This page can be viewed at http://www.historycommons.org/entity.jsp?entity=sherry_matteucci_1
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)
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)
FBI agents broadcast a television appeal for the Montana Freemen to voluntarily surrender (see March 25, 1996). US Attorney Sherry Matteucci promises that there will be no violence or harm done to them, saying: “All of us very much want this situation to be resolved peacefully. I urge them to come in and talk with me, talk with lawyers, talk with whomever they feel comfortable about this situation. We absolutely intend no harm to the persons who are on the current property. I assure them that we are doing everything possible to make certain that a dangerous situation does not develop up here.” Garfield County Sheriff Charles Phipps also asks the Freemen to surrender. The Freemen do not respond. As the standoff wears on, the Freemen will continue to be relatively unresponsive. (Mark Pitcavage 5/6/1996)
Indicted Freemen leader LeRoy Schweitzer (see March 26, 1996) declares himself on a hunger strike, and is remanded to a federal detention center in Springfield, Missouri, that handles sick prisoners, so his health can be monitored. Both Schweitzer and his colleague Daniel Petersen refuse to bathe or change their clothes. In the following days, Schweitzer will abandon his hunger strike. Petersen will issue a barrage of legal documents, including “writs of mandamus” demanding his immediate release and charges to be dropped. He will threaten US Attorney Sherry Matteucci with imprisonment and a $1,000/day fine if she does not let him go. (Mark Pitcavage 5/6/1996)
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)
Six Montana Freemen (see 1993-1994, March 25, 1996, and June 13, 1996) are tried in a district court in Billings, Montana, accused of being accessories to helping fugitives avoid arrest during the FBI siege of the Freemen compound. Four Freemen will be ejected from the courtroom for being disruptive during the trial; the four attempt to derail the proceedings by cursing and screaming. All six Freemen have refused to participate in their defense, rejected their court-appointed counsels, and refused to dress themselves for the trial. “It’s a difficult trial to get prepared for,” says Lisa Swanson, who represents defendant James Hance. “He won’t talk to me. The only way he would talk with me is if I would denounce my membership in the American Bar Association.” Three are dragged in and out of the courtroom after refusing to walk, and one is transported in a wheelchair. As they are taken into the courtroom, they yell “non-assumptus,” their term for their claim that the judge has no authority over them. Another defendant, Steven Hance, yells at the presiding judge, “Let the record show I’m placing you under arrest,” and curses him. Hance then knocks over a chair and tries to knock over a computer monitor. A third defendant, James Hance, curses the US Attorney prosecuting the case, Sherry Matteucci. (New York Times 3/16/1998; Los Angeles Times 4/1/1998; Billings Gazette 3/25/2006) Five of the defendants will be convicted (see March 31, 1998).
Except where otherwise noted, the textual content of each timeline is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike