Law Officials Pursue Differing Standoff Policies

Antigovernment Extremism

Two recent potential standoff situations — one in Wisconsin and one in New Hampshire — illustrate radically different law enforcement approaches to dealing with such confrontations with members of the radical right.

In Wisconsin, authorities were faced with a couple who refused to leave the house they lost to foreclosure after failing to pay taxes, and who had filed illegal court liens against some 25 people. Lester Sundsmo, 64, and his wife Lilac, 56, falsely claimed that their home some 30 miles northeast of Madison was actually a church, and they filed the liens — which, even when unjustified, can make it extremely difficult for victims to sell their own house or land — against county and bank officials involved in legal proceedings against them. The authorities made their move in March, when more than 100 federal and local law enforcement officers, backed by a bomb squad, helicopters, ambulances and fire trucks, arrested the Sundsmos as they drove away from their rural log cabin in Columbia County. They were arrested without incident.

The firepower used brought some criticism of law enforcement. But officials pointed out that the Sundsmos had a long history of involvement with members of the radical antigovernment right, some of whom could have been at their house at the time of the raid; had had several prior minor conflicts with police; and kept a 70-foot tunnel that could have been used to store weapons. (None were found.)

Prosecutors later told a judge that after the March 14 arrest, Lilac Sundsmo told an officer that "we're going to kill" anyone who takes over their foreclosed house. Both Sundsmos were ordered held in lieu of $10,000 bond. In New Hampshire two months earlier, a former militia leader prone to making violent threats and his wife were convicted of an array of felonies for refusing to pay taxes for 12 years. Ed Brown was convicted of three felony tax crimes, while his wife Elaine — who earned most of the family income as a dentist in Lebanon — was convicted of 17 felony counts. The couple, who were to be sentenced in the late spring, face up to five years on each count.

Just a few days after the federal trial began, Ed Brown left the courtroom and holed up at his home near Plainfield — a home equipped with 10-inch cement walls, a huge watchtower, a plethora of guns and a whole array of radical sympathizers. His wife initially declined to join him, continuing to attend the trial, but then broke an agreement with the judge and joined her husband at the home.

Brown, who has a long history of involvement with radical groups, issued a series of threats from his home, warning of violence if the authorities moved against him. He also claimed "thousands" of sympathizers would help him.

U.S. Marshal Stephen Monier repeatedly told reporters that he was in no hurry to bring the Browns in. He said he spoke to Ed Brown daily, but had "low-key" and "amicable" conversations, and predicted no standoff.

The Browns were still in their homemade fortress at press time.

In the 1990s, in the aftermath of deadly standoffs in Waco and elsewhere, many law enforcement agencies began to pursue noticeably more patient policies in such situations. Numerous experts have suggested that using more lenient tactics costs law enforcement little and often saves lives. But others have argued that waiting can actually worsen the situation and raise the stakes.