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FBI Keeps an Eye on Antigovernment Activists in Freedom County, Washington

Like Patriot groups nationwide, the organizers of Washington state's separatist 'Freedom County' are facing rejection from neighbors and failure in achieving any of their goals.

SNOHOMISH COUNTY, Wash. -- Fnu Lnu, the proclaimed sheriff of Freedom County, is not your average kind of lawman. But then, Freedom County is not your average county, either.

Despite the claims of Lnu and his Patriot-movement cohorts, the county — composed of about 1,000 square miles carved out of the northern half of Washington state's Snohomish County — does not really exist, at least not according to state and federal courts.

So perhaps it is appropriate that the name its sheriff goes by is an acronym for "First name unknown, last name unknown."

Lnu's real name is Robert Victor Bender. He's a 57-year-old former FBI agent from the Seattle area who was hired last October by organizers to provide law enforcement for the would-be county, such as it is. So far, those duties seem to have been comprised largely of trying to chase off Snohomish County code-enforcement officials.

A few days after Bender was appointed sheriff of Freedom County, he paid a visit to the bona fide sheriff of Snohomish County, Rick Bart, to let him know that there was a new lawman in town.

Bart listened politely, then threw him out of his office.

Such rejections have hardly slowed the county's organizers. In most respects, the slights have made them even more defiant. "The people of Freedom have replaced Snohomish County and they are now starting to rise up," said Thom Satterlee, the architect of Freedom County and one of its "commissioners."

Despite organizers' claims that the county has existed since 1995, very few people in the area take them seriously at all. Their supporters appear to number less than a hundred, and to date all their years of activity and organizing have produced no real-world results to speak of.

"Without a doubt, most of the people in this county think Mr. Satterlee and his group are a bunch of wackos," says Sheriff Bart. "They have no credibility."

A Movement in Decline
Freedom County is representative of much of the so-called "Patriot" movement today: declining in energy and enrollment, disdained and disliked by their mainstream neighbors, and singularly impotent in achieving any of their goals. But at the same time, those same traits may combine to make the remaining followers more radical and potentially more dangerous.

Nationwide, antigovernment Patriot/militia organizations like Freedom County are in a steady tailspin. Where such groups nationally numbered 858 in 1996, the most recent survey conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center found only 194 of them active in 2000. And within those groups, enrollment is either stagnant or declining.

The saga of Freedom County traces the arc of the movement nationally. Its origins date to the 1993-95 period, when organizers around the nation began cobbling together militias and "common-law" courts as acts of defiance against what they saw as government oppression.

Satterlee and his colleagues participated in those kinds of activities in Snohomish County, many of them revolving around "Wise Use" issues that portrayed government environmental and land-use policies as part of the conspiracy to oppress Americans.

Satterlee at one point tried to pay his taxes with checks backed by pseudo-legal "liens" filed against a federal judge in Seattle over his handling of a conspiracy and weapons case against a group of western Washington militiamen.

But they also went a step further, circulating petitions calling for the creation of a new county comprised almost solely of rural precincts where resentment ran high against a county government dominated by urban and suburban precincts around the city of Everett.

The Freedom County organizers presented the Washington legislature with their petitions in 1995, with over 12,000 signatures on them. Those petitions became the foundation of the Patriots' claims that they had in fact obtained a mandate to secede from Snohomish County and form a new entity.

But the petitions were ignored by state legislators, and subsequent efforts by Satterlee and his cohorts to get the courts to support them have failed. In 1997, the state Supreme Court upheld a Snohomish County judge's ruling that the alleged county had no legal basis for existence, and in January 2000 the court dismissed a second case brought by Freedom County organizers.

'People are Fearful'
Satterlee has remained undeterred, declaring the courts fraudulent — "If you are dealing with a corrupt system, are you surprised when you get a corrupt ruling?" — and referring to judges as "Satans in black robes."

He and his fellow unelected "commissioners" have continued to hold meetings — most of them "executive sessions" — and proceeded with plans to establish their own government, culminating in Bender's selection as their "sheriff" last October.

Freedom County even has an official seal, encircling a grinning Minuteman with one foot on a plow, a musket in one hand and a laptop computer on his knee.

This year, Freedom County partisans managed to persuade some legislators to sign on as sponsors of a resolution that called for recognizing the new county, warning that Sheriff Bart was planning "a violent confrontation to thwart the will of the people."

After actually reading the text of the resolution, however, all seven of the lawmakers backed out.

Bart has tried to remain above the fray, but the rising nastiness of the Patriots' rhetoric has him worried. "I have a lot of people that live up in his area who send me E-mails every time Satterlee's in the paper. They're afraid of him because of what he says," Bart says.

"And most of them are elderly, and they're very concerned over what he says: 'Is that really going to happen?' and 'What if Mr. Lnu tries to pull me over?' A lot of people are fearful of these guys up there. It's typical schoolyard bully tactics, and that's what Mr. Satterlee's trying to do."

Bart says that despite Satterlee's claims, Freedom County's constituency is slight at best: "All I can say is, I do not believe Thom Satterlee when he says he has 16,000 followers because those are the people that signed the petition that he claims gives him a right to govern. I think the numbers are way, way below that.

"Everybody that I've talked to that says they signed that petition ... says, 'No, we signed it because [Satterlee] was standing outside the Kmart or whatever, and they said they wanted to look at forming a new county, so we signed it. We didn't sign it saying we wanted a new county.' And Satterlee uses that document like a hammer."

Battling Code Enforcement
For his part, Satterlee is sorting his options as he looks for some glimmer of recognition from state or local officials. He says he's considering taking an appeal to the international courts or the U.S. Supreme Court.

"And the third alternative is just to move ahead, assert our jurisdiction and be a country whether or not the corporate state of Washington recognizes us," he says.

"At some point, as the problems that are created by doing that come to a head, the state of Washington will seek to bring us into court. And when they seek to bring us into court, we'll beat 'em hands down. Which is why they haven't brought us into court, because they know we will."

Sheriff Bart chuckles at that notion. "That's not true," he says. "When I enforce the law, I'm going to win, because I have the law on my side. And I have no qualms about enforcing the law. Mr. Satterlee isn't taking any actions that I know of right now that would force me to do that, because he knows I'll enforce the law."

Unfortunately, the "Patriots" of Freedom County may force Bart's hand soon. Already they have taken up the cause of a trucking-firm operator who was ignoring county zoning laws, and a handful of property owners may be headed for a showdown with Snohomish County officials over code violations on their lands.

"Most of the people out here are terrified," says Satterlee. "They're terrified of the oppression of Snohomish County, and they are cautious."

The same friction point concerns Bart as well. "When county code-enforcement people go out to these people's property, that's where we'll have the confrontations," he says.

"They've already tried to sell 'No Trespassing' signs on the Internet — and made money, of course, got ten bucks or something — to put up on these people's property which says that basically the county doesn't have a right to come on their land.

And that's one reason, I think, why they hired Fnu Lnu — he's supposedly going to stop these people from coming on people's property and enforcing the code and growth management and all that kind of stuff."

Bomb Threats and the Law
So for all their real-world impotence, the Freedom County organizers present the kind of unstated threat of violence that has been a thread running throughout the Patriot movement nationally, where a few radicalized actors refuse to accept the law and engage law enforcement in armed standoffs and shootouts.

Bart has tried not to let himself get caught up in the Patriots' attempts to draw him into that kind of showdown, as evidenced by Bender's visit to his office last fall.

"He says I won't enforce the laws — I will, but I'm not going to let him use me to get a forum. And if he breaks the law, or one of his people gets violent and breaks the law, we will pursue that like any other lawbreaker.

But I'm not going to fall into some trap where he's going to get this big forum. It isn't going to happen."

Despite the ostensibly reasonable image for Freedom County presented by Satterlee and Bender, their movement has attracted followers who may not be so calm. "Well, you know, it's a free country, you can say anything, but these people around the edges listen to that stuff and take it to heart," Bart says.

"And I'm afraid of that. I'm very fearful that with some of these people that he has who support him who we don't know about are going to try to take some kind of action, and someone's going to get hurt."

Sheriff Bart says he has received threats to blow up the courthouse, and he's taking those seriously. He also is closely monitoring the work of county code-enforcement officials in the area in case a violent confrontation breaks out.

"I think we're getting real close," he says. "They're getting so frustrated, they're going to do something stupid. That's what I'm worried about. I don't want anybody to get hurt."

David Neiwert, a journalist who has written extensively about the radical right, is the author of In God's Country: The Patriot Movement and the Pacific Northwest.