Religious beliefs are playing a big role in the standoff between a group of 20 people who call themselves the Freemen and FBI officials at a ranch about 30 miles from Jordan, Mont.
The Freemen adhere to Identity teachings, which are virulently racist and anti-Semitic. Steve Mangum, whose ex-wife Gloria Ward and 8-year-old daughter Jaylynn are living in the Freemen ranch house, said his daughter told him that blacks are niggers, policemen are pigs and public school is evil.
Eric Ward, associate director of the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment, a Seattle-based group that tracks neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other right-wing fringe groups, identifies the Freemen as a conspiracy-minded movement that believes it is fighting satanic powers. Ward said the Freemen group is cult-like and has isolated itself from the rest of society with no moderating influence.
The standoff began in late March after Freemen leaders LeRoy Schweitzer, 57, and Daniel Petersen Jr., 53, were arrested for passing bad checks and conspiring to kidnap and murder a federal judge involved in a foreclosure against the Freemen's 960-acre ranch. A third group leader, Richard Clark, turned himself in to the FBI shortly after those arrests. The FBI has arrest warrants for 13 people who are still on the Freemen ranch. Federal authorities say the Freemen were engaged in financial scams that have cheated businesses and government agencies of about $1.8 million.
During his bail bond hearing, Petersen yelled to reporters, "You watch, folks. When it goes, it'll be worse than Waco." The reference was to a 51-day standoff at the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, three years ago that ended with the deaths of four federal agents and an estimated 80 Davidians. Petersen's wife Cherlyn is still at the Freemen ranch.
According to court documents and interviews with recent visitors to the Freemen ranch, the group has several rifles, handguns and shotguns and thousands of rounds of ammunition. A pilot who has flown over the farm says the Freemen built a defensive bunker before the ground froze last fall. As the Freemen name implies, group members object to government interference of any kind. As an example, Freemen member John Chaney is in a Utah jail, charged with arranging the marriage of his 13-year-old daughter to a 48-year-old man. Chaney claims he is not subject to the laws of the nation.
Another example of the Freemen's disregard for established governments occurred in 1994, when about 20 Freemen marched into the Garfield County, Mont., courthouse and announced that they were establishing their own common law court. The court was inspired by the Posse Comitatus, which announced similar actions in opposition to income taxes in the 1980s. The courts claim the authority to pass judgment on private citizens, public officials and the legal process itself.
Some area residents say the Freemen have built a private jail on their ranch. Indeed, in their political edicts and on their no-trespassing signs, the Freemen say that repeat trespassers and public hirelings will be subject to one year in solitary confinement. Ken Toole, program director for the Montana Human Rights Network, characterizes the ideology of the Freemen as pervaded with violence and a belief that Armageddon is coming.
The Freemen movement has split some Jordan-area families. For instance, Ada Weeding long ago stopped speaking to her Freemen brothers, Ralph and Emmett Clark. Last fall Dean Clark, who is not a Freemen, went out to the Freemen farm, where he had leased some land, to start hauling away 20,000 bushels of wheat and barley that he had harvested. His grandfather Emmett, and his father Richard threatened him with shotguns, kept him from taking the grain and warned that if he ever returned, they would kill him. Carol Hellyer, a dispatcher at the Garfield County Sheriff's Department, also has relatives, including her sister Agnes, 52, and Agnes's husband Bill Stanton, 65. Hellyer said she and her sister used to be close but stopped speaking to each other several months ago because the Stantons invariably began haranguing her and other family members about the Freemen movement.
Bill Stanton was among those who briefly tried to take over the Garfield County courthouse. In September 1994, his farm home was sold at a foreclosure auction, and the next February he was convicted of terrorism and of writing a $25,000 bogus check to the Garfield County treasurer. He is serving a 10-year prison sentence. His wife and son Ebert are wanted on a variety of federal and state charges including conspiracy, fraud and threatening public officials.Two others who took over the county courthouse with Stanton pleaded guilty to charges similar to those on which Stanton was convicted, and the others became fugitives.
Federal agents have been keeping almost a low profile in this standoff, unlike others such as the one involving the Branch Davidians. In this standoff, FBI agents have used none of the pressure tactics they tried on the Davidians, such as blaring strange music into the compound or flooding it with light during the night.
During the first week of April, there was some face-to-face negotiation between FBI negotiators and Freemen leaders. Some relatives of Freemen members also have been allowed to speak with them.
(From numerous news stories, including "Freemen religious beliefs may raise risk of violent end to standoff" by David Foster, Associated Press, April 2, 1996; and "Extremists recruiting rips fabric of Montana town near U.S. siege" by Wes Smith, Chicago Tribune, April 7, 1996.)