ST. MARIE — By the time Pat Kelly realized he was in trouble, members of the anti-government sovereign citizen movement had already claimed 371 of the developer’s investment homes.
And it all appeared to be legal, done with a favorite tool of anti-government groups: liens.
“They came in and put tax assignments on (approximately) 400 units," Kelly told The Gazette recently. “And if I didn’t come up with the money in 60 days, they’d get it.”
Kelly didn’t come up with the money. Consequently, 371 of his properties went to DTM Enterprises, a group represented by two sovereign citizens from Washington state, for a price of $187,086.43, according to Valley County tax records. The average home price: $504.
The tax liens were the first shot in what residents of tiny St. Marie say has become a three-year barrage of court filings and other attempts to take control of one of Montana’s most peculiar burgs.
St. Marie is a community of mostly retirees nestled in the sun-bleached carcass of a Cold War Air Force base on Montana's far northern plain. It's 50 miles from the Canadian border and 160 from the nearest Wal-Mart. Glasgow, some 17 miles to the south, is the go-to place for everything.
It's a place not found by many, with the exception of one unwelcome traveler: trouble. Trouble seems to land in this community like a migrating bird.
And the trouble most always involves St. Marie's massive inventory of blighted vacant homes, whether it's taxes, or titles, or oil patch drug-runners hiding meth in a wall of a boarded-up structure. There are 1,000 homes, but less than a third are occupied.
The sovereigns, representing a development partnership called DTM Enterprises, have filed tax liens against several delinquent property owners. The local property owners association and a water utility are at odds with the sovereign's peculiar interpretations of the law.
The county Justice Court has dealt with two cases of sovereigns who believe driving on public roads is a God-given right that doesn't require a license, or U.S citizenship, which they've renounced.
And no one is sure what to make of these new neighbors, or know exactly how many there are, or could be.
Kelly, in an open letter to the community, warned that the new holders of his property would be "teaching their philosophy at St. Marie."
Sovereign Terry Lee Brauner told The Gazette he isn't interested in creating a compound. Rather, he sees development potential in St. Marie. He'd like to sell the buildings DTM acquired and eventually manufacture carbon fiber air tanks on a large scale, a plan Brauner said will take about $50 million.
Rise of sovereigns
The FBI says sovereigns "are anti-government extremists who believe that even though they physically reside in this country, they are separate or 'sovereign' from the United States. As a result, they believe they don’t have to answer to any government authority, including courts, taxing entities, motor vehicle departments or law enforcement."
Many sovereigns don't pay taxes and have been called "paper terrorists" for gumming up courts with bogus lawsuits and liens meant to harass, according to the FBI.
Locals say the sovereigns resemble the Freemen, a 1990s group whose self-prescribed laws and refusal to recognize state and federal governments ended in an FBI standoff about two hours from here in Jordan.
In the drab confines of a tired government building turned homeowner's association, DeAnn Ketchum responds exhaustedly when asked about the sovereigns in St. Marie.
"We all find it a little bit, I don’t know. I want to use the term unbelievable,” she said.
Property holders in St. Marie, and there are hundreds of them, have been sued by the sovereigns. The point of the suit, said Nick Chiechi, one of the sued, was to end mutual ownership of some roads and other common community property.
“The district judge told them this is the improper instrument for what you’re trying to do," said Chiechi, who is $758 poorer for the experience of being sued. "You have to have signatures for all 1,012 properties before you can change or give away property.”
The property challenges have been endless since the sovereigns arrived, Chiechi said.
In 2012, sovereigns leading a group called Citizens Action Committee of Valley County posted in a local newspaper that they intended to take over governance of unincorporated St. Marie by declaring it a blighted community and exercising eminent domain, a move only allowed by the federal government under Montana law.
The failed eminent domain attempt was followed by an effort to join the local property owners association board by leveraging an overwhelming number of proxy votes associated with more than 300 properties. That plan backfired as questions arose about whether the sovereigns really had authority to use the votes and whether fees for upkeep and utilities are paid in full on some of the properties. Only properties with paid fees are given votes.
Then, the disgruntled property owners represented by sovereigns sought to break away from the community by creating their own homeowners association. That attempt also failed.
More recently, sovereigns notified current homeowners that the community’s protective covenants were being rewritten.
It's become important for property owners to read the legal notices in the local newspaper, in order to learn what the sovereigns are up to, Ketchum said. Legal ads seem to be a preferred way for sovereigns to give notice to the public.
"They're unpredictable. We never know what they're going to do, which puts us at a disadvantage," Ketchum said. "We're very predictable."
Predictability is what the military retirees who settled in St. Marie are all about. They left rule-driven careers and brought that appreciation for order into retirement. The initial promise of St. Marie, was base-style living on the high northern plains. That promise to retirees, made by Pat Kelly in promotional ads published in military magazines, has all but disappeared.
Retaking a community
Before St. Marie was the struggling development, it was Glasgow Air Force Base, home to long-range bombers positioned just 50 miles from the U.S.-Canadian border. As many 7,200 people lived here, spread across 1,000 homes and duplexes, all of it left behind when the government pulled out in the 1970s.
There’s a church, a hospital, a high school, a bowling alley and an officers club. Forty years later, many of the buildings are falling apart. There seems to be a collapsed roof, a burned-out foundation or boarded-up windows on every street.
The long, grey, subzero winters of the Hi Line have chewed on the haunches of these tired structures like wolves. There are street scenes straight out of the zombie apocalypse.
And yet, in the middle of all the paint-peeled decay are new roofs and siding, cut lawns and shiny cars. In other words, mirrored fragments of the community Pat Kelly envisioned in the 1980s when he began buying base homes at bargain basement prices from the U.S. government.
There are still 250 homes mostly occupied by military retirees and maintained by a condominium association that were part of Kelly’s big plans. But as people moved in, property taxes on the buildings increased. Owners of several hundred units, like Kelly and one or two others, couldn’t keep up.
Titles to many of the units are tied up in bankruptcy. One owner is serving a 10-year prison sentence for defrauding investors in a scam sold as a way to help rebuild neighborhoods damaged by Hurricane Katrina.
A sign at the town entrance states “Welcome to St. Marie, home of the adventurous.”
St. Marie's potential
The sovereign citizens were just looking to be the next people to buy into St. Marie’s potential, according to Terry Lee Brauner, who prefers to go by Terry-Lee. He and fellow sovereign Merrill Frantz saw an opportunity and took it. There may only be a handful of sovereigns in St. Marie, but they have influence over a lot of buildings.
“Pat owed — and a bunch of other people owed — back taxes on their property,” Brauner said. “Some of the units were over 10 years behind and I asked the treasurer, ‘How come you haven’t foreclosed on these?’ And she said, ‘Nobody wants them.’”
“So we paid the taxes on 600 units in 2012,” Brauner said.
The sovereigns had originally appeared in St. Marie looking for a place to build log housing for Bakken oil boom workers. At least that’s what Pat Kelly said he was told when Brauner, Frantz and another man turned up looking for property. Soon after, the men became regulars at the Valley County Courthouse and at community meetings.
And, they got into trouble.
Last year, Brauner went to jail after a prolonged legal battle over his refusal to have a driver’s license. Sheriff Glen Meier said Brauner informed him that driver's licenses weren’t necessary. Later, the argument turned on Brauner’s refusal to check the “I am a U.S. citizen” box on the license application.
“It’s not a battle over the driver’s license. It’s a battle over my name, my address and my citizenship and that’s based on my 20 years of research,” Brauner told The Gazette. “I have a true Christian name that is spelled in upper, lower case, I do not believe in any name, Christian name, being spelled in all capital letters."
In other words, Brauner objects to the state of Montana printing his name in all capital letters on its licenses.
“The other issue is I do not have an NT zip code and address,” Brauner said. “That is a federal zone, and I live in a state. I am a state citizen, not a federal citizen, but the way this is set up you cannot get a vote registration or a driver’s license unless you are a federalized citizen residing in this state. That’s how it is set up.”
Brauner has appealed his case to the Montana Supreme Court.
Such beliefs about basic government relationships are at the root of many anti-government group conflicts with society. Brauner explained that over time, beginning in the 1800s, an illegitimate federal government gradually replaced the one started by the U.S. founders.
As fellow St. Marie sovereign Merrill Frantz explained in a podcast interview, any law including the phrase “a person who,” is unfounded because a person and a people are different things.
No. 1 danger
Sovereigns used to rank somewhat low on the danger scale, compared to other groups with similar beliefs, but that has changed. In 2007, the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses ranked sovereign citizens seventh on the threat list. And then last year, sovereigns bumped radical Islamist extremists from the top spot.
“They have their own laws and you don’t know when you’re going to cross the line,” said Rachel Carroll Rivas, of the Montana Human Rights Network.
There’s also a concern about sovereign associates from other groups who my turn up when conflicts escalate, Rivas said.
The Southern Poverty Law Center puts the number of sovereigns at more than 100,000 and increasing. That growth is concerning, according to SPLC.
Valley County Attorney Nick Murnion is ready to put the sovereigns in the same category as the Freemen. He prosecuted them in the ’90s as attorney for Garfield County.
“The sovereign citizens will at least meet me in court,” Murnion said. “The Freeman wanted to meet me at the fence. They wanted to hang me from a tree.”
Because so many of the St. Marie conflicts play out in civil court between private parties, Murnion said he’s been more of an observer. But he’s also advising local law enforcement, as well as county clerks and others dealing with sovereigns to not tolerate the liens, notices and defiance that comes with the territory.
He said a local judge dealing with a St. Marie water lawsuit involving sovereigns probably put it best.
“The judge said ‘This isn’t as much about stealing water, as it is about stealing time,’” Murnion said.