Patriot Spring: Showdown in Big Sky Country
By David Neiwert
Copyright 1996, Pacific Rim News Service
JORDAN, Mont. -- Winter returned to this little ranching town, just a few days after spring's official arrival, in two forms. First came a real winter storm, an icy blast out of Canada that dumped several feet of snow on the ground and iced over the long, straight roads. The vast plains and scrublands, populated with a few ranchers and a few more cattle, became a strange white wasteland, and the famed big sky a massive gray blanket.
Then came a figurative one, gathering over the Ralph Clark ranch up near Brusett, where a cluster of 11 right-wing ``patriots'' locked in a standoff with federal agents have drawn a blizzard of media and law-enforcement types to what normally is one of the most isolated corners of America.
The only folks who are happy about it own the two motels, the two bars, the one gas station and the three cafes in the little town of about 500. Everyone else is disgusted by what they see as a plague of locusts, and they blame the so-called ``Freemen'' for it.
``We're not a bunch of anti-government hillbillies up here,'' said an unhappy Frank Phipps at an impromptu town-hall meeting last week of local ranchers. There were about 25 ranchers at the meeting. They want the issue resolved soon. They've been pushing to get it resolved for months. They don't like having lawbreakers for neighbors. ``We've lived here all our lives and we love it here,'' said Phipps. ``I obey the laws of the land. I pay my taxes.''
However, not all of his neighbors have. Especially not Ralph Clark, who has refused to pay his taxes since he began falling behind on his farm-loan payments in the mid-1980s. His subsequent radicalization in the belief system of the Posse Comitatus and ``patriot'' movement culminated in 1994, when he and a gang of fellow travelers took over the Garfield County courthouse to establish one of their so-called ``common law'' courts, unleashing a stream of federal indictments. Clark went into hiding on the ranch.
Since last September, he's had plenty of company. Another group of federal fugitives similarly holed up on a ranch near Roundup, about 120 miles to the southwest, caravaned up in the middle of the night as federal agents stood by and watched. Among the Roundup gang were the Freemen's real ideological leaders, LeRoy Schweitzer and Rodney Skurdal. They were wanted on a variety of charges involving guns, taxes and money scams, and had been arrested previously in an incident in which they purportedly threatened the lives of a local judge and prosecutor.
Their forces combined, they set about creating their own government: ``Justus Township,'' a state separate from the United States, and not under its laws. And they began using the ranch as a center for spreading their beliefs.
Every weekend for the past four months, a caravan of vehicles has traversed the gravel roads across the desolate Big Sky plains leading out to the Clark ranch, full of would-be students from all over the country; license plates come from California, Oklahoma, Ohio and Florida. Each person has paid $300 a pop to come hear how they, too, can form their own government.
The lessons are adamant that America is not a democracy: ``This is a Republic,'' says Schweitzer. More specifically, the government they wish to establish is a ``theocratic republic,'' designed specifically to be run only by white male property owners, under what the freemen call the ``organic Constitution.''
These beliefs are made explicit in some of the pseudo-legal liens, edicts and ``true bills'' filed with various local and state elected officials by the freemen. ``We do not submit to foreigners nor aliens to rule over us nor are We the People subject to the laws of man nor the constitutions, for these only apply to their own corporations and their officer, agents, servants and employees,'' says an ``Edict'' issued in 1994 by Skurdal. ``We the People must follow our one and only Almighty God; or, you can go on worshipping your new false Baal's and de facto master, i.e., congress and legislators, etc., under their `color of law,' for you are now their `slave'; which is contrary to the Word of our Almighty God.''
The only Constitution the Freemen recognize is the ``organic'' one: the main text of the document, and the Bill of Rights, or the first 10 amendments. They believe that the following amendments perverted the intent of the Founding Fathers and took the nation away from its Christian roots.
Topping their list is the 14th Amendment, which they believe creates a separate class of citizenship: federal citizens (minorities and women) and ``state'' citizens (white males). The Freemen also say the separation of church and state is a myth.
Religion is the key to the Freemen's beliefs, and they spell them out in their legal documents:
This system of beliefs is called Christian Identity, and its presence is probably the single greatest common denominator among all the various fragmented factions of the radical right wing in America. It is practiced by the neo-Nazis of the Aryan Nations, by the leaders of the Militia of Montana, by remnants of the Ku Klux Klan in the South. Its foremost preacher is the Rev. Pete Peters, a Colorado-based minister whose 1992 gathering in Estes Park -- drawing such luminaries as Col. James ``Bo'' Gritz, John Trochmann, Ku Klux Klan leader Louis Beam, and onetime Pat Buchanan adviser Larry Pratt -- is often credited with being the chief formative event behind the militia movement.
The core beliefs of Christian Identity are so far astray from those of mainstream Christianity -- and so repellent to so many average Americans -- that they induce in the religion's followers a cult-like closed mindset: a sense of persecution coupled with self-righteousness that is supported by the group's social peers. True believers -- often drawn from the ranks of the disenfranchised -- will not be dissuaded by any amount of logic and reason.
They live in a kind of alternative universe, complex and wholly unlike anything in mainstream life. It is populated by soulless non-humans, satanic conspirators and a handful of true Christians who abide by ``God's law.'' By closing off the other world, they reinforce each other's beliefs in the confines of their tight social circle. At the stark, isolated setting of the Clark ranch, this cycle has reached intense proportions, especially as the Freemen's leaders have scoured a library full of law books for documents, rulings and obscure citations that will reinforce their beliefs. Coupled with a siege mentality, the beliefs have spun a web that fully ensnares those inclined to join it, putting them outside the reach of longtime neighbors and friends, even family members. Forget about law enforcement officials.
In the Freemen's world, the Federal Reserve is a Jewish hoax, money is merely counterfeit currency printed by the conspirators, taxes are an illegal form of blackmail by a renegade corporation that calls itself the United States, and the courts have placed themselves above God's law, thereby issuing a series of satanic and perverted rulings that are destroying the nation.
Such procedures are blatantly illegal, and the ``common law'' courts have no legal standing whatsoever, according to mainstream legal scholars and law-enforcement officials. Nonetheless, not only do the Freemen promote them as legitimate, they pass their systems along to their students, who return to their homes scattered around the rest of the nation and proceed to employ them there. A Los Angeles woman's recent attempts to promote the money-order scam at a gathering in her hometown, after attending a session in Jordan, were broken up by the FBI. Phony Freemen money orders have cropped up in Ohio and Utah.
You don't have to drive all the way to Montana to receive the word, either. Since setting up Justice Township, the Freemen have marketed video tapes of the sessions to other ``patriots,'' giving them lessons in the intricacies of the beliefs and the system in the comfort of their own homes.
LeRoy Schweitzer is most often the star of these videos. Standing at the head of a table, Schweitzer leafs through documents, explaining significant points, describing how the new legal system they envision ultimately will replace the corrupt federal government.
``We're going to make the common law here the law of the land,'' says Schweitzer in one lesson. ``Under the organic states, not the compact party state or the contract state or the shadow state. We're going to do this real. We'll set the tenor of the agreement, and then, let's see what happens.''
Schweitzer soon enough had a chance to test his legal theories.
An undercover agent posing as a radio-antenna installer began attending the Freemen's weekend sessions earlier this year, and soon gained the confidence of the group's leaders, including Schweitzer and his star pupil, a onetime Winnett garage mechanic named Dan Petersen. When the Freemen expressed an interest in obtaining a more powerful ham radio antenna, the agent offered to set one up on their property. On March 25, an installation crew arrived and spread out the materials on a ridge near the ranch.
The agent asked Schweitzer and Petersen to give a final check of the antenna site, and they readily agreed. They found a phalanx of federal agents waiting for them with guns drawn. The two men surrendered and were whisked off to Yellowstone County Jail in Billings, 180 miles away to the south. A contingent of law-enforcement officials from around the state, both federal and local, immediately surrounded the ranch.
The standoff had begun.
The next day, the two worlds collided in the federal courtroom in Billings.
LeRoy Schweitzer had the look of a caged tiger: ferocious but not fearful, even defiant. Everything he believed, everything he had been teaching others to believe for the past two years, was about to face its first real test.
Schweitzer, a square-jawed man with piercing blue eyes, is graying and burly, but he clearly keeps himself fit. On his first day before U.S. Magistrate Judge Richard Anderson, he only wore a V-necked white undershirt with his jeans, and his hair was rumpled. His eyes were watery and there was a red mark just below his right eye, possibly the remnant of a struggle at the ranch.
Both he and Dan Petersen, seated to Schweitzer's right, were bound with waist chains and shackles. Petersen is almost the physical opposite of Schweitzer: smallish, thin and dark, with hawkish black eyes. Both, though, share an intense laser beam of a baleful stare that they turned, respectively, on the judge, the federal prosecutors, the public defenders summoned to assist them, and the press gathered in the gallery.
Their eyes lit up, though, when they got a look at the front row nearest them.
Seated along the long bench was a collection of about six friends and fellow ``patriots,'' all gathered to check on the condition of their friends, and to offer them moral support. Among them was Petersen's stepson. His mother, Cherlyn Petersen, still is holed up at the Clark ranch.
Before the prisoners had arrived, I asked the man seated in front of me -- Steve McNeil, a tall, thin middle-aged man with a nearly shaven (but mostly bald) head, covering it with a ``Bo'' Gritz ``SPIKE'' cap -- what he thought the freemen's strategy would be. `
`They'll be their own counsel,'' he said. ``There isn't anybody knows the law better than LeRoy.''
He looked darkly around. ``Unless...'' he said. ``Unless they've got 'em drugged.''
Sure enough, the condition of Schweitzer and Petersen was the chief object of the patriots' interest when the two prisoners were led to their courtroom seats. ``How's he look?'' McNeil murmured to the man seated next to him. They notice the red mark beneath Schweitzer's eye. They note the red eyes of both men. Drugged? Maybe. Abused? Maybe.
Schweitzer waved with his shackled hands and smiles at his friends. There was a measured sigh of relief.
Assistant U.S. Attorney James Seykora stepped to the dais to open up the arraignment proceedings. Anderson, a steel-haired and steel-eyed man with a sturdy but quiet baritone voice, began to read from the case document. Schweitzer and Petersen immediately jumped in.
``I object and take exception,'' Schweitzer proclaimed loudly. ``I haven't had the chance to read the charge.''
The judge responded: ``Is Mr. Schweitzer -- ''
``I object,'' Schweitzer exclaimed. ``I will not respond to your title of nobility. My Christian name is LeRoy Michael and if you wish to address me you must use that name.''
Anderson looked at Seykora and asked him if Schweitzer had a chance to read the charges. Seykora assured him both defendants were presented the documents.
``That's a kangaroo court,'' shouted Schweitzer. ``I have no glasses. I can't read without them. I'm not even sure the court can read.''
``We will read it to you,'' replied Anderson. ``You will not need your glasses.''
So it went throughout the arraignment. Court officials tried to proceed as they might normally, but could scarcely finish a sentence without being interrupted by either Schweitzer or Petersen.
``I want a jury of my peers,'' proclaimed Schweitzer. ``I am Justus Township.''
From that premise, Schweitzer looked to his friends in the front row and began a long tirade, citing verse and chapter of obscure codes in an attempt to take control of the courtroom, somehow transform it to a venue for his own common-law court. For a moment, he tried to bring the district court into his world. ``Is there anyone who would deny me my 11th Amendment due process?'' he cried. A couple of the men in the front row murmured a response: ``None.''
Judge Anderson, growing tired of Schweitzer's charade, jumped in. ``If you do not restrain yourself we will restrain you,'' he told Schweitzer. And he glared at the gallery. ``Furthermore, if I detect any comment from the seats in the back of the courtroom those persons will be ejected.''
The freemen's disruptive tactics ensured that none of the usual procedures in the courtroom could be observed. When Anderson tried to appoint public defenders to the pair, they shouted out objections (``This is an invasion of my privacy,'' said Petersen); the judge responded by placing the hapless lawyers on ``standby'' status. Petersen announced a ``writ of prohibition'' against the lawyers and the judge. ``This man will not represent me,'' said Schweitzer.
When the judge asked Petersen whether or not he considered himself mentally competent to stand trial, Petersen objected: ``You are slandering my character,'' he said. ``I will not permit this contract court to proceed.'' He called for protection of his rights in the common-law court, and ask if there were objections. ``None'' came the murmurs in the front row again.
The judge signaled to the rows of marshals lining the courtroom, and they descended on the front row. Three of the patriots were told they had to leave. Dave Sullivan, seated next to Steve McNeil, objected. ``There ain't no ifs,'' said the marshal. ``You're gone.''
Sullivan staggered into the aisle, claiming he had an injury, and tried to don his cowboy hat. The marshal forced him to remove it until he had left the courtroom. ``Yes, your highness,'' he responded. The trio were marched out, and the marshals returned. Only Steve McNeil, his son, and Petersen's stepson remained in the front row.
``This is a sham proceeding,'' protested Schweitzer. ``My justice have left.'' He and Petersen began exclaiming loudly, declaring a ``writ of mandamus'' against the court, citing more verses and chapters of more obscure laws. Anderson stopped the proceedings, calling for a recess. Schweitzer and Petersen were led from the courtroom. After a few minutes, Schweitzer was returned alone, and picked up where he left off: ``This court cannot proceed,'' he proclaimed. ``My 11th Amendment rights have been denied.''
Anderson tried to warn Schweitzer he'd be found in contempt of court. But the freeman continued his banter, citing more codes and the Magna Carta.
Finally, Anderson gave up. He ordered Schweitzer's arraignment postponed to a later date, and the freeman leader was led out of the courtroom. Petersen was brought back and, when he too continued his protests, the judge likewise postponed his arraignment.
As Petersen was led from the courtroom, he shouted: ``You are in violation of the Constitution. It has been totally suspended. That's justice, folks.''
The audience filed out of the courtroom. I walked into the office where a marshal had stored my tape recorder before the hearing. As I was signing the form for its release, Steve McNeil came into the small room with three of the law-enforcement men who had been in the courtroom.
``What do you want?'' he asked as they backed him into a corner of the room.
``We're placing you under arrest,'' one of them said. Suddenly, the door to the office was closed, and I found myself three feet away from a physical confrontation.
``What for?'' McNeil shouted, starting to struggle. The three lawmen began wrestling with him. ``For breaking the conditions of your release,'' said one, struggling to bring one of McNeil's arms behind him.
McNeil began flailing, and the three officers wrestled him face down onto a desk, pulling his arms back and clacking handcuffs onto his wrist. ``Ow! Ow!'' he shouted, kicking and twisting his torso.
I had backed into corner to avoid the wrestling match. Another officer finally opened the door and shoved me out. A cluster of reporters stood outside. I joined them and told them what had happened. Then the door to the office opened and McNeil, now cuffed and surrounded by lawmen, was carted to the elevator and away. His teenage son bolted down the stairs in pursuit.
The next day, we learned that McNeil had been arrested the month before for failing to carry a driver's license and other traffic violations, and for paying those fines with one of Schweitzer's bogus money orders. A resident of nearby Gallatin County, he'd been ordered by a judge not to leave town. Gallatin County deputies had read that he planned to attend the arraignment, and showed up to arrest McNeil if he came. He did, and they acted. In case there was any question, law-enforcement officials were taking a hard line on the patriots' antics.
Two days later, Anderson reconvened the court, but this time, there was a difference: a two-way video-audio hookup connected to a holding cell in the event of further disruptions. If the two freemen acted up, he told them, they would be removed to the cell and their arraignment would continue with them there.
The judge managed to read most of the 51-count indictment against the pair, and then turned to the prisoners and asked them how they wanted to plead.
Petersen objected again, claiming the court had no jurisdiction over him: ``My only plea is coram bar non judiciae,'' he proclaimed. He pointed to the gold-fringed American flag in the courtroom, a sign, he claimed that the court was operating under ``admiralty law.''
Anderson noted the objection, and then entered a not-guilty plea for Petersen. ``I object and take exception,'' Petersen shouted. ``I object to your sham. I'm issuing a non-statutory abatement here.''
``Mr. Petersen,'' Anderson replied, ``we've been doing fine so far. Can we proceed without having to remove you now?''
``Sure,'' said Petersen. ``I am here. I just want you to be an honest person, and I want the rest of these perverts to be honest,'' sweeping his arm in the direction of the prosecutors and the press in the gallery.
The judge signaled to the marshals, and Petersen was led away to the holding cell. A few minutes later, the court returned to its proceedings, and the judge tested his ability to communicate with Petersen.
``Do you have any questions, Mr. Petersen?'' There was only silence from the television monitor. The judge turned to the marshals who had installed the system and asked if they were sure the audio was working. They were.
Anderson turned to Schweitzer, who immediately launched into another string of protests. ``Your position is noted and overruled,'' Anderson responded.
Suddenly, over the tinny speaker on the TV monitor came the sound of Dan Petersen shouting out his own objections. The noise filled the courtroom until the judge asked a marshal to turn down the sound. The judge looked wearily amused. ``Let the record show that the audio portion of the system in Mr. Petersen's cell is fully operational,'' he said.
Schweitzer offered more objections. The judge listened and proceeded to enter a not-guilty plea for him, too. Finally, the first step in what promised to be a long, difficult trial had been completed.
The next day Anderson held a detention hearing for the pair, under similar circumstances. Dan Petersen was again led away to a holding cell for most of the proceedings. Schweitzer, though, persuaded the judge to return Petersen to the courtroom toward the end of the session, promising to vouch for his behavior. Petersen came shuffling back, and the judge wound up the day by ordering the pair held without bail.
As they were led from the courtroom, Petersen once again shouted out his protests. ``Give me liberty or give me death,'' he said. ``They'll murder us, and it will be worse than Waco. We won't eat your food or drink your water from your corporations. It's a joke.''
Schweitzer, too: ``We will not touch food or water,'' he proclaimed to the gallery. Then the door closed behind the two patriots.
The next day, Schweitzer was transferred to a federal prison in Missouri. Petersen remained in Montana. Shortly thereafter, both men ended their hunger strikes.
Now they await trial. No date has been set.
Despite Petersen's dire claims, the federal agents manning the standoff at Jordan have, so far, been the model of restraint. Rather than surrounding the ranch with heavy armaments and a military-style presence, as they did at Ruby Ridge and Waco, they have tried to keep a low profile. A series of moving roadblocks has kept the curious -- and a few arriving supporters carrying food and gun supplies -- in check and the freemen contained, though some news crews have stumbled into the compound and regretted it.
One NBC crew drove past the Justus Township's ``No Trespassing'' sign (replete with a drawing of a noose) and found themselves confronted by three armed men in a Suburban who told them to leave immediately. The crew moved on down the road and, when they thought they were clear and free, popped back out of their car to get a shot of the ranch. Suddenly, the Suburban reappeared, and the three men emerged again with their guns drawn. Then they proceeded to confiscate the crew's cameras -- $50,000 worth of equipment -- just as they had done to an intruding ABC camera crew last October, and then sent them on their way.
Most other media people have chosen to keep their distance. Each day since the standoff began, they have congregated at Brusett, which really is just a singular mobile home that serves as a post office, perched at a four-way intersection of gravel roads.
Most of the journalists, though, are staying nearby in Jordan, trying to occupy themselves by interviewing townspeople, interviewing visitors, sometimes even interviewing each other. The ability to find a new angle for the next day's story is wearing thin. ``I don't believe we've got enough people in Jordan for everyone to interview,'' says Nick Murnion, the county's prosecutor.
A little tavern called the Hell Creek Bar has become Media Central. It has a grill, wide-screen TV and pool table, more accommodations than most places in the little town. Moreover, the owner is getting a kick out of the boost to his business, and the craziness of the whole scene. ``This is an opportunity if you look at it the right way, a chance to show off our little community,'' says Joe Herbold. ``If this were different circumstances, this would be more fun than you could shake a stick at.'' Herbold is a slender, mustachioed live-wire of a bar owner, chatting up his guests and reveling in the excitement.
His bartender, another bundle of energy named Charlotte, is in the same mold. Charlotte asks every newcomer if they're a member of the media. If they are, she asks them to sign a register, a yellow legal pad. Then, up on the beautiful old cherry-wood bar store, she keeps a jarful of pink tickets. Buy a ticket for a buck, write your name on it, and guess the number of media people signed up on the register on the day the standoff ends. The winner gets the pot. Everyone gets a laugh out of the contest.
For what it's worth, neither Charlotte nor Joe are fans of the Freemen. Joe says he's been threatened by a few of them. He's glad something's being done.
It's an opinion widely shared at the Hell Creek. Bill, a native Montanan who works as a trapper for the county, says he tried attending a few of Schweitzer's classes. He sympathizes with their concerns, but he couldn't swallow their beliefs: ``It's just crazy, if you ask me. And when they start threatening people, well, you have to do something.''
Just about everyone in town knows about everyone else. Or they're related. Everyone knows someone at the ranch.
One man says his cousin, just a year younger than him, and his best friend all his life, is holed up at Brusett. He says he went out hunting near there last year and was chased off, somewhat politely, by his cousin. He tried hunting in the same area a couple of weeks later and was outright threatened by his old friend. ``I looked in his eyes,'' he says, ``and I just didn't recognize him.'' He shakes his head sadly.
It is this close connectedness to the people inside the ranch -- believed to number as many as 30, though only 11 are actually wanted on any kind of charges -- that holds out the greatest hope of ending the standoff. Negotiations continue on a quiet level, and the federal agents doing the talking are making an overt effort to act in good faith, avoiding any kind of potential provocation.
Still, it appears the standoff could continue for several weeks. Some of the freemen's many followers may trickle out over the coming days, but the depth of religious belief exhibited by the hard core of the freemen's leadership -- particularly Skurdal, Ralph Clark and Dale Jacobi -- suggests they may hunker down for a long time. Randy Weaver, the white supremacist whose standoff with authorities at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992 inspired many of the patriots' fear and hatred of government, has offered to act as a mediator. But though federal officials say they're considering the offer, injecting a high-profile actor like Weaver into the situation raises the stakes to a higher level, something authorities want to avoid in their negotiations. Weaver seems like an unlikely option. Nonetheless, militia members and patriots have been trickling in to the area, and more are threatening to make their way to Jordan. An increasing presence by sympathizers threatens to erupt in violence away from the ranch itself, since contact between law-enforcement officials and many of these true believers is as explosive a combination as fertilizer and fuel oil.
All this will increase pressure on the federal agents to act, especially with April 19 looming. The anniversary of the Waco disaster has already inspired one act of insanity -- last year's Oklahoma City bombing -- and lawmen probably will try to short-circuit any chance something similarly horrendous might occur in Jordan. Their chief card in the negotiations is the tightness of the little community. Out of Wednesday's impromptu meeting of locals emerged a petition urging the freemen to give themselves up. ``After you come out we will do everything in our power to ensure you are treated fairly and that your concerns are aired in a public forum,'' said the text. Rancher Kenneth Coulter circulated it among his neighbors. So did Cecil Weeding, a former legislator who threw the initial meeting together. His wife, Ada, will deliver the petition to the fugitives.
Everyone watching the standoff hopes this elderly, smiling woman can do what all the guns in the world can't do: talk some sense into the freemen. Bring them back from their world, at least far enough that they can return to everyone else's.
Ada Weeding has good cause to act as the messenger. Ralph Clark is her brother. So is another fugitive, Emmett Clark. ``Remember, I love the people who are inside,'' she says. ``They are my family. I want them all to come out alive.''
David Neiwert is a veteran Northwest journalist who has covered the radical right since 1978. He is at work on a book, In God's Country: The Patriot Movement and the Pacific Northwest, scheduled for fall publication.