Another notable Sovereign Citizen group were the Montana Freemen an anti-government Christian Patriot movement group based outside the town of Jordan, Montana. The members of the group referred to their land as “Justus Township” and had declared themselves no longer under the authority of any outside government. They became the center of public attention in 1996 when they engaged in a prolonged armed standoff with agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. 1
For several years prior, the Montana Freemen issued ‘common-law’ edicts harassing local judges, sheriffs and county attorneys, burying them in a forest of paper. 2 Treatises on the Magna Carta, phony court judgments and computer generated financial instruments — all claimed the government had no jurisdiction over their persons or property. They viewed support of the corporate credit system as an unconstitutional act which would incrementally deprive the people of their property. 3
The Freemen created their own particular blend of right-wing ideology by blending broad-based anti-Fed activism, Posse-derived common-law philosophy and the theology of Christian Identity, an anti-Semitic and racist belief system that has animated segments of the radical right for decades. 4 In so doing, they also found a constituency for their scam that was willing to openly defy the authorities, and defraud the unsuspecting at the same time. Their approach was also similar to that of the Posse Comitatus, yet resentment of gun control, land and environmental regulation and chronic rural dislocation, was greater in the early 1990s than during the Posse’s heyday a decade earlier. By 1994-95, the Freemen’s Montana garrisons became the most important way stations in a network that stretched from the Northwest to the Midwest, and south to Oklahoma and Texas.
During this period, common-law courts and militias popped up from North Carolina to California, spreading the groups white supremacist views and legal mumbo-jumbo, through rural societies and related groups around the nation. At the same time, the Freemen established themselves in the central avenues of Montana community life. They employed a strategy that might be called “mass resistance.” Unlike members of terrorist cells who operate clandestinely, the Freemen propagandized publicly at wellattended community meetings and in court appearances.
Until their arrests in the summer of 1996, the Montana Freemen managed to spread their doctrines from one end of the nation to the other. 5 They were the hub of a wheel whose spokes extended to Florida, Texas, California, New York and elsewhere. Giving class upon class at their ranches in Roundup and Jordan, Mont., the Freemen’s leaders propagated their peculiar combination of common-law ideology and breakthe-bank schemes. An estimated 800 followers flocked to the Freemen’s classes, and the group became a main stage event, not just another cranky sideshow. Before the siege at Justus Township, the Freemen had come dangerously close to their goal of establishing themselves as a dual power, with authority rivaling that of local and federal governments. At one point, a local mayor actually became part of the Freemen. A common-law propagandist named Ron Griesacker said he attended “a school of learning” with Montana Freemen leader LeRoy Schweitzer before setting up common-law courts in Kansas.
Republic of Texas guru Richard McLaren, convicted in April of 26 counts of fraud and conspiracy, reportedly studied with Griesacker. Others around the country who studied with Schweitzer were inspired to set up their own common-law courts. Perhaps the most important Freeman collaborator was the United Sovereigns of America (USA), an Oklahoma group once led by anti-Semite Gerald Henson, who is now serving an eight-year prison term. In 1995, USA joined with Coloradan Eugene Schroder to convene a national common-law convention in Wichita, Kan., and its tracts still are widely circulated in the movement.
Common-law courts are courts organized at the local level outside the recognized judicial system that purportedly apply principles of common law to resolve disputes and adjudicate criminal matters. Like similar courts developed by the Posse Comitatus, 6 common-law courts meet in private homes or community gathering-places such as bingo halls, restaurants, or bowling alleys. Some courts act as instruments of harassment; 7 others appear to be sincere attempts by members to implement their beliefs by freeing themselves from state tyranny and holding public officials accountable to the people.
One reporter described common-law courts as “the judicial arm of the Christian Patriot movement.” 8 While this assertion is almost certainly false – the Patriot movement is too disorganized to have a clearly defined separation of powers or division of responsibilities – there is a strong connection between elements of the Patriot movement (including militias) and many common-law courts. 9
The first Wisconsin common-law court appeared in 1995, 10 and former members of the Posse Comitatus and Family Farm Preservation have promoted the formation of other Wisconsin common-law courts. KlanWatch has identified common-law courts in twelve Wisconsin counties, 11 and state law enforcement officials view the movement with concern. 12 Still, Wisconsin common-law courts are not particularly active. 13 Commonlaw courts in other states are more active, particularly when it comes to intimidating public officials. When a Missouri judge refused to dismiss a speeding ticket given to a seventeen-year-old adherent, Our One Supreme Court ordered him to appear before a common-law court. 14 When the judge did not appear, the common-law court rendered a default verdict against him and ordered a $ 10.8 million lien placed on his house. 15 Members of the common-law jury were tried and convicted under a Missouri law that bans the filing of common-law liens, 16 but the convictions were reversed on grounds unrelated to the merits of the case. 17 Ohio judges have faced similar harassment from an Ohio version of Our One Supreme Court, which meets in a Columbus bingo hall. 18
Common-law courts in other states have attempted to hold public officials accountable to their standards. The Kansas Territorial Agricultural Society, a common-law court linked with the Posse Comitatus, found U.S. District Judge J. Thomas Marten “guilty and indicted” at a 1997 Abilene meeting and ordered him to appear before the “Constitutional Court” for an impeachment trial. 19 The court met again in the old Supreme Court chambers in Topeka several weeks later, and a ten-man jury impeached Marten on charges of holding a rogue court, kidnapping and blackmail, taking property, and extortion. 20
Legislators blocked the group’s subsequent attempt to return to the chambers to impeach other judges, try the Kansas Attorney General for holding office illegally, and try the Shawnee County sheriff for refusing to arrest Bill Graves, whom the court claimed was impersonating the Governor of Kansas. 21 Similar activities have occurred in Indiana and Nebraska. 22 Montana Freemen leader LeRoy M. Schweitzer had operated a Montana crop dusting business until running afoul of the IRS in the mid-1980s. Schweitzer filed a civil action against the state of Montana in March 1990, and convinced a judge to open a $100 account at Norwest Bank to receive any possible judgments in his favor. Although the account was closed in 1994, he used paperwork from the account throughout the scam. In the critical next step, Schweitzer and the Freemen convened so-called common-law courts and issued “criminal” charges against individuals and government agencies. Garfield County Attorney Nick Murnion, for instance, was charged with “treason” and threatened with death.
When Schweitzer’s targets didn’t respond to the specious charges, he would issue financial “judgments” against them for fantastic sums. Then false commercial liens would be filed at the county courthouse to supposedly satisfy these judgments. Schweitzer also created a thicket of paper “transferring” the fictional value of the liens to the Norwest Bank account. Then, in the scam’s coup de grace, a computer-generated “certified banker’s check” or some other fake instrument was written on the nonexistent funds. The fake financial instrument would then be used to try to pay real debts or buy goods. They claimed that the liens conformed to the Uniform Commercial Code, and that their township’s court had an interest in a tort claim for damages incurred by the named public officials for violations of their oaths of office.
Relatively early in this process, county clerks stopped accepting these bogus liens, and judges issued court orders against them. In those instances where the liens were successfully filed, the Freemen’s targets had to take expensive legal action to have clear title to their property restored. If the county clerk didn’t accept the lien or the government agency refused to accept the paper, they, too, could be hit with a Freemen lien or a “summons” to the common-law court. The intention was to “intimidate any opposition” to the groups activity in the region. The Freemen were also known to produce their own very realistic counterfeit checks and money orders, sometimes ordering items and deliberately overpaying so they could demand refunds. The president of one bank reported that over an 18-month period his bank received two to five complaints a week about Freemen checks. In 1995 members wrote a fraudulent check to try to purchase 1.4 million dollars’ worth of firearms, ammunition, and bulletproof vests. 23
On March 2, 1995, William Stanton became the first Montana resident ever convicted of terrorism. District Judge Kenneth Wilson sentenced the Garfield County rancher to 10 years in jail (the maximum penalty) for using violence for political ends. The following day, four armed men who styled themselves the Garfield County Freemen, were arrested when they entered the Musselshell County Courthouse and tried to file papers protesting the seizure of Rodney Skurdal’s house by the Internal Revenue Service. 24
In late 1994 foreclosure proceedings were initiated against the farm that contained Justus Township. The Freemen refused to be evicted from the land. They had also conducted their own mock trials of numerous public officials, and issued their own writ of execution against a federal judge. The FBI investigated the group and initiated a sting operation aimed at one of the Freemen’s financial programs, which led to the arrest of two members of the group in March 1996.
The FBI also had warrants for eight other persons suspected to be in the farm, but before they were able to arrest them an armed confrontation developed and the FBI withdrew to a safe distance to avoid violence. 25 After 81 days of negotiations, the Freemen surrendered to authorities on June 14, 1996. 26
LeRoy Schweitzer was convicted of conspiracy, bank fraud, mail fraud, wire fraud, false claims to the IRS, interstate transportation of stolen property, threats against public officials, armed robbery of a television news crew, and firearms violations. He received a 22-year sentence for 25 convictions in a South Carolina federal prison. 27 In 2006 he was moved to the Administrative Maximum (ADX) facility at the Florence Federal Correctional Complex at Florence, Colorado, after Ervin Elbert Hurlbert and Donald Little, who identified themselves as “Montana Marshals”, attempted to free Schweitzer from the prison. He died in federal prison 28 on 20 September 2011 of natural causes, aged 73 years. 29
- Emmett Clark – pled guilty, recieved time served plus 3 years under supervision. 30
- Richard Clark – recieved 12 years. 31
- James Hance – recieved 5 years, 7 months . 32
- Lavon T. Hanson – pled guilty with plea bargain, and recieved 1 year, 1 day . 33
- Dana Dudley Landers – pled guilty, recieved 1 year, 9 months with credit for 2 years and 3 months already served. 34
- Russell Dean Landers – recieved 11 years, 3 months. 35
- Daniel E. Peterson – recieved 15 years. 36
- Dale M. Jacobi 37
- Rodney O. Skurdal 38
- Scott Roeder, convicted for the 2009 murder of George Tiller, 39 was reportedly involved with the Freemen. 40
Even in jail, the Freemen spouted on. Perplexed officials reported that in the months after their arrests, the Freemen’s jailmates unleashed a flood of their own bizarre, Freemen-esque “legal” documents. Schweitzer and his Freemen followed directly behind another organized swindle run by an organization calling itself We the People.
Roy Schwasinger’s We the People roiled through farming communities in 1992 and 1993 with a scam pitched directly at financially distressed farmers. Schwasinger, a Nebraskan who also operated out of Colorado, told his followers that he had successfully sued the Federal Reserve . He claimed to have struck a secret deal with the government to settle the lawsuit that would result in billions of dollars in damages being paid. For a $300 fee,
Schwasinger claimed, farmers could join the lawsuit and receive their portion of the dollars that would soon be distributed. Over 2,000 people took the bait. Eventually, We the People operatives were indicted in Iowa, Texas and Colorado — leading the anti-Semitic Liberty Lobby’s Spotlight tabloid to conclude that Schwasinger was a protester silenced for “objecting to heavy-handed government land grabs.” Like the Montana Freemen, Schwasinger filed cartons of commonlaw court documents, liens and fake arrest warrants before he was finally indicted and sent to jail
The link between the two fraud conspiracies is also direct and personal. Schwasinger’s operatives included Russell Landers, We the People’s emissary to the Southeast, and his wife, Dana Dudley. The couple, after being indicted with Schwasinger in Colorado, went on to hole up with the Freemen during the Jordan siege. In addition, Schweitzer, the Freemen leader, reportedly met personally with Schwasinger in 1992. Schwasinger’s scam, in turn, echoed a similar ideologically tinged fraud perpetrated on farmers in the early 1980s by a Coloradan, Rick Elliott.
Elliott told farmers that for a $300 fee they would be eligible for millions of dollars in interest-free loans provided by secret Arab donors. Before going to jail, Elliott’s Primrose and Cattlemen’s Gazette routinely published anti-Semitic screeds and advertisements for the neo-Nazi Aryan Nations. Among Elliott’s core group of sponsors was Eugene Schroder, who in later years would become a major player in the common-law movement.
- 1 http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/twenty-years-ago-today-the-montana-freeman-started-its-81-day-standoff-180958568/
- 2 See United States v. Hanzlicek, 187 F.3d 1228 (10th Cir. 1999) https://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=14236425326291615419&hl=en&as_sdt=2006 https://freemandelusion.files.wordpress.com/2018/07/us-v.-hanzlicek-187-f.-3d-1228-court-of-appeals-10th-circuit-1999.pdf
- 3 https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/intelligence-report/2015/poison-spreads
- 4 See id.
- 5 See, e.g., Farm Credit Bank of Wichita v. Powers, 919 P.2d 31, 32-33 (Okla. Ct. App. 1996) (rejecting contention of “The Sovereign John Cleveland: Powers” that Our One Supreme Court had ruled that the district court lacked jurisdiction over a foreclosure proceeding).
- 6 T.C. Brown, Uncommon Justice: Common-Law Courts a Fast-Growing Forum for “Patriots’ Battling the American Government and Legal System, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Mar. 2, 1997, at 1A.
- 7 See Brad Knickerbocker, New Militia Tactic: “Paper Terrorism,’ Christian Sci. Monitor, Oct. 15, 1997, at 1. The ADL estimates that half of all common-law court members also belong to a militia in some parts of the country. See ADL Releases Report on Militia Activity, U.S. Newswire, Apr. 17, 1997. Several Ohio common-law court members have strong ties to militias. A police officer attempted to stop Michael Hill, a judge of Ohio’s “Our One Supreme Court,” who was driving with a license plate that read, “Ohio Militia 3-13 Chaplain.” Hill drove off, then stopped and pulled a gun on the officer, who shot him dead. See T.C. Brown, Martyr for the Cause, Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 23, 1996, at 6. Some Wisconsin common-law courts claim similar connections. Rule 6 of Our Supreme Court of Wisconsin provides, “Our Supreme Court special terms will be enforced by militia protections vi et armis to prevent miscarriage of Justice ….” Public Notice: Affidavit of Publication, Manawa Advocate, June 8, 1995, at 21. Don Treloar, a justice of the court, was convicted of impersonating a U.S. marshal when he tried to serve court papers on a Green Bay IRS agent. See Dave Daley, Man Impersonated U.S. Marshal, Jury Finds He Went to the Home of an IRS Agent to Help Serve “Common Law Court’ Papers, Milwaukee J. Sentinel, July 1, 1998, at 3. Once head of the Christian Militia of Wisconsin, Treloar had previously said, “We extensively cover Wisconsin, and there are no places that are not protected by the militia in Wisconsin,” a claim not supported by independent investigation. Katherine M. Skiba, Militia Leader Explains Group’s Focus: AntiAbortion, Pro-Gun Stance Is Consistent with Constitution, Treloar Says, Milwaukee J. Sentinel, Apr. 22, 1996, at 6.
- 8 See Richard W. Jaeger, New People’s Court Forming: Rejects Link to Militant Groups, Wis. St. J., May 7, 1995, at 8A. The court was formed in the Grant County village of Dickeyville; its justices were a retired farmer, an employee of a mail-order company, and a mill owner. Grant County had been home to the Posse’s Christian Citizens Grand Jury, and Family Farm Preservation helped to set up the common-law court. The justices, however, disavowed any Posse connections and claimed that they would work within the existing legal system. See id.
- 9 See Katherine M. Skiba, Southern Poverty Law Center Tracks Right-Wing Activity: State Extremist Groups on the Rise, at 16. The counties are Columbia, Crawford, Grant, Juneau, LaCrosse, Milwaukee, Manitowoc, Portage, Shawano, Taylor, Trempealeau, and Waupaca. D. Common-Law Courts: Patriot Institutions
- 10 See id.
- 11 See Roy R. Korte, Common Law Movement in America 7 (unpublished materials supporting presentation at Libraryfest Midwest, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on Oct. 8-10, 1998) (on file with the University of Wisconsin Law Library). A LaCrosse common-law court did, however, order an assistant prosecutor to appear before it at an Embers restaurant after he prosecuted a LaCrosse dentist for state tax evasion. See Katherine M. Skiba, Extremists Take Up the Gavel: Common-Law Courts Issue Subpoenas, Liens, and Threats, Officials Say, Milwaukee J. Sentinel, Oct. 29, 1995, at 1. Similarly, after a Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Assistant U.S. Attorney indicted 11 people on mail fraud and money laundering charges in 1995, the “Supreme Law Court” summoned him to appear at a Topeka, Kansas, Texaco truck stop. He declined. See Michael Janofsky, Home-Grown Courts Spring Up as Judicial Arm of the Far Right, N. Y. Times, April 17, 1996, at A1. 614 See Judy L. Thomas, Hard-Line Approach Used on Extremists: Common-Law Lien Becomes Felony for 15 of “Missouri 20,’ Kansas City Star, Aug. 18, 1997, at A1 [hereinafter Thomas, Hard-Line Approach Used on Extremists]. 615 See id. 616 See id. Of the 15 defendants convicted, two received seven-year prison terms, and the rest received two-year terms. See id.
- 12 See Judy L. Thomas, Lien Case Convictions Reversed, Kansas City Star, July 8, 1998, at A1 [hereinafter Thomas, Lien Case Convictions Reversed]. The Missouri Court of Appeals reversed 13 of the 15 convictions on procedural grounds. See id.
- 13 See Eileen Dempsey and Jill Riepenhoff, Outside the System, Columbus Dispatch, Dec. 17, 1995, at 4B.
- 14 See Grace Hobson, A Capitol Trial for “Common-Law’ Court: Group Will Hold Proceedings in the Kansas Statehouse, Kansas City Star, Aug. 5, 1997, at A1.
- 15 See Grace Hobson, “Common-Law’ Court Votes for Judge’s Removal: Next on the List are Kansas’ Legislature and its Governor, Kansas City Star, Aug. 9, 1997, at C3. 621 See id.; Kansas Impostors Rightly Rebuffed, Omaha World-Herald, Sept. 21, 1998, at 16. Graves was the elected Governor of Kansas at the time.
- 16 See Sarah Hanson, Disgruntled Citizens Turn to Common-Law Court; Kosciusko County Venue “Indicts’ Office-Holders, Alleging Current Oaths of Office are Not on File, Indianapolis Star, July 29, 1996, at B01; Nebraska Legislature Summary, Omaha World Herald, Mar. 6, 1996, at 19.
- 17 Tom Kenworthy and Serge F. Kovaleski “`Freemen’ Finally Taxed the Patience of Federal Government” Washington Post March 31, 1999
- 19 CNN “Freemen, FBI standoff drags on, Lessons of Waco put into practice.” March 28, 1996 http://www.cnn.com/US/9603/montana_freemen/28/index.html
- 20 Goldberg, Carey (June 14, 1996). “LAST OF FREEMEN SURRENDER TO FBI AT MONTANA SITE” https://www.nytimes.com/1996/06/14/us/last-of-freemen-surrender-to-fbi-at-montana-site.html
- 21 LeroyM.Schweitzer,prisonernumber02144046,FederalBureauofPrisonsU.S.Dep’tofJustice http://www.bop.gov/iloc2/InmateFinderServletTransaction=NameSearch&needingMoreList=false&FirstName=Leroy&Middle=&LastName =Schweitzer&Race=U&Sex=U&Age=&x=98&y=22
- 22 Supermax inmate, 72, found dead ”Canon City (CO) Daily Record – September 21, 2011””. Canoncitydailyrecord.com http://www.canoncitydailyrecord.com/ci_18941657
- 23 Coffman, Keith (2011-09-21). “Montana Freemen leader dies in Colorado prison.” https://www.reuters.com/article/2011/09/21/usfreemen-leader-death-idUSTRE78K08Q20110921
- 24 “Federal Judge Sentences 3 Members Of Freemen ”New York Times November 8, 1998” https://www.nytimes.com/1998/11/08/us/federal-judge-sentences-3-members-of-freemen.html?pagewanted=1
- 25 “Montana Freemen leaders receive long prison sentences” Seattle Times March 17, 1999
- 26 “Calendar of Conspiracy, Vol 2 No 2” http://www.adl.org/mwd/cocv2n2.asp
- 27 “Calendar of Conspiracy, Vol 2 No 2″ http://www.adl.org/mwd/cocv2n2.asp
- 28 “2 Montana Freemen Plead Guilty”. CBS News. 2009-02-11.http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/1998/05/27/national/main10387.shtml
- 29 “Federal Judge Sentences 3 Members Of Freemen – New York Times”(1998-11-08) https://www.nytimes.com/1998/11/08/us/federaljudge-sentences-3-members-of-freemen.html?pagewanted=1
- 30 https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/intelligence-report/1998/four-montana-freemen-found-guilty
- 31 Simon, Stephanie (2010-01-29). “Roeder Guilty of Murdering Abortion Provider The Wall Street Journal January 29, 2010”. https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748703389004575033052416975506?mod=WSJ_hpp_MIDDLENexttoWhatsNewsThird 640 “A Brief Profile of Scott Roeder”. Washingtonpost.com. 2009-06-02.