FBI: 'Sovereign citizen' cases on the rise

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/March 5, 2011

"I'm not sure I can connect it with the economy, but we've seen a surge of these in the last year, in particular," Stephen Emmett, special agent in the Atlanta field office of the FBI, said Saturday. Emmet said federal and local authorities increasingly are running into confrontations with members of a sect known as "sovereign citizens."

"They're expanding throughout the Metro Atlanta area," Emmett said. "DeKalb has had their fair share of problems with them and now Clayton."

On Friday, Clayton County SWAT was called to a foreclosed home near Riverdale where a couple had been living illegally. SWAT members surrounded the house after getting reports the people inside had threatened violece against anyone who approached the house. Gideon Israel and his wife, Deborah, had been living illegally in the bank-owned, gray stucco house on Stimson way near Riverdale in the northwest part of Clayton County for a while and had submitted reams of fraudulent paperwork to county officials to try to block the eviction, according to Major Jeff Mitchell, who heads the enforcement division for the Clayton County Sheriff's Office.

The Israels were not charged and left without incident. Shortly after, cleanup crews for the bank put furniture and other belongings on the lawn and boarded up the house.

Mitchell said the Riverdale couple is believed to part of the sovereign citizen sect. County law enforcement had a similar incident a month ago of a man living in a home who claimed to be a member of the sect. Last year county police stopped a guy claiming to be a sovereign citizen and found more than $300 billion in fake bonds in his car.

"We're trying to identify other sovereign citizen cases in the county," Mitchell said, noting local law enforcement is working with the FBI to target group members.

Emmett said sect members believe they are above the law, as evidenced by the shooting death of two police officers in West Memphis, Ark., last year. Officers there were making a traffic stop.

Group members don't believe courts have juridisction over them. They don't believe in paying taxes or having driver's licenses or car tags.

They do, however, believe abandoned properties are ripe for the taking. They often use quit-claim deeds to take over properties and as soon as they move in post trespassing signs warning people to stay off the property.

The group uses YouTube to educate the public about their philosophy and recruit new members.

The Riverdale incident is among at least two dozen area incidents of home takeovers by the sovereign citizens, including a $1 million home in south DeKalb County seized by the sect last year. Authorities say the sect has taken over 20 metro Atlanta properties, including a shopping center. The group believes banks can't own land or property and that any home owned by a bank -- including the thousands of foreclosed properties throughout Georgia -- are theirs for the taking. Emmett said he also knows of cases where sect members have taken over homes being refurbished.

The FBI has listed Sovereign Citizens as a domestic terrorist organization. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which also tracks the group, estimates the sect numbers more than 300,000 nationwide in such places as Georgia, Indiana, Nevada and Virginia.

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