ALTERNATE NAME: Montana Freemen
LEADER: Leroy Schweitzer
USUAL AREA OF OPERATION: Montana
The Montana Freemen were an extremist group headquartered on Justus Ranch, a 960-acre farm compound in rural Montana during the 1990s. The group grew out of the 1995 merger of two smaller organizations within the Posse Comitatus movement, which opposes the U.S. government and advocates radical local government. Groups within the movement refuse to recognize any government authority above the local level, normally meaning the local sheriff. Members of these groups frequently refuse to pay income tax or obtain drivers' licenses. While various individuals and groups have occasionally adopted the Freemen moniker, the Montana group is by far the best known.
When land values and crop prices plummeted during the 1980s, Montana farmer Ralph Clark found himself facing financial ruin near the small town of Jordan. Leroy Schweitzer convinced Clark, his brother Emmett, son Edwin, and nephew Richard to join him in a radical group called Freemen. A decade later, with the Clarks owing more than one million dollars in back taxes, Schweitzer and other Freemen leaders engineered the merger of two smaller Freemen groups and joined the Clarks on their farm, which they renamed Justus Ranch.
In response to mounting evidence of Freemen fraud, the FBI made plans to arrest the group's leaders. This plan was developed in the wake of disastrous standoffs at Waco and Ruby Ridge, in which numerous people were killed and injured, and government tactics were blamed for the bloodshed. To avoid this outcome, the Montana action was conducted very differently than previous standoffs. First, two major leaders were arrested outside the compound in advance, avoiding a possible scenario in which leaders encouraged members to martyr themselves for their cause.
Second, whereas FBI agents had previously employed military-style clothing and vehicles, they utilized civilian attire and equipment, hopefully reducing the sense of siege felt by those inside. Also, rather than a visible ring of troops around the ranch, the FBI chose to focus only on limiting access to and from the property. Finally, negotiation and mediation formed the core of government efforts, which included contact with other extremist groups around the country in order to defuse any tension that might be triggered by the standoff. The result of these new tactics was a successful resolution; the remaining Freemen eventually surrendered and left the ranch peacefully.
Following their arrest, the group's leaders were tried, and four, including Leroy Schweitzer and Daniel E. Peterson Jr., were convicted of federal conspiracy and bank fraud for their role in producing more than 3,400 counterfeit checks with a staggering face value of over $15 billion. The trials were marred by frequent disruptions from the Freemen, who often screamed profanities at the judge and threatened to have him arrested. In some cases, Freemen were so unruly that they were removed from the courtroom, and many were eventually forced to watch the proceedings via closed circuit television from a nearby holding cell. Schweitzer himself refused to enter the courtroom for his sentencing, at which he received a term of twenty-two years in prison.
In March 2003, two Freemen sympathizers (age 55 and age 81) posing as federal marshals entered the federal prison in Edgefield, South Carolina, and attempted to free Schweitzer. Both men were arrested and charged with assisting an escape attempt.
PHILOSOPHY AND TACTICS
The Montana Freemen held four basic beliefs. First, all forms of government beyond the local level are illegitimate, meaning that U.S. residents are free to ignore tax bills, drivers' license and car tag laws, and court orders. Second, as sovereign citizens they were not subject to foreclosure, which was an immediate threat for Clark. Third, they granted themselves the authority to arrest, try, and sentence local officials for crimes. Fourth, they believed that fraud was a legitimate tool in advancing their cause; based on this belief, the Freemen devised and carried out a variety of financial schemes in order to defraud individuals, companies, and the government of billions of dollars.
In some cases, Freemen wrote fraudulent checks for double the amount due, then demanded refunds of the balance. In others, they produced counterfeit checks and money orders of exceptionally high quality, and the scope of this massive fraud eventually formed the basis of the government's case against them. Running throughout the philosophy of the Freemen was a constant stream of racism, a white supremacist perspective strongly influenced by other extremist groups in the United States.
The Freemen were particularly notorious for their use of liens, which they filed against property owned by various public officials. While these liens, which claimed that the targeted officials owed them money, were clearly frivolous, they served as a powerful harassment tactic, since the targeted individuals had to go to court to have them removed. Further, they served to bog down the court system, indirectly helping the Freemen in their attempts to shut down the government. In response to this tactic, several states have since passed laws restricting the use of frivolous liens.
Not surprisingly, the events at Justus Ranch were perceived somewhat differently by individuals who share the Freemen's views. Since antigovernment groups remain active in the United States and on the web, they frequently portray the Montana Freemen as simply the latest in a long string of groups silenced by the vast conspiracy in Washington. These supporters ask why the Montana Freemen were arrested, since their only crime was writing a few hot checks. They also characterize the convicted Freemen as political prisoners, held for their efforts to return control of America to American citizens. Finally, the fact that several hundred people attended Schweitzer's fraud training classes suggests that support for his cause might be fairly widespread.
Most other observers are understandably nervous about organizations that threaten government officials, avoid paying taxes, and stockpile weapons. And while the group's use of hot checks is hardly revolutionary, Mark Pitcavage, the so-called Militia Watchdog for the Anti-Defamation League, described the use of bogus liens as "paper terrorism," a tool that allows radical groups to inexpensively defame and intimidate their enemies.
LEROY M. SCHWEITZER
Leroy Schweitzer, a former crop-duster and tax evader, became the leader of the Montana Freemen in the mid-1990s. Schweitzer is believed to have gained many of his fraudulent skills at a 1992 seminar taught by Roy Schwasinger, who is considered one of the prime developers of the many get-rich-quick schemes used by the antigovernment Patriot movement. Schweitzer combined these schemes with his own racist teachings as the foundation of the Montana Freemen. He also taught his techniques to an estimated 800 people from various parts of the country, most of whom paid $100 apiece to attend his classes.
Schweitzer was arrested outside his Montana compound in 1996, just prior to an eighty-one-day siege of the group's property. Following the eventual surrender of those inside the Justus Ranch, Schweitzer and others were tried and convicted, with Schweitzer being sentenced to twenty-two years in federal prison.
The Montana Freemen were the most visible of several Freemen groups advocating the over-throw of the U.S. government. While the Montana group dissolved following their leaders' arrest, others remain active. While some Freemen websites claim more than one million members, the actual number is probably less than 10,000.
- Leroy Schweitzer recruits disgruntled farmer Ralph Clark to join the Freemen, an antigovernment group.
- Schweitzer, Daniel Peterson, and other Freemen move in with the Clark family, marking the start of the Montana Freemen group. The group proceeds to file numerous bogus liens against government officials, as well as committing massive fraud and teaching others the same techniques.
- FBI agents arrest Schweitzer and Peterson near the group's headquarters at the Justus Ranch. Other members of the group refuse to leave the compound, leading to an eighty-one-day standoff. The remaining members of the group eventually surrender peacefully.
- Schweitzer, Peterson, and other group leaders are convicted of fraud.
- Two men attempt to break Schweitzer out of federal prison, and are arrested.
Jakes, Dale, Connie Jakes, and Clint Richmond. False Prophets: The Firsthand Account of a Husband-Wife Team Working for the FBI and Living in Deepest Cover with the Montana Freemen. Allen Park, MI: Dove Books, 1998.
Anti-Defamation League. "Paper Terrorism's Forgotten Victims: The Use of Bogus Liens against Private Individuals and Businesses." 〈http://www.adl.org/mwd/privlien.asp〉 (accessed October 18, 2005).
MIPT Terrorism Knowledge Base. "Montana Freemen." 〈http://www.tkb.org/Group.jsp?groupID=3406〉 (accessed October 18, 2005).
Southern Poverty Law Center. "False Patriots." 〈http://www.splcenter.org/intel/intelreport/article.jsp?pid=366〉 (accessed October 18, 2005).