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Common-Law Victims

For many people employed as country clerks, court recorders and other government jobs, the fear of threat and attacks by an antigovernment common-law zealot never ends.

For Karen Mathews, a California county court recorder viciously attacked by an antigovernment common-law zealot, the fear never ends.

Mathews — whose "crime" was to refuse to remove IRS liens on a common-law court member's property — carries a handgun at all times. She's had training in martial arts. She's been threatened, had bullets fired through her office windows, discovered a fake bomb planted under her car, and opened a package sent to her enclosing a single bullet and a chilling note: "The next bullet will be directed to your head."

Soon, she faces more surgery to repair serious injuries received during the attack four years ago in her Modesto garage. Mathews was severely beaten and stabbed, her legs were slashed with a knife and she was sodomized with a gun.

Now, she fears, it's happening again.

Unlike some officials who have decided to call it quits in the face of common-law terror, Mathews stayed on at her once obscure job as elected recorder of Stanislaus County courts. Her reward? Another angry man with links to the common-law movement has filed a civil suit against her.

"These yahoos still come into my office," Mathews sighs, even though her attacker and the Juris Christian Assembly members who paid him drew lengthy prison sentences. "I never know when one of them might decide, 'Let's finish her off.'"

When common-law "courts" and related pseudo-legal bodies began appearing in large numbers in the early 1990s, officials were concerned but not panicked. After all, most reasoned, these courts were involved only in "paper terrorism" — the filing of bogus property liens, warrants, writs and other documents.

Occasionally, the courts found officials guilty of "treason," but none of the "capital" convictions were enforced.

Judges Take Up the Gun
But much has changed in the last few years.

Death threats have been delivered to judges, prosecutors, recorders and other officials. Leaders of the Republic of Texas, a common-law separatist group, shot their way into a neighboring couple's home, seriously injuring the man. Armed common-law court members marched into a real court in Montana, while others threatened to hang a local official from a bridge.

A common-law leader in Ohio threatened a police officer with a gun after a routine traffic stop, only to be shot down himself.

"Judges are intensely aware of security now," says Elizabeth Francis, a political scientist and one of the authors of a national survey of 431 state and local judges conducted for the University of Nevada.

"Preliminary studies showed up to a third of them carry firearms [because of common-law threats]. The whole phenomenon could have a chilling effect on people's desire to be judges."

A whopping 55 percent of state and local judges reported encounters with apparent common-law advocates who challenged their authority. Many of these challengers went beyond belligerence. Twelve percent physically threatened the judges; 30 percent sued them in real courts; and 13 percent filed bogus liens against the judges' property.

"There's a strong sense of spread" of common-law activities, Francis says. "It isn't just Montana, Idaho, Texas and New Mexico any more. It is nationwide."

At the same time, a survey by the U.S. Marshals Service shows threats against federal judicial officials have skyrocketed, from 271 in 1996 to 612 in 1997. The growth was apparently largely driven by common-law activity.

The survey found that Florida ranked top in the nation last year, with 59 threats against judicial officials reported to the Marshals Service. Other leading states were California (52); Washington, D.C. (46); Texas (35); New York (34); Illinois and Pennsylvania (21); Michigan (20), and Georgia and Washington (15).

The damage, particularly the financial damage, has not been limited to officials. Hundreds of people, if not thousands, have had to pay thousands of dollars to clear false property liens filed by common-law advocates. (Even liens with no legal basis can be filed easily in most jurisdictions, although this is changing.

The liens cloud legal titles, making it impossible to sell property such as homes or cars until they're cleared.) The liens typically are filed against those seen as enemies by common-law advocates.

Sometimes, that doesn't take much.

'Meet Us at the Barn'
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."