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Federal Court Sentences Leaders of Montana Freemen to Long Prison Terms

A federal judge, angered at the financial scams of the Montana Freemen, sentences the group's leaders to long terms.

BILLINGS, Mont. -- Freemen indeed. Now that a federal judge has handed down their sentences, it is clear that Montana's most celebrated right-wing radicals will not be free men again for some time. They're going to prison.

That prospect hardly seems to bother them — for good reason, perhaps. After all, even though their convictions have had a chilling effect on the "common-law courts" they promoted, their sentences are likely to herald the dawn of a new stage in their careers as ideologues of the extremist "Patriot" right.

U.S. District Judge John Coughenour, who oversaw the trial of the so-called Montana Freemen last summer, handed down heavy sentences on March 16. As a result, many of the defendants — Freemen leader LeRoy Schweitzer, 60, in particular — likely will spend their remaining years behind bars.

Schweitzer was sentenced to 22 1/2 years in prison for 25 convictions on a cornucopia of federal crimes: bank fraud, theft, robbery, firearms violations and making threats against a federal judge.

A cluster of fellow Freemen — notably Schweitzer's right-hand men Daniel Petersen, 55, Rodney Skurdal, 46, and Dale Jacobi, 57 — also received lengthy sentences. A number of secondary figures, especially the women who participated in their husbands' schemes, were given lesser sentences.

'A Loud and Clear Message'
There was little doubt about the signal the judge was sending. Coughenour explained as he announced the sentences that they reflected the crimes' seriousness — and, more to the point, they send "a loud and clear message to those who pass this hatred and ugliness around... . Be forewarned, your personal liberty is at stake."

Coughenour observed that the Freemen's actions were part of a broader phenomenon with national significance. Their scheme, he said, was calculated to undermine the nation's banking system and to encourage lawbreaking, leading gullible people into stupid and illegal actions that eventually would cost them their homes and wreck their lives.

When the first Freemen trial wrapped up last summer, the jury returned 57 convictions against the 10 defendants whose cases they heard, most of them against the five Freemen at the core of the case: Schweitzer, architect of the Freemen fraud; Skurdal, a onetime White House honor guardsman; Petersen, a former garage mechanic; Jacobi, a Canadian expatriate; and Russell Landers, a North Carolinian who played a major role in the Freemen's 81-day standoff with federal lawmen in 1996.

But the jury deadlocked on another 60 or so counts, including the major conspiracy charge and some weighty robbery charges involving the Freemen's habit of confiscating news crews' cameras at gunpoint. Prosecutors quickly streamlined the case and a second trial was held last November on the unresolved charges, with guilty verdicts delivered against nearly all involved — some 36 convictions in all.

Coughenour's March sentencing combined the results of the summer and fall trials.

Another, earlier trial had seen the acquittal of one central player in the saga. Edwin Clark, the Freeman at whose ranch the standoff unfolded, was cleared of the charges he faced, although his five co-defendants were all convicted. Two other participants later pleaded guilty: Dana Dudley, at one time Landers' wife; and Emmett Clark, the uncle of Edwin Clark, who was sentenced to time served and released.

Edwin's father, Ralph — the patriarch of the Freemen's ranch — is the only Freeman whose case has not yet been settled. Reported to be in ailing health, the elder Clark is currently awaiting trial on state charges after federal prosecutors decided to drop their case against him.

How to Become a Millionaire
All told, there was little solace in the trials' eventual outcome for the Freemen and their soulmates in the self-proclaimed "Patriot" movement. It had been their fervent belief all along that their system of law was superior to that of the "satanic" courts into whose hands they had been delivered.

They had been sure they would eventually win out — if not in the minds of all the jurors, at least with a few who might be persuaded to refuse to convict.

But, as with most instances where the Freemen have tried to impose their view of things on the real world, no such thing came about.

The Freemen's universe is a complex, arcane edifice, an intricately constructed world. Relying on an array of "common law" and Uniform Commercial Code citations, the Freemen contended that white male Christians can revert to pre-Civil War status as "sovereign citizens," enabling them to form common-law courts.

From that platform, they issued bogus property liens — mainly against judges, sheriffs, prosecutors, county clerks, bankers and businessmen who they claimed had "wronged" them. Sometimes they would then use the liens as collateral to obtain bank lines of credit; at other times, they simply created "checks" or "sight drafts" on home computers and used them to pay for expensive goods like motor homes and computers.

More often than not, they wrote these checks for more than the amount needed, receiving cash refunds for their "overpayments."

Common-law courts are a product of the anti-Semitic ideology of the Posse Comitatus, an extremist group active in the 1970s and 1980s. Typically, the courts obscure their racist underpinnings in a barrage of legalese. But the Freemen were not so discreet. In their filings of liens, "true bills," edicts and the like, they made their views clear.

Consider, for example, the 1994 "Edict" that Rodney Skurdal filed in Musselshell County, which explains the religious basis of the Freemen system.

Sex and the Musselshell Edict
In the Garden of Eden, Eve was not merely "beguiled" into eating an apple from the tree of knowledge. She was sexually seduced by the Serpent, Skurdal wrote, and bore him a child — Cain. After Cain was exiled from the garden for killing Adam's son, Abel, he went off into the wilderness and mated with the soulless, beastlike "pre-Adamic" people whose posterity comprises all non-white races.

Cain's descendants — the biological offspring of Satan — became the modern Jews, deceitful pretenders to the title of God's chosen people. The true children of Israel, Skurdal wrote, are today's white people, who are descended from the Hebrew "Tribe of Dan."

These whites set up the original Constitution as the inerrant vessel of God's chosen people, and only by returning to it, with its view of the innate superiority of white males, can the nation be healed of such current scourges as Bill Clinton.

The fact that the Freemen — and a number of their common-law co-religionists around the nation — now stand convicted of having defrauded businesses out of millions of dollars (as well as for threatening to kill public officials) seems to have dampened enthusiasm for common-law enterprises.

Most experts observing the scene say that the growth of the so-called courts has quieted substantially in the recent past.

But the Montana convictions also are likely to confer martyr status upon the Freemen. Now, they almost certainly will be vying for ascension to heights similar to that of other "victims" in the Patriot pantheon — men like Randy Weaver, whose wife and son were shot and killed by authorities in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and antigovernment terrorist Bob Mathews, who was killed in a shootout with federal agents.

Judging by the Freemen's reaction to the trial — most of them refused to attend the proceedings, and several staged a hunger strike — they aren't bothered by the prospect of serving hard time.

And there has already been a telling indication of how that time behind bars may be spent. While lodged alongside the Freemen in the Yellowstone County Jail, several inmates serving time for more mundane crimes picked up the Freemen's ideology and, to the shock of their jailers, began filing common-law documents in their own cases.

Authorities wound up separating the Freemen from others in the jail.

The Freemen's Future
The Freemen, moreover, have already demonstrated a technological sophistication that will likely allow them to use their new platform as martyrs to spread the word about their beliefs. Much of their written material is now available on the Web and, through intermediaries, they're expected to get more of it up.

Already, at least one Patriot Web site operated by colleagues based in nearby Bozeman has posted material about the Freemen's alleged mistreatment in jail, as well as detailed explanations of common law.

"I don't think the convictions will mean the end of the Freemen at all," says Ken Toole, whose Montana Human Rights Network has been instrumental in organizing local community action against extremism. "LeRoy is already very well-connected with the larger Patriot network, and has had no trouble getting his stuff on the Web from jail these last couple of years.

"On top of that, he'll now have this cachet, this mystique that comes from being in jail — the political prisoner, scribbling furiously away like a mad hermit. And it's important to understand that the prison system is already imbued with white-supremacist elements. It's really one of the major wellsprings of that culture.

"Those guys will fit right in," Toole says. "Actually, they'll be heroes. And they'll be recruiting new students, indoctrinating new believers, all of whom will get out of jail and go out to do their thing. And they'll have learned from the master. So we'll have a whole new fresh wave, a whole new level of this phenomenon to deal with."

David Neiwert is the author of In God's Country: The Patriot Movement and the Pacific Northwest (1999). He is a writer/producer for MSNBC on the Internet.