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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 day after the FBI besieges the Montana Freemen compound (see March 25, 1996), federal indictments are unsealed charging Freemen leader LeRoy Schweitzer, along with Freeman Daniel E. Petersen Jr. and others, with conspiracy, mail and bank fraud, armed robbery, and threats against federal officials (see January 1994, June-July 1994, February - March 1995, May 1995, and September 28, 1995 and After). (Billings Gazette 3/25/2006) Schweitzer was arrested after passing a fraudulent check to an undercover FBI agent. According to the indictment, Schweitzer gave an FBI agent a fake “comptroller’s warrant” for $3 million, in return for the profits made by selling imports bought with the $3 million. Had the scheme gone as planned, Schweitzer could have netted $1 million in cash from the operation. Lavon Hanson is charged with facilitating Schweitzer’s scheme. Some of the indictments have been pending for a long time; some of them apply to Freemen currently involved in the standoff with the FBI. Schweitzer, Petersen, Rodney Skurdal, Richard Clark, and Emmett Clark are charged with conspiracy to impede government function and threatening to assault, kidnap, and murder a judge and other government officials. The same five, along with John McGuire, Cherlyn Bronson Petersen, Agnes Bollinger Stanton, William Stanton (see October 17, 1994), Ebert Stanton, Ralph Clark (see 1980s-1994), and Dale Jacobi are charged with 51 counts of conspiracy to defraud and to obtain money through false pretenses, and interfering with commerce (see October 2, 1995). McGuire is in custody in another state; Stanton is behind bars. Ken Toole of the Montana Human Rights Network says of Schweitzer and the Freemen: “They have essentially drawn a line in the sand with law enforcement who have tried to enforce those laws. They have threatened local law enforcement and other public officials.” Addressing accusations that the FBI is harassing Schweitzer and his fellows for their beliefs, Toole says the indictments are “clearly a matter of what they have done, not what they believe.” (CNN 3/28/1996; Mark Pitcavage 5/6/1996) The arraignment hearing does not go well. Schweitzer and Petersen scream down the judge and other members of the court, shouting that the court has no jurisdiction over them and they will not listen to court officers. They demand a change of venue to “Justus,” and yell about “admiralty law” vs. “common law” and the fringed flag voiding any civil jurisdiction (see Fall 2010). The judge sends Schweitzer and Petersen into another room, and completes the arraignment without their participation, giving them written copies of the arraignment. Author Mark Pitcavage later notes that every court appearance by the Freemen is an opportunity for guerrilla theater. Soldier of Fortune writer Jim Pate later observes that their fanaticism is like a holy war (see April 1995). “Their political philosophy is based on their religious philosophy. And in that respect, they are very similar to the young man who was just convicted of murdering the prime minister of Israel (see November 4, 1995). They’re similar in the depth of their convictions to Hamas.” Musselshell County Attorney John Bohlman (see February - March 1995), learning of the FBI arrests, moves himself and his family from their Roundup, Montana, home, fearing Freemen retaliation; CB scanners pick up reports that the Freemen intend to come into Roundup and kill people, though none actually do. (Mark Pitcavage 5/6/1996)
Judge John C. Coughenour sentences Montana Freemen leader LeRoy Schweitzer (see November 18, 1998) to over 22 years in prison, and orders almost $40,000 in restitution, on charges stemming from the Freemen’s expansive bad-check scheme that spread throughout the country (see 1993-1994). Freemen leader Rodney Skurdal receives a 15-year sentence. Another group leader, Daniel Petersen, is sentenced to 15 years and ordered to pay $39,845 in restitution. Former Canadian police officer Dale Jacobi receives 13 years. Richard Clark receives 12 years. William Stanton (see October 17, 1994) receives a three-year sentence. Two of the convicted Freemen’s wives, Agnes Stanton and Cherlyn Petersen, are sentenced to time served and released. Coughenour says of the Freemen’s crimes, “What we are talking about is a calculated and organized program to undermine the banking system of this country and to encourage other, more ignorant people to violate the law.” He says that the Freemen’s sentences should send “a loud and clear message to those who pass this hatred and ugliness around.… Be forewarned, your personal liberty is at stake.” Schweitzer and five other Freemen, continuing to refuse to accept the sovereignty of the court, refuse to attend the sentencing and watch the proceedings from a holding cell. (Laceky 3/17/1998; Billings Gazette 3/25/2006)