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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:
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.
Thusly, the Freemen can perform a multitude of actions, such as defying foreclosures, issuing arrest warrants, and even putting government officials on “trial.”
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. (Kenworthy and Kovaleski 4/1996; Goodstein 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. (Goldberg 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.” (Kenworthy and Kovaleski 4/1996; Goodstein 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.” (Goodstein 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. (Goldberg 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. (Goodstein 4/9/1996; Worthington 4/19/1996; Mark Pitcavage 5/6/1996; Billings Gazette 3/25/2006)
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)
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)
Two Montana county attorneys, Garfield County Attorney Nick Murnion and Musselshell County Attorney John Bohlman (see February - March 1995), testify before Congress on the havoc being wrought in their area by the Montana Freemen (see 1993-1994, January 1994, April 23, 1994, and June-July 1994). Murnion says of the Freemen: “I believe this group has declared war on our form of government. They are in open insurrection.” (Mark Pitcavage 5/6/1996)
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. (Worthington 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; Worthington 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. (Kenworthy and Kovaleski 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.” (Worthington 4/19/1996)
Four Montana legislators meet with four Freemen in “Justus Township,” currently besieged by FBI agents (see March 25, 1996), to discuss ending the standoff. The four are Democrats Joe Quilici and John Johnson, and Republicans Karl Ohs and Dick Knox. The eight meet in a mobile home near the main ranch house for several meetings over two days. The negotiations produce no tangible results. Two days later, Quilici characterizes the situation as “very, very volatile,” and says, “Right now, I can’t be optimistic.” The Freemen continue to insist on their own government and their own grand jury. Garfield County prosecutor Nick Murnion, who has dealt extensively with the Freemen (see 1993-1994 and November 1995), advocates a firmer approach, saying, “The only way negotiating works is if you apply pressure from a position of strength, and they are not doing that.” Instead, the FBI allows Ohs to promise the Freemen a “mechanism whereby their story could be heard.” Jim Pate, a Soldier of Fortune magazine reporter who has managed to visit the Freemen in their compound during the siege, reports that negotiations have failed, that the Freemen are unwilling to meet with any federal government officials, and that they are content to wait for a long time. (Mark Pitcavage 5/6/1996; Billings Gazette 3/25/2006)
The FBI allows “Patriot” militia leader James “Bo” Gritz and his partner, former police officer Jack McLamb, to take part in negotiations to end the siege of the Freemen compound outside Jordan, Montana (see March 25, 1996 and April 25, 1996). The two men helped end the Ruby Ridge siege in Idaho (see August 31, 1992). Most law enforcement officials do not like either Gritz or McLamb, but they hope that with the two’s established credibility in the militia movement and their success in Idaho, they may be able to negotiate a successful surrender. Garfield County prosecutor Nick Murnion says: “There’s some hope. I think [Gritz] is of the right political persuasion, and certainly probably has more credibility with these folks than a lot of potential negotiators. So he does seem to offer them the possibility to come out in a more dignified manner.” After seven hours of negotiations with the Freemen, militiaman Stewart Waterhouse, who joined the besieged Freemen weeks before (see March 25 - April 1, 1996), leaves the compound, and authorities begin to hope that Gritz and McLamb are making headway. But Gritz gives mixed impressions in his initial reports to the press. He says the situation is “bridgeable,” but seems to fundamentally misunderstand the Freemen, saying that they “have no white supremacy, separatist tendencies that I saw. None at all.… They brought up the fact and said, ‘Where is the media getting the idea we have any prejudice or bias?’” Many of the Freemen, including leader Rodney Skurdal, have produced inordinate reams of court documents and other statements laced with virulently racist and anti-Semitic diatribes. Author Mark Pitcavage will later write, “In any event, there was something that Gritz was not ‘getting.’” (Mark Pitcavage 5/6/1996; Billings Gazette 3/25/2006) Gritz and McLamb will give up after four days (see May 1, 1996).
Two adults and two children leave the Montana Freemen compound, which has been surrounded by federal and local law enforcement officials for 74 days (see March 25, 1996). Gloria Ward, her common-law husband Elwin Ward, and her two preteen daughters, Courtnie Joy Christensen and Jaylynn Joy Mangum, leave voluntarily. Gloria Ward faced charges in Utah for felony custodial interference for taking the girls out of state in defiance of a court order; Utah agreed to drop the charges as part of the deal that persuaded the Wards to leave the compound. “The love of family played a significant part in this result,” says US Attorney Sherry Matteucci. “This is a positive indication we’re moving forward. It was a very important accomplishment to get those kids out of there.” Courtnie Joy Christensen’s biological father, Robert Gunn, who has custody of his daughter but has not seen her for 18 months, hopes to take her home soon. Garfield County prosecutor Nick Murnion says: “When a mother with two children sees armored vehicles, helicopters, and SWAT teams come into position with her power cut off (see May 31, 1996 and June 3, 1996), she’s going to realize it’s getting dangerous.… I don’t see this as a green light for the FBI’s tanks to roll in tomorrow. But this is a relief to everybody in this community.” (Johnson 6/6/1996; Sahagun 6/7/1996)
Garfield County, Montana, prosecutor Nick Murnion receives the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for enforcing the law despite death threats from the Montana Freemen (see 1993-1994). Murnion receives the award from the Kennedy family at the JFK Library in Boston. (Billings Gazette 3/25/2006)
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