocky. Addam later told me in a jail-house interview that he and Heidi were “bullheaded” and that he found the farm a little cramped. They moved for a time to an apartment in nearby Midway, and Addam worked with Roger selling tire casings. It is not exactly clear what Vickie made of all this except that she was upset over losing her “babies.” She also had to contend with Charlotte, who had taken to her bed weeping.
Charlotte, then 11, claimed she was also in love with Addam, who treated her like a kid sister. A few years after his marriage to Heidi, he had a revelation to put things right. In this dream, he and Heidi were standing by a river. She was tempted to travel down it but Addam, seeing that it led to a wicked city, said to her, “No, it will destroy you.” Instead they took a narrow path that led into the mountains. At one point they encountered Charlotte standing in the middle of the path, and they both took her by the hand. All three tried to cross a crystal pond, but Charlotte sank. They pulled her up and walked together toward the glass doors of a shining city.
Addam interpreted this as divine revelation that he should marry Charlotte. In the protected, unreal world of the Singer-Swapps, this announcement seemed to provoke only a flurry of resistance. Heidi sulked a bit at first, but inasmuch as Addam’s direction had come from God, it had to be credited. Addam took Heidi back to the farm where he married her sister, who was 15. After that, he was said to have divided his time equally between the two, who lived in their separate huts behind the cabin. Addam eventually had five children with Heidi and one with Charlotte.
Vickie Singer apparently approved of this menage because, among other reasons, she was in need of a man about the house. Her eldest son, Timothy, who had taken over many of his father’s chores, was crippled in a logging accident and confined to a wheelchair. And she found herself embattled on many fronts. Gus Weller’s children, under the guidance of his son, Jared, tried to have her evicted from her property. She went to court, arguing that Gus, now deceased, had always intended to deed the property to John. She won that round, but her legal problems were just beginning.
Vickie was grieved not only by the loss of her husband but the circumstances under which he died. A fundamentalist friend and a sympathetic physician had slipped into the mortuary and photographed Singer’s body: he had clearly been shot in the back. With the help of John Singer’s brother, Vickie secured the services of the flamboyant Wyoming attorney, Gerry Spence, and filed a $110 million wrongful death suit in U.S. district court against the State of Utah. Vickie was enthusiastic to the point of euphoria about Spence, in whom she perceived an invincible champion against the temporal world. Her joy was cut short, however, when the suit was dismissed on the grounds of “insufficient evidence.” She appealed, but that, too, was denied. Vickie’s outrage, which might have been dissipated by a proper hearing in court, continued to fester. To the Singer-Swapps, the failure of the civil suit was evidence of a conspiracy that, in their eyes, encompassed the Wellers, the Mormon church, the State of Utah, and the United States of America. In the years to come, any person or entity that appeared to threaten the interests of the family joined the swelling league of culprits. In the summer of 1986, the Marion Water Works was added to the roster.
Water is not a trivial issue in Utah, and during the dry summer of 1985, sentiments were enflamed in the Kamas Valley. Until then, Vickie Singer had enjoyed rights to a spring above her property. The Water Works, however, dug a line that reduced her flow to a trickle. She appealed to the commissioners to restore her water, but met with no success. The argument dragged on well into the summer of 1987, when Addam Swapp took matters into his own hands and dug a trench to bring the water back. This trench, unfortunately, ran straight across the property of Jared Weller.
One hot morning in July, two of Jared’s sons caught Addam on their land. Heidi ran up from the house to see what was going on, and the sight of the three men in fierce argument impressed itself upon her memory. Several nights later, she had a dream that she and Addam were standing in the lane, when they were confronted by a black bull. The bull then turned into a man with knives on his fingers. “He was supposed to cut and kill me,” Heidi later wrote in her journal, “but I knew Addam would shoot [him] — and Dad would be there to stop it also.”
Heidi’s dream electrified the family, becoming the subject of endless interpretation. The bull, it was decided, represented their enemies. Vickie, whose longing for her husband had reached agonizing proportions, wrote that “the bull striking would be the cause of Dad coming home … right in the nick of time. I had a dream awhile back about John’s being home,” she continued, “and I said to him … ‘Oh, John, I want to hold you … God, help me. It’s been so long …’ ”
She even went so far as to speculate about what John might do once he had returned. He would help her discipline their sons. He would give a piece of his mind to his brother, Harald, who had insulted her by suggesting she get a job. “My husband knows that I already have ‘a job,’ ” she noted. “He also knows the tremendous serious stand that is required of us at this time, and that we are in no position to go out among the gentiles.”
Making the stand became the gateway through which this modern miracle would pass. The stand would set the molecules of the temporal world aquiver. It would summon God from his “hiding place” and John Singer from the dead. Together they would rescue the family from peril. The stand, then, became the frontier between the First and Second Reality.
Vickie seemed to go out of her way, just as John had nine years earlier, to provoke the authorities. She refused to reincorporate the academy under state law, noting that it might “give them an excuse to come against us.” She also declined to pay the portion of her property tax that was earmarked for the school, reasoning that the board had had a hand in killing her husband. As a result, she got a notice that her home was being “sold for prior taxes.”
Addam wrote an angry letter to the county commissioners asking how “this wicked government,” after leaving Vickie Singer a widow, now had the nerve to take her home. “If you try to take away our land,” he warned, “you will have a fight on your hands and God will fight our battles.” Addam also sent letters to the Marion Water Works and the school board, suggesting that the Lord would “strike them down.”
Addam’s scarcely veiled threats upset enough of the local citizenry that the Summit County sheriff’s department dispatched three deputies to visit him on the farm. As Vickie described this encounter in her journals, Addam went out with guns on, telling them to stop or he would “hand them their heads.”
“Addam said he was surprised about what happened next,” Vickie mused. “His hand went straight into the air with the gun and he fired a shot.”
After that there was a standing felony warrant for his arrest.
Addam grew increasingly cocky. This bravado was due to yet another dream. He had been crouching behind logs firing at “the enemy,” when John Singer appeared in front of him and commanded him to “fight like a man.” Suddenly, Singer caught a hail of bullets in the back shielding Addam, who walked away unscathed. Vickie interpreted this to mean that, since her husband had “paid the price … they couldn’t hurt Addam when he had to stand against them.”
The effect of this was to leave the fledgling patriarch feeling invincible. He would be a champion who, unlike John Singer, could not be destroyed. In the minds of the Singer women, the distinction between the two men was growing increasingly blurred. Heidi had foreseen Addam and Dad saving them from the bull. Vickie then had a dream that Addam had started talking to her in a German accent. When she looked at him he had been literally transformed into her husband.
Addam seemed to accept his destiny enthusiastically, assuming Singer’s frontier dress right down to the fringed buckskin jacket. Whenever he left the house, he carried Singer’s old Colt. Once, after spending three days of fasting in the hills, he returned with a fresh revelation that he and John Singer were destined to become prophets. It had been shown to him that Singer would return to gather the tribes of Israel — all except for the American Indians, which were to be Addam’s responsibility. (Addam had always had a special affinity for the so-called “Lamanites” whose skin was dark because of their iniquities but who God had promised would turn white if they repented. He even claimed to have some Indian blood in his veins, a fact which his parents later denied.)
That three-day fast produced another revelation. Addam was to take a third wife. The young woman in question was a daughter of Shirley Black. This news sent Heidi into a funk. She knew that a prophet of Addam’s impending stature should have many wives. And she had accepted his marriage to her little sister, but an outsider was different. Heidi suffered for several days, during which time Vickie noted in her journal that this torment had also been foretold by the bull dream. “The bull meant death,” she wrote, “but in this sense ‘death to her mortal-ego self.’ ”
Heidi finally wrestled her troublesome ego to the ground and gave Addam leave to go courting. One morning in late November, he put on his guns and Indian moccasin boots and paid his intended a call. His courtship was short-lived. Julie Black, who had been a child living at the Singer compound during the 13-month siege, hoped to forget the past and certainly wanted nothing more to do with those people up on the hill. Her brother announced that he would rather see his sister dead than married to Addam and later drove up to the Singer’s lane to shout, “You’re going to get yourself killed.”
The hostility that Addam was arousing in the community alarmed Vickie’s mother, Marge Lemon, who saw her estranged daughter plotting a dangerous recreation of old tragedy. She wrote a series of letters pleading with Vickie to come back to earth.
“You have been a good mother,” she allowed. “You sure have some good kids. But this thing you have about John has got to end … Do you think that all people has to do is sit around thinking up revenge on you? You are the one that is dwelling on it … I do believe it’s within your power to control whether Addam’s life ends like John’s,” she warned. “Don’t make a martyr out of Addam.”
By the fall of 1987, the Singer-Swapp family, which now included Addam’s younger brother, Jon, was living in a world that they reinvented daily, weaving in the details of each new revelation. While Addam was prophet-designate, it was Vickie who seemed to be the chief interpreter of the family’s dream life. Her journal entries for the next three months revealed a woman for whom material and metaphysical considerations had become virtually indistinguishable. In one breath she talked of getting the driveway paved and new chairs for the kitchen; in the next, she was scheduling social calls for her dead husband. Each minor inconvenience that arose presented the opportunity to make a stand and thereby trip the switch on reality.
I remember reading Vickie’s journal well into the early morning hours and thinking that the difference between her and the stolid burghers who attended those prayer and testimony meetings of my youth is that she had no temporal curbs on her imagination. Neither did her family. Living as they did in their protected, unreal world, they reinforced one another’s fantasies, crediting each dream with apocalyptic significance, finally falling under the sway of a mass hallucination.
What was most amazing, however, was the detached and sometimes blithe fashion in which she would write about these events. It was difficult to tell how much of which reality she was experiencing during any given entry. There was one particularly surreal exchange that she was having with a small-time film producer who had contacted her, with the intention of making a TV movie of John Singer’s life. (Charlton Heston, it was hoped, would play the lead.) I was surprised to learn that Vickie was engaging in this kind of commerce. Even more surprised to learn that she was taking an active role in shaping and editing the screenplay, an uncompleted draft of which she had included in the journal. (Wings of Morning, as it was called, was the sensitive story of a high-minded polygamist. In this version, John Singer goes to the mailbox unarmed.)
A cynic might conclude that Vickie Singer was quietly laying her plans for Armageddon in hopes of providing a socko last scene for a movie of the week. A more charitable interpretation — one which I eventually came to adopt — is that she simply saw in the screenplay one more avenue to reinvent reality by writing an ending to her liking.
Ironically, it was the producer who unwittingly triggered the final episode of the Singer-Swapps’ real-life drama. Around the first of the year, he sent Vickie a videotape containing footage of John Singer during the school battle, suggesting thoughtfully that “You could view it on John’s birthday.”
The following evening, the entire family gathered around a rented VCR to watch the tape. As Vickie later described that experience, she and Heidi wept. So did Addam. “It was a very profound spirit that came upon us,” she wrote. “It strengthened Addam in his stand … He watched the film over and then again.” One week later she reported, “Addam says he knows what he had to do. He believes, or knows, it has to take place on the 18th. (The ninth anniversary of John’s martyrdom.) God be with us.”
What “it” might be was not spelled out in Vickie’s journal. Nor were the preparations. Vickie, in fact, was sufficiently oblique as to allow her defense to argue that she had no knowledge of what was actually to occur. The U.S. attorney later filled in for the benefit of a jury the details of those preparations, which included the amassing of 23 firearms and the purchase of 100 pounds of explosives.
Vickie does mention the possibility of blowing up Jared Weller’s reservoir. The reason why they settled, instead, upon the Kamas Stake Center is unclear except that the previous year Addam had gone down to the church to get his name taken off the membership rolls and ended up in a shoving match with Jared.
On Friday, January 15, Addam made what Vickie described as a “blood-red pole” — it was more of a spear, actually — to which he attached nine white feathers and a message reading, “J.S. Jan. 18, 1979 — Church, state and nation will now be destroyed.” Vickie prayed as to whether she should allow her 15-year-old son, Benjamin, to go along to carry the pole. It was revealed to her that he should. As Addam, his brother, and Benjamin trudged one and a half miles over the snowy fields, their cargo in tow, Vickie prayed for “The explosives, that thy blessing be upon them, that they will not malfunction …”
The blast was delayed by a timer, which allowed the bombers to clear the scene. They were back up at the cabin when the church blew. Addam thought it looked like many evil spirits were rising above the chapel because of the eerie red glow and the smoke in the darkness.
“It is very serious,” Vickie noted. “The battle has begun.”
It is a virtual certainty in the temporal world that when someone dynamites a site of interstate commerce — which oddly enough the Kamas Stake Center was held to be — federal agents will gather quickly. Peering through the eyes of the First Reality, they found the blood-red pole with its cryptic allusions to John Singer stuck in the snow in the church parking lot. They followed a set of tracks to the bottom of Upper Loop Road and by Sunday afternoon, the Singer cabin was surrounded by 150 law enforcement officers, including Treasury explosives experts and FBI men. The Weller relatives at the end of the lane were evacuated to accommodate sharpshooters.
The Singer-Swapps, who were listening to the details of these preparations on a Bearcat scanner, were gleeful at having inconvenienced Jared and his family. Addam broke spontaneously into a hymn, and Vickie hoisted John Singer’s old Flag of the Kingdom of God. That afternoon, they received a visit from Addam’s cousin and brother-in-law, Roger Bates, who had been dispatched as a peacemaker. Bates came back down the lane to tell reporters that the Singers were “just waiting for John to come home.”
On Monday, lawmen patrolled the perimeter quietly, hoping not to agitate the family on this, the proposed day of resurrection. But it passed quietly. The ground did not open. The graves did not give forth their dead. And John Singer did not return. Vickie, that constant chronicler of the Second Reality, was curiously silent on this disappointment. She observed that certain TV reporters had pointed to this as the resurrection day, noting with irritation, “We haven’t set a ‘day.’ ”
Government agents operating out of a command post in the church parking lot ruled out rushing the cabin. The Singers were known to be well-armed and to be stockpiling dynamite. And the cabin was filled with children. They were also aware of the bungled attempt to capture John Singer.
For the next five days, police tried to flush the Singers out with nuisances. They cut off their electricity and water, buzzed them with helicopers and bombarded them with lights. The sense of embattlement only seemed to make the family more peaceful. Charlotte played hymns. They all sang. “We cooked a nice dinner on the stove,” Vickie wrote at one point. “And also popped some after dinner popcorn.”
“This is some STAND,” she rejoiced. “A little family against a whole army of ‘lawmen.’ ”
But by the weekend, the euphoria had begun to wane. The FBI had posted a set of sirens, which shrieked throughout the night. The children muffled their heads with pillows. Vickie complained that the “terrible shrill sound penetrated my head so much I got a deep headache and began getting dizzy.” Addam and Jon Swapp first shot at the speakers, then went out and pulled them down. On Sunday, they allowed a visit by Ogden Kraut, a fellow fundamentalist and old family friend, who had offered his services as negotiator. Ogden greeted the children, who were very excited to see a visitor, and explained to Vickie very gently that there had been “a spiritual resurrection. Look at all the attention he’s getting with everything being brought up again.”
Ogden also offered Vickie Singer a chance to air her grievances. He would hand carry letters to the governor of Utah. Vickie agreed and subsequently penned a poignant account of her frustration and anguish.
“I have not been able to have my day in court,” she wrote. “I have been persecuted by my neighbors in that they tried to have me thrown out of my home since my husband was shot to death, but by the grace of God they did not succeed …
“ALL in ALL the grievances suffered by this family in a ‘free’ country can hardly be told, let alone believed … We talked until we were ‘blue in the face’ so to speak, but could not be heard … ”
Addam also wrote a letter, and Ogden Kraut came for them as promised. They did not go to the governor, however, but to the command post where the FBI read Addam’s angry militant rhetoric and decided that the Singer-Swapps were hell-bent upon confrontation.
The FBI felt that if Addam Swapp could be isolated and captured, then the rest of the family would surrender peacefully. That evening they contrived a plan to remount the noisemakers this time with a booby-trapped explosive, which would stun the Swapp brothers if they tried to dislodge them. At that point, state officers hiding in a trench nearby would unleash dogs to bring the men down. The Swapps came out as planned but the flash fizzled and the dog that was to have attacked them turned instead and bit his handler.
The following morning, Addam and Jon walked out to the goat pen as was their custom. Lieutenant Fred House, a state corrections officer who was hidden in an outbuilding a few yards away, signaled his dog to attack. The dog balked. House leaned out the door to give the animal encouragement. From an upstairs window of the cabin where the invalid Timothy Singer was posted as lookout there came a shot that hit House in the chest. He slumped back against a wall. The color left his face, making him appear, in the words of a fellow officer, “very similar to a cartoon.”
A sharpshooter opened fire, catching Addam in the ribs. He fell to the snow, where he lay bleeding for a moment, then dragged himself into the house, where he was encircled by his dazed family. He asked for a blessing, then told them, “I’m going to have to surrender and get to a hospital.”
Vickie and Addam, as well as Timothy Singer and Jon Swapp, were charged in U.S. District Court with 32 counts of federal firearms violations and attempted murder of a federal officer. (The State of Utah held off bringing its own charges for the death of officer House until the federal government had concluded its business with the family.) After a trial that ran throughout April and half of May, they were convicted of virtually every charge. (Vickie was acquitted of attempted murder and possession of a sawed-off shotgun.) The outcome surprised no one.
During the siege and after their arrest, all four defendants had made admissions of one kind or another. The only defense left to them was to plead insanity, but they would not hear of it. The family’s court-appointed attorneys had hoped that by focusing upon why their clients had acted as they did, they might elicit sympathy. The government, however, called a numbing succession of federal agents who kept the focus trained narrowly upon how they had accomplished their mischief.
All that remained then was the faint hope that the defendants might find sympathizers among the jury, which was drawn from the predominantly Mormon Salt Lake County. These were, after all, just the sort of people who might understand the nature of miracles. As a matter of faith they accept the premise that God speaks to man today just as he did in antiquity. And what God could do then, he could do now. But resurrection is a tough trick to credit. To good mainstream Mormons for whom the Second Reality is largely a Sunday exercise, the Singers probably were, as their patriarch once claimed, a prick in the conscience. They certainly were an embarrassment. The family elicited no sympathy from their Mormon brethren.
In the days thereafter, the family tried to put the best face on things, pointing out that Addam had been spared, they claimed, because John Singer had “paid the price.” A sign that God’s word had been fulfilled. Addam Swapp remained defiant, wearing to court each day the buckskin jacket that his wives had so carefully decorated with Indian symbols and the Flag of the Kingdom of God. He took the stand, against his attorney’s best advice, and claimed full responsibility for the bombing. Even this selfless gesture failed to move the jury, which apportioned guilt more or less equally.
After the verdict, Addam issued a Declaration of Independence, signed by Vickie and the others, declaring their secession from the Union.
“We have suffered the conspiracys [sic] of Wicked men in both Church and this the American Government,” he wrote. “We have suffered Publick Humiliation and the Defamation of our character .. By hounding, Persecuting and Depriving us of our Liberties … They have tried to … Wipe us out all in the name of the U.S. Government …
“Let it be known, to all Nations … that we are a Nation under God. That we are Independent, seperate [sic] and Free.”
Several weeks after Addam issued his declaration, I made another visit to the Singer farm to see how the new republic was faring.
Charlotte answers the door with none of her usual perkiness. Her eyes are listless and she moves into the living room slowly, like an old cat.
I am not sure, now that the waves of spiritual euphoria have subsided, how much of her present condition she actually comprehends. So I ask tentatively.
“What has Addam said about how all of you will be cared for?”
“Oh, boy,” she rallies slightly. “Day by day there are little miracles just showin’ us that the Lord is takin’ care of us.”
“Little miracles?” I ask, recalling involuntarily the childhood image of hot dogs multiplying wildly in a Frigidaire. “What kind of little miracles?”
“Sometimes people send us some money. But people mainly bring us food … We’re doin’ just as good now as if Addam was goin’ to work.”
She cannot maintain this rush of optimism.
“I get depressed,” she confesses. “It’s hard, really hard, to believe, you know … because the Lord has promised us certain things … Like Mom getting new teeth … He’s promised us that Dad is gonna come home. And it’s really hard because you know how you get in the mortal way of thinking and you think ‘How can that ever happen?’ ”
But doubt does not befit the wife of a patriarch. And whenever these heretical thoughts come upon her, Addam gives her a stern talking to from prison. If there is one thing the Singer girls are conditioned to respond to, it’s the rallying cry of the patriarch.
Outside dusk is falling, and from the window I can see all the way down the lane to the mailbox mounted on the post. It is the hour during which the Singers become uneasy about visitors. A witching hour when little miracles lose their commonplace proportions and loom with fantastic promise. Bathed now in the glow of unreal light, Charlotte announces gravely, “I’m expectin’ a miracle. That’s the only thing that’s gonna free them is a miracle.”
In another room, her baby and the other children are playing under the watchful gaze of John Singer’s photo. They already know his legend by heart. They have heard countless times that his “blood was spilt” and that he “paid the price” for them. They saw their father shot down in the front yard — just as their mothers saw their own father shot down nine years earlier. Each time their fathers have done battle with the forces of the First Reality they have been beaten badly. But adversity is mother’s milk to a zealot.
Just the other day, one of the younger boys set the dog on Jared Weller as he ventured too close to the cabin. And, I wonder, listening to the shrieks and giggles, if it will be him, or his brother, or his cousin, who will be called to make the next stand. ❖
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 22, 2020