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Context of 'April 1995: Montana Attorney Asks for Federal Aid against Freemen, Receives Nothing'

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White supremacist Randy Weaver surrenders after an 11-day standoff with federal authorities at his cabin on Ruby Ridge, Idaho. The standoff cost the lives of Weaver’s wife and son, and a US marshal. The incident, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, will “galvanize… many on the radical right.” [Southern Poverty Law Center, 6/2001]

Entity Tags: Randy Weaver, Southern Poverty Law Center

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

An image of a fraudulent ‘Freeman check’ signed by LeRoy Schweitzer.An image of a fraudulent ‘Freeman check’ signed by LeRoy Schweitzer. [Source: Anti-Defamation League]During this time period, over a dozen Montana anti-government tax resisters—the kernel of what will become the “Montana Freemen” movement (see 1983-1995)—establish themselves, creating what they term “common law courts” in Garfield and Musselshell Counties, and mounting a massive bank fraud scheme. [Billings Gazette, 3/25/2006]
Beliefs - According to a Washington Post article, the Freemen espouse a number of beliefs that directly contradict federal, state, and local laws. These are:
bullet All forms of organized government are illegitimate and have no right to perform duties routinely assigned to governments, from collecting taxes to requiring automobile licenses.
bullet Thusly, the Freemen can perform a multitude of actions, such as defying foreclosures, issuing arrest warrants, and even putting government officials on “trial.”
bullet They can also act as their own central banks and defraud the government, financial institutions, and area merchants.
Racist 'Christian Identity' Ideology - According to the Montana Human Rights Network and local citizens, most of the Freemen espouse some form of “Christian Identity” religious ideology, which claims that whites are inherently superior to other “inferior” races (see 1960s and After); they also hold radical anti-government views. [Washington Post, 4/1996; Washington Post, 4/9/1996; Billings Gazette, 3/25/2006] The Anti-Defamation League traces the roots of the Freemen ideology to the the Posse Comitatus movement (see 1969). [Mark Pitcavage, 5/6/1996] They call themselves “Freemen” because, in their view, white Christian males have special “Freemen” citizenship status, while non-whites, non-Christians, and women have second class status or worse. Freemen are above government prosecution and taxation. As US currency has no intrinsic value, any loans taken by Freemen need not be repaid. The US government is run by Jews and therefore has no legitimacy. “Common law” is the rule of the land. [New York Times, 6/15/1996] The Reverend Jerry Walters of Roundup, Montana, will later characterize the Freemen’s beliefs as a “bizarre distortion of the Christianity taught in most churches on Sundays.” (Rodney Skurdal will file a $100 billion lien against Walters after Walters refuses to alter his sermons to reflect Skurdal’s Christian Identity beliefs.) The Post will observe: “American history is littered with examples of how hard economic times produce hard-edged political splinter groups, but the Freemen of Montana are a particularly virulent strain. Their philosophy, a hodgepodge drawn from the Old Testament, the Magna Carta, the anti-tax Posse Comitatus of the 1980s, and a highly selective reading of the Constitution, is laced with racism and talk of a Jewish conspiracy, and puts them at the extreme of the Christian patriot movement.” Steven Gardner of the Coalition for Human Dignity will say: “The Freemen have, in effect, appointed themselves judge, jury and executioner. They are trying to form their own shadow government for a white Christian republic.” [Washington Post, 4/1996; Washington Post, 4/9/1996; Mark Pitcavage, 5/6/1996; Billings Gazette, 3/25/2006] “What’s driving them is their biblical and theological agenda,” Walters will say. “Their anti-government conspiracy theories, their anti-tax stance—they’re looking at these things through the lens of Christian Identity.” [Washington Post, 4/9/1996]
Fraudulent Liens - LeRoy Schweitzer and the others concoct a scheme to generate money by filing phony liens against various Montana property owners, or the Montana or US government. The liens have no value; however, once they are created, it takes time for bank computers to recognize them as invalid. During that “window” of time, the liens can be used to generate money transfers from unsuspecting banks. The Freemen file the liens and deposit fake money orders at other banks to be drawn upon the bank listing the lien. The money orders are usually signed by Schweitzer, though Skurdal, Daniel Petersen, and William Stanton (see October 17, 1994) also sign them on occasion. The money orders look quite official, though sometimes they deliberately spell the words “United States” with a lowercase “u.” The Freemen also issue bogus checks labeled “Certified Bankers Check—Controller Warrant,” instead of a bank name, along with account and lien numbers. Many checks are drawn against a non-existent account in a Butte, Montana, branch of the Norwest Bank. The checks state that they are also redeemable at the Office of the US Postmaster. The scheme is, on the whole, quite profitable. The Freemen also sell the money orders, advertising them to their fellow citizens as a quick means of getting out of debt. One distributor explains on a Web site: “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].” One Omaha, Nebraska, county treasurer will later explain, “People see these and, if you’re a very unsuspecting person, they really do look authentic.” [Mark Pitcavage, 5/6/1996] Schweitzer, Skurdal, and Petersen are influenced by Roy Schwasinger, described by federal authorities as a right-wing con artist and head of the Colorado extremist group “We the People.” Schwasinger originated the financial schemes that the Freemen run. [New York Times, 6/15/1996]
Appointing Themselves as Legal Officials - The Freemen appoint themselves “justices,” issue “arrest warrants,” and flood local courts and counties with what the Billings Gazette will term “bogus documents.” One of the documents, written by the three Freemen leaders, Skurdal, Schweitzer, and Petersen, is interpreted by local law enforcement officials as a threat. It states: “We the Honorable justices, will not hesitate to use our Lawful force by whatever means necessary to fully support, protect, guarantee, and defend our (common) Law… and… Right of self governing as a free sovereign and independent state.” District Court Judge Peter Rapkoch calls the documents “a bucket of snakes.” In July 1994, one of the Freemen, Skurdal, is prohibited by court order from filing or recording any “frivolous” document with any Montana county clerk of court, clerk and recorder, or the secretary of state (see 1994); Montana Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean A. Turnage calls Skurdal’s 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.” Garfield County prosecutor Nick Murnion files misdemeanor charges of impersonating public officials against 13 residents and a felony charge of solicitation of kidnapping against Ralph Clark for a $1 million bounty posted around the county for court officers, the sheriff, and Murnion. Garfield County Sheriff Charles Phipps organizes a posse of about 90 local residents to come to the aid of his outmanned, outgunned three-person department (see January 1994). Murnion eventually files felony criminal syndicalism charges against Freemen members. US Attorney Sherry Matteucci works with local and state officials to share information on anti-government activities. “I think their purpose is to intimidate people and to cause chaos in governmental operations,” she says. [Washington Post, 4/9/1996; Chicago Tribune, 4/19/1996; Mark Pitcavage, 5/6/1996; Billings Gazette, 3/25/2006]

Entity Tags: Charles Phipps, Daniel Petersen, Montana Human Rights Network, LeRoy Schweitzer, Jerry Walters, Jean A. Turnage, William Stanton, Anti-Defamation League, Sherry Matteucci, Nick Murnion, Steven Gardner, Posse Comitatus, Peter Rapkoch, Rodney Owen Skurdal, Ralph Clark, Montana Freemen, Roy Schwasinger

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

The Montana Freemen (see 1993-1994), emboldened by their recent successes in Jordan, Montana (see January 1994 and April 1994), issue “subpoenas” against Montana’s two senators, its state supreme court justices, and the district judge. The next month, in response to an upcoming trial of five Freemen charged with impersonating public officials, they mail letters to 45 prospective jurors that threaten them and their property if they convict the Freemen. Garfield County Attorney Nick Murnion finds an old, rarely used law, “criminal syndicalism,” which defines as a felony the advocacy of violence or terrorism for political purposes, and that was originally used against left-wing labor protesters, to use against the Freemen (see October 17, 1994). The crime carries a 10-year prison sentence. [Mark Pitcavage, 5/6/1996]

Entity Tags: Nick Murnion, Montana Freemen

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

Montana Freeman William Stanton is convicted on charges of criminal syndicalism (see June-July 1994 and October 17, 1994). Stanton, an elderly rancher whose property suffered foreclosure in 1993, joined the Freemen after Freemen leader LeRoy Schweitzer offered him a $3.8 million loan to cover the foreclosure debt (see 1993-1994). The loan was worthless, but instead of reacting angrily to Schweitzer’s fraudulent loan offer, Stanton blamed the local and federal government for his predicament. As an increasingly active Freeman, Stanton has issued fraudulent money orders, offered a $1 million bounty for Garfield County officials (see January 1994), and threatened to hang the Garfield County sheriff from a bridge. Stanton is sentenced to 10 years in prison and ordered to pay a $100,000 fine. The FBI learns that the Freemen might be planning to retaliate against Garfield County Attorney Nick Murnion, who successfully prosecuted Stanton, Murnion’s fellow prosecutor John Bohlman, and the judge who sentenced Stanton, Roy C. Rodeghiero. The FBI informs the local sheriff that the Freemen intend to kidnap the judge, “try” him in their “court,” sentence him to death, and videotape his hanging. In response, Musselshell County puts reserve deputies in the courthouse to protect Rodeghiero and accompany him to and from work. On March 3, a Musselshell County deputy stops two Freemen, Dale Jacobi and Frank Ellena, for driving a pickup truck with no license. The deputy finds both are carrying concealed weapons without permits. A subsequent search finds a hand-drawn map of the town of Jordan, with the office and home of Murnion labeled. The truck contains a plethora of weapons and ammunition (including armor-piercing rounds), 30 sets of plastic-strip handcuffs, $60,000 in gold and silver, $26,000 in cash, duct tape, a video camera, a still camera, and radio telecommunications gear. The deputies are sure they have captured two of the intended kidnappers. That evening, three Freemen walk into the Musselshell County Jail and demand that the deputies on duty give them the items seized from the truck. Two other Freemen wait outside the jail. One deputy notices one of the Freemen concealing a handgun, and the two deputies manage to arrest him without incident. One of the arrested Freemen is John Trochmann, the founder of the Montana Militia (sometimes called the Militia of Montana, or MOM—see January 1, 1994); it is later learned that Trochmann has become something of a Freemen enthusiast. Deputy Orville Jones later says of Trochmann’s presence, “If this isn’t evidence that some type of evil intent was afoot, then I’m not a very good policemen.” Jones is sympathetic with the plight of Stanton and many of the other Freemen, but not of their tactics, saying: “My Grandpa lost his ranch during the Depression.… 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.” The arrests bear little fruit. The sheriff’s office is bombarded with hundreds of phone calls, most threatening violence. Bohlman receives at least 40 of what he will call “straight-out death threats” against himself and his secretary. Bohlman’s secretary moves her daughter temporarily to Minnesota after one caller threatens the child. Many of the long-distance calls demand Trochmann’s immediate release and are clearly from Montana Militia members, though Montana Militia co-founder Randy Trochmann denies any connections between his group and the Freemen. A judge will throw out most of the charges against Trochmann and the six Freemen, because of irregularities in the search procedures. Ellena and Jacobi jump bail. [Mark Pitcavage, 5/6/1996]

Entity Tags: Montana Militia, John Bohlman, Frank Ellena, Dale Jacobi, John Trochmann, Montana Freemen, LeRoy Schweitzer, William L. Stanton, Nick Murnion, Orville Jones, Roy C. Rodeghiero, Randy Trochmann

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

Musselshell County Attorney John Bohlman, frustrated at his and his fellow authorities’ failures to stem the flouting of the law by various area Montana Freemen (see June-July 1994 and February - March 1995), writes a letter to President Clinton pleading for federal assistance in curbing the heavily armed Freemen (see 1993-1994). “[P]ersonally, I believe we will have a confrontation that ends in gunfire before the end of the year,” Bohlman writes. Many area residents, who have grown more and more disgusted with the Freemen’s actions, believe that the FBI is likely conducting surveillance of the group, but no direct actions are taken. Local reporters believe the federal government’s refusal to act is due to what they call “Weaver Fever,” the backlash caused by the bloody standoff at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992 (see August 31, 1992). [Mark Pitcavage, 5/6/1996]

Entity Tags: Clinton administration, John Bohlman, Montana Freemen, Federal Bureau of Investigation

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

Judge Martha A. Bethel, a municipal judge in western Montana, writes of her experiences with the Montana Freemen (see 1993-1994). She characterizes them as one of several “hate groups” that operate in Montana alongside the Montana Militia (see January 1, 1994 and February - March 1995) and others, and says the Freemen are little more than “terrorists.” She writes that in January 1995, a “Freeman” appeared in her court on charges related to outstanding traffic tickets. He refused to cooperate with the court proceedings, she writes, and said he was “not in any way bound by the laws of Montana.” In March, he filed legal documents asserting that Bethel had violated her oath of office. The documents, she writes, “recounted a hearing held before ‘justices’ of a ‘common law’ court, one of a number of tribunals created in Montana recently by the fringe groups that claim they have jurisdiction over our district and local courts. The ‘Ravalli County Court, Common Law Venue, Supreme Court, Country of Montana’ demanded that I dismiss the charges within 10 days or a warrant would be issued for my arrest. On the same day, the documents were filed in several other courts as well.” Subsequently, Bethel writes, she was threatened with kidnapping and trial before the “common law court,” and promised she would be sentenced for “treason.” One telephone caller told her, “Don’t come to Darby tonight for court tonight, or you won’t be leaving.” Other court officials were threatened: “[S]omeone threatened to shoot a justice of the peace in the head. A deputy county attorney was warned that his home would be burned and that he would be shot in the back. Our district judge heard threats, to his face, that he would be hanged in the city park.” An unknown person followed Bethel home after one night court session, and shortly thereafter someone called her to tell her that the Freemen knew where she lived. Bethel has received dozens of threatening phone calls as well as calls “from concerned citizens warning me of what they heard would happen to me or my home.” Callers have threatened to “riddle [her] home with gunfire.” She has received instructions from the police on how to hide from armed assailants, and once was advised to leave the county after police learned of a planned attack on her house. Recently, a federal law enforcement agency informed her that a contract for her murder had been issued, probably by someone involved with the Freemen. Bethel has twice sent her three pre-teenaged children to live with their father for a week to keep them safe. She says she and many of her fellow court officials and citizens “share a sinking feeling of helplessness” that little is being done to address the situation (see April 1995). “I used to enjoy hearing the deer, bears, and other animals move about at night without a second thought, other than expressing thanks for the beautiful place in which I live,” Bethel writes. “Now, when I hear deer giving their warning calls, or when I hear animals moving through the brush in the woods, I worry if an intruder is frightening them.” She concludes: “This has been a living nightmare. As judges, we all expect to deal with disgruntled people who refuse to take responsibility for their actions. But who in their right mind would choose to serve their community when the community becomes defenseless in the face of such terrorism?” [New York Times, 7/20/1995]

Entity Tags: Montana Freemen, Martha A. Bethel

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

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