Nancy Cole, 48, who then worked at a Los Angeles radio station, told a reporter that in 1995 she'd unwittingly leased a house in Canyon County, Calif., to a common-law activist. After 10 months of receiving no rent, she finally managed to evict him. Her cost? Some $25,000 in lost rent — her entire life's savings.
In addition, banks, car dealers, gun stores, title companies, homeowners and hundreds of others have been bilked with bogus common-law financial instruments. Even the IRS has mistakenly refunded overpayments made with fake checks.
The costs — in money, stress and time — have been high.
Richard Wintory, a former deputy attorney general in Oklahoma City, says real court officials "waste hundreds of hours" responding to documents filed by common-law court adherents. "But the more significant costs are psychological," Wintory says. "The demands go from relatively innocuous stuff to frightening threats.
Judges or clerks are told to meet at a barn three miles outside city limits to be tried for offenses these people think should be punished by death."
In Denton, Texas, county clerk Tim Hodges was so rattled by the threats and intimidation that he quit his job, packed up and fled with his family to a secret location. Family members, he says, "don't feel comfortable living" in Denton.
Other examples abound:
· Nearly 7,000 people in 49 states were allegedly bilked of about $2 million in a common-law scam run by a group called the We the People Farm Claims Co-op. The victims were told that by paying $300 and filling out a form they would be entitled to thousands of dollars in "damages" from the federal government stemming from a secret court settlement — a settlement that never existed.
Defendants have been sentenced to two consecutive 10-year terms, and the group's leader ordered to forfeit $1.3 million.
· Family Farm Preservation, a common-law type group in Tigerton, Wis., tried to pass about $63 million in bogus checks and money orders, resulting in $200,000 in losses to state and local governments, banks and individuals honoring the documents.
· In South Dakota, Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey Davis had $1 million in liens filed against him personally. "If I were worth all that money," he says, "I wouldn't be doing this job." After Davis spent months getting the liens cleared, common-law court members falsely reported to the IRS that he'd made $30,000 in unreported income.
· In Arkansas, Pulaski County court recorder Linda Ray had liens slapped on her home, bank accounts and her family's four cars. In Idaho, Attorney General Alan Lance discovered common-law activists had filed $2 million in liens against him. Around the nation, followers of the Montana Freemen (see Justice vs. Justus) cheated the government, banks and individuals of up to $1.8 billion, according to a federal indictment. And hundreds of others have faced liens amounting to millions, sometimes even billions, of dollars.
'You Are a Messenger'
For Karen Mathews, who says recorders in all 58 California counties have reported being harassed by common-law adherents, it all goes back to Jan. 30, 1994.
When she walked into the garage of her Modesto home that day, she was violently attacked by Roger Steiner, who has since been convicted. "Do your job," Steiner hissed at her during the attack, "dry-firing" a handgun held against her head. "Record our documents. You are a messenger to all the recorders.
"This could happen to them, too."
Steiner allegedly had been sent by George L. Reed, founder of the Christian Juris Assembly, and seven others (the men later drew up to 22 years in prison). Reed was enraged because Mathews had refused to remove a $416,343 IRS lien against his property or to record his retaliatory liens against IRS officials.
Now, Mathews, 49, faces another trauma. A man who the IRS says owes $16,000 in back taxes — and who tried unsuccessfully to get her to record retaliatory liens — has sued both Mathews and the IRS, claiming they violated his civil rights.
But this time, Mathews isn't waiting for any escalation. She has countersued, she says, because "he was trying to force me to break the law."