"Patriot" Profile #3
Every Man a King: The Rise and Fall of the Montana Freemen
Last Modified May 6, 1996.
Copyright May 1996 by Mark Pitcavage. No duplication or commercial use of this document may be made without the express consent of the author.
Introduction: In terms of America's ongoing struggle against antigovernment extremists, only the Oklahoma City bombing of April 19, 1995 has surpassed the saga of the militants of "Justus Township" in remote eastern Montana in terms of media coverage. In terms of actual importance, what the Montana Freemen have done--and what similar groups across the country continue to do--may well eclipse a solitary act of terrorism by a few angry individuals. For the Montana Freemen have been waging a quiet war against the rest of the nation for several years now, a war fought with computers and comptrollers' warrants, liens and legal briefs. For the first time, here is their complete story.
Every Man a King: The Rise and Fall of the Montana Freemen
"Every man a king, every man a king, you can be a millionaire." So went the catchy campaign tune for Louisiana Senator Huey Long. Long, in the troubling economic times of the 1930s, won a following with his "Share the Wealth" plan, in which he proposed to alleviate people's suffering by using the power of the federal government to redistribute the nation's wealth.
Now, in the troubling economic times of the 1990s, a new group of people have arisen to give a new, contemporary meaning to Long's famous song. People can become kings--or "sovereign citizens"--not by embracing the federal government but by rejecting it, along with most other forms of authority. And groups of these sovereign citizens have come up with a novel way by which any person can become a millionaire--by issuing their own money. The most infamous of these right-wing anarchists are the Montana Freemen, who spawned an extralegal empire in the wilderness of Montana, using not AK-47s but legal briefs, not military uniforms but the Uniform Commercial Code. But they wavered between between being patriotic paralegal-guerillas and simple frauds, and ended up bringing down upon themselves the enmity not only of the hated federal government, but friends and neighbors as well. Federal and state governments, once besieged by the filings of the Freemen, now were laying siege to the Freemen themselves, at a little compound labeled "Justus Township" near Jordan, Montana.
To understand the roots of the Montana Freemen, like so many other elements of today's so-called "patriot" movement, one has to go back to Posse Comitatus, the nebulous antigovernment movement founded in 1969 by retired dry cleaner Henry L. Beach. Beach, a former Silver Shirt (a 1930s-era pro-Nazi group), argued that the only legitimate government was local government. The highest legitimate elected official in the country was the county sheriff, who could form juries and call out the able-bodied men of the county to enforce the law. Naturally enough, Beach and other members of the movement were strongly opposed to the federal government, especially those parts of it which dealt with money, the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Reserve System. The IRS draws its authority from the Sixteenth Amendment, which Posse members (and other tax resisters) believe was not lawfully ratified; thus, it is unconstitutional. Moreover, suggests the Posse, the revenue laws, if examined carefully, say that income tax is voluntary for individuals. The Federal Reserve System, on the other hand, was not a lawful arm of the government at all, but rather, as one Posse publication put it, "a private monopoly which neither the people nor the states authorized in the constitution." It printed paper money which clearly was not allowed by the Constitution. The racist elements of the Posse--which did not include the whole movement, particularly after it expanded in the early 1980s--went further, to argue that the Federal Reserve was controlled by a small group of international Jewish bankers, who profit by destroying the United States in a mire of debt and paper money. Many Posse members adhered to the virulently racist sect Christian Identity.
Related to the Posse was the township movement, led in part by Walt P. Mann III, of Bloomington, Utah, which took root in Utah, Wisconsin, and other states. Township advocates argued for setting up small sovereign communities, over which no other level of government could have power. In Wisconsin, the Posse set up a "constitutional township" on a 1400-acre plot at Tigerton Dells; there, warning signs posted "Federal Agents Keep out; Survivors will be Prosecuted." The Township appointed its own judges and foreign ambassadors.
Accompanying the quasi-anarchistic attitudes of the Posse was a no-holds-barred attitude as to what should be done to those seen to violate the principles held dear by the Posse. Henry Beach recommended punishing government officials "who commit criminal acts or who violate their oath of office" by having the posse remove them "to the most populated intersection of streets in the township and, at high noon, be hung by the neck, the body remaining until sundown as an example to those who would subvert the law." Many Posse members began to wear small gold handman's nooses on their lapels.
In the 1970s, the Posse was a small but irritating extremist group. Dispersed across the country, but finding support primarily in the Northwest and the Great Plains states, it numbered in the thousands (a 1976 FBI report suggested that membership could range from 12,000 to 50,000). Particularly troublesome was the Wisconsin Posse, headquartered at Tigerton Dells (where, in the form of Family Farm Preservation, it still operates) which disrupted government meetings and assaulted public officials. In the early 1980s, however, a severe farm crisis which resulted in financial loss and foreclosures for many small farmers allowed the Posse to reach out to a more mainstream--and thus larger--audience. Farmers in Kansas, Nebraska, Wisconsin, the Dakotas, and elsewhere, looked to the Posse for help. The Posse offered up targets for people to blame: the courts, the money system, the federal government, the Jews. Illegal activities--including counterfeiting, paramilitary training, bombmaking, threats against public officials, and tax resisting--greatly increased. The movement found a martyr in tax resister Gordon Kahl of North Dakota, who died in a shootout with law enforcement officers after being tracked down for his participation in another shootout which killed two federal marshals and wounded three others.
Shootouts, however, were rare. Far more common were the legal battles waged by Posse members, which included two basic strategies. One was the placing of frivolous liens on the property of public officials who opposed or angered them, notably IRS agents. Since the liens were without cause, they had no legal weight, but until they were removed, they could damage credit ratings or interfere with the buying and selling of property. The second was the simple tactic of flooding the courts with legal documents, filings, motions and appeals, often using convoluted and archaic language, which clogged the court system and frustated judges and prosecutors. Associated with this was the tactic, practiced in some areas, of establishing so-called "common law courts," which were vigilante courts that often threatened public officials. Typical of many others was David Scott Clark, in 1986 a 78-year old automotive garage operator in Phoenix who, along with several others who called themselves "freemen" and "sovereign citizens," filed so many frivolous suits that a Maricopa county judge issued a court order restricting court responses to them. Foreshadowing the rhetoric of the mid-1990s, Clark suggested the order was the work of people who wanted a "one-world government."
However, by the late 1980s, Posse activity had died down. Many of its leaders were dead, in prison, or lying low. Few found tax resisting particularly profitable, except those who taught the theories to others for a price. Because it never had a strong organization or national focus, it died out in some areas, stayed alive in others. Perhaps the best way to characterize it would be as a dormant volcano, manifesting little activity on the outside but possessing a fiery heat deep down, just waiting for some shaking of the earth to open up a new channel through which lava could once again flow.
Among the states in which the Posse was active was Montana, sparsely populated and inhabited by people who believed in minding their own business--and that the government should mind its own. "With our Democracy deteriorated into hypocracy [sic]..." read one recruiting notice in Montana for the Posse in 1974, "the time has come for action." Other organizations such as the Montana Vigilantes continued the Posse ideology.
It is unclear whether any such groups lasted into the 1990s, but clearly there was a part of Montana's small population that was receptive to such beliefs. They were susceptible to the siren songs of people like Roy Schwasinger, head of the tax protest group We the People, based in Colorado. Schwasinger travelled the country, including Montana, relating his theories--for the small sum of $300--on how the Federal Reserve was illegitimate, the money system worthless, and debts irrelevant. Schwasinger would later get his own come-uppance, on charges of fraud, but not before he had managed to convince a great many people that much of government was unconstitutional and illegitimate. Among the converts were numerous Montanans.
One of the Montanans attracted to the ideology espoused by Posse Comitatus was Leroy Schweitzer. A stubborn man by temperament, Schweitzer came to resent deeply what he saw as government interference in his life. A crop duster in Montana and Idaho, he refused to get a license to fly his plane, leading to warrants for his arrest on federal charges. He also refused to pay taxes, which caused the Internal Revenue Service in November 1992 to seize (and sell) his Cessna crop duster, his Bozeman, Montana, home, and other equipment--to pay $389,000 in federal taxes dating all the way back to the 1970s. Schweitzer's first run-in came when he refused to pay $700 worth of taxes back in 1977; a business partner had to pay up in order to free $6,000 in business accounts frozen by the IRS, which also audited Schweitzer the following year. Not long after, Schweitzer became a tax resister. He attended Posse Comitatus meetings and according to the Associated Press had contacts with some members of the neo-Nazi group, The Order, infamous for its string of armored car robberies in the 1980s.
Schweitzer was a charismatic man who could inspire deep affection. "He's one of the best-hearted people I've ever known," his father-in-law, Edwin Hardesty, told a Billings Gazette reporter well after Schweitzer's troubles with the law had begun. "He's still a part of my family and we still love him." As Schweitzer delved deeper into Posse and constitutionalist ideology in the 1980s, his normal streak of stubbornness turned to extremism. When he helped his friend Bernard Kuennen's legal defense--Kuennen let his dog go around unvaccinated--the two barraged the judge with questions on the difference between "admiralty" and "common" law ("sovereign citizens" believe that our court system is an admiralty court system that has illegitimately expanded its jurisdiction). Schweitzer defied policemen who stopped him for traffic violations. When Schweitzer operated a crop-dusting company in Washington, a state safety inspector appeared one day at Schweitzer's airplane hangar for an inspection, and cited the pilot for a minor electrical violation, explaining to Schweitzer that it was intended to protect employees. Schweitzer, according to a source familiar with him, fired his only employee right then and there. "Now, there are no employees who work here, so see how your regulations protected the man," Schweitzer is reputed to have said. Schweitzer eventually sold his business and moved to Montana, where he briefly went into a fireworks business with his brother, then got into the tax problems that resulted eventually in the loss of his plane in 1992.
Schweitzer found the ideal partner in Rodney Owen Skurdal, who could add ruthlessness and determination to Schweitzer's own persuasive stubbornness. Skurdal's qualities manifested themselves in relentless manipulations of the legal system to serve his own purposes, a skill that he developed to a fine art. Skurdal, a native Montanan, joined the Marine Corps upon leaving high school in 1971, spending nearly a decade in the service until discharged in 1980. During his stint with the corps he served in a security detail as a driver in a support unit, attaining the rank of staff sergeant. After his discharge he moved to Wyoming, where he very early demonstrated his skills as a legal guerilla when he became involved in a workman's compensation suit after being injured while working at an oil rig. Skurdal, already under the influence of the Posse Comitatus, claimed that the federal government lacked the authority to print paper money and demanded to be paid in gold bullion. Acting as his own attorney, Skurdal stretched the case out for over a year, finally reaching the state supreme court, which dismissed the suit as "perhaps the most frivolous appeal ever filed here." A Wyoming newspaper claimed that U.S. District Court documents from a lawsuit that never went to court showed that witnesses testified that it was after the skull fracture he sustained at the oil field in 1983 that he first became preoccupied with "constitutional" issues. His former wife, Susan Deleano, testified that after the injury he had "an odd personality" and refused to use a social security number or driver's license.
Skurdal moved back to Montana some time after 1988; in 1992 he bought a log cabin near Roundup, Montana. According to some, he was peaceful and quiet at first. "Rodney never yelled or got upset," said a sheriff's deputy, "I think he could be reasoned with. But I don't know what's come over him in the past year." A former girlfriend described him as peaceful and religious. "Rod doesn't have a mean streak in his body," she said.
To others who knew Skurdal, especially the court officials who had to deal with him on a regular basis, this description seemed to be overly generous. Skurdal, as a "sovereign citizen," believed that any virtually any government at all meant enslavement. In a court document filed in Montana in 1994, Skurdal offered the following as examples of "tyranny": "A Social Security card/number, marriage licenses, drivers licenses, insurance, vehicle registration, welfare from the corporations, electrical inspections, permits to build your own home, income taxes, property taxes..." Skurdal was also a member of Christian Identity, and as such, openly racist, claiming that non-whites were "beasts," and Jews the children of Satan. His common law documents often contained racist justifications, proclaiming the superiority of whites. Skurdal's extreme political and religious beliefs were intertwined and inseparable; his legal briefs were as likely to refer to the Bible or to Identity teachings as they were to refer to legal code. The Uniform Commercial Code simply became one more religious text from which Skurdal could cite chapter and verse.
Skurdal's guerilla tactics at one point had simultaneous suits on-going in every one of Montana's 56 counties; three times he was able to get up to the Montana Supreme Court--over traffic tickets. When the fed-up state judiciary finally decreed that courts were to dismiss Skurdal's documents as frivolous unless they were signed by a lawyer, Skurdal simply mailed his writs and documents to out-of-state agencies, which--assuming they were valid but mis-delivered--sent them back to Montana, where unsuspecting officials filed them. Musselshell County Attorney Vicki Knudsen spent nearly four years dealing with Skurdal's various court cases over driving without a license, and his other motions, before finally giving up her job in disgust. Skurdal, among other documents, filed a "Citizens Declaration of War," which condemned "foreign agents" within the "country of Montana." He also filed a document accusing county officials of attempting to bring in a New World Order. In July 1994, Chief Justice Jean A. Turnage of the Montana Supreme Court imposed a $1,000 sanction on Skurdal and limited his access to the courts, calling his filings "not only nonsensical but meritless, frivolous, vexatious and wasteful of the limited time and resources of this court, of the clerk of this court and of the various public officials and counsel that are forced to deal with and respond to Mr. Skurdal's abuse."
Skurdal purchased a small farm near Roundup, Montana (population 1,808), in Musselshell County, but his determination not to pay taxes to the federal government did not take long to cause problems. Skurdal's property was "seized" by the IRS in 1993 and put up for sale for $29,000, but nobody quite had the testicular reserves necessary to come and take it from Skurdal, who continued to occupy the land. Musselshell Count Sheriff G. Paul Smith was not about to make an issue of it, so the land went into government possession, on paper at least. In June 1994 the government again unsuccessfully tried to auction the property. The following year, the IRS sued Skurdal in an effort to get him to move--a singularly ineffective tactic.
In late 1994, Skurdal invited Schweitzer to move in with him; in early 1995 the two were joined by Daniel Petersen. With the two Freemen moved in, Rodney Skurdal's twenty-acre farm near Roundup became a headquarters, the four-bedroom home a command center. Computers, faxes, laser printers and shortwave radios were willing electronic servants. Outside, the small ranch sported a vegetable garden, a pool, a satellite dish, and a swingset and basketball hoop. It also sported warning signs: "Do Not Enter Private Land of the Sovereign...The right of Personal Liberty is one of the fundamental rights guaranteed to every citizen, and any unlawful interference with it may be resisted."
What Schweitzer and Skurdal resorted to, a sort of bureaucratic guerilla warfare, was neither new nor unique to them. They represented merely the cutting edge of a rage against government interference that was sweeping the country. Some directed their rage at the federal government, and manifested their anger in paramilitary militia groups; some directed their anger at people whose skins were a different color. Many were, in the words of Peter Finch, simply "mad as hell and not going to take it anymore." What else could explain people like Edwin G. Thrall of East Windsor, Connecticut? Thrall, a 76-year old retired farmer and demolition contractor, waged a battle for years against local government that culminated in an armed standoff. An iconoclastic loner, he built a dance hall years ago without ever bothering to get building or zoning permits. East Windsor town officials would not let him open the hall to the public; Thrall did so anyway, landing in jail several times in the 1970s for violating injunctions. In 1979, he had a standoff with police, shooting the tires of their cruisers; in 1995 he held another one, a five-hour standoff with more than two dozen police, after his property was taken by the town because he refused to pay back taxes on it (in retaliation for the town's refusal to let him use the dance hall). Thrall entered the property, began to use heavy machinery to work on the roof of the dance hall, and threatened police who tried to stop him with a shotgun. Thrall called himself a "constitutionalist" and "sovereign property owner." He didn't believe anybody had any right to interfere with his property--including to tax it.
Thrall was not a lone crank; far from it. In fact, across the country, other "sovereign citizens" were taking up not shotguns but pens--though still wielding these instruments against the government. In the Ozarks, George Gordon operated the George Gordon School of Common Law for anybody who might come and learn how to file motions and papers. "You know, the guys at Waco had a remedy," he mused. "they had the judicial system. I sit here and expect a raid just because of the work I'm in, but does that mean I'm going to start shooting at the policeman? No! My solution is to go into court and defeat the jackbooted thugs."
This was the strategy of Schweitzer and Skurdal as well. Not only did they refuse to pay taxes or to vacate their land, but they struck back, clogging the court system with frivolous suits. "Once a court accepts one of these asinine Freemen things," said Roundup resident and former county attorney Vicki Knudsen, "it's in the system. Everybody named in it becomes involved [and] has to respond. It's not funny. It's not romantic. It's scary." Freemen in Garfield County generated so many documents--and threats over filing them--that Court Clerk and Recorder JoAnn Stanton lost forty pounds.
The Freemen didn't just issue phony suits, however; they also tried to create phony money using complicated schemes involving the filing of liens worth millions of dollars against various Montana property owners or the U.S. or Montana governments. Until they were found invalid, bank computers might list these liens as assets. This in turn created a window during which banks might transfer money against these assets. So Freemen would deposit fake money orders in other banks, to be drawn upon the bank listing the lien. The money orders, generally signed by Schweitzer (Skurdal, Daniel Petersen and William Stanton also signed the notes on occasion), looked real, except for small details such as a lowercase "u" in "United States." Bogus checks sometimes carried the words "Certified Bankers Check -- Controller Warrant," instead of a bank name, along with account and lien numbers. Many checks were drawn against a non-existent account in a Butte, Montana, branch of the Norwest Bank. The checks stated that they were also redeemable at the Office of the U.S. Postmaster. If the Freemen withdrew the funds deposited before all parties realized that there was no real money involved, they might get away with a hefty sum. They didn't always succeed; Freeman Will Stanton got caught in October 1994 when he wrote a hot check for $25,000 to pay his taxes--these funds were drawn upon $3.8 million of assets at Merrill Lynch which that company had discovered were no good.
The Freemen didn't just try to use the money orders themselves; they also sold them, advertising them as a way for people to get themselves out of debt. If you owed $20,000 in mortgage payments, you could simply make out a bogus money order to the amount, and your debts were gone. Or better yet, they suggested, make the money order out for $40,000, then demand an immediate refund of the "overpayment." They might well write you a good check before they discover that the money order they received was bad. As one "patriot" explained on the Internet, "LeRoy Schweitzer does have their [sic] own monetary system. When you attend their course on location, they will issue you CHECKS times two (biblical) to pay off all IRS debts and all loans to banks for no charge. They are having success in this area, but it is hard fight [sic]." By April 1994 more than 100 banks across the country had reported receipt of bogus money orders. Not all of these came from Schweitzer and Skurdal; a good number of them came from Posse hotbed Tigerton, Wisconsin. But the Montana Freemen contributed their fair share. One of the more bizarre incidents in the Freemen saga came when the mayor of Cascade, Montana, apparently a Freeman sympathizer, actually deposited a bogus $20,000,000 in the town bank. Most attempts to pass the checks involved considerably smaller amounts; the Denver Business Journal in December 1995 reported that 15 Schweitzer checks had been passed recently, ranging from $2,600 to $91,000. Some people tried to use them to cheat their ex-spouses, sending them as child support checks. For some time, local bank officials and postmasters were puzzled, for although they knew the checks were not valid, they had not at that point heard of Leroy Schweitzer--the fake checks had been distributed faster than the news of them had. Not until early 1996 were banks generally aware of the nature of the bogus checks, and even then, not all were. And ordinary people, many of whom received the checks in return for selling cars, boats, or for services rendered, had no knowledge whatsoever that the check or money order they had just received was bad. "People see these and, if you're a very unsuspecting person," an Omaha, Nebraska, county treasurer explained, "they really do look authentic."
Authorities were not sure what to do; they wanted to shut Schweitzer and Skurdal down, but the Freemen made it abundantly clear that if they were going to go down, they would go down fighting. "These people want to be martyrs," Sheriff Smith lamented. "I don't know how far they are willing to carry that." And Smith, with only six men in his sheriff's department, didn't want to lose any of his own men. People were also slow to take action because the circumstances seemed so unusual. Roundup, after all, was not simply a small town, it was an intimate town. The same family operated the local car dealership for over half a century. If people weren't related to one another, then they certainly knew each other. The advent of the Freemen sent shock waves through the community; the terror hit home because it was so intimate. You couldn't lose yourself in Roundup the way you could in New York City. If someone issued a death threat against you, everybody around knew exactly where you lived, where you worked, where you went to church. Similarly, when Skurdal began to issue threats, he was not issuing them against faceless officials, but against the friends and relatives of people in town. Some people didn't have a problem with the Freemen. "They wave. We wave," explained one neighbor. "As long as you're not government, they won't bother you." But for most others, life among the Freemen was not so carefree. Once the Freemen came to town, Roundup began to change. The County Courthouse started to lock its doors; the county attorney purchased two new guns with which to protect himself. "This was like Mayberry..." said deputy school superintendent Kathy Fister, "This was like hometown America." But now to many it had the markings of a Beirut wrought in miniature.
The Freemen of Roundup--Schweitzer, Skurdal, Daniel Petersen (and his wife Cherlynn)--were not the only Freemen. In Lewistown a logger named Jay Brand railled against the government; at Coffee Creek Ronald Fulbright and a group of several others, active in Roy Schwasinger's "We the People" organization, were indicted on federal charges of conspiring to injure judges and attorneys in their bankruptcy case. And about 150 miles to the northeast, near Jordan, Montana, were another group, equally radical. They were centered around the Clark family--patriarch Ralph Clark and his brother Emmett, Emmett's wife Rosie, his son Edwin, his nephew Richard and grandson Casey, Richard's wife Kay--in Jordan, Montana, for whom the 1980s were a troubling time. Not opposed to government interference, but instead accepting nearly $700,000 in various kinds of government handouts, through poor planning and overextending themselves with land and machinery purchases, they became unable to cope with their debts when hard times hit. Starting in 1981, the Clarks stopped making payments on federal farm loans; according to the county attorney, by 1995 they owed $1.8 million in missed payments. The tight-nit Jordan community sometimes helped them out; in the early 1990s his neighbors helped him plant crops so he could avoid foreclosure. But the Clarks' inability to keep up with their debts made them easy prey for the rhetoric of Roy Schwasinger, Leroy Schweitzer, and other antigovernment sharpsters. "This thing just kept building every time I talked to them," lamented Ralph's and Emmett's brother Alven. "They just listened to these prophets." But in fact, as early as 1982, Ralph Clark told a Montana reporter that the sheriff would need the National Guard to get him off his ranch. In the 1990s they tried various schemes such as setting up revocable trusts to try to avoid federal and state taxes. Eventually, a bank foreclosed on the 960-acre wheat farm of Ralph Clark, selling it at a sheriff's auction for $493,000. The Clarks decided to set up their own court, a "common law" court. In January 1994 three dozen Freemen took over Garfield County's courthouse and held a meeting creating their own county government. Present at the meeting were Rodney Skurdal and Daniel Petersen, who had driven up from Roundup. Richard Clark was the presiding judge. The makeshift court charged the real judge, as well as various others whom the Clarks had felt persecuted them, with contempt. "We've opened our own common law court and we have the law back in the county now," Clark told the thirty people who attended the meeting, which was even videotaped.
But setting up their own court was only the beginning of what the Clark family had in mind, as Jordan's residents soon discovered. Soon posters appeared, offering a bounty of one million dollars for the arrest of Sheriff Charles Phipps, as well as the county attorney and the judge. Bemused, Phipps asked a Freeman if he could get the reward if he turned himself in. The Freeman told him yes, but that he wouldn't live long enough to enjoy it. He'd be "tried, convicted and hung."
Phipps was no longer amused, but his resources were limited. He had a deputy and a tiny, two-cell jail, but little else. Phipps was not only the sheriff but also the town coroner and livestock inspector. Still, he arrested Freemen now and then, when they wandered from their ranches and farms, charging them with threatening public officials. He soon became aware that he had a serious standoff on his hands; the Clarks were not going to budge from their farm. In April 1994 Ralph Clark was ordered to appear in court to face charges of solicitation of kidnapping, while on the same day his farm was auctioned to settle the $37,864 he owed in mortgage payments (on a $710,000 mortgage). Clark defied the order to appear, so a warrant was issued for his arrest, but there seemed little possibility of anybody going out to the ranch to arrest him. The Freemen continued their activities. In June 1994 they issued "subpoenas" against Montana's two senators, its state supreme court justices, and the district judge. The following month they mailed to 45 jurors who were to sit on a trial of five Freemen for impersonating public officials letters that made threats against them and their property if they convicted the Freemen.
"They've taken a stand," explained a fellow rancher to a foreign reporter, "and now they are refusing to negotiate. If you talk to them, tell them there is still room for negotiation. It is a horrible situation. There is wrong on both sides here." Not everybody thought the Clarks blameless; some thought them lazy. But the Clarks' descent into the world of the Freemen seemed to many Jordan residents to be a tragedy. Not a few of them blamed outsiders like Leroy Schweitzer, who they felt convinced the Clarks that they could keep their farm by engaging in their common law tactics. "I think it started out with everyone thinking it was a bit humorous," said Lance Tonn, a laywer for the bank that foreclosed on the Clarks. "But when you have someone about to suffer an economic loss, as they are, and some who seem to have lost touch with reality, you have a bad situation."
Local public officials chafed at their impotence. "They know we know where they are," Garfield County Attorney Nick Murnion complained in July 1995. "It's like they're saying, 'We're here, we have guns, and we know you're scared to come get us.'" Sometimes they fantasized. "If somebody were to take an Army tank up to Skurdal's," mused one, "Well, why not? The IRS owns the place, so it wouldn't be like taking his property." But the reality was that Army tanks were not in the picture, and the Freemen were.
Local officials did ingeniously use what tools they had at their disposal. After the Jordan Freemen posted their bounties against the sheriff and other officials, Murnion filed charges aginst fifteen of them for impersonating public officials. Murnion was responsible for a developing a new weapon, when he dug up an old law against "criminal syndicalism," a crime defined as advocating violence or terrorism for political purposes. Originally intended to be used against labor protests, this felony, punishable by ten years in prison, seemed to be the perfect response to the bounties and threats of hanging that the Freemen routinely issued.
In February 1995 Murnion won his first conviction for "criminal syndicalism," against 64-year old rancher William Stanton. Stanton was in many ways a typical Freeman, unable to cope with economic disaster. He had filed for bankruptcy in 1988 and managed to make payments until 1993, when he missed one and was hit with a foreclosure. Some neighbors claimed gambling problems exacerbated his situation. LeRoy Schweitzer offered Stanton a $3.8 million loan, which the banks did not accept. But Stanton did not take his anger out on Schweitzer; rather, he became more opposed to the federal government. He became a full-fledged Freeman, as did his family--his wife Agnes, his grown son Ebert, and Ebert's wife Val, the latter two moving in from Billings to help Agnes run the farm. "She became really preoccupied with it," said Agnes' sister of Stanton's wife. "No matter what the conversation was, it would always come back to common law or what was wrong with the government." Stanton, as the Freemen's "constable," had been the one to offer the $1 million bounty for the various Garfield officials; he had also been the one to tell Sheriff Phipps he'd be hung from a bridge.
However, Stanton's conviction, rather than cowing the Freemen, instead resulted in one of the most serious and scary of the Freemen's various escapades. The FBI first learned that something might be up and tipped off Murnion and County Attorney John Bohlmann of Musselshell that the Freemen might be planning something against the two of them and the judge who tried Stanton. According to Sheriff Smith, the tip said that the Freemen were planning to kidnap a judge, try him in their court, sentence him to hanging and videotape the proceeding. In response, Musselshell County put reserve deputies in the courthouse to protect District Judge Roy C. Rodeghiero and to accompany him to and from work.
Then the day after Stanton was sentenced, on March 3, 1995, a Musselshell County deputy stopped two Freemen, Dale Jacobi and Frank Ellena, for not having license plates on their pickup. Nor did they have a driver's license. The deputy asked the men to get out of the pickup and discovered that both were carrying concealed weapons without permits. Searching Ellena, deputies discovered what was later revealed to be a hand-drawn map of Jordan, with the office and home of Nick Murnion circled. In the car, they found a considerable supply of guns and ammunition (including bullets that could pierce body armor), 30 sets of plastic-strip handcuffs, some $60,000 in gold and silver, about $26,000 in cash, duct tape, a video camera, a 35mm Minolta camera, and various pieces of radio telecommunications gear. Deputies were sure they had come across part of the kidnapping crew.
Later in the day, around 6pm (about an hour and a half after Jacobi and Ellena were jailed), the two deputies at the Roundup jail, Orville "Buzz" Jones and Mitchell "Dutch" Van Syckel, dropped their jaws as three Freemen walked into the jail and demanded the items seized from the car of Jacobi and Ellena, which were in clear view to everybody in the jail. These three were part of two carloads of Freemen, five in all, who had driven to the jail, communicating by two-way radios. One of the deputies noticed a concealed weapon on one of the Freemen, made visible when a jacket opened. The deputies were able to place the three Freemen under arrest on concealed weapons charges. They then went outside to the vehicles, where two freemen occupied one of the cars. One of them was talking into a hand held two-way radio. As the deputies approached, the passengers locked their doors and refused to exit the car. When deputies saw guns on the persons of the Freemen, they broke open a window and placed them under arrest. That night they learned the identity of the Freemen and discovered to their surprise that the group included a ringer: a thin man with a grey beard turned out to be not a Freeman but none other than John Trochmann, founder of the Militia of Montana, who lived clear on the other side of the state. Trochmann had become infatuated with the Freemen ideology and had praised them in his newsletter "Taking Aim" (in fact, his wife Carolyn Trochmann was even a featured speaker for the "American Sovereigns Group"). Why Trochmann had decided to accompany the Freemen on their fishing expedition the deputies could not figure out. Clearly a complicated plan had been devised. "If this isn't evidence that some type of evil intent was afoot, then I'm not a very good policemen," Jones said. Jones could sympathize with the economic plight that many of the Freemen were in, but not their tactics. "My Grandpa lost his ranch during the Depression..." he said. "I go by that ranch every day, and I see the trees my Grandma planted, and I see where my dad was born. And it just tears at my heart. God, I understand them almost to the point that it scares me. But I do not tolerate crimes of violence."
After the arrests of the Freemen and Trochmann, a second assault began--this time on the phone lines, as the sheriff's office was flooded with hundreds of calls, many of which threatened violence. John Bohlman received at least forty "straight-out death threats" against himself and his secretary. Many of the phone calls were local, but others were long-distance. Bohlman's secretary ended up moving her daughter temporarily to Minnesota after one caller threatened the child. A good many of the calls demanded that Trochmann be released, and were clearly from Militia of Montana members or sympathizers. M.O.M. co-founder Randy Trochmann issued a press release denying any links between M.O.M. and the Freemen, claiming that Trochmann had just travelled to Musselshell county to negotiate a "settlement" between Freemen and local law enforcement officers. Randy Trochmann had no convenient explanation for the unusual activities of the Freemen that day.
Unfortunately for Roundup officials, they had to drop most of the criminal charges against the Freemen, apparently because of the way the searches were conducted. Only two concealed-weapons violations stuck. Nick Murnion charged six more Freemen with criminal syndicalism, for a written demand on a Justice of the Peace that he show up at Rodney Skurdal's home and provide various pieces of evidence, but of the six, only one was arrested--Frank Ellena, who cooperated in court and got a bail reduction that allowed him to post bail, after which he claimed he had lied in order to escape an "evil trap." Both Ellena and Jacobi jumped bail.
Incidents such as the kidnapping episode made law enforcement officers in Roundup and Jordan all the more unwilling to provoke drastic responses, but local opinion was less hesitant. People resented the fact that they had to pay taxes and obey laws, but the Freemen could flout those same requirements with apparent impunity. "Call the IRS and ask them why they haven't seized their property," demanded car dealer Brian Hoiland of Roundup. "Why do they get special treatment? I think the federal government has a responsibility to the people who are paying taxes." Brian's brother Bruce, the fire chief, agreed. "There's no reason in the world they don't go up there, arrest them, clean it up and be done with it. What kind of message does that send...? Not a good one." The Oklahoma City bombing on April 19, 1995, helped to change some attitudes. Montanans were less willing to tolerate the extreme anti-government behavior of the Freemen.
But local officials wanted federal help, and that help seemed unforthcoming. In early April 1995, John Bohlman wrote a letter to President Bill Clinton himself, pleading for help, telling the president that "personally, I believe we will have a confrontation that ends in gunfire before the end of the year." Many residents of Garfield and Musselshell Counties were convinced that the FBI was at least keeping the Freemen under surveillance--there were too many unfamiliar vehicles and men in plaid shirts on the roads. But U.S. Attorney Sherry Scheel Matteucci refused all comment on the subject of an investigation. "All I can tell you is that it's our intention to enforce the law," she said, "and I have absolute confidence that it will be done."
Reporters covering the Freemen scene soon coined a term for the reason behind the inactivity: "Weaver Fever." The shootout and siege at Ruby Ridge in 1992, in which white supremecist Randy Weaver's wife and son were killed, as well as a federal marshal, had caused a severe backlash in the northwest among right-wing extremists, helping to spawn the militia movement in Montana and Idaho. The reporters might well have added "Waco" to the term they invented, for the siege of the Branch Davidian compound in 1993, with its fiery end, was just as much a cause celebre among the extremist right. It also aroused severe criticism of the federal government's methods from the general public, too, stinging them where it hurt the most: public relations. Consequently, after the hail of protest following Waco, federal law enforcement agencies began to step very gingerly indeed, as did their counterparts on the state level.
But while nothing was done, the Freemen population grew--by July 1995 the Skurdal cabin alone held six Freemen. In fact, public officials began to suspect that the lack of action against the Freemen was one factor in their growing numbers. "Their argument about taxes spreads because they say, 'See, the government knows that tax is voluntary and that's why they're not prosecuting us,'" said John Bohlman. "The fact is that Rodney has written documents that say if anybody comes on his land, he'll kill them." In fact, Skurdal and Schweitzer seemed completely in control of the situation, ignoring or threatening public officials, while conducting their money order scams with impunity. They treated the media--who had by 1995 become quite curious about the renegade anarchists--with disdain, generally refusing interviews unless the newspaper or television crew would agree to a $100 million lien as a bond to guarantee fair treatment. If public officials were reluctant to engage with the Freemen, the Freemen were themselves ready for a confrontation. "This is a holy war," Rodney Skurdal wrote in a document demanding the resignation of Sheriff Smith in April 1995. "God's laws vs. man-made laws."
Although they presented a bold front to outsiders, among themselves the Freemen must have argued about their security, for in September 1995 Rodney Skurdal and Leroy Schweitzer decided to pull up stakes and leave Roundup, to join the Clarks up in Jordan. At night they and other Freemen launched a convoy of six vehicles to travel the 120 miles between the two towns. Law enforcement officers did not stop them.
Once the Freemen were united on the Clark ranch, the waiting game--now narrowed down to one site--began again. At the ranch were many of the most radical Freemen. As of November 1995, the laundry list of charges against them was already voluminous: five charged with threatening public officials, three charged with impersonating public servants, one charged with solicitation of kidnapping, one charged with obstructing a peace officer, six charged with criminal syndicalism. Two were under investigation (later charged) with armed robbery; Richard Clark was under investigation (later charged) with theft of $70,000 worth of grain that belonged to his son but which he would not let his son remove from the property.
Sheriff Charles Phipps of Jordan, equipped with a two-cell jailhouse for a town of almost 500 people, now had to deal with a band of wanted men many times bigger than his miniscule sheriff's department. He was in no hurry to do so. Assuring the occasional inquiring reporter that something would be done eventually, he was nevertheless reluctant to engage the well-armed Freemen in any sort of serious confrontation. Moreover, the war with the Freemen put a tremendous strain on local government budgets. "Even the trials we've gone through are almost more than our little counties can bear," said Carol Hellyer, the office manager for Sheriff Phipps. "We run on pretty tight pennies." State officials were just as reluctant. "They are the last on the list of problems we have had to deal with," said Montana's attorney general, Joseph P. Mazurek, in September. "We'll do everything we can not to put officers or others in harm's way. In some respects, the public's patience has been tried, but law enforcement has erred on the side of making arrests without causing violent confrontations." Federal officials too spoke only of biding their time. "I think federal law enforcement has always been very reluctant to go knocking down doors," U.S. Attorney Sherry Matteucci explained. "Law enforcement by its nature requires considered, planned, cautious action that is based on probable cause of evidence. It takes time to do it right and that's what we want to do." In November, Nick Murnion and John Bohlmann even testified to Congress about Freemen activities. "I believe this group has declared war on our form of government," Murnion said. "They are in open insurrection."
In the meantime, the Freemen group had their own miniature kingdom to run. The Clark farm, with its cluster of buildings, became the new headquarters for the seminars of Schweitzer and Skurdal. It was no longer a farm anymore, but "Justus Township," with its own laws, court, and officials. Ralph Clark was the "marshal" of Justus, others served on its court.
The seminars became the main activity at Justus. Ostensibly free, people had to pay a certain fee to guarantee that they would show up. The Freemen would take their willing pupils in groups of 25, for a week's worth of tutelage, while the students took notes and videotaped the talks. At one point, Freemen claimed that people from 46 different states had attended their seminars. "We are the new Federal Reserve," Schweitzer assured a group of students at one seminar, "We are competing with the Federal Reserve--and we have every authority to do it." The Freemen had little interest in people who were not interested in the seminars, and continued their hate-hate relationship with the press, in November 1995 going so far as to confiscate at gunpoint $66,000 worth of equipment from a not particularly bright ABC television crew. A Polish journalist claimed to have been run off by the Freemen. The Freemen also lashed out at others who annoyed them, such as Pastor Jerry Walters of Zion Lutheran Church in Roundup, who received a lien of $100 billion from Rodney Skurdal. Walters--whose Zion assignment was his first after seminary--quickly ran afoul of Skurdal after his arrival in Roundup, when he proved unreceptive to Skurdal's Christian Identity beliefs. The Freemen, reasonably well-armed with rifles and shotguns and a large quantity of ammunition, tried to build a real arsenal, contracting with a Montana arms dealer for $1.4 million worth of guns. Unfortunately for the Freemen, though perhaps happily for the citizens of Jordan, they tried to pay for the arms with one of Schweitzer's bogus money orders, and the deal fell through.
Ensconsed in their hideaway, the Freemen became increasingly isolated, generally seeing only seminar visitors and friends who brought them supplies. Their former relations with the Montana Militia soured over time, and the Freemen eventually even put a bounty on the head of John Trochmann. The M.O.M. decided that, whatever the lure of the Freemen philosophy, Schweitzer and Skurdal were too flaky to support. Moreover, the existence of the Freemen seemed to threaten the dominance that M.O.M. sought over the patriot movement in the state. "They were given an opportunity to solve it peacefully," said M.O.M. leader Randy Trochmann. "We've pretty much washed our hands of them."
But if the Freemen no longer appealed to the Trochmanns, they did attract others, people who made the pilgrimage to the Clark compound and stayed. One early Freeman was Dale Jacobi, an ex-police officer from Canada. Many were fugitives from the law. Dana Dudley and Russell D. Landers, of North Carolina but more lately from Colorado, fled the latter state where they were to be tried on charges of conspiracy and securities fraud; they brought 16-year old Ashley Taylor with them. Montana seemed a likely haven for them; so too for Steven Hance and his sons John and James, who faced charges in North Carolina of assaulting a police officer with deadly force and resisting arrest. Elwin Ward brought his wife Tammy and two children to the Clark ranch; the Wards were on the run from child-welfare officials in Michigan. At least for a time, John Patrick McGuire, a former felon, was on the ranch; McGuire was later arrested in Wyoming and extradited to California on various charges. Others were locals, such as the Stantons--William's wife, Agnes, his son and daughter-in-law, Ebert and Val, and his granddaughter Mariah, only five. From a distance, other sympathizers praised the Freemen for actually having the guts to set up "common law" courts and act on their beliefs. "Yes, there is a remedy!" one "patriot" publication announced. "Re-establish the common-law court in your county lawfully. Through the hard work and research of Leroy Schweitzer, Rod Skurdal, Dan Peterson, Richard Clark and many others, they found that the other side left us a remedy intended only for them, hidden in the footnotes and punctuation of their secret codes and statutes."
The people of Jordan, though not of one opinion, generally viewed the Freemen with a mixture of distaste, distrust and fear. Few liked the wanted posters the Freemen put up, or the threats they made; others didn't like the fact that the Freemen could get away with not paying taxes. Some began to call them "the Freeloaders." Alice Fogle, a waitress at QD's Restaurant, summed up the views of many when she labeled them "just a bunch of losers." Civil rights advocates, such as the Montana Human Rights Network, were even less complimentary, chastising law enforcement officers for taking no action.
Though Schweitzer, Skurdal and the other Freemen were by now committed to staying holed up in their farm buildings, there was nothing stopping the flow of fake checks and money orders. As more people attended the Schweitzer seminars and came away with the knowledge of how to pass bogus financial instruments, checks with Schweitzer's name on them spread across the entire country. Banks everywhere learned--sometimes the hard way--what a Norwest bank check might mean.
Usually, efforts to pass the bogus checks were not successful. When Joseph Yacapraro of Coshocton, Ohio, tried to pay a car loan with a $75,000 Schweitzer check, the bank refused to accept it and Yacapraro's truck was ordered repossessed. But Yacapraro was simply the tip of the iceberg. In San Diego the representative of an auto credit company admitted to getting such bogus checks one every ten days. Attempts to pass the phony money against private individuals were often more successful. One person bilked was Jason Mayhew of Texas, who sold his car to someone with a Schweitzer check for $17,000. Mayhew was able to get his car back, but others were not so lucky. In fact, Allan Kramer, the man who unsuccessfully tried to get Mayhew's car, had passed $500,000 in bogus money orders to get seven cars, four homes, a boat and a condo in Hawaii.
Sometimes the checks were used not to get money or to get out of a payment, but simply to make a point. In Ohio, common law court adherent Larry Russell appointed himself a notary public and offered a $1 million check from Norwest as a "bond" to back it up. Russell's friend and common law court judge Bill Ellwood called Schweitzer "probably the most knowledgeable fellow in the country on the common law."
But if Schweitzer and Skurdal perfected the bogus money order, it was M. Elizabeth Broderick of Palmdale, California, who turned the scheme into an assembly line. A student of Schweitzer (she called him "a great American") who surpassed the master, Broderick was a Canadian native who moved to the United States in 1967. After being convicted of operating a pyramid scheme in Colorado, she moved to California and eventually began holding seminars in October 1995 in which she taught the distribution of bogus checks. Her seminars, which cost $125 merely to attend, often had over 300 participants at a time; her staff alone numbered around thirty people. "It's based on common law and God's laws," explained one Broderick supporter. "A sheriff in full dress uniform came in and said everything was true." Federal officials claimed that Broderick had written more than $30 million worth of fraudulent checks; later still, the figure was revised upward to over $100 million.
Broderick herself was a supremely self-confident woman (she regularly wore a button which read "Lien Queen"), with an ego to match. To her students, she claimed that the checks had a fifty percent acceptance rate. To one reporter in early 1996 she claimed that she was the person responsible for the infamous bankruptcy of Orange County, California, because of the liens she placed on it. "I told the county attorney a year before they went into bankruptcy that I would taken them into bankruptcy if they didn't give me my property back," she said. "The treasurer is just a scapegoat." Orange County, she claimed, owed her $180 million because a judge there illegally authorized a search of her home; when the government did not respond to this claim, she declared it in default, then tried to put the $180 million in a bank. It refused, so she put a $100 million lien on the bank. Of such stuff paper fortunes are made. Broderick estimated she had liens worth $1.18 billion against California, against which she would generously let participants in her seminars write checks and comptroller warrants. She also, just to make sure, had liens on the federal government. "Many, many mortgages, many many car loans have been paid off," she told one reporter. "And I'm proud to say that it works as long as the feds don't get in the way. That's the only problem." But the feds rarely seemed to interfere with Broderick, who kept turning out graduates of her seminars. Many of them were simply desperate people looking for some way to avoid crushing debts. "It's hard to believe," said one attendee whose parents were losing their home, "but might as well take the chance."
The uses to which people put the money orders were varied. Some, duped by Schweitzer, Broderick or others, clearly believed that the money orders were valid and used them in good faith. The majority were well aware that the money orders were invalid and simply used them as a way to try to get out of debt or to get some quick cash--or both. Typical of many such schemes was that hatched by Brigham Parley Evans of West Valley City, Utah, who owed the Wheeler Machinery Company of Salt Lake City close to $10,000 for tractor repairs. The company eventually took Evans to court and received a default judgment. Evans sent Wheeler a bogus check for $19,964--twice the amount that was owed--and demanded a refund for the overpayment, threatening to charge Wheeler 18% interest if it were not paid promptly. The company obligingly sent Evans a check for $9,982, which he cashed. When Wheeler Machinery tried to deposit its check from Evans, the bank rejected it as non-negotiable. In Arizona, Steven Gehring tried to use a $250,000 money order as a bond for bail for a militia member charged with child molestation. Gila County, Arizona, discovering that the money order was signed by Schweitzer, contacted Mussellshell County and told John Bohlman that they would send warrants up for Schweitzer's arrest. Bohlman was amused, telling them, "Why don't you send the officers, too, because that's about the only way you'll get some action."
Estimates of the total amount of money "created" in the form of the bogus money orders varied widely, up to $150 million. Regardless of the total amount, their effect was enormous. "It's like throwing a hand grenade into the financial workings of America," said an assistant U.S. attorney in Dallas, Texas. Schweitzer and Skurdal, as incommunicative as ever, were unwilling to comment on the effect of their actions, but others who manufactured phony money orders were. James Ramsden of the Tigerton, Wisconsin, group Family Farm Preservation said the checks were a way to "wake up" the citizenry about the illegitimacy of the Federal Reserve system. "They should realize they are contributing to the problem," he explained. "Why don't they go to the Treasury of the United States and demand treasury money backed by gold and silver? But no, they cry like little babies." Family Farm Preservation was not the only group to compete with Schweitzer and Broderick in the creation of bogus money orders and checks. In Oregon, Kathleen Cottam, Robert Young and Robert Moore wrote "comptroller warrants" for huge amounts. But whether they passed checks signed by Schweitzer or someone else, the underlying reasons were still the same: these "patriots" viewed themselves as fighting a war against the government, with paper weapons. "This is perfectly legal," explained an adherent from Kansas City. "They're just getting scared because we are winning."
But in the early spring of 1996, the Freemen's world turned upside down. The day began innocently enough, as LeRoy Schweitzer and Daniel Peterson went out to inspect the site of a ham radio antenna they were having set up to facilitate their communications. The site, on the Clark ranch but some distance from the building complex on the ranch, seemed a good place for a tower. An installation crew had already brought much of the equipment, but the installer asked the Freemen to come out for a final inspection. However, when the Freemen arrived at the site, they discovered to their dismay that the installer they had known for some time was actually an undercover agent, and that the ham antenna was part of an elaborate ruse to lure the Freemen leaders from their compound. The FBI also arrested a third man, Lavon Hanson, on charges of conspiring to defraud financial institutions--Hanson was involved as a "courier" in a complicated scheme developed by Schweitzer to buy goods with counterfeit funds and sell them for profit.
Though the two freemen were armed, there was no struggle or violence. Schweitzer and Peterson saved their energy for the following day, when they were brought into a heavily guarded federal courtroom to be arraigned. They shouted down the judge and other members of the court, yelling that the court had no jurisdiction over them and that they did not have to listen to it. The Freemen called for a change of venue to "Justus." The judge finally abandoned the arraignment attempt, and had the court give them written copies of the arraignment while calling for a new attempt to take place with the Freemen watching the proceedings in another room. The surprised reporters and other courtroom audience members discovered what veteran observers of the common law movement had known for some time: every courtroom encounter with a "sovereign citizen" or "freeman" had the potential for elaborate courtroom theatrics. To "sovereign citizens," the court system was an illegimate "admiralty" creation, no more valid than a three dollar bill printed in Mad Magazine. When brought to court, sovereign citizens often treated the courtroom as a rescued cult member might treat his or her family: with a great deal of kicking and screaming. As Soldier of Fortune Writer Jim Page--who had spent time with the Freemen--noted, their fanaticism was like a holy war. "Their political philosophy is based on their religious philosophy," he explained. "And in that respect, they are very similar to the young man who was just convicted of murdering the prime minister of Israel. They're similar in the depth of their convictions to Hamas." That the Freemen could instill considerable fear could be seen in the actions of County Attorney John Bohlman, who when he heard of the FBI move on the Freemen decided to remove himself and his two small children from his Roundup, Montana, home, fearing Freeman vengeance for the capture of Schweitzer and Skurdal. Indeed, CB scanners picked up reports suggesting that Freemen would come into Roundup to kill people, although none in fact did.
The feds acted on two sets of federal indictments against the Freemen, both issued in 1995, although many Freemen were wanted on various state charges as well. The first indictment came from a Montana grand jury in May 1995, which charged Schweitzer, Peterson, Skurdal, and Richard and Emmett Clark with: conspiracy to impede government function; conspiracy to prevent by force, intimidation or threats the official duties of U.S. District Judge Jack Shanstrom, U.S. Court Clerk Lou Aleksich, and Garfield Count Sheriff Phipps; threats to assault, kidnap and murder Shanstrom; and mailing a threatening communication to Shanstrom. A second Montana grand jury, in December 1995, issued another indictment naming the above five and seven more--John McGuire, Cherlyn Bronson Petersen, Agnes Bollinger Stanton, William Stanton, Ebert Stanton, Ralph Clark and Dale Jacobi--with 51 counts of conspiracy to defraud and to obtain money through false pretenses, plus interfering with commerce (for hijacking television camera equipment). McGuire, apprehended out of state, and Stanton, still behind bars, were not in the compound.
With Schweitzer and Peterson behind bars, authorities moved against the remaining Freemen, surrounding the Clark farm. The FBI, however, was taking great pains to insure that what happened was not a repeat of the notorious 1992 standoff at Ruby Ridge, Idaho. FBI Director Louis Freeh consciously decided to eschew earlier military-style tactics. Indeed, the desire to avoid a confrontation appeared to be what made authorities wait nearly two years before taking overt action. The FBI had been gathering information for months, perfecting its case against the Freemen, but was in no hurry actually to apprehend them. During all this time, of course, the Freemen were openly running their fraudulent schemes and threatening public officials like Nick Murnion, who had at the time of the capture of Scheitzer and Petersen been calling for federal assistance for over six months. The dealy even became a political issue, as Democratic candidate for governor Chet Blaylock announced that "arrests for lawlessness should not be unreasonably delayed."
In fact it appears that local frustration with the lack of progress in dealing with the Freemen played a role in the FBI's decision to make its move. One of the last straws for local residents was the Freemen's brazen action, in early March, of publishing a "public notice" in local newspapers which announced that the Freemen would take control of large swaths of land in northeastern Montana, including Bureau of Land Management property, state grazing lands, and lands that were privately owned. The notice announced that people who trespassed on the Freemen's new land would be arrested and punished. Such a move outraged the neighbors of the Freemen. "So if dad was out feeding his cows," explained the son of a rancher who leased grazing land from the state, "to them he'd be trespassing on their so-called land, and they'd take him to their court. And from there your imagination could run rampant...Maybe they wouldn't do anything, but who knows. Dad was really upset; up until that time, all their threats had been against government officials. Now they were disrupting our lives." County voters had scheduled a meeting to discuss moving against the Freemen by cutting their telephones and closing the county road near the farms, which perhaps helped to spur the FBI to action. However, Schweitzer himself, at a meeting at the Freemen's compound on Sunday, the day before the arrest, outlined a scheme to kidnap local government officials. At the meeting, which was videotaped, Schweitzer explained that "We'll travel in units of about 10 outfits, four men to an outfit, most of them with automatic weapons, whatever else we got--shotguns, you name it...We're going to have a standing order: Anyone obstructing justice, the order is shoot to kill." With both sides making preparations for a conflict, the time seemed propitious for the FBI finally to step in.
Belated though the intervention was, it was welcomed by the people of Jordan, who were mightily relieved that after all those months, something was finally being done. After Schweitzer's arrest a local bank hung up a sign that read "Goodbye, LeRoy. Hello, FBI." Local resident K. L. Bliss said that he used to farm near the Clarks, and that "everybody had planted by June--but [Clark] had weeds this high. He's never made a bank payment since 1981, he's never paid taxes since 1981--and he's whining about the government." Some Montanans were considerably more irate. "I want to see blood!" the Associated Press reported one local resident shouting, "I've lived with this for two years, and it's ruining my life. I want it over." The unnamed resident was probably Alven Clark, whose two brothers were on the Clark farm. Ranch hand Terry Kastner called the Freemen "brainwashed," and wished that "they'd go in there and shoot 'em all. It would save the taxpayers a lot of money and time." Tom Fogle, a county worker, was even more forceful. "If they can't get them out of there peacefully in a couple of weeks, I'd say go in and get them out any way they can. If they don't give up, I say go in and strafe 'em...Bring in the Apache helicopters and blow the hell out of them. I'm tired of it."
However, there were no "jack-booted" thugs appearing outside the Clark farm. Although over a hundred federal, state and local law enforcement agents converged on the Montana hideout, conspicuously absent were camouflage or black uniforms. Instead, agents wore civilian clothes and did not ride in armored personnel carriers. Instead of only the FBI's quasi-military Hostage Rescue Team, the agents in Montana included behavioral specialists and trained negotiators. Instead of FBI snipers, authorities installed video surveillance cameras on a microwave tower overlooking the main road leading to the farm. The FBI was aided in this by the fact that the Freemen compound was in an area of high visibility, unlike the heavily wooded area that had surrounded Randy Weaver's cabin at Ruby Ridge. The FBI also had extensive eavesdropping equipment, some of which had been in operation for months. Managing the situation was the FBI's Critical Incident Response Group, which sought to fix three problem areas that plagued the agency at Ruby Ridge and Waco: not enough agents to handle extended standoffs, a lack of coordination between tactical agents and hostage negotiators, and confused lines of authority. Indeed, so many FBI personnel appeared in the area that they took up all the hotel rooms in Jordan, causing the army of reporters and journalists to engage in a mad scurry for apartments, mobile homes, and hotel rooms in other communities. Heading up the FBI was Robert "Bear" Bryant, an assistant FBI director who in 1988 participated in the Marion, Utah, siege of a group of armed religious zealots (which had no loss of life). An NBC spokesperson said that the role played by Dennis Franz in the television show "NYPD Blue" was based on Bryant.
Six of the "Justus Townships" residents voluntarily left the ranch after the arrests of Schweitzer and Peterson, leaving about twenty Freemen behind, including several children. Police blocked media access to the farm, allegedly fearing violence against journalists. The crowd of law enforcement officials established an operations center at a county fairgrounds in Jordan, population 450, the seat of Garfield County. The operations center had vehicles, command post trailers, and even an airstrip. Phone lines to the farm were cut, except for a line set up by the FBI for family members of those on the farm.
Although few expected the Freemen to surrender immediately, authorities soon went to work trying to convince the Freemen to come out peacefully. On Tuesday, agents broadcast a television appeal, in which U.S. Attorney Sherry Matteucci promised that there would be no violence or harm done to them. "All of us very much want this situation to be resolved peacefully," she said. "I urge them to come in and talk with me, talk with lawyers, talk with whomever they feel comfortable about this situation. We absolutely intend no harm to the persons who are on the current property. I assure them that we are doing everything possible to make certain that a dangerous situation does not develop up here." Also appealing to the Freemen was Sheriff Phipps, who was noticeably more considerate of their safety than they had been of his own. The Freemen were unresponsive.
As many had suspected would be the case, a standoff developed. With the Freemen not only unwilling to surrender, but reluctant to negotiate, there was little hope for an early resolution to the situation; the standoff was likely to become a siege. But the FBI was unwilling to repeat the 1993 Davidian siege. There would be no tight blockade, no high pressure tactics. They established no boundary or perimeter around the Freemen, instead settling for roadblocks in the area. The permeability of the dragnet was demonstrated by intrepid reporters who skipped by FBI and Montana Highway Patrol checkpoints to get up to the Clark farm for a look-see. At least one camera crew working for NBC, exhibiting more intestinal fortitude than intelligence, had their camera equipment confiscated on Wednesday by patrolling Freemen. FBI agents questioned people driving to or from the farm, but generally did not stop them. People travelling through the area were halted and asked to complete a form informing them that they were nearing an area "which is considered extremely dangerous due to the presence of persons charged with federal and state crimes" and explaining that people aiding the Freemen could be considered as "accessories after the fact." On Thursday the Freemen themselves blocked the county road in front of their farm with a barbed wire barricade.
Indeed, the siege was more of an embargo than a blockade; the authorities were generally more willing to let outsiders approach the farm than the Freemen were to let them in. The FBI discovered it was difficult even to communicate with the people in the compound, who refused to acknowledge the authority of the federal government. "We are continuing our efforts to talk with the people on the ranch," said FBI agent Tom Ernst to a French reporter on Thursday. Amazingly, Ernst added that he "would not characterize it as a standoff."
In a related action far away from the standoff in frigid Montana, FBI agents in southern California served search warrants on the Essex House Hotel, situated in Lancaster, fifty miles north of Los Angeles, to search two hotel rooms and one meeting area. The target of the raids was none other than Elizabeth Broderick, Schweitzer's apt pupil. Broderick ran her two-day seminars out of the Essex House. Agents carted boxes of computer records and equipment out of her hotel rooms, and also raided her home. On Wednesday, March 27, federal attorneys in Los Angeles filed a complaint against Broderick and nearly two dozen accomplices, in order to bar her from issuing her bogus checks and money orders. Broderick denied that the federal government had any authority over her.
The initial reaction from the so-called "patriot" movement to the move on the Montana Freemen was mixed. Many militia and common law court members spoke out in favor of the Freeman, predictably comparing their situation to that of Randy Waever or the Branch Davidians. Some claimed that the action would be the first step in a federal clamp-down on the patriot movement, and predicted future violence or even civil war. Others, realizing the adverse publicity that the Montana Freemen had been garnering, were considerably more cautious. The Tri-States Militia, a loose umbrella group of militia units in a number of states, issued a "press release" condemning the actions of the Freemen, stating that they find it "insulting and offensive that people who call themselves members of the patriot community have combined their 'patriotic' activities with a clear attempt to defraud banking institutions and individual citizens through the use of phoney [sic] and/or money orders coupled with force and threats." The Tri-States contrasted the Freemen with their own, ostensibly "constitutional" militias. The effectiveness of the Tri-States call was considerably reduced in subsequent weeks, when it was revealed during the trial of militiaman Ray Lampley in Oklahoma on conspiracy charges that John Parsons, the head of the Tri-States, was in the pay of the FBI. But in fact, the FBI had taken pains to notify a number of militia groups across the country of imminent action against the Freemen, presumably to try to forestall any rash actions on the part of the paranoid paramilitary groups.
The Militia of Montana, not only the militia closest geographically to the Freemen but also one of the most prominent of the paramilitary groups, initially acted very cautiously, feeling its way through the webs of public opinion. The Trochmanns told reporters that they sent representatives to the scene to "monitor" the situation and to try to talk to Freeman Dale Jacobi, who used to own a business near M.O.M.'s Noxon, Montana, headquarters. The group issued a press release telling other militias to "stand down" and not head to Montana. John Trochmann even went so far as to praise the FBI: "I think the FBI has been handling it very patiently. I admire them for their patience. And they've had a tremendous amount of pressure from the public, from the local law enforcement, and from their superiors in the FBI and the justice department. I think they're caught between a rock and a hard place, and they're doing the only thing they can do."
However, not all M.O.M. members were as cautious as the Trochmanns. Militiaman Ed Dosh called the Freemen "good people," and suggested that "If somebody wants to travel from Billings to Denver, I might tell them one way, you might tell them another. It's just different routes to the same goal. Our views differ on methodology." When Steve McNeil heard about the siege of the Freemen, he decided to lead a militia caravan to Jordan. Later, McNeil was arrested for showing up at the courtroom where Schweitzer and Peterson were arraigned; another judge had earlier made staying at home a condition of McNeil's release. Had McNeil managed to get his caravan going, he might have met with a rough reception, because a group of 30 local ranchers formed a posse to stand up to the militias and support the FBI, patrolling the area in their own vehicles, waiting for the militia to show up. "The militias will just pump more hot air into the Freemen, and make it worse," explained a local farmer, Cecil Weeding. "There will be a clash if they get here. This country is sick and tired of that thing up there, and wants to get it over." But the sheriff's office received telephone threats from militia groups across the country.
Indeed, some prominent militia figures were considerably more eager to support the Freemen, while others, though paying lip service to the fact that the Freemen were wanted for many crimes, expressed concern about their possible treatment at the hands of federal authorities. The militia leader under whom the largest fire was lit was Norm Olson, former commander of the Michigan Militia, the largest of the militia groups in the country. Olson had at times expressed ideas nearly identical to those of the Freemen, but perhaps more importantly, the siege at Jordan offered the militia leader another chance to grab the spotlight, which had been denied him since his ouster from leadership after he claimed that the Japanese were responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing. Olson issued a press release accusing the government of planning the premeditated murder of the Freemen, along with the complicity of the media. He called for militia units around the country to converge on Montana as quickly as possible, and hinted that he himself might show up there. Later he confirmed his intentions by issuing plans for an "Operation Certain Venture." Olson received support for this call to action by the Alabama-based Gadsden Minutemen, led by Jeff Randall. Randall issued his own rallying plea, noting that he needed "dedicated volunteers," but advised them that "arrest is possible, and the FBI could very well decide to shoot unarmed civilians." Minuteman founder Mike Kemp made dire predictions, asserting that "there won't be another Waco unanswered. They are pushing us to a confrontation. If the shooting starts, it could get very ugly, very quickly." Kemp argued that there was no reason to use armed force against the Freemen, who, he asserted, only owed debts. "It's a civil matter," he said, ignoring the charges of armed robbery and assaulting a police officer with a deadly weapon that have been lodged against some of those holed up on the Clark farm, as well as the state charges.
Operation Certain Venture, according to Olson and Randall, would consist of an unarmed convoy of food, mail and other supplies ("women's necessities," explained Olson) to the Montana Freemen. Olson suggested that April 19, the anniversary of Waco and the Oklahoma City bombing, might be a possible day for the convoy to set out, and compared the proposed convoy to "a Normandy invasion, a landing on the beach." Indeed, the siege stirred up visions of apocalypse for the militia leader, whose predictions had become increasingly dire since his ouster, including one during a Detroit radio talk show in early March in which he predicted that a civil war would occur in six to eight weeks. Speaking on the CBS show "Face the Nation" about his plans to go to Montana, Olson said that "if this is going to be the place where the second American revolution finally culminates in war, then it's good for a battlefield commander to be there to look at the logistics, to look at the needs, and to find out exactly what the situation is on the ground."
Other "patriot" figures offered differing opinions. Gerry Spence, Randy Weaver's lawyer, complimented the FBI for its restraint. Bo Gritz, the patriot leader who helped to negotiate the surrender of Randy Weaver, appeared to be positioning himself for another intervention, suggesting that "the longer these people stay within those walls, the more determined they get," and even condoning the use of armed force against them if necessary. In Idaho, United States Militia Association leader Samuel Sherwood called the Freemen charlatans and rogues. "We've told everybody to stay away," he told a reporter. "These people aren't what they are purporting to be. They are not the innocent victims of oppression." However, members of the "Freemen Patriots," a splinter group at Gritz's patriot commune at Kamiah, Idaho, more radical than their leader, expressed sympathy for the Montana Freemen and claimed that the standoff at Jordan was simply a trap, with the Freemen as bait to catch more members of the patriot movement. They also suggested that U.S. Army Special Forces or other military units had been deployed. The Patriots, led by Ed LeStage, Chad Erickson, Pat Johnson and Michael Cain, announced plans to hold a protest rally at Lewistown, Montana on April 1st, to support the Freemen, and called for all supporters to show up with white ribbons on their car or truck antennas. "We support the God-given right of our Freemen Brothers at Jordan, Montana, to be heard in a righteous constitutional court of law," their call to action read. The Freemen Patriots, who had criticized Gritz for inaction, seemed to find the Montana Freemen more to their liking. Their ability to command support, however, was virtually nil. On April 1st, only a bare handful of people showed up at Lewistown as commanded. Lewistown assistant police chief Bob Long described the scene as "five or six guys out there at a RV park south of town. Right now, there are more newspeople in town than freemen." LeStage explained to reporters that they were in the "early stages of a long rally here," and that he expected 800 people to show up by the end of the week. However, numbers dwindled rather than grew, leading one wag to suggest that they were being called "three men" instead of "freemen."
Meanwhile, judicial proceedings continued against the two captured Freemen. In court on Thursday, March 29, Daniel Petersen and LeRoy Schweitzer sat quietly while Judge Richard Anderson read the indictment to them, but when asked to enter pleas, Peterson burst out that he wanted "you to be an honest person and the rest of these perverts to be honest people." Petersen was taken to a holding cell to watch the proceedings; Anderson entered "not guilty" pleas on their behalf.
Over the weekend, initiative seemed temporarily to shift to local officials and family members of the fugitives. Some, like Steve Mangum, a truck driver from Salt Lake City, had traveled long distances to try to reach the compound. Mangum's former wife, Gloria and his daughter Jaylynn were among the Freemen. FBI agents warned him not to try to enter the compound, and Mangum agreed. He was, however, concerned about the fate of his dauther, whom, he told reporters, "was taught to hate blacks, taught to hate policemen, [and that] school was evil." Democratic United States Senator Max Baucus (of Montana) argued that the best way to resolve the conflict was to let the local residents do it, along with the aid of family members.
Despite all the frictions over the past months, there was still good reason to think that this strategy might work. After all, in a small community like Jordan, family ties connected the Clark farm fugitives with many people in town. Only two years earlier, Jordan residents had raised $125,000 for a brain tumor operation for Casey Clark. Many families were split by the actions of the Freemen. While Ebert Stanton, his wife Val, and their 5-year old daughter Mariah patrolled the Clark farm perimeter, staring at them from the other side was Tom Stanton, the farmer who had organized a 25 man posse to storm the Freemen stronghold, before the FBI intervened. Jordan residents circulated a petition to be presented to the Freemen, urging them to come out and guaranteeing they would get a fair trial: "The following friends, neighbors and relatives urge you to immediately end this situation. We are concerned for your personal safety and the harm that may come to others." The FBI over the weekend allowed several individuals to enter the compound, although they would not identify who those people were. Two vehicles entered the ranch on Saturday afternoon, then shortly before dark a pickup with Wyoming license plates carrying four people entered the compound. A network crew with a high-powered camera lens saw a group of arriving visitors hugging and talking with Freemen in their compound. At least one of the vistors allowed through was an intermediary sent by relatives of those on the farm.
Authorities were less willing to let others into the compound. On Friday they turned away two militiamen from Oregon, heavily armed, who had driven to Montana with groceries for the Freemen. They also turned away two members of a local militia (Gordon Helgerson and Kamala Web), and Kevin Entzel, the stepson of arrested Freeman Petersen. Entzel hoped to visit his mother, Cherlyn. People wanting to visit the Freemen compound were asked if they were carrying fuel, groceries, firearms or ammunition; those supplies were confiscated, or the visitors would not be allowed to proceed. Other militiamen, in twos and threes, also began showing up in the area, ignoring the calls of John Trochmann to stay away. Two militiamen even managed to break through the loose perimeter to join the Freemen. Stewart Waterhouse, a militia leader and fugitive from Oklahoma authorities, along with Barry Nelson, drove a Ford Taurus through a roadblock and on to the perimeter, adding to the number of people holed up on the Clark ranch. More people began to offer their services as intermediaries as well, including Randy Weaver, though the FBI did not leap at such offers.
However, neither petitions nor the pleadings of law enforcement officials could convince the remaining Freemen to give up. Some people speculated that Rodney Skurdal, perhaps the most violent and radical of the Freemen, was holding the others in line. "It's a pity they didn't get Skurdal," one local lamented, "His proclamations are as heinous and as hate-filled as can be." However, ninety miles away, another Freeman fugitive, Richard Clark, turned himself in voluntarily to authorities. Clark had not been on the ranch on the Monday when Schweitzer and Petersen were arrested. When arraigned in federal court on April 1, Clark refused to accept a lawyer or to give his name, stating that his name was "private." He also briefly refused to eat food.
Also uncompliant were captives Petersen and Schweitzer, neither of whom were inclined in the least to cooperate with authorites. Indeed, they refused to bathe or change their clothes, while Schweitzer embarked upon a hunger strike, causing his removal over the weekend to a federal detention center in Springfield, Missouri, that handled sick prisoners, so that his health could be monitored. In Palmdale, California, Broderick and her associates were equally stubborn. A court hearing had been scheduled for April 1 in Los Angeles for a requested injunction of Broderick's check-issuing schemes, but the Freemen--Broderick, Adolf Hoch and Laura Marie Hoey--did not show up. A woman who refused to give any other name than "Myra" appeared in court and said she was filing a response to the injunction prepared by Broderick's attorney. Judge William Keller barred Broderick first from filing liens against a postal service employee, then issued a second injunction against the distribution of her bogus checks. Broderick defiantly continued to hold her seminars (by videotape), though she prudently did not hand out checks. "I am just appalled to think that a federal judge, someone who we're supposed to admire and respect, is committing a fraud," Broderick said, butter not melting in her mouth.
Over the second week of the standoff, the Freeman ever-so-slightly softened their stance, agreeing to negotiations with a small group of state legislators (Democrats Joe Quilici and John Johnson; Republicans Karl Ohs and Dick Knox). The negotiators and the Freemen met on April 4 and 5 in a mobile home near the ranch house; authorities, it seemed, hoped that they might convince the Freemen to surrender on Easter Sunday, April 7, because of the religious significance of that holiday. Reporters and television crews, already becoming bored in the tiny town, seized upon this remote chance as a ticket home. The standoff had already become a matter of routine to many: take a look at the Freemen, speak to authorities, speak to local residents, try to file a story if possible, then get some sleep at whatever dismal place you could find a room and a roof. Only the occasional oddball or incident punctuated the routine, such as when two country-western disc jockeys from Spokane, Washington, drove into town to erect a big flag saying "We Come in Peace" in view of the Freemen's farm.
On Friday, April 3, the first cracks in the veneer of the Freemen appeared, as two people left the ranch: Val Stanton and her small daughter, Mariah. Val was not wanted on any federal or state charges. A relative of the Stantons predicted that this meant that Ebert and Agnes Stanton would also soon be leaving the compound, and indeed, that turned out to be the case; they left on April 6, to be taken into custody after officials blocked a caravan of media vehicles from following them. However, the rest of the world was not without cracks itself; as early as April 5, a state senator, Casey Emerson of Bozeman, a man with ties to the militia movement, advocated serious concessions on the part of the government, including offering them money, dismissing some of the charges, and allowing them to give a presentation on national television. He also suggested that the Freemen be allowed to face a "common law" jury, "so they can get their bitching done." Other Freemen and militia members across the Northwest also supported the notion of a special grand jury for the Freemen. Ohio militiaman Don Vos travelled to Montana to stay with Freeman Lyle Chamberlin and monitor the standoff.
Moreover, despite the departure of the Stantons, the negotiations failed. "It's a very, very volatile situation," legislator Joe Quilici explained on Sunday, April 7. "Right now, I can't be optimistic." Indeed, the Freemen continued to insist on their own government and their own grand jury. The Stantons seemed to have left more because of the intervention of family member Butch Anderson than through any talks between the Freemen and authorities. Nick Murnion, one of the most experienced hands in dealing with the Freemen, was convinced that a firm approach was needed. "The only way negotiating works is if you apply pressure from a position of strength, and they are not doing that." Murnion wanted, at the very least, to tighten the perimeter, cut off utilities, and prohibit visits from family and friends. Instead, the FBI eased off even more, allowing Representative Karl Ohs to promise the Freemen a "mechanism whereby their story could be heard." But Jim Pate, the Soldier of Fortune magazine reporter who had managed to visit the Freemen in their compound during the siege, reported that negotiations had failed, that the Freemen were not willing to meet with any federal government officials, and that they were content to wait for a long time. Indeed, on April 8, the Freemen posted a press release on their gate for authorities and media to find which declared the "independence" of Justus Township. "It should be further made known to all Men," read the proclamation in typical freemen pseudo-legalese, "that this republic, Justus Township, Montana state, united States of America, so affirmed in Law is NOT that de facto fiction, the corporation, incorporated in London, England in the year of Yeshua, the Christ, eighteen hundred seventy-one, A.D., the United States, a corporation, so defined as their own Title 28 U.S.C. 3005 (A)(15)."
In the meantime, the siege was quiet. The children of the Freemen played in their compound, while the Freemen themselves patrolled the perimeter less, though they did post a notice asking that the media stay a half-mile away. The FBI leisurely monitored the Freemen, at a cost that local officials estimated at $300,000 per day. The FBI maintained the checkpoints and several communications outposts. The media also kept watch the Freemen, from a distant ridge, even bringing porta-potties to make the vigil more bearable. The few supporters of the Freemen tried to win people over to their cause; two of them, Warren Stone and Steve McNeil, even tried to hold a press conference, which mostly consisted of the two radicals accusing the media of lying. In Oregon, which had some Freemen problems of its own, Wasco County extremists warned that the standoff could end in violence. Some militia leaders, such as Ray Looker of the West Virginia-based Mountaineer Militia, threatened violence if the FBI tried to take the compound by force. In mid-April a group of twenty militia leaders from a dozen different states issued a fiery proclamation stating that the activities of the FBI were "unlawful" and that any injury or loss of life would be considered by the militia "an act of war," following which they would "no longer restrain our brethren."
But the most vocal person continued to be Norm Olson, who suggested that the "second American revolution" might break out at Jordan and that he might be its battlefield commander. "People like Don Vos, myself and a host of others who might be called hard-line represent the worst possible nightmare--the loosing of the dogs of war," the Michigan militiaman said. Olson, after promising for some time to travel to Montana, finally showed up in mid April, dressed in military fatigues and accompanied by sidekick Roy Southwell and attorney Scott Bowman, announcing to reporters that he planned to bring the children of the Freemen a teddy bear. He appeared at the FBI command center on April 16, to inform the feds that he would be going through the perimeter and to make vague threats. "We will discuss either the terms of the FBI's surrender," he later reported that he told the FBI, "or...the order of battle." He also distributed fliers to agents which read "FBI-ATF, are you ready to die because of the corruption within?" Not surprisingly, FBI agents refused to talk to Olson. Olson proceeded towards the ranch, but was stopped by a roadblock several miles from the compound. On Wednesday, the next day, he tried again, but was once more denied access. Not even citing the Geneva Convention rules of war moved the hearts of the federal and state officers. Olson took the opportunity to shout at the officers and the reporters who had followed him. By Friday, Olson had become somewhat of a joke to reporters, locals, and law enforcement officers. Unable to visit the Freemen, he had little to do in the small town of Jordan, so he spent much of his time in the town's restaurant. One FBI agent labeled Olson and Southwell "Yogi Bear and Boo-Boo." At one point the militia leader became angry at a smirking FBI agent, telling the officer, "You come up to Northern Michigan, Mister, and I'll see you in my crosshairs."
Olson was not the only vocal militant. From his jail cell, Daniel Petersen continued to issue documents full of Freemanese, including "writs of mandamus" demanding that charges against him be dropped and he be released from jail. One writ threatened U.S. Attorney Sherry Matteucci with a $1,000 per day fine, and imprisonment, unless she released him. Other incarcerated Freemen were somewhat less defiant. In Missouri, Leroy Schweitzer dropped his hunger strike, deciding instead to resort to a spartan protest diet, and his daughter Brandie hoped that he might be returned to Montana. The two Stantons who had surrendered, Agnes and her son Ebert, were considerably quieter in court than Schweitzer, Peterson, and Richard Clark had been. Though they pleaded not guilty, they did not yell at the judge or claim he had no authority. Agnes Stanton was released from jail by the court, ordered to remain in "house arrest" at the residence of another son in Billings, Montana, and to wear an electronic monitor twenty-four hours a day. The court denied bail to Ebert Stanton.
But the Freemen still inside "Justus Township" were as defiant as ever. They placed a sign outside the main building in the compound which read: "Grand Jury. It's the law. Why not? Who fears the evidence?" Several of them started plowing the fields of the ranch, an act that infuriated the legal owners of the property, who were already dissatisfied with the slow course of the siege. "Something has got to be done about this, and soon," said one of the owners, K. L. Bliss, "There are four families facing heavy financial losses if they can't get on that land...Yet those freemen are thumbing their noses at us, saying hell with the federal government, and hell with the landowners. Heck, we thought the FBI was the cavalry coming to save us, but they turned out to be a bunch of baby-sitters." Bliss and rancher Tom Stanton, who had leased state grazing land claimed by the Freemen, were emerging as the most vocal of the local residents who demanded action. "We feel it is time for them to show [the Freemen] that they are going to squeeze them," Stanton said of the FBI. Bliss and Stanton wanted the FBI to seize a hill overlooking the compound, which the Freemen used as an observation post; they also wanted the FBI to have a more visible presence, to remind the Freemen that they were there. Stanton moved his cattle onto the leased land, defying the Freemen to do something about it. "I have a feeling the local people are going to get real upset unless the FBI does something real quick," he predicted. But Stanton and Bliss did not necessarily represent the opinions of the community. Taking an opposing viewpoint was rancher Cecil Weeding, who didn't want to see any bloodshed. "I think people realize the restraints the FBI is operating under," he said. "They don't want to go in there and massacre those people."
Some in the FBI were no doubt also tired of the siege, though for different reasons. At first the area was covered with snow; then, as temperatures rose, the land turned to mud that covered everything. The temperature remained cold and the winds bitter, especially for monitoring agents who had only livestock sheds for shelter, and sleeping bags and propane heaters to keep them warm. On April 17, some agents did move into a new command post set up in the former home of Will and Agnes Stanton. The FBI had no choice but to remain, but the media horde could leave, and many began to do so, as the standoff dragged on. Their comings and goings followed a predictable pattern; arriving en masse at the beginning of the siege, they quickly exhausted the story, especially since the FBI itself was particularly uncommunicative. Like a star exhausting its hydrogen and turning to burning helium, the reporters then began to cover the opinions of the local residents. A local store made t-shirts to sell which asked, "Have You Been Interviewed Yet?" Finally, they were reduced to covering each other, a cannibalistic stage that could not last long. Many pulled out stakes, leaving only a skeleton crew of reporters behind. Those who remained depended on the "Weenie Babes," Vicci Wheeler of Cody, Wyoming, and Kathy Boscole of Billings, Montana, who cooked hot dogs and warm meals for reporters and government officials.
Not until April 17 did the Freemen deign to meet with negotiators again, when five of them talked for an hour or two hours with Karl Ohs and state prosecutor John Connor. April 19, the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing and the end of the Waco siege, passed without incident, although officials stepped up their presence, just in case. Over the weekend, the FBI allowed a group of visitors to the Freemen that included Janet Clark, wife of Edwin Clark and mother of Casey Clark. Again, hopes rose among locals and reporters that the siege might soon be at an end, but in fact, there seemed to be no real reason for high hopes. On Thursday, April 25, FBI agents and state police turned away three would-be negotiators and celebrities in the patriot movement. Bo Gritz, his friend and former police officer Jack McLamb, and Randy Weaver showed up in Jordan to speak to the Freemen and offer their services as negotiators, but were not allowed to pass through the perimeter. That same day, despite more talks with Ohs and Connor, the Freemen released another statement questioning the government's legitimacy and stating that they did not consider themselves liable to federal or state law. Ohs said of the talks that some progress was made, but would not elaborate.
One chapter in the Freemen's saga did reach closure when, many miles from the Clark ranch, federal attorneys in California finally unsealed an indictment against Elizabeth Broderick, charging her and four assistants with thirty counts of fraud, counterfeiting and conspiracy. Also named were Adolph Hoch, his daughter Laura Marie Hoey, Barry Switzer and Julian Cheney. They were arrested April 25 and taken into custody. Because federal officials claimed evidence that Broderick was planning to flee the country, she was denied bail, as were Switzer and Hoch. Hoey was released pending $25,000 bail. Defiant to the end, Broderick denied that the court had any jurisdiction over her, and threw the indictment on the floor. Later, a judge had to plead not guilty on Broderick's behalf, since she refused to enter a plea of her own.
With the siege having lasted for well over a month, the FBI and other authorities were looking under every rock for something with which they might persuade the Freemen, or at least some of them, to come out. They even decided to let Bo Gritz and Jack McLamb--though not Randy Weaver--try to negotiate with the people on the Clark ranch. Few people in law enforcement liked either Gritz or McLamb, but the fact that the two had some amount of credibility in the patriot movement, coupled with their successful intervention at Ruby Ridge, made it seem worth a try, particularly since everything else had failed. Nick Murnion represented the more optimistic. "There's some hope," he explained. "I think he...is of the right political persuasion, and certainly probably has more credibility with these folks than a lot of potential negotiators. So he does seem to offer them the possibility to come out in a more dignified manner." Of course, such optimism assumed that the Freemen were looking for a way to come out.
At first, the Gritz-McLamb intervention seemed to promise some success. They spent seven hours talking with the Freemen on April 27, longer than any other session that had occurred. Moreover, militiaman Stewart Waterhouse finally gave himself up to authorities, leaving the compound he had entered several weeks earlier. But when Bo Gritz spoke to the press, observers could come away only with mixed impressions. While suggesting that he thought the situation was "bridgeable," Gritz admitted that the Freemen still demanded a common law grand jury. Moroever, Gritz seemed fundamentally to misunderstand the Freemen, representing them as "salt of the earth," and suggesting that they "have no white supremacy, separatist tendencies that I saw. None at all...They brought up the fact and said, where is the media getting the idea we have any prejudice or bias?" Perhaps the media was getting it from the reams of documents filed in Montana's courts in which Rodney Skurdal and the other Freemen spewed their racial diatribes at great length. In any event, there was something that Gritz was not "getting."
On the third day of negotiations with Gritz, the Freemen suggested that they would surrender if they could speak before the Montana legislature (which, having biennial sessions, was not due to meet until 1997). It is unclear if it was a serious offer. One suggestion that both Gritz and the authorities tried to make to the Freemen was the possibility of reduced or dropped charges. The negotiators targetted Gloria Ward and her two daughters, and the three Hances. "The Hances are a wonderful family. And it's all over a tiny thing about a license plate," Gritz exclaimed, forgetting the assault on a police officer. Utah authorities were willing to drop custody charges against Ward, while North Carolina officials promised the Hances that none would serve more than four months in jail for the local charges there. And even the state of Montana bent over backwards, offering to drop some local charges.
But it seemed to Gritz and McLamb, as well as other people who had been inside the compound such as Jim Pate, that the camp was divided into two groups, one somewhat willing to cut a deal but the other adamant against any negotiation, the latter (including Rodney Skurdal, Dale Jacobi, Dana Dudley and Russell Landers) having control. Neither the Wards nor the Hances left the compound, despite the hopes of negotiatiors. At times the Freemen seemed to be playing with negotiators, at one point suggesting that Colorado state senator and militia sympathizer Charles Duke could be a negotiator; at another point even requesting Reagan-era Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork as a full-time, live-in third-party mediator. Finally, the Freemen refused all the offers, telling Gritz that all members of Justus Township had made an "affirmation" to God not to surrender; moreover, they stated that God had placed an invisible barrier around the farm that protected the Freemen from outsiders. And they restated their demands for a common law court of male, "non-14th Amendment" citizens not government employees or in debt to anyone. In the end, they defeated all the negotiators--Connor, Ohs, Gritz and McLamb--with their unwillingness to budge one inch.
The Freemen remained completely intransigent, despite the five days of negotiations between the Freemen and Gritz and McLamb, as well as the parallel negotiations with the authorities and the various offers of reduced or dropped charges. In the end, a statement McLamb made before he and Gritz entered the compound turned out to be prophetic. He told reporters that he would tell the Freemen that the court system still worked and that some of the charges were not serious. But he admitted that "in order to solve the problem, you have to deal with reality," and the Freemen still were fundamentally divorced from any connection with reality.
Proof of that fact came shortly after the Gritz-McLamb negotiations failed, when the Freemen rejected an offer from the FBI to meet on May 2 under a "flag of truce" to discuss an end to the standoff. The FBI proposed in their offer a meeting at a local community hall with two FBI agents and the two Montana negotiators. It even promised to work for a "mechanism leading to a legislative forum following your court arraignment." Coupled with the offer was a veiled threat: "Failure to pursue meaningful dialogue through this meeting will indicate your lack of genuine interest in seeking a peaceful and equitable solution. In this case, the FBI will reserve the right to take whatever action it deems necessary to resolve the situation."
The FBI needn't have wasted the ink; the Freemen's only response was to say that the FBI "does not exist as a government agency." They did, however, have words for the press, including a videotape for the media explaining their position, along with a 13-page document accompanying it. The videotape contained about 45 minutes of a speech by Russell Landers explaining that the FBI is not constitional and is, in fact, illegal in Montana. It also described how the "United States" was a corporation, while the "United States of America" was a republic. And it reiterated that if authorities and the media proved the Freemen wrong, then they would be willing to surrender. "We're gonna let you be the judge," Landers said on the video. Negotiations were not on the calendar.
For the Freemen on the Clark ranch in Jordan, Montana, the siege continues. It remains uncertain whether there is less or more chance of violence than before. The authorities have been patient so far, but when South Carolina Senator Ernest Hollings on May 2 told Attorney General Janet Reno that "We can't make a mockery out of law enforcement. Law enforcement just can't sit around waiting for a peaceful settlement," Reno's only answer was, "I know." Bo Gritz suggested that authorities simply walk up and announce that the Freemen were under arrest. Also antsy were some of the local residents, but the chances that they would defy both the Freemen and the feds seem slim. The longer the Freemen prove unwilling to negotiate, the greater the chance of decisive action by the federal authorities.
How the siege will resolve itself, and how the Freemen will hold up in court, remains to be seen, but the Montana Freemen have already had an important--and surely unintended--impact on the country, for in creating a standoff they created even more publicity for their bogus checks, bogus liens and bogus courts than had existed previously. Though the problem of "common law" courts and "sovereign citizens" exists across the country, in some areas in crisis proportions, most Americans had not heard of them at all, or if they had, assumed that they were merely harmless cranks. But the publicity generated by the Freemen gave or is giving impetus to efforts in states like Missouri, Ohio, Idaho, Montana, and others to clamp down on common law courts and their dangerous practices. The Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith released a model law against common law courts that is indeed an admirable model for states to follow. Many states have begun to come up with their own solutions. Though the problems of vigilante courts and right-wing anarchists will remain for some time to come, they are finally being recognized as a threat and steps are finally being made to protect the innocent people and faithful public officials who have so far had to deal with their paper guerilla tactics.
In the end, it comes down to the notion of sovereignty. The Founders vested sovereignty in the people, but not in the individual. In this country, every man is -not- a king, contrary to the capricious wishes of Leroy Schweitzer and Rodney Skurdal; rather, men and women cooperate to establish an equitable set of rules for all to follow. As the poet John Donne said, "No man is an island." And no person is a sovereign answerable to no one else.