Judge enters plea for Park County man

Billings Gazette/May 25, 2010

A Park County man who claims to be "pontiff" of his own church and government is facing federal and state charges after his arrest during a traffic stop in March.

Love Thomas Wright Cooper, 33, of Emigrant, appeared Friday in U.S. District Court in Billings on charges of being a felon in possession of a firearm. Representing himself, Cooper said his name was "Love Thomas Wright of the family Cooper.''

U.S. Magistrate Judge Carolyn Ostby entered a not guilty plea on Cooper's behalf.

An indictment accuses Cooper of illegally possessing two 9mm pistols on March 6 in Park County. Cooper was convicted of felony assault in Virginia in 2000, court records said. If convicted, Cooper faces a maximum 10 years in prison and a maximum $250,000 fine. Senior U.S. District Judge Jack Shanstrom will hear the case.

Cooper also is facing a Nov. 30 jury trial on state felony and misdemeanor charges in Park County, said Park County Attorney Brett Linneweber. Cooper is representing himself in that case, too.

Cooper says he is the pontiff of the Sovereign Church of Christ, an "Alternative Governing Body," according to the organization's website. The SCC is not governed by any state or federal constitutions, and its citizens are sovereign men and women who were "born free and natural on the lands known to many as: Continental America" the site says.

The SCC website also serves notice that: "Lost (sic) of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness will follow those who trespass upon Sovereign Church of Christ citizens unalienable rights."

"It's a cult," Linneweber said. "I'm not going to mince words on that. It's a cult."

Cooper initially was held in the Park County jail but was moved to the Yellowstone County Detention Facility on March 15 after he became disruptive, Linneweber said. Cooper tried converting other inmates to the SCC and made threatening statements to the judge, the prosecutor said.

Park County sheriff's deputies arrested Cooper on March 6 after a traffic stop in which Cooper was going 80 mph in a 65 mph nighttime zone, court records said.

As the deputy got closer to the vehicle, he noticed the rear license plate read "pontiff." The deputy knew from previous contact that the plate was fictitious, the registration had expired and that, if Cooper was driving, he had a revoked license.

Cooper eventually stopped the truck in Emigrant, and the deputy called for backup.

Cooper told the deputy that he was of a sovereign nation and not subject to the state's laws, court records said. Cooper initially refused to cooperate with requests for driving information and to get out of the vehicle, but eventually got out.

Cooper denied having any weapons on his person, but a Montana Highway Patrol trooper found a loaded semi-automatic handgun in a hip holster under Cooper's clothing. The gun had a round in the chamber. Cooper also had a plastic bag containing about 10 grams of marijuana.

An investigation found that the registered owner of the truck had allowed Cooper and his church to use it, but that the terms of the agreement hadn't been met, court records said. One of the terms was that Cooper and church members would show the owner how not to pay taxes.

Cooper is charged in Park County with felony theft of a 2007 Chevrolet Silverado truck and felony criminal possession of dangerous drugs, marijuana. He also faces six misdemeanor counts including carrying a concealed weapon, obstruction of a peace officer, operating a vehicle without a license plate, speeding, no insurance and driving while his license was suspended or revoked.

Linneweber said the gun count probably will be dismissed because of the federal charge.

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