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Context of 'May 15-21, 1996: Negotiations between Freemen, Colorado Official Break Down'

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A typical ‘LeRoy check,’ issued on a fraudulent lien.A typical ‘LeRoy check,’ issued on a fraudulent lien. [Source: Anti-Defamation League]Montana Freemen leaders LeRoy Schweitzer, Rodney Skurdal (see 1993-1994 and May 1995), and others leave Skurdal’s Roundup, Montana, log cabin at night (see 1983-1995) in an armed convoy, and “occupy” the foreclosed ranch of Freeman Ralph Clark (see 1980s-1994) north of Jordan, Montana. The group renames the ranch “Justus Township.” Skurdal and the Freemen had named Skurdal’s two-story cabin and his 20 acres of land “Redemption Township.” In the ensuing months, people from around the area come to the ranch to take “classes” on their common law theories and check-kiting schemes, learning of the classes through ads in militia newsletters and displayed at gun shows. Federal authorities, fearing violence (see April 19, 1993), decide not to hinder the occupation. The “township” has its own laws, court, and officials; Clark is the “marshal” of Justus, and others serve on its court. [Chicago Tribune, 4/19/1996; Mark Pitcavage, 5/6/1996; New York Times, 5/29/1996; Billings Gazette, 3/25/2006] The “classes” teach what the Southern Poverty Law Center will call a “peculiar combination of common law ideology and break-the-bank schemes.” The Freemen accept pupils in groups of 25, charging varying fees per participant. “We are the new Federal Reserve,” Schweitzer tells one group. “We are competing with the Federal Reserve—and we have every authority to do it.” Many people who try to put the Freemen’s teachings into practice, such as common law ideologue Ron Griesacker, will claim to have attended “a school of learning” with Schweitzer before setting up “common law courts” in Kansas. Griesacker will be charged with fraud and conspiracy, as will others who attempt to set up “common law courts.” The Freemen teachings will continue to propagate for years, and banks across the region will be plagued with “Freemen checks” [Mark Pitcavage, 5/6/1996; Southern Poverty Law Center, 4/1998] , which locals call “LeRoy checks.” (Most area businesses have learned to demand cash-only payments from known Freemen.) One favorite trick is to issue a fake check to pay for merchandise, write the check for much more than the cost of the merchandise, then demand immediate cash refunds of the difference. A template letter included in a seminar packet reads in part, “You will be billed monthly for the principal, plus 18 percent per year for the balance due if you refuse to send refund.” Paul Dinsmore, a local radio station host who will say he attends “about a dozen” seminars, will comment: “They have set up a complete mirror image of the banking system. It’s a scheme for them to live high on the hog.” One Montana government official calls the Freemen scheme “paper terrorism.” [New York Times, 5/29/1996] Skurdal will be incensed when federal authorities auction his cabin and property for his failure to pay back taxes. [Chicago Tribune, 4/19/1996]

Entity Tags: Rodney Owen Skurdal, Ronald Griesacker, Montana Freemen, LeRoy Schweitzer, Southern Poverty Law Center, Ralph Clark, Paul Dinsmore

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

Charles Duke.Charles Duke. [Source: Crooks and Liars]At the FBI’s request, Colorado Republican State Senator Charles Duke, a respected figure in militia circles, arrives in Jordan, Montana, to negotiate with the besieged Montana Freemen (see March 25, 1996). Duke and FBI negotiators spend six days in fruitless negotiations culminating in an argument between Duke and Freemen leader Rodney Skurdal. Duke says only half of those in the compound are real Freemen, with the rest “nothing but criminals trying to escape prosecution.” The Freemen promise to allow Duke and an FBI team to interview everyone in the compound, and to release two young girls among their number, but fail to deliver on either promise. [Chicago Tribune`, 5/24/1996; Billings Gazette, 3/25/2006] Gloria Ward and her two daughters, aged 8 and 10, appear at one negotiating session with their luggage packed as if readying to leave, but instead of exiting the compound, they go back inside when the talks end. [Reuters, 5/20/1996]
Talks End in Angry Shouts; No Support from Militias - Duke is blazingly angry at the Freemen’s refusal to honor their promises. As Skurdal climbs into an automobile to go back to the ranch house, he shouts, “You aren’t enough of a man to come face me, get out of that car!” Afterwards, Duke says: “I told him, ‘I’m going to go out of here and I’m going to tell the American people what you’re doing here. You will not get support from the patriot community, you will not get support from the militia community, and if you die, nobody’s going to avenge you.’” Many in the militia community have similar feelings as Duke’s. Montana Militia leader Randy Trochmann says: “People in contact with them understand now that what they were doing was fraud. With the public, a good percentage of them want the FBI just to leave, put a berm around the house, and let the state police patrol it. And another percentage just want them [the FBI] to go in and finish them off.” [Los Angeles Times, 6/5/1996] Duke adds: “The FBI has now pursued each and every avenue to a peaceful solution. If it should come to a less than peaceful solution, I can tell you for sure the FBI has bent over backwards to avoid it.… One can only conclude the adults inside care only for their safety and care not one whit for the safety of their children, because they’re willing to sacrifice them and use them as a shield (see May 1, 1996). I think it’s unconscionable.” After Duke leaves, the Freemen begin rotating armed foot patrols, something they have not yet done during the duration of the standoff. [Associated Press, 5/21/1996] After leaving the Freemen ranch, Duke says he sees little hope of resolving the standoff by peaceful means. “I realized this is going nowhere,” he says. It is time for the FBI to make the Freemen “feel some pain.” [Chicago Tribune`, 5/24/1996] “This is not a battle for the militias,” Duke later adds. “The Freemen are using the Constitution as a facade to prevent their incarceration for illegal activity.” Militia leader James “Bo” Gritz, who himself attempted to negotiate an end to the standoff (see May 1, 1996), says the standoff is not a cause for any militia groups or their supporters. “There isn’t anyone in the legitimate patriot movement who doesn’t want to see the Freemen out and before the bar of justice,” he says. “The FBI are wrong in their fears.” Gritz is referring to fears that if the FBI moves on the Freemen, the right-wing militia groups will condemn the bureau for its actions, and perhaps launch counterattacks. [New York Times, 5/24/1996]
Fear of Cancer, 'No Brains' Drugs - At least one of the Freemen expresses his fear of being injected with cancer cells and “no brains” drugs if he were to go to jail, and several of the Freemen say they are ready to shoot it out with the FBI. The information comes from audiotapes Duke makes of his conversations with the Freemen; he will publicly air some of the tapes on the June 17, 1996 broadcast of Dateline NBC. Freeman Edwin Clark says: “When [LeRoy Schweitzer, the Freeman in federal custody] went to Missouri (see March 30-31, 1996), a man, a doctor from New York City, come in and told Leroy, he says, ‘You’ll never see the light of day.’ And he says, ‘I’ll guarantee you before you leave here I’m gonna inject you with a, with a deadly ah… dose of cancer.” Clark says that government officials have tried to kill other jailed Freemen: “I know of two of them, one of them at least, he was as healthy as a [expletive] horse when he went in there, and he came back… there was another one, I can’t remember his name, they, they give him a lethal dose of ‘no brains’ when he come back.” [Associated Press, 6/17/1996]

Entity Tags: Montana Freemen, LeRoy Schweitzer, Gloria Ward, Federal Bureau of Investigation, James (“Bo”) Gritz, Edwin Clark, Rodney Owen Skurdal, Randy Trochmann, Charles Duke

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

June 13, 1996: Freemen Surrender Peacefully

A distant shot of the Freemen compound. Reporters were not given much access to the area, and photographs of the area and the participants in the standoff are limited.A distant shot of the Freemen compound. Reporters were not given much access to the area, and photographs of the area and the participants in the standoff are limited. [Source: CNN]The besieged Montana Freemen (see March 25, 1996) surrender peacefully to federal authorities. Officials credit Freemen leader Edwin Clark (see June 11, 1996) with playing a key role in negotiating the surrender. [Billings Gazette, 3/25/2006] The New York Times writes that the siege ends “so peacefully that the surrender [does] not even disturb the cows grazing at the group’s remote Montana ranch.” Local postal carrier and rancher Ruth Coulter exclaims after the surrender: “My God, it’s finally over! And nobody got killed! Wonderful. Wonderful!” [New York Times, 6/14/1996]
16 Freemen Surrender - CNN identifies 16 people still inside the compound: Ralph Clark (see 1980s-1994), the elderly leader of the Clark family and one of the group’s leaders; Clark’s wife Kay; Clark’s brother Emmett Clark, the actual former owner of the 960-acre wheat farm occupied by the Freemen and dubbed “Justus Township” (see September 28, 1995 and After); Emmett Clark’s wife Rosie; Ralph Clark’s son Edwin; Edwin Clark’s son Casey Clark; Rodney Skurdal, a founder of the group (see 1983-1995); Russell Dean Landers, one of the leaders of the group and a member of a North Carolina anti-government, anti-tax group called “Civil Rights Task Force”; Dana Dudley Landers, Landers’s common-law wife, a fugitive from federal and state charges, and a member of the “Civil Rights Task Force”; Dale Jacobi, a former Canadian policemen; Steven Hance, who faces state charges from North Carolina; Hance’s sons John Hance and James Hance; Cherlyn Petersen, the wife of arrested Freemen member Daniel Petersen; Casey Valheimer; and Barry Nelson, who with another man entered the ranch after eluding blockades (see March 25 - April 1, 1996). [CNN, 6/12/1996] The surrender is peaceful; the Freemen drive to the ranch gates in cars, trucks, and a Winnebago motor home. They gather in a quiet circle for a final prayer. Then Edwin Clark approaches an agent and shakes hands. Finally, in pairs escorted by Clark, they surrender to waiting agents, who ease them into passenger vans. Clark is the last one to enter custody. Fourteen of the Freemen are taken to the Yellowstone County jail in Billings, 175 miles away from Jordan. Two, Kay Clark and Rosie Clark, face no charges and are not jailed, though the FBI says they will not be allowed to return to the compound. After hearing of the surrender, President Clinton tells guests at a state dinner, “We will all say a little prayer tonight for this peaceful settlement.” [Los Angeles Times, 6/14/1996]
FBI Director 'Obviously Relieved' - FBI Director Louis Freeh, described by the Los Angeles Times as “obviously relieved,” says the FBI “put patience above the risk of bloodshed” to end the standoff. He says the bureau “made no deals to drop or lessen the federal charges” against any of the Freemen in order to precipitate the surrender. Of critics who called for quicker and perhaps more “tactical” solutions, Freeh says: “I understand their impatience. But it was essential that we followed our established crisis management procedures.” He says the standoff proves the worth of the new crisis response plans implemented after the tragedies in Ruby Ridge, Idaho (see August 31, 1992), and Waco, Texas (see April 19, 1993). This time, the bureau used “a fundamentally different approach” that “may not always work, but it worked here.” Giving negotiators more influence during the standoff did cause some “disagreements” and “friction” within the FBI, Freeh acknowledges, but it was the right decision to make. Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick says “[t]he tactical option was always on the table.” Freeh notes that as the standoff wore on, the Freemen gained a certain level of reluctant trust in the bureau. “We never broke a promise to them,” he says, and “we told them before things happened,” such as cutting off electrical power (see June 3, 1996). [Los Angeles Times, 6/15/1996]
Outreach to Rightist Figures, Low-Key Techniques Brought Successful Resolution - FBI agents credit help they received from militia members in helping to resolve the standoff, along with the new, more low-key techniques of handling such confrontations now being used by the bureau. “Overall, our approach was to find a balance between negotiations and other lawful means,” says FBI agent Ron VanVranken, who took part in the final settlement negotiations. “We recognized it would be prudent and beneficial to use the services of third-party intermediaries and to be constantly soliciting the advice of outside experts.” Freeh says he was supportive of the decision to use third-party negotiators who hold similar anti-government views to those of the Freemen: “I think that, given all the other cumulative steps over the last 81 days, that that helped persuade the remaining subjects to finally come out of the compound.” The Los Angeles Times says that the FBI’s strategy of reaching out to far-right figures may have had an added benefit of creating dissension among rightist groups (see March 25 - April 1, 1996) and avoiding a “united front” of opposition that might have helped strengthen the Freemen’s resolve to continue holding out. “It was probably a wise move that the Freemen came out, as opposed to being burned out or shot,” says Clay Douglas, publisher of the far-right Free American newspaper and a leading member of the “Patriot” movement. “And it’s an election year, so the FBI had to be good.” However, the FBI’s decision to use “Patriot” negotiators “was pretty smart on their part. It has divided a lot of patriots. A lot of people thought they were being traitors for going in and trying to talk them out. Some people side with the Freemen. Some people side with the ‘Patriot’ leaders. So it’s just another small part of how the government keeps America divided. It’s called gradualism. They keep gradually encroaching on our freedoms.” The FBI brought in militia leaders James “Bo” Gritz and Jack McLamb (see April 27, 1996), Colorado State Senator Charles Duke, a rightist sympathizer (see May 15-21, 1996), and white supremacist lawyer Kirk Lyons (see June 11, 1996); even though most of their attempts at negotiations failed, it served to build a “bridge” between the FBI and the Freemen. Another technique was to promote Edwin Clark, the Freeman the FBI considered the most likely to leave the compound, as a leader in the absence of arrested Freemen LeRoy Schweitzer and Daniel Petersen (see March 25, 1996). The final element was the introduction of Lyons, who was contacted three weeks ago by FBI agents and asked for a plan to negotiate with the Freemen. Lyons’s colleague Neill Payne says somewhat incredulously, “It is to Director Freeh’s credit that he was broad-minded enough to go along with a crazy scheme like ours.” [Los Angeles Times, 6/15/1996]

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