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Context of 'July 3-8, 1998: Freemen Convicted on Multiple Charges'

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An undated photo of LeRoy Schweitzer.An undated photo of LeRoy Schweitzer. [Source: WorldNews]LeRoy Schweitzer, a crop duster in Montana and Idaho, becomes increasingly frustrated and resentful at what he considers interference by the government. Beginning in the mid-1980s, Schweitzer moves toward becoming an anti-government tax resister. He becomes fascinated by the legal ideology of the Posse Comitatus (see 1969), attends numerous Posse meetings, and has some contacts with members of The Order (see Late September 1983). Schweitzer, well-liked by his neighbors and friends, begins to worry them with his increasing extremism. He helps a friend, Bernard Kuennan, mount a legal defense against charges of letting his dog roam unvaccinated, and the two hammer the judge with questions about the differences between “admiralty” and “common law” (see Fall 2010). He defies police officers who stop him for traffic violations. He moves to Montana, where he refuses to get a license to fly his Cessna crop duster, resulting in federal arrest warrants. His refusal to pay federal taxes causes the IRS to seize his plane in November 1992, his Bozeman, Montana home, and other equipment, and sell it all to pay his $389,000 delinquent tax bill, dating back to the 1970s. Thoroughly radicalized, Schweitzer meets Rodney Owen Skurdal, another legal manipulator. Skurdal is an ex-Marine and Posse Comitatus advocate who, during litigation of a worker’s compensation suit in the 1980s, tells the judge that the federal government lacks the authority to print paper money and demands, fruitlessly, to be paid his compensation in gold bullion. One Wyoming newspaper claims that Skurdal’s extremism begins after he suffers a fractured skull in 1983, the source of the compensation claim; Skurdal’s former wife says after the injury that Skurdal refuses to use a Social Security number or driver’s license. Skurdal, like many in the Posse, is an adherent to the virulently racist Christian Identity belief system (see 1960s and After), and in court filings claims non-whites are “beasts,” and Jews “the children of Satan.” Skurdal routinely intertwines Identity, Posse Comitatus, Biblical, and Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) tenets in his court filings (see 1994). In 1993, the IRS seizes his farm near Roundup, Montana, for back taxes; Skurdal continues to occupy the farm and no local official dares to evict him. In late 1994, Skurdal invites Schweitzer to move in with him; they are joined by Daniel Petersen in early 1995. The three become the nucleus of what will become the Montana Freemen. Skurdal’s farm becomes a headquarters for the nascent organization, with computers, fax machines, laser printers, and satellite dishes going round the clock. The inhabitants post a sign on the edge of the property, reading: “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.” Local authorities want to curb the group, but do not want to risk violence and bloodshed. Musselshell County Sheriff G. Paul Smith says: “These people want to be martyrs. I don’t know how far they are willing to carry that.” Moreover, Smith and his small sheriff’s department are outnammed and outgunned. [Mark Pitcavage, 5/6/1996]

Entity Tags: The Order, Bernard Kuennan, Daniel Petersen, Posse Comitatus, G. Paul Smith, Montana Freemen, LeRoy Schweitzer, Rodney Owen Skurdal

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 jury trial of Freemen leader LeRoy Schweitzer (see March 25, 1996) and 11 other Freemen begins in the Billings, Montana, district court, amid tight security. (Three others charged in the indictment have already pled guilty.) The Freemen are charged with conspiracy to commit fraud, bank and wire fraud (see May 1995), filing false IRS claims, interstate transportation of stolen property, threatening federal officials, armed robbery of news crews (see October 2, 1995 and February 8, 1996), and firearms violations (see March 14, 1996). Prosecutors give their opening arguments, and tell the jury that the case against the anti-government group centers on fraud and not politics. Lead prosecutor James Seykora says that the Freemen issued over 4,000 fraudulent checks worth a total of $18 billion; while most were rejected, the Freemen garnered $1.8 million in illicit payments from the checks. The checks—called at various times certified money orders, certified banker checks, comptroller warrants, or lien drafts—were drawn on a Norwest Bank account that never held over $116. “This is a fraud of truly epic proportions, a fraud fueled by hatred and motivated by greed,” Seykora says. “They bought some computers, they bought some fancy paper and sat down and made their own checks, their own money.” Authorities in Utah, California, Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, and elsewhere have uncovered similar schemes and linked the fraud rings to Schweitzer. Overall, authorities say phony money orders worth $20 million were disseminated as part of the fraud, which they liken to a variation of the Bank of Sark scam of the 1970s. Defense lawyers argue that the Freemen sincerely believed their checks had value, an argument challenged by prosecutors’ assertions that the Freemen did not themselves honor such checks if anyone tried to pay them for the seminars the Freemen provided (see September 28, 1995 and After), nor did they use them to pay telephone or electric bills. In previous Freemen trials, followers, not leaders, have appeared (see March 31, 1998); Ken Toole of the Montana Human Rights Network says: “Now, you have the real leadership on trial. These are the hard-core ideologues.” Judge John C. Coughenour presides over the trial. Two of the defendants, Schweitzer and Rodney Skurdal, have issued “arrest warrants” for Coughenour, charging him with a string of alleged crimes including “perjury, contempt of court, sedition, and treason.” Defendant Daniel Petersen has informed Coughenour that he has filed a $956 million claim against him. The defendants have largely shunned their court-appointed lawyers. Skurdal’s lawyer, Gregory Jackson, has twice asked to withdraw from the case, noting that Skurdal has sued him for libel and slander, and calls him “a servant of Satan” and “dumb, stupid, and lazy.” Today Jackson tells the court that Skurdal is “a gung-ho patriot, a gung-ho Marine.” Security at the courtroom and other federal buildings in Billings, the site of the trial, is high, with many of the security precautions adopted during the Oklahoma City bombing trial (see 8:35 a.m. - 9:02 a.m. April 19, 1995) in place here as well. Nine of the 12 defendants have refused to come to court, and monitor the proceedings over closed-circuit television in a Yellowstone County Jail holding cell two miles away. [Washington Post, 4/1996; New York Times, 5/29/1998; Southern Poverty Law Center, 8/1998; Billings Gazette, 3/25/2006] Two of the Freemen in the holding cell even refuse to dress, and watch the proceedings in their underwear. [New York Times, 5/27/1996] One of the Freemen who pled guilty, Dana Dudley Landers, has agreed to testify against her former colleagues. She pled guilty to interstate transportation of stolen goods, mostly vehicles and office equipment purchased in North Carolina with worthless Freemen checks and brought to Montana. Prosecutors say the vehicles were to have been used by the Freemen in kidnapping public officials for “trials” before a Freemen tribunal. Another Freeman, Emmett Clark, has pled guilty to threatening to kidnap and murder a federal judge, but has not agreed to testify against his former fellows. [New York Times, 5/27/1996; Associated Press, 5/27/1998]

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

A jury convicts Montana Freemen (see 1993-1994) leader LeRoy M. Schweitzer (see 1983-1995) and three of his fellows, Dale Jacobi, Daniel E. Petersen Jr., and Russell D. Landers, for conspiracy and bank fraud (see May 27, 1998 and After). Schweitzer is found guilty on 21 of 30 counts, most involving fake checks and money orders issued by the group. Schweitzer, Petersen, Richard Clark, and Rodney Skurdal are found guilty of two counts of threatening to kill Judge Jack Shanstrom. The defense argued that the Freemen sincerely believed that they were doing what was necessary; defense attorney Anthony Gallagher said during the trial, “These were folks that legitimately believed that their government was no longer their government.” After several days of jury deliberations, District Judge John C. Coughenour declares a mistrial on 63 unresolved counts of the 126 total charges; one of those charges is that all the defendants engaged in an enormous fraud scheme. [Reuters, 7/3/1998; Associated Press, 7/3/1998; Southern Poverty Law Center, 8/1998; Billings Gazette, 3/25/2006]

Entity Tags: Montana Freemen, Dale Jacobi, Daniel Petersen, LeRoy Schweitzer, Richard Clark, Russell Dean Landers, John C. Coughenour, Rodney Owen Skurdal

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

Ten Montana Freemen are retried in a Billings, Montana, court (see July 3-8, 1998). This case centers on 35 criminal charges, mostly for bank and mail fraud and armed robbery indictments. Sixty-five witnesses will testify in the trial. [Billings Gazette, 3/25/2006]

Entity Tags: Montana Freemen

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

A federal judge sentences three members of the anti-government Montana Freemen (see 1993-1994, May 27, 1998 and After, and July 3-8, 1998) to jail. Russell Landers, who told the court that it had no jurisdiction over him, receives over 11 years in prison for conspiracy, bank fraud, threatening a federal judge, and being a fugitive in possession of a firearm. Emmett Clark, who is ill, is sentenced to time served plus three years’ probation; he pled guilty to threatening to kidnap and murder Montana federal judge Jack Shanstrom. Dana Dudley, Landers’s wife, pled guilty to interstate transportation and is sentenced to time served plus another 21 months in prison. When the sentencing hearing begins, Landers interjects, “This is now the supreme court of Justus Township, Russell Dean presiding.” Landers is referring to “Justus Township,” the ranch formerly occupied by the Freemen (see September 28, 1995 and After). When Judge John Coughenour attempts to proceed, Landers says: “Bailiff, remove me. I have no part in the United States, no part in these proceedings.” He repeats his contention and sits quietly for the remainder of the hearing. [New York Times, 11/8/1998]

Entity Tags: Montana Freemen, Dana Dudley Landers, Jack Shanstrom, Emmett Clark, Russell Dean Landers, John C. Coughenour

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

Ervin Elbert Hurlbert and Donald Little are arrested while trying to impersonate “Montana marshals” in order to facilitate the escape of Montana Freemen (see 1993-1994) leader LeRoy Schweitzer (see 1983-1995) from a federal prison in Edgefield, South Carolina. Schweitzer is serving a 22-year sentence for a variety of crimes relating to bank and check fraud (see July 3-8, 1998 and March 16, 1999). Both Hurlbert and Little are arraigned for attempting to aid a prisoner’s escape; Hurlbert is also charged with impersonating a law enforcement officer. The two enter the lobby of the Edgefield prison, identify themselves to a prison official as “Montana marshals,” and tell the official that they are there to take custody of Schweitzer. They give the official documents to “prove” their assertion, including a writ demanding that the warden relinquish custody of Schweitzer to “Marshal Ervin Elbert clan of Hurlbert.” One of the documents reads, “United States of America Special appointed Marshal Ervin Elbert: clan of Hurlbert shall assume full responsibility for the custody of the Justice/Petitioner,” meaning Schweitzer. The documents state that Schweitzer is “volunteering to return to the Country of Montana.” The documents are signed by Schweitzer and three former Edgefield inmates. Instead of releasing Schweitzer, prison officials notify local law enforcement, and sheriff’s deputies arrest Hurlbert and Little. FBI agent Deborah DeVito tries to interview Little, but he refuses to answer questions and instead repeats the claim that he is a “process server, noncombatant.” Little also tells DeVito that he is not a United States citizen but an “American National Citizen” and a foreigner from the “Country of Montana.” Hurlbert waives his legal rights, but refuses to sign a waiver form, telling DeVito that he owns his name and will not sign anything. Hurlbert says Schweitzer sent him the documents. He also tells DeVito that the codes of the “Country of Montana permit the establishment of their own Supreme Court and Justices.” Hurlbert says he had no intention of using violence, but admits to having a pistol in his vehicle. He says the gun is registered in the “Country of Montana.” [Associated Press, 3/25/2003]

Entity Tags: Montana Freemen, Deborah DeVito, Donald Little, LeRoy Schweitzer, Ervin Elbert Hurlbert

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

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