Shane Bugbee was desperate to make a living. He and his wife, Amy, had just relocated to the bucolic Iron Range tourist town of Ely. The plan was to care for Amy's father, who'd recently suffered a stroke. But the 38-year-old Chicago native was falling in love with Ely's backwoods charm.
"I'm sitting there going, This is so beautiful," Shane recalls of his first night in the Iron Range town. "The wilderness! For a guy from the city, I never saw anything like it. I never saw a bald eagle fly by. I never saw a huge elk run by."
Then Bugbee hit upon an idea: He would create a blueberry soda. In Ely, the biggest event of the year is the Blueberry Arts Festival. Each July it attracts upward of 40,000 tourists to the town.
Bugbee set about conducting research on the internet. He scavenged wild blueberries from his father-in-law's property. Within days, he'd concocted his soda recipe.
"It was pretty easy," Bugbee says. "It's just sugar water and blueberries."
Bugbee contacted several bottling companies, finally settling on Filbert's Old Time Root Beer in his native Chicago. Within a month, the first five pallets of "Ely Elixir" were circulating around town.
By all accounts, the novelty product was a hit. Both local newspapers ran features on the fledgling company. "Pop the top on Ely's newest soda," read the headline in the Timberjay. "Ely's blueberry soda pop has Chicago roots," countered the Ely Echo.
Although Bugbee had missed the deadline to reserve a booth for the blueberry festival, local radio station WELY (94.5) agreed to share its space. By the end of the first tourist season, Bugbee had sold two truckloads of Ely Elixir.
"He was an inspiring guy," says Bill Roloff, general manager of WELY. "It took a lot of hard work, and he and Amy put a lot of effort into that business."
Bugbee took some of the profits and started a newspaper, Ely Pride, and a companion website. He shot footage for the local public access television station, and produced the area's first podcast. In August, Ely Elixir was admitted to the local chamber of commerce.
Last fall, the Bugbees began planning a festival to honor the 1983 film A Christmas Story. Teaming up with WELY, the event was billed as a fundraiser for the financially strapped Ely School District.
It was the first time in Shane's life that he felt like part of a community. "I fell in love with Ely," he says. "It was really weird to feel that embrace."
And that's when the letter began circulating.
Bugbee first heard about the letter from Roloff at the radio station. Then the local Baptist minister called to discuss it.
The letter accused the Bugbees of funneling their blueberry soda profits into "devil worship" and went on to detail their connection to various suggestively named websites, including "evilnow.com," "radiofreesatan.com," and "whoreofhorror.com."
Shane Bugbee's dark predilections had begun in his childhood. By 16, he'd dropped out of high school, run away from home, and was living on the streets of Chicago. At 17, he was arrested on burglary charges and spent two months in jail.
"I hate my father; didn't talk to him for 16 years," he says.
Instead, Bugbee directed his anger toward creative outlets, starting a zine called Naked Aggression. Eventually he established Mike Hunt Publishing, producing a cookbook featuring the recipes of convicted serial killer Dorothea Puente.
Over the years, Bugbee periodically made headlines for his over-the-top antics, including selling paintings created by child serial killer John Wayne Gacy. He also briefly managed the career of former child actress Dana Plato, and even tried to sell a recording of her final breaths.
Bugbee met Amy Stocky in Chicago in 1994 and they were married a couple of years later. Amy carved out her own niche as a sort of Martha Stewart for the satanic set, founding a magazine titled Hellraiser Homemaker.
They'd always lived in the city, from Chicago to the gritty steel town of Hammond. Soon after arriving in Ely, Shane knew he'd have to find a new line of work.
"I'm publishing shit that's considered obscene almost in the big cities," he says. "I can be arrested for what I'm doing."
After the letter, Ely seemed to turn against the Bugbees. A job offer that had been extended to Amy was abruptly canceled. Families who'd been friendly now steered their children away. Trips to the local grocery became opportunities to be born again.
"Some lady came up to Amy and said, 'I just wanted to bless you,'" Shane says. "Then her friend came down and got on her knees right by the spinach and started praying."
Then one night at 2:00 a.m., the Bugbees received an anonymous call. The person sounded drunk and demanded that his picture be removed from the Ely Pride website. As Shane attempted to decipher the man's demands, the man grew angry.
"You better watch your place," the man yelled. "I'm going to come over tonight with a shotgun and shoot your place up."
The radio station severed its ties with the Bugbees; the Christmas festival was scuttled. Roloff says he had to look out for WELY's reputation. "Shane's a brilliant guy who got put in a bad position by some people who are no better than he is," he says.
Bugbee didn't take rejection well. "That's when I said, 'Fuck these people. I'm going to do something so vile they're going to regret this.'"
Leaving Amy behind, he flew out to Los Angeles in late November and hooked up with Matt Zane, director of such films as Co-ed Cocksuckers 23. Over the next six weeks, they shot The Witches Sabbath, billed in promotional materials as "a journey to the darkest depths of man's carnal nature." Promotional stills show a porn starlet chewing on a Bible and holding a crucifix while performing sex acts.
Bugbee returned to Ely in January, but says that the climate had not improved. He continued to feel shunned and afraid for his family's safety. So they decided to relocate to Los Angeles.
Many Ely residents tell a different story about the Bugbees. They believe the only thing out of control was Shane's imagination.
"I don't think the guy was run out of town," says Jim Zupanicich, manager of Zup's Food Market, which stocked Ely Elixir. "I don't think anybody in this town would do that. I thought they were good people."
Kevin Hanson, pastor of Ely Baptist Church, says he reached out to the Bugbees after receiving the anonymous letter, and even spent a pleasant evening playing cards with them.
"There are a lot of good, conscientious Christians up here," he says. "But Ely running anyone out of town for weird thoughts? Doesn't happen much."
Ely isn't your stereotypical small town. Its geographical isolation, coupled with its proximity to the boundary waters, attracts an eclectic and self-reliant crowd. They're not exactly the pitchfork-wielding types.
Mike Hillman, a former city council member who writes a weekly column for the local Timberjay newspaper, says Bugbee most likely left because he was bored.
"If I helped run him out of town, it was the shortest, easiest run that I've ever had," he says.
Shane slumps at a table at Grumpy's Bar & Grill on Washington Avenue in Minneapolis, wearing a maroon hooded sweatshirt and occasionally dabbing tears from sleep-deprived eyes.
On this Saturday afternoon the Bugbees are on their way west. The couple's belongings are crammed into a U-Haul trailer out in the parking lot. Amy's off getting her hair cut before the long drive. The previous night her father had to be readmitted to the hospital in Ely owing to continuing health problems. A few friends have gathered at the bar to say goodbye.
But as he says his farewells, Shane still sounds as if he expects an irate mob to break down the doors at any moment.
"It was getting weird as we were moving," he says. "They know everything you do there. Once we started making the move they knew. We were weak then. We were vulnerable. They started to get that wolf vibe."
The Bugbees hope to arrive in L.A. in time for the premiere screening of The Witches Sabbath.
"Everybody says, 'It's L.A., can you make it?'" Shane says. "Well, we made it in the fucking woods. We can make it anywhere."