A federal judge has acquitted a Miles City man accused of threatening an IRS employee in an e-mail to a tax firm he had hired to resolve an inheritance tax dispute.

Robert Shipley, 61, buried his face in hands as Chief U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull ruled late Wednesday afternoon that he was not guilty of threatening communication. Shipley was the last witness in the three-day bench trial and gave emotional testimony. He had been incarcerated since his arrest more than 10 months ago.

Shipley admitted that he wrote and sent an e-mail last June to employees at Quantum Financial Solutions in Colorado in which he complained about Quantum's handling of his case and threatened to get a baseball bat or club and beat in the head of the IRS officer assigned to the matter.

But he never intended to communicate a threat or to harm the officer and was ashamed of the language he used, Shipley said. In the e-mail, he referred to Sandra Welch, the IRS officer, as "superbitch Welch."

"I was a mess," Shipley said. "I was angry."

Shipley also said he had no idea his e-mail would be disclosed to the IRS.

Cebull acquitted Shipley shortly after his testimony and without hearing closing arguments from defense attorney Robert Stephens or Assistant U.S. Attorney Marcia Hurd.

Cebull said there was reasonable doubt whether Shipley specifically intended to communicate a threat to the IRS officer. The judge also found that Shipley was suffering from a diminished mental capacity at the time of the incident.

Cebull reminded Shipley of his obligation to pay taxes "whether you like it or not."

"Do you understand?" Cebull asked.

"Yes sir, I do," Shipley replied.

"The defendant is free to go," Cebull said.

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Shipley had been incarcerated since Aug. 2, 2007, when he was arrested on the indictment. If convicted, Shipley had faced a maximum of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Shipley's tax problem stemmed from an inheritance received in the late 1990s. Trying to resolve it became an obsession for Shipley, who offended everyone in the IRS he dealt with on the matter, said Stephens. The dispute eventually ensnared two of Shipley's business associates with whom he jointly owned property that became the target of an IRS lien.

Shipley further complicated the matter with his belief that the government's taxing authority was unconstitutional and that the IRS was acting fraudulently, Stephens said.

Shipley became emotional on the stand, saying he never meant to hurt his longtime business partners and friends who tried to help him. The tax problem consumed him and he got angry and depressed, he said.

Shipley said he refused to sign a batch of tax returns that had been figured by a Miles City accountant because of a dispute over the amount.

Shipley, according to Hurd, was responsible for the problems because he had not filed tax returns since about 1998 and the IRS had to estimate the amount of taxes due. Shipley rejected the advice of both the Miles City accountant and of Quantum to file his returns as a step to solving the dispute, she said.

Government witnesses said Shipley had been warned by a Treasury Department agent in 2005 against making threatening statements to the IRS. The agent referred his investigation to the U.S. Attorney's Office, which declined to prosecute the case.

Welch, the IRS officer, testified that she got a call last June from a Quantum employee who told her he was concerned for her safety and sent her a copy of Shipley's e-mail, she said.

"Needless to say, I have a loaded .45 on my night stand now," Welch said.

Under questioning by Hurd, Shipley admitted he espoused views that he didn't have to pay taxes and that he typed "American Patriot" under his name. But he denied joining any tax protest group.

"Absolutely not, and I never would," he said.

Earlier this year, Shipley filed his tax returns and resolved his case with the IRS.

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