County attorney carries on

2006-03-25T23:00:00Z County attorney carries onCLAIR JOHNSON Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
March 25, 2006 11:00 pm  • 

JORDAN — In the 10 years since the Freemen standoff in Garfield County, some things haven't changed.

Nick Murnion is still Garfield County attorney. An American flag flies outside his office on Main Street across from the Hell Creek Bar, the favorite watering hole for FBI agents, journalists, onlookers and locals during the standoff.

Murnion is still a down-to-earth hometown attorney. He gets his hair cut next door at his wife's salon.

And Murnion still occasionally gets documents from Freemen leader LeRoy M. Schweitzer.

"Doesn't this look familiar," Murnion said, pulling out an 11-page handwritten "Edict" that Schweitzer sent in 2004. "I went five years. They didn't call. They didn't write," he joked.

The edict is a rambling tract typical of documents Freemen issued based on their extreme anti-government and white supremacist views.

Schweitzer still calls himself LeRoy Michael, Clan of Schweitzer, the chief justice of a common law supreme court for Justus Township in Garfield County.

"He obviously still believes this stuff," Murnion said. "He hasn't

changed one bit."

Looking back, there is nothing he would do differently, Murnion said. He wanted to prosecute the Freemen locally, and did in a few cases. But the FBI took over the investigation, which led to federal indictments, federal trials and convictions of most Freemen.

Murnion had hoped that federal officers would have arrested the Freemen while they were still in Musselshell County. But the Freemen, who operated from a cabin in the Bull Mountains south of Roundup, abruptly abandoned the cabin in September 1995 in an armed convoy and headed to Garfield County.

Schweitzer, already a federal fugitive, had been staying with other Freemen at the Roundup cabin. The federal government had reasons to act but did not, Murnion said.

When the Freemen arrived in Garfield County, they spread out to different locations. The situation became "a nightmare from a tactical standpoint," he said.

The FBI, after deadly confrontations at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas, didn't want anyone getting hurt, Murnion noted. If two drug dealers were operating out of the Roundup cabin, "I don't think they would wait that long," he said.

Through it all — death threats, bounties, intimidation tactics, phony liens, bogus checks and declarations of sovereignty and common law jurisdiction — Murnion never backed down from enforcing the law and speaking out against the hate group.

As Schweitzer and his comrades went on trial in federal court in late May 1998, Murnion received the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award from members of the Kennedy family at the JFK Library in Boston, Mass.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy called Murnion "a genuine hero" who acted "in the best tradition of our country and the Constitution."

The American College of Trial Lawyers also presented Murnion with its Courageous Advocacy Award in 2000, honoring Murnion's "steadfast and courageous defense of democratic government and rule of law in the face of grave threats to his well being."

Excepting Schweitzer, Murnion has not heard from any of the Freemen, some of whom have completed their sentences and are out of prison. "They haven't been making any threats" and haven't caused any problems, he said.

The community has moved on, too.

"We don't think about it very much. It was a bad page in the history," Murnion said, and there was "no pleasure in any of it."

The episode was devastating for some of the families caught up in the Freemen movement, he said. The good that came from the experience was the community "got together and condemned it."

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