Freemen surrender peacefully to FBI
81-day siege longest in history
June 14, 1996
Web posted at: 12:50 a.m. EDT
BRUSETT, Montana (CNN) -- The last 16 members of the anti-government Freemen group surrendered at a remote Montana ranch Thursday afternoon, ending the longest federal siege in modern U.S. history.
CNN Correspondents Rusty Dornin and John Holliman
narrate the Freemen surrender -- 1.8 MB QuickTime movie
The Freemen were escorted from the 960-acre "Justus Township" compound in a Winnebago motorhome and turned over to FBI agents one by one by lead negotiator Edwin Clark, who drove an escort car to the ranch gate. They were being taken to Yellowstone County Jail in Billings, Montana, the FBI said.
They gave themselves up to FBI officials at the entrance to their ranch, which has been their traditional meeting place with negotiators during the 81-day standoff.
FBI Director Louis J. Freeh lauded the policy of "patience and resoluteness" that he credited for the peaceful outcome. (81K AIFF or WAV sound)
"I think the American people can take great comfort that the law was enforced and that it was done in a way that did not do harm to anyone," he said at an evening news conference at FBI headquarters in Washington.
"We tried a fundamentally different approach," said Freeh, noting the criticism the FBI heard for the deadly shootout at Ruby Ridge, Idaho three years ago. (112K AIFF or WAV sound)
President Clinton expressed pride in the FBI's handling of the episode, telling a White House state dinner audience, "We will all say a little prayer tonight for this peaceful settlement of a difficult situation."
U.S. Attorney Sherry Scheel Matteucci in Billings stressed that negotiations with the group had not involved dismissal or reduction of any federal charges.
"That was never a possibility," Matteucci said, adding that "no Montana state charges have been dropped and no agreement to drop any of those charges has been made."
14 of the fugitive Freemen were to face criminal charges, including circulating millions of dollars in bogus checks and threatening to kill a federal judge.
The two people not facing charges, wives of Freemen members, were free to go but chose to drive with the group to Billings.
The separatist group members holed themselves up on the 960-acre ranch in Brusett in March after two of their leaders, LeRoy Schweitzer and Dan Petersen, were arrested and charged in connection with fraudulent check and money order schemes. They and the rest of the Freemen were living on the ranch, which had been foreclosed on because the Clark family, who originally owned it, had stopped making payments on the mortgage.
The Freemen said the U.S. government had no jurisdiction over their ranch, which they dubbed "Justus Township," and demanded a trial by other Freemen, using their own version of the Constitution. They raised an inverted U.S. flag on one of their buildings, saying it was a symbol of a nation in distress.
Negotiators had nearly given up in achieving a peaceful end to the situation. Randy Weaver, who had faced off with the FBI in the Ruby Ridge standoff, and former Green Beret Bo Gritz both entered the ranch and spent several days talking to the Freemen, only to finally give up in exasperation.
Colorado state Sen. Charlie Duke also worked with them for a week, finally emerging angry because, he said, the Freemen had reneged on three separate deals. And Montana legislator Carl Ohs has mediated between the FBI and the Freemen off and on throughout the standoff, including the final days.
A sudden flurry of activity in the last few days indicated that the logjam might have finally broken. On Tuesday, Freemen leader Edwin Clark persuaded the FBI to fly him to Billings so that he could talk with the jailed former Freemen leader Schweitzer. His note to agents said, "Let me out so I can talk about surrender."
Wednesday also saw the departure of the youngest person remaining on the ranch, a 16-year-old girl.
Also Wednesday, FBI officials told CNN that the group had agreed to a surrender. On Thursday, the Freemen loaded a rental truck provided by the FBI with documentation that they claim will prove their innocence and reveal government wrongdoing. Ohs will be safeguarding the documents, which the Freemen apparently believed would otherwise be destroyed.
For a time, it seemed that the FBI could not score a public relations win in their encounter with the Freemen. They would either be criticized for going in with force and hurting innocent people, as happened in the Ruby Ridge and Waco incidents, or they would be ridiculed for taking so long to take alleged criminals into custody.
But Thursday's peaceful end, so long sought, will likely vindicate their stand.
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