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Context of 'September 28, 1995 and After: Freemen Occupy Foreclosed Ranch, Declare ‘Justus Township’'

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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

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

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

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