Freemen, FBI standoff drags on
Lessons of Waco put into practice
March 28, 1996
Web posted at: 12:30 a.m. EST
BILLINGS, Montana (CNN) -- Negotiations between the FBI and 10 anti-government militants dragged through a third day Wednesday with no sign of a breakthrough. The fugitives, members of the "freemen" group, are armed and are holding federal authorities at bay outside a remote farm house in Montana.
The group refuses to pay taxes or be evicted from the property, which was foreclosed upon 18 months ago. They have even posted bounties for the capture of police and judges, and threatened to shoot their neighbors' sheep and cattle.
Two members of the group were arrested Wednesday without incident, even though both were carrying loaded guns. Both were indicted a year ago on federal charges for writing bad checks and threatening a judge's life.
According to court papers filed Wednesday, an FBI sting operation led to the arrests of the two, freemen leader LeRoy Schweitzer and member Daniel Petersen. Schweitzer allegedly gave FBI agent Timothy Healy a bogus "comptroller's warrant" for $3 million, in return for the profits from selling imports bought with the $3 million. He stood to gain $1 million in cash from the operation, the FBI said.
Lavon T. Hanson was also arrested in connection with the FBI sting. He allegedly agreed to transport illegally-earned funds from Los Angeles to Montana in a conversation between Schweitzer, Healy, and Hanson on March 25. Based on that conversation, the complaint said, the FBI believed that "Hanson understood the entire scheme, including his role as pilot transporting funds."
Leader described as 'snake oil' peddler
Law enforcement officials describe Schweitzer, 57, the leader of the right-wing separatist group, as an anti-government troublemaker, and say he's proud of it. The freeman movement denies the legitimacy of governments, refusing to pay United States income taxes or renew their drivers' licenses. Freemen claim to have their own laws, their own courts, and their own police force.
A high school classmate of Schweitzer, Lou Anne Biggerstaff, remembers him as a leader.
"I think a lot of people are interested in what he has to say," she said. But sources describe Schweitzer as a con man and a crook who holds crime classes. In those classes, the sources allege, he shows people how to forge government bank notes.
Biggerstaff said Schweitzer has "a lot of persuasive powers." A neighbor, rancher Kenneth Coulter, blames the leaders' charm for what he said was a wrong turn taken by the four Clark brothers who originally owned the freemen farm.
At least two of the Clark brothers, Richard and Ralph, are freemen. The pair was named in an indictment released Monday. Coulter said they were "basically good people" who were led astray by Schweitzer and Petersen. They "sold them a lot of snake oil on how to protect their property," Coulter said.
Schweitzer's "snake oil" may have enticed people throughout the country to take up the freeman flag. In Phoenix, the FBI arrested dentist Emmitt Warren, who is believed to have attended a Schweitzer seminar on forging bank notes and is accused of purchasing vehicles for the freemen with $200,000 in forged certificates.
Warren said in court that he had "surrendered my allegiance to the United States and the state of Arizona."
Some find his renunciation akin to militia member stances, and say there's little difference between the freemen and militia movements.
"They talk about Christian patriotism. Viewers should know it's an inherently racist view -- beliefs there are different rights for white Christian folks and for blacks, Jews, and for others," said Kenneth Stern, author of "A Force Upon the Plains." "Terry Nichols, who is charged with the Oklahoma City bombing, did the same thing that the freemen folks are talking about."
Ken Toole of the Montana Human Rights Network agreed. "They have essentially drawn a line in the sand with law enforcement who have tried to enforce those laws. They have threatened local law enforcement and other public officials," he said. And the FBI's indictments against the freemen, he said, are "clearly a matter of what they have done, not what they believe."
ATF stays clear
Whatever the resemblance to militia groups, the scene near Jordan, government officials hope, will stand in marked contrast to the grisly disaster in Waco, Texas, where cult leader David Koresh and his followers died, or the standoff at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, where a federal marshal and the wife and son of a separatist were shot to death.
"The FBI has gone to great pains to ensure that there is no armed confrontation, no siege, no armed perimeter, and no use of military assault-type tactics or equipment," said Attorney General Janet Reno in a statement. "The FBI is trying to negotiate a peaceful solution."
The FBI stresses that the confrontation is not a siege. Although there is a command post on one of three roads leading into freeman territory, other roads are under surveillance only.
And, unlike Waco, agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms are conspicuously absent. Officials say they're not aware of any weapons violations that would require ATF presence.
But the absence of the controversial agency can't hurt the government effort to defuse tensions. Authorities had held off arresting leaders of the freemen group for months, because they feared a violent confrontation.
Jim Pate of Soldier of Fortune magazine, who met the freemen leaders last year, said he believes confrontation could erupt into violence.
And Lynn Davis of the Montana Human Rights Network said she too considers the freemen dangerous.
"They haven't shot anybody, but they've held people at gunpoint," she said. "They've threatened. I've had two calls in the past week threatening my life, my children. Phone calls to both my home and office."
Negotiations make no progress
FBI agents reported no progress Wednesday in their discussions with Schweitzer's followers. U.S. Attorney Sherry Matteucci said women and children remain on the farm, but would not speculate on how many people are in the so-called "Justus Township." She repeated that federal authorities intend no harm to those left on the farm.
She said that federal authorities are seeking eight other people who are not in custody in the freeman case. They include Rodney Skurdal, another freeman member, on whom a state warrant was issued March 8, 1995. He allegedly advocated violence. Seven people linked to the freemen were arrested after an armed confrontation with police in the county south of the Freemen compound, according to the sheriff in Musselshell County, Montana.
So far, the ball remains in the Justice Department's court. While President Clinton is following the operation, the White House says he has given no specific instructions to the Justice Department.
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