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Context of 'June 11, 1996: FBI Opens Surrender Discussion with Jailed Freemen Leader'

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Early 1970s: Idaho Racist Founds Aryan Nations

The Aryan Nations logo.The Aryan Nations logo. [Source: Southern Poverty Law Center]Aerospace engineer and white racist Richard Butler, who departed California in the early 1970s and moved into a rural farmhouse in Hayden Lake, Idaho, founds and develops one of the nation’s most notorious and violent white separatist groups, the Aryan Nations. Butler’s 20-acre farmhouse becomes the compound for the group and its affiliated church, the Church of Jesus Christ Christian; Butler and his nascent organization envision a “whites-only” “homeland” in the Pacific Northwest. At age 11, Butler read a serialized novel in Liberty Magazine, depicting the takeover of the US by “race-mixing Bolsheviks” that deeply impressed him. As a young man, he worked as an aeronautical engineer in India, where he was fascinated by the Indian caste structure and the concept of racial purity. In 1941 he left a Los Angeles church after concluding that the preacher was spreading Communist doctrine. During World War II, as an Army engineer, he became fascinated by the German military, and later recalls that he “was thrilled to see the movies of the marching Germans.… In those days, all we knew was that Hitler hated communists, and so did my folks—as we did as teenagers.” In the 1950s, Butler was enthralled by radio broadcasts of then-Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) and his “Red scare” accusations, and sent money to support McCarthy’s political campaigns. During that time, Butler met William Potter Gale, another white supremacist who went on to found the Posse Comitatus (see 1969). Butler held a high position in the Christian Defense League, an organization founded by the Reverend Wesley Swift and described by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) as “virulently anti-Semitic,” until 1965, and shortly thereafter became a mail-order “ordained minister” of Christian Identity, a white supremacist offshoot of the Christian church (see 1960s and After). Butler buys the farmhouse in Hayden Lake and founds his own “Christian Posse Comitatus,” and thereafter founds the Church of Jesus Christ Christian. The two groups merge into what later becomes known as Aryan Nations. [Washington Post, 6/2/2003; Southern Poverty Law Center, 2010; Southern Poverty Law Center, 2010]

Entity Tags: William Potter Gale, Wesley Swift, Joseph McCarthy, Richard Girnt Butler, Church of Jesus Christ Christian, Posse Comitatus, Christian Defense League, Aryan Nations, Southern Poverty Law Center

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

Richard Butler, the head of the white separatist and neo-Nazi organization Aryan Nations (see Early 1970s), hosts the first Aryan World Congress at the Nations compound in Hayden Lake, Idaho. The event attracts many of the area’s racist leaders. Butler begins holding more gatherings in subsequent years and begins appointing state leaders of Aryan Nations chapters. One of the brightest young leaders in Butler’s coterie is Robert Jay Mathews, who will go on to found the violent white supremacist group The Order (see Late September 1983). Other prominent Nations members at the conferences include: Tom Metzger, leader of the White Aryan Resistance; Louis Beam, a former Klansman who will promote the concept of “leaderless resistance” (see February 1992); Don Black, a former Klansman who will create Stormfront, the largest white separatist forum on the Internet; and Kirk Lyons, a well-known lawyer who will represent a number of extremists facing criminal charges. [Southern Poverty Law Center, 2010; Southern Poverty Law Center, 2010]

Entity Tags: White Aryan Resistance, Louis R. Beam, Jr, The Order, Kirk Lyons, Don Black, Aryan Nations, Tom Metzger, Richard Girnt Butler, Stormfront (.org), Robert Jay Mathews

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

Two armed Freemen man a patrol outpost on their besieged ranch. The US flag is flown upside down to indicate distress.Two armed Freemen man a patrol outpost on their besieged ranch. The US flag is flown upside down to indicate distress. [Source: Idaho Observer]Undercover FBI agents arrest the leader of the Montana Freemen (see 1993-1994), LeRoy Schweitzer, and two of his colleagues, Daniel E. Petersen Jr. and Lavon T. Hanson, on the “Justus Township” ranch (see September 28, 1995 and After). Schweitzer and Peterson go out in the early morning to inspect the site of a ham radio antenna they were having set up to facilitate communications; the site is on the ranch, but some distance from the main compound. The two are responding to a request from the chief of the installation crew to inspect the antenna. When they arrive, they learn that the installation crew is actually composed of FBI agents. Though Schweitzer and Petersen are heavily armed, they do not resist arrest. Hanson is also arrested without incident. Federal agents then surround the ranch with over 100 agents. Six Freemen voluntarily leave the compound; 20 or more heavily armed Freemen remain inside the ranch, along with several children, and a standoff between the Freemen and the FBI begins. [Mark Pitcavage, 5/6/1996; Billings Gazette, 3/25/2006] A lawyer who visited a Freemen residence in the fall of 1995 recalls seeing guns such as AR-15 assault rifles, shotguns, and hunting rifles in every corner, and gas masks hanging from the doors. Authorities believe that the Freemen ensconsced in the ranch house have those weapons and more besides. [Chicago Tribune, 4/19/1996]
Tactics Very Different from Ruby Ridge, Waco - US Attorney Sherry Matteucci says that federal authorities are seeking eight other people who are not in custody in the Freeman case, including Rodney Skurdal, who has been at large since a warrant for his arrest was issued in March 1995. Skurdal is the de facto leader of the Freemen holed up inside the ranch. The FBI says it is going to great lengths to ensure that this standoff does not end badly, as previous confrontations have in Ruby Ridge, Idaho (see August 31, 1992), and Waco, Texas (see April 19, 1993). “The FBI has gone to great pains to ensure that there is no armed confrontation, no siege, no armed perimeter, and no use of military assault-type tactics or equipment,” says Attorney General Janet Reno. “The FBI is trying to negotiate a peaceful solution.” The FBI says the confrontation is not a “siege,” as two of the three roads leading out of the Freeman compound are not blocked. Matteucci says authorities believe there are women and children among the besieged Freemen, but will not speculate as to the Freemen’s numbers or composition. FBI Director Louis Freeh decides at the outset not to use overt military tactics, as was done at both Ruby Ridge and Waco. Agents and law enforcement officials on the scene do not wear camouflage or black uniforms, but civilian clothes, and no armored personnel carriers are brought in. The FBI’s quasi-military Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) is heavily supplemented by trained negotiators and “profilers.” Instead of snipers, the FBI installs video surveillance cameras on a microwave tower leading into the farm, as well as extensive audio surveillance equipment. No perimeter is established, only roads leading into the ranch are blocked, and many people are allowed to drive in and out of the farm after being stopped and questioned by FBI or law enforcement agents. (Days after the arrests, the Freemen themselves will block the county road in front of their farm with a barbed wire barricade.) The HRT does not manage the standoff, as it did in Waco; instead, the FBI’s Critical Incident Response Group is in charge. The FBI agent in charge is Robert “Bear” Bryant, an assistant FBI director who in 1988 participated in the Marion, Utah, siege of a group of armed religious zealots that ended peacefully. Local police block media access to the farm, allegedly fearing violence against journalists. The FBI and the various law enforcement agencies establish an operations center at the Jordan county fairgrounds, with vehicles, command post trailers, and even an airstrip. The FBI sets up a dedicated telephone line into the farm for family members, and cuts the other phone lines. Jim Pate of Soldier of Fortune magazine, who met the Freemen leaders last year, warns that the confrontation could easily become violent. Lynn Davis of the Montana Human Rights Network agrees. “They haven’t shot anybody, but they’ve held people at gunpoint,” she says. “They’ve threatened. I’ve had two calls in the past week threatening my life, my children. Phone calls to both my home and office.” [CNN, 3/28/1996; Chicago Tribune, 4/19/1996; Mark Pitcavage, 5/6/1996]
'Sad, Middle-Aged Men' - Nick Murnion, the Garfield County attorney and a lifelong resident of Jordan, says of the Freemen, “It’s like they’re brainwashed.” The Freemen represent maybe one percent of the town, Murnion says, but “they are causing misery for the whole county.” A Jordan resident who asks to remain anonymous says: “We’re tore up about it. A lot of us have family out there.” She says that the Freemen have rejected everyone who does not share their beliefs, even family members. “If we’re not with them, we’re against them,” she says. [Washington Post, 4/1996] Matthew Sisler, the lawyer who visited the Freemen last year, has a somewhat different view. When he saw the group of heavily armed men, he says he did not fear them: “What we saw was a bunch of sad, middle-aged men who had lost their homes, who had not paid loans back or taxes, and wanted someone to blame.” [Chicago Tribune, 4/19/1996]

Entity Tags: Nick Murnion, Sherry Matteucci, Rodney Owen Skurdal, Robert (“Bear”) Bryant, Matthew Sisler, Montana Freemen, Louis J. Freeh, FBI Hostage Rescue Team, Critical Incident Response Group, Daniel Petersen, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Lynn Davis, Jim Pate, LeRoy Schweitzer, Lavon T. Hanson, Janet Reno

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

The FBI brings a Montana Freemen member (see March 25, 1996), Edwin Clark, to Billings, Montana, to discuss terms of the Freemen’s surrender with jailed Freemen leader LeRoy Schweitzer, who gives his “blessing” for a surrender. Clark will emerge as the Freemen’s primary negotiator, and will be credited by federal officials with helping bring the standoff to a peaceful end (see June 13, 1996). A source tells the Associated Press: “Edwin had to become at peace with LeRoy about it [a surrender]. He didn’t want to go forward without checking with LeRoy first.” The source adds: “They’ve pretty much agreed it won’t be a gun battle. I’m extremely hopeful at this point. It’s an extremely positive sign.” The deal is conceived of and brokered by Kirk Lyons, an attorney famous for representing Aryan Nations members (see Early 1970s and 1981 and After) and other right-wing extremists in court. The FBI was not sanguine about letting Clark meet with Schweitzer in the Billings prison. Neill Payne, who works with Lyons in the CAUSE Foundation, a white supremacist legal organization, will later recall that an FBI agent initially responded to the plan by saying: “Let me get this straight. You want us to take a man who is technically under arrest, fly him in an FBI plane to a jail we hope to see him incarcerated in, bring him home, and then put him under siege again? Is that what you’re asking?” The FBI eventually agreed to the plan, though it was worried that Schweitzer might advise his colleagues to continue the standoff. The deal almost backfires when, after bringing Clark back to the ranch, the Freemen spot large tractors in neighboring fields and become instantly suspicious of an FBI trick. “Seeing those tractors was like waving a red flag at a bull,” Payne will later say. “Our guys were incredulous, and the Freemen were acting like an ants’ nest that got kicked over. They got their guns and they manned their sentry posts.” But Lyons and the FBI manage to calm the Freemen’s fears. [Associated Press, 6/12/1996; Associated Press, 6/13/1996; Los Angeles Times, 6/15/1996; Billings Gazette, 3/25/2006]

Entity Tags: LeRoy Schweitzer, CAUSE Foundation, Edwin Clark, Kirk Lyons, Montana Freemen, Neill Payne, Federal Bureau of Investigation

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

A flurry of talks between FBI negotiators, outside parties, and the holed-up Montana Freemen (see March 25, 1996) signals that the 80-day standoff is about to conclude. Yesterday, LeRoy Schweitzer, the jailed leader of the Freemen, gave his blessing for a surrender (see June 11, 1996). A 16-year-old girl, Ashley Landers (whom federal authorities say is legally named Amanda Michele Kendricks), voluntarily leaves the compound; a local prosecutor says she will be taken into state custody. She was the last child left inside the compound. Karl Ohs, a Montana legislator acting as a mediator between the FBI and the Freemen (see April 17, 1996), arrives in nearby Jordan, Montana, to help conclude the final surrender negotiations. Agents in flak jackets dismantle the tent-like shelter at the compound’s entrance, used for meetings between Freemen and negotiators, and other agents drive three passenger vans to a nearby church, apparently in preparation for the Freemen’s surrender and departure. The FBI wins the cooperation of neighboring farmer Dean Clark, who tries to begin planting on 2,300 acres adjacent to the Freemen ranch; he agrees to delay planting for a day. [Associated Press, 6/13/1996; New York Times, 6/13/1996] The next day, the Freemen surrender peacefully (see June 13, 1996).

Entity Tags: Federal Bureau of Investigation, Ashley Landers, Dean Clark, Karl Ohs, LeRoy Schweitzer, Montana Freemen

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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