Strange saga of 'freemen'

Washington Post/April 1996
By Tom Kenworthy and Serge F. Kovaleski

Back in the days when he was benefiting from the easy credit policies of the Farmers Home Administration, Ralph Clark didn't seem to have much problem with the federal government.

But when land values and crop prices fell in the 1980s, and he began having trouble making the payments on his farm northwest of the small eastern Montana town of Jordan, Clark was easily persuaded to believe that government was the enemy.

When LeRoy M. Schweitzer, a crop-duster and tax delinquent, came recruiting far an anti-government group he called the "Freemen," Clark signed on. So did his brother Emmett, his son Edwin and nephew Richard.

All four became eager apostles of the freemen's credo: All forms of organized government are illegitimate and have no right to collect taxes or even require auto tags; they could defy foreclosure actions; issue arrest warrants and hold trials of government officials; they could act as their own central bank and defraud the government, financial institutions and merchants.

For people living on the margins in an unforgiving landscape where even the most industrious face tough obstacles, the freemen offered a psychic refuge for Ralph and Emmett Clark as they faced foreclosure on their properties on the isolated plains of eastern Montana. Blaming the government made it easier to rationalize their own shortcomings.

"This thing just kept building every time I talked to them," said Alven Clark, their distraught brother. "They listened to these prophets."

Now, holed up and watched by FBI agents on a 960-farm on the windswept plains, the Clarks and a handful of other heavily armed freemen, indicted on numerous charges of threatening public officials and financial fraud, are facing the full power of the very government they reject.

The arrest last Monday of Schweitzer, 57, and Daniel Petersen Jr., 53, near the remote compound they call Justus Township came none too soon for most of the 450 residents of Jordan, who have waited with mounting impatience for federal authorities to put an end to the strange saga of the Montana freemen.

War of intimidation

For more than two years, the freemen have waged their own private war of intimidation in eastern Montana, according to the indictments. Espousing so-called common law, they have invaded courtrooms to hold mock trials of public officials, filed multimillion-dollar liens against them in court, hatched plots to defraud financial institutions and merchants of millions of dollars, and taught hundreds of acolytes from around the country how to do the same.

American history is littered with examples of how hard economic times produce hard-edged political splinter groups, but the freemen of Montana are a particularly virulent strain. Their philosophy, a hodgepodge drawn from the Old Testament, the Magna Carta, the anti-tax Posse Comitatus of the 1980s and a highly selective reading of the Constitution, is laced with racism and talk of a Jewish conspiracy, and puts them at the extreme of the Christian patriot movement.

"The freemen have, in effect, appointed themselves judge, jury and executioner," and Steven Gardner, research director at the Coalition for Human Dignity in Portland, Oregon. "They are trying to form their own shadow government for a white Christian republic."

Though isolated in Montana, the freemen have found no shortage of followers nationwide. Indictments unsealed in Billings last week charge that several hundred people have attended "common law" workshops in Roundup, Mont., and in Jordan, learning from Schweitzer and others how to use computers and laser printers to file against public officials and then use those fraudulent assets to write bad checks and phony money orders.

The federal indictments say the freemen have defrauded banks, public agencies and private businesses of $1.8 million since late 1994, sometimes by writing fraudulent checks for twice the amount due and then demanding refunds. Authorities in Utah, California, Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota and elsewhere have uncovered similar schemes and linked the fraud rings to Schweitzer. Overall, authorities say phony money orders worth $20 million were disseminated as part of the fraud, which has been likened to a variation of the Bank of Sark scam of the 1970s.

Gun dealer lucky

But some, such as Cajun James in Eureka Mont., have been lucky. IN February 1995, his business, Cajun Arms Ammo and Repair, received a $1.4 million check and a large purchase order that included a request for 200 .50-caliber rifles, 200,000 rounds of ammunition, 200 bulletproof vest and 200 sets of binoculars.

But shortly after James deposited the check, the FBI seized it from the bank, saying it was fraudulent. James, who had not sent out any merchandise, is suing the freemen for $640,000 for breach of contract for failing to pay for the goods with a valid check and trying to draw him into a conspiracy.

He said the check looked so authentic that his bank had set up a new savings account for him and credited him with the money after reviewing the check.

"It says 'Certified Money Order,' has the name and address of the back on it and a notary signature," James said. "By looking at it, there is no reason to think it is fraudulent. It was good enough to fool my bank."

The account number on the check belonged to the U.S. District Court in Butte. The account has been set up in 1990 at Norwest Bank of Montana by a federal judge but was closed in 1994 after freemen started writing counterfeit check on it.

Many of the freemen's checks illegally bore the name of Norwest Bank, authorities said. Bruce Parker, president of the branch in Butte, said that during the past 18 months his bank received two to five inquiries a week about freemen checks.

Nearly everyone in Jordan, knows the freemen. Many have relatives at the encampment and they lament how this strange political movement has torn the town's social fabric, splitting families into opposing camps and poisoning long-standing relationships.

"It's like their brainwashed," said Nickolas Murnion, who as the attorney for Garfield County has borne the brunt of freemen assaults on the legal system. Murnion's family came to Jordan from Ireland to raise sheep, and he has lived in the community his whole life, attending school with two of the Clarks now at Justus Township. The freemen, he says, represents about 1 percent of the town, "and they are causing misery for the whole county."

"We're tore up about it," said another resident who asked to remain anonymous. "A lot of us have family out there."

The freemen, she and others said, have rejected anyone, even close family members, who do not share their beliefs.

"If we're not with them, we're against them," she said.

Longtime residents don't know how to assess the freemen's threats of violence, which extend even to non-believers in their own families.

"They never were violent," County Clerk and Recorder Jo Ann Stanton said. "But then I don't know them now, either."

Most residents simply yearn for a conclusion, hopefully without bloodshed.

"I'm glad it's coming to an end," said Alven Clark, 66, now estranged from his two brothers. "I don't know how it's going to end, but get this load off of us."

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