The Freemen standoff

In 1996, region held its breath for 81 days while world watched
2006-03-25T23:00:00Z The Freemen standoffLORNA THACKERAY Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
March 25, 2006 11:00 pm  • 

JORDAN — The quickest way to get booted out of a bar here is to start talking about the Freemen standoff that turned this remote farming-ranching community upside down 10 years ago this spring, says Garfield County Sheriff Kelly Pierson.

Nobody in Jordan will commemorate this dubious anniversary with enthusiasm. Few welcomed the well-armed and disgruntled anti-government extremists in 1996. Fewer still want to be reminded of the tense 81-day standoff that clogged county roads with an army of FBI agents and battalions of reporters and divided the loyalties of families and neighbors.

"The mind-set here is you just don't talk about it. It was so disturbing for so many people," the sheriff said.

The Freemen have moved on, many to far-flung federal prisons. The general population has returned to the hard business of making a living in an agricultural economy dependent on the vagaries of weather and market prices. It's sheep-slaughtering predators and fuel prices that people want to talk about now.

Pierson, a lifelong resident of the sprawling rural county in Eastern Montana, had just accepted a job as deputy sheriff when on March 25, 1996, the FBI began the siege of a Brusett-area ranch northwest of Jordan that the Freemen had named Justus Township.

A mixture of locals and outsiders with a shared belief that no government higher than the county level is legitimate holed up on a 940-acre property that Freeman Ralph Clark had lost in foreclosure to the Farmers Home Administration.

For a couple of years, the Freemen had been vexing local officials, briefly taking over the Garfield County Courthouse in January 1994 in an attempt to establish the "Supreme Court of Garfield County-comitatus." Freemen ringleader LeRoy Schweitzer, who considers himself a political prisoner at the high-security federal penitentiary in Marion, Ill., still signs his unintelligible harangues to local officials as chief justice of Justus Township.

The Freemen angered the local population of Garfield County by offering bounties of $1 million for anyone, including U.S. District Judge Jack Shanstrom of Billings, thought to be involved in the foreclosure of Ralph Clark's property. Wanted posters promised a reward for Shanstrom and county officials "dead or alive."

"They wanted to hang the sheriff and the county attorney," rancher Jack Murnion said recently. "That's a Phipps and a Murnion, and they're related to two-thirds of the county."

Jack Murnion, a candidate this year for county commissioner, is the older brother of Garfield County Attorney Nick Murnion. Jack Murnion runs sheep and cattle in the Brusett area a few miles from the Clark property. Garfield County's sheriff at the time of the siege was Charlie Phipps.

No doubt the Freemen intended to pay the bounties with checks they printed themselves as part of an improbable billion-dollar bank fraud scheme. At the Freemen's 1998 trial on 40 federal offenses, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jim Seykora told the jury that the Freemen "printed these checks by the truckload." They wrote checks totaling $18 billion. Most were rejected, but about $1.8 million worth was cashed, of which the defendants in Montana were held responsible for about $500,000. Even the IRS accepted one of the checks and issued a refund to the "taxpayer."

Although most defendants refused to cooperate with their attorneys at trial, the attorneys argued that the Freemen acted in good faith because they truly believed what they were doing was legal. Jurors didn't buy it.

As part of their complex financial scheme, the Freemen tried to put millions of dollars worth of liens on property owned by anyone who opposed them. They presented workshops showing others how to use their methods. Seykora noted, however, that they wouldn't accept their own financial instruments as payment for tuition.

The Freemen, many wanted on criminal charges, initially established headquarters at Rodney Skurdal's place in the Bull Mountains outside Roundup. Much to the dismay of residents of Garfield County, Schweitzer, Skurdal and their adherents decided Sept. 28, 1995, to move their operation 120 miles northeast to Ralph Clark's place at Brusett.

Local law enforcement complained bitterly that federal officials had allowed the six-vehicle convoy of fugitives to make their journey to Garfield County unmolested. There they remained, holding classes, printing fake checks and writing volumes of documents only they could interpret.

What propelled this cadre of rural extremists into world headlines began March 25, 1996, when undercover FBI agents lured Schweitzer, Daniel E. Peterson Jr. and Lavon T. Hanson from the compound and arrested them. More than 100 agents then surrounded the enclave, where about 20 Freemen remained.

The siege seemed endless, with more than 40 third-party negotiators sent in to try to arrange a peaceful surrender during the nearly 2½ months the Freemen held out. Finally, after Freeman Edwin Clark was allowed to consult with Schweitzer at the Yellowstone County jail, Freemen in the Brusett compound agreed to give themselves up.

Fourteen people surrendered peacefully on June 13, 1996. Two women, the wives of Ralph and Emmett Clark, were not charged with any crimes and left the compound on their own.

The Freemen, as a going concern, were finished.

There are still a few people around Garfield County who sympathize with Freemen ideology — no more than 10, according to the sheriff — but they don't threaten to hang local officials and federal judges, and they don't harass the county clerk with volumes of incomprehensible filings that cite such things as the Book of Deuteronomy and the Magna Carta.

"It's something you really want to keep an eye on, but it's not a huge issue," Pierson said. "The mind-set is still the same, but we drove it underground."

Freemen ideas still pop up across the nation from Jordan to Florida, he said. Believers keep in touch over the Internet.

"But it's different than it was," the sheriff said.

Hollywood, with its own well-established reputation as a haven for lunacy, couldn't have dreamed up a Wild West as strange as Montana seemed in 1996.

The detested 55 mph speed limit had been abolished and replaced with a "basic rule" law that set no daytime speed limit. While the national media and late-night comedians marveled and every lead-footed driver with a hot car contemplated a Montana vacation, stranger things were brewing both on the prairies and in the mountains.

As the Freemen made their stand east of the Divide, FBI agents closed in on "Unabomber" Ted Kaczynski at his isolated cabin near Lincoln in Western Montana.

Montanans could distance themselves from the Unabomber, who mailed 16 bombs that killed three people and injured 23 others. He was more or less an import in their midst, a Harvard-educated mathematician gone mad and who had even spent time teaching at that bastion of free speech and hippies, the University of California at Berkeley.

The Freemen couldn't be dismissed as outsiders. Many of them were homegrown.

They were relatives, neighbors and friends, salt-of-the-earth farmers and ranchers who one day started declaring themselves sovereign and not answerable to any laws but their own.

Generally, people who live in the area believe that a hard core of outsiders convinced a few locals — many of them in desperate financial straits — that the Freemen ideas would solve all their problems.

Rod Coulter, also a candidate this year for Garfield County commissioner, said he still puzzles over how "people I thought the world of before they got involved in that deal" could have succumbed to Freemen ideas.

"I don't know how they got so brainwashed," he said. "That was a bad deal all the way around. I don't think there were any real winners."

The locals who got involved had one thing in common, said Jack Murnion.

"They borrowed a lot of money from the Farmers Home Administration, and they forgot they borrowed it," he said.

He was referring to a federal agriculture lending agency whose functions have now been absorbed by the Farm Services Agency. The financial crisis in agriculture in the 1980s resulted in high numbers of defaults on federally backed loans.

Mark Parker, of Billings, one of the attorneys appointed to defend the Freemen, said many people recruited by the Freemen had been grasping at anything to hold on in face of financial ruin.

"We had just had the perfect storm of things going wrong in people's lives," he said. "They just kept going down in a downward spiral, and they couldn't get out without a little help from the Department of Justice."

The core group of Freemen was "a bit pathological," Parker said. "Eighty percent of the others wouldn't have had any involvement with the law, ever, without being drawn in by the core group."

Parker's client, Agnes Stanton, of Brusett, was convicted on two counts of bank fraud. Parker helped her find a job, which she held for many years.

Parker doesn't believe the Freemen's standoff had much lasting significance.

"I don't think it was very important in the scheme of things that happen in history," he said. "These sociological eruptions happen a lot. I don't think you can draw many conclusions from that."

Seykora contends that there was a lasting effect.

"It made people pay attention to things people originally thought were frivolous," he said.

Before it was over, Seykora worked on cases based on the Freemen's financial scheme in Michigan, Oklahoma, Washington, Texas and North Carolina.

One positive outcome was that the Department of Justice put together a solid program for defusing these situations before anyone got hurt, Parker said.

There had been other confrontations that hadn't ended so well.

A whirl of violent anti-government backlash began in August 1992, when Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents clashed with Randy Weaver at Ruby Ridge in the Idaho panhandle. Agents, hoping to arrest Weaver on firearms charges, had been watching his place for 16 months. A confrontation left an agent and Weaver's wife and 14-year-old son dead. Weaver filed a lawsuit and won a $3.1 million settlement from the government.

Weaver was among those who visited the Freemen compound to try to negotiate a peaceful surrender.

In 1993, David Koresh, a religious fanatic who claimed to be Jesus, gathered the faithful at a compound in Waco, Texas. A 51-day standoff with ATF agents ended April 19 in a bloodbath and fire that left 80 inside the compound and four agents dead.

That, in turn, inspired Timothy McVeigh to bomb the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City exactly two years later on April 19, 1995. His revenge for Waco took 168 lives, including those of 19 children in a day care.

The anti-government movement was sizzling across the country and especially in the West, where suspicion of government authority is woven into the social fabric.

Further infuriating the radical conservative movement was the election and pending re-election of President Clinton, whom many in rural America considered on a par with Satan himself.

Rural Montana has a broad streak of political individualism converging with a generally conservative nature and a strong distrust of government, said Jim Lopach, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Montana.

"I wasn't surprised by the developments in Eastern Montana," he said. "What I was surprised at was the extreme nature of it."

Lopach, who grew up in Great Falls, picked up the flavor of Eastern Montana political culture in 1973 when he worked with the first local government study commissions. Under Montana's 1972 Constitution, elected review commissions were mandated to study their existing government every 10 years and decide whether changes should be offered to the voters.

What citizens told these first study commissions was that they wanted to minimize their governments, Lopach said.

"They didn't see government as important in their lives," he said. "There was a pronounced fear of interlocal or inter-governmental cooperation. There was always a fear that it would lead to too much government and a loss of control."

Lopach said the real legacy of the standoff could be that it gave people a reason to consider how far and how deep devotion to political individualism should go.

"It might be a moderating thing," he said. "It might be that they saw the dangers of extremism."

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