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Incident List: 'Sovereigns' and the Law

So-called "sovereign citizens" are notorious for engaging in a variety of schemes involving money, false identification documents and the courts — scams that land them in criminal trouble with remarkable regularity.

So-called "sovereign citizens" are notorious for engaging in a variety of schemes involving money, false identification documents and the courts — scams that land them in criminal trouble with remarkable regularity. Here are recent examples of sovereign-citizen activity that either has brought practitioners into contact with the criminal justice system or seems likely to. The scope of this activity — in Alabama, Arizona, California, Florida, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio and Texas — reflects what seems to be a real resurgence of the sovereign-citizens and related movements.

June 6, 2006
Canton, Ohio

On the same day he is sentenced to 20 years in prison for bank robbery and making a bomb threat against the Pro Football Hall of Fame in June 2006, Marcus Lige, 29, files a complaint against then-U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in federal court. Lige argues that he and his associates are "sovereign citizens of the Republic of Ohio" and should not be incarcerated because the United States lacks jurisdiction over them. Lige goes on to describe the U.S. District Court of Northern Ohio as a "foreign and international tribunal" that has deprived him of his rights under the 4th, 5th, 6th, 8th, 9th and 13th amendments to the Constitution. A judge later dismisses Lige's complaint.

Feb. 14, 2007
Raleigh, N.C.

When Klan leader Charles Barefoot begins spewing "redemptionist" jargon at a pre-trial hearing to determine whether Barefoot is mentally competent to stand trial, U.S. District Court Judge Terrence Boyle cuts him off. "That kooky stuff you're doing right now is almost proof positive you are not competent," Boyle says.

Barefoot's KKK group was involved in a 2001 plot to blow up the Sampson County, N.C., sheriff's office, and Barefoot was later arrested for illegal gunrunning and orchestrating the murder of a fellow Klansman. While awaiting trial, the Klan leader filed more than 100 bizarre, handwritten legal pleadings, virtually all of them based upon "redemption" theory. (Redemptionists claim that every U.S. citizen has a "straw man," or secret legal twin, created by the government to capture the economic value of citizens who, according to the doctrine, have unknowingly been sold into slavery to a Jewish-run international banking cabal.) He signed one filing with a burst of typical sovereign-citizen/redemptionist jargon: "UCC 1-207, without prejudice I, Am Secured Party Creditor Charles Robert Barefoot© T.O.C. Pro-Fer, Pro-Se Natural Person (MAN) B.B.C. Sovereign American Citizen Court Appointed Self-Representation Of Counsel Attorney-Of-LAW."

Today, Barefoot languishes at the Dorothea Dix Hospital in Raleigh, N.C., where he has been under court order since December 2007, when psychologists found him "not competent to stand trial because he currently does not possess a rational understanding of the proceedings against him."

March 22, 2007
Yuma, Ariz.

Oleh Stowbunenko-Saitschenko, 68, is convicted of smuggling undocumented immigrants and cash into the United States using fake documents from the Pembina National Little Shell Band. That group is apparently a splinter faction of the Little Shell Pembina Band, a bogus American Indian tribe that shares members with a wide array of antigovernment militia and sovereign-citizen groups.

According to court documents, Stowbunenko-Saitschenko convinced two Mexican women residing illegally in the U.S. that his "tribal documents" would allow them to visit family in Mexico and return to the U.S., with no legal repercussions, so long as he accompanied them. The women and Stowbunenko-Saitschenko were arrested as they tried to re-enter the U.S. via an Arizona port of entry. Stowbunenko-Saitschenko was found to be carrying $41,000 in cash.

In court, he asserted that he was a member of the fictitious American Indian tribe despite being a native of Germany who did not become a U.S. citizen until he was 32 years old. Furthermore, he proclaimed that his Pembina Tribe membership made him a "Sovereign Citizen" who is not subject to federal jurisdiction at all. Judge David Campbell ruled against Stowbunenko-Saitschenko, stating that even if his Pembina tribal membership were somehow valid, "Being a citizen of a sovereign nation other than the United States does not relieve one of criminal liability for illegal acts committed in the United States."

May 4, 2007
Tarrant County, Texas

A federal jury in Dallas convicts James Ray Phipps of tax evasion, money laundering and mail fraud related to an elaborate financial ripoff. Phipps, who was indicted while launching a campaign for governor of Alabama in 2006, had failed to file tax returns since 1987, responding to IRS inquires by declaring himself a sovereign citizen and stating that the Uniform Commercial Code empowered him to avoid U.S. tax laws or the jurisdiction of U.S. courts. For eight years, Phipps, an Alabama resident, ran a Ponzi scheme based in Texas and called Life Without Debt in which authorities said he netted over $25 million from more than 30,000 victims. In September 2008, Phipps is sentenced to 17 years in prison.

March 5, 2008
Winston-Salem, N.C.

Deneen Knuckles, AKA Deneen Knuckles El-Bey, files a $3 million lawsuit against both the IRS and her employer in a federal court in North Carolina, accusing the IRS of theft, fraud and extortion because the agency filed a federal tax lien against her for nonpayment of income taxes.

As far back as 1997, the IRS warned Knuckles that her tax returns claiming "tax immune status" were both frivolous and illegal. Yet for the next decade, Knuckles continued to file returns claiming that her wages were not a source of income. In a 2006 letter to the IRS, she flatly stated, "I am not liable for income tax."

Although a longtime New Jersey resident, Knuckles claims in court to be a "Washitaw Naga Moor" of the "North Carolina Republic." The Washitaw Moorish Nation describes itself as a sovereign tribe descended from pre-Columbian blacks who settled in North America. But law enforcement has long tracked the separatist group because it hawks fake driver's licenses and birth certificates that the Washitaw claim exempt them from the jurisdiction of state and federal governments. In August 2008, a magistrate judge rules that Knuckles' lawsuit should be dismissed.

The judge states that her claims were "vague, disjointed and nonsensical" and noted that several passages of her legal arguments are copied directly from websites that promote tax defiance and sovereign-citizens theories.

May 1, 2008
Baltimore, Md.

A report by The Washington Monthly notes that the ongoing trial of four Baltimore rap promoters for murder, racketeering, weapons possession and illegal drug distribution has been stalled for years by the defendants' use of sovereign-citizen defense tactics. The four men — Willie Mitchell, 30, Shelly Wayne Martin, 31, Shawn Gardner, 30, and Shelton Harris, 25 — face life in prison but continually disrupt hearings, firing their lawyers and launching lengthy tirades about how they are neither defendants nor subject to the jurisdiction of the court. The four men mount a defense based on the claim that the court is only prosecuting their "straw men," or legal twins, and holds no authority over their "flesh and blood" persons.

Four years after pre-trial hearings began in 2004, the African-American defendants continue to tie up courts using fringe legal theories developed by white supremacists that assault the legitimacy of the 14th Amendment, which gave full citizenship to freed slaves. The irony is not lost on presiding U.S. District Court Judge Andre Davis. "You have invoked ideas formulated and advanced by people who think less of you than they think of dirt," Davis says at one point to defendant Shawn Gardner. "The extremists who have concocted these ideas that you are now advancing in this courtroom are laughing their heads off… . When you complete this [legal] suicide, they will honor you because you are doing their work, better and more effectively than any of them ever dreamed they could do."

May 15, 2008
Jacksonville, Texas

In East Texas, police raid the House of Israel after a member of the antigovernment group violates his parole. Inside the so-called church, officers find caches of porn, liquor, anti-Semitic and neo-Confederate literature, along with much evidence suggesting that House of Israel leaders are involved in promoting sovereign-citizens legal sabotage.

The House of Israel is led by Robert Fox, a Canadian national with a mountain-man beard who allegedly has practiced unlicensed law and dentistry in Jacksonville, Texas, since at least 2005. Fox is notorious for his prison ministry, which circulates books that instruct prisoners in how to combat the legal system using sovereign-citizen techniques.

Fox, who police believe to be around 59, gained a high profile in the antigovernment "Patriot" movement through his daylong seminars in Western states, where for $175 participants could supposedly learn how to outwit the legal system.

During the raid, Jacksonville police found evidence that Fox had been receiving payments for legal services, though he is not a lawyer. Police also seized documents indicating that Fox worked on a civil lawsuit for a woman who is the treasurer of the Republic of Texas, a common-law separatist group (one of ROT's early leaders and several followers once were involved in a home invasion and subsequent armed standoff with the Texas Rangers).

In July, Fox is charged with barratry, or improperly trying to solicit business for his legal practice. Barratry is a felony under Texas law.

May 28, 2008
Detroit, Mich.

The Detroit Metro Times profiles The Zakat Institute, a Moorish Sovereign Nation group run out of a run-down house in East Detroit. Like many other "Moorish Sovereigns," Zakat founders Bilal Hajj and Ahmad Rashid proclaim themselves to be descended from an indigenous people that predate the founding of the U.S. and who are therefore exempt from its laws. Both men and their followers are African Americans, as are the members of other so-called "Moorish" groups.

The institute distributes food to the needy, preaches self-reliance, publishes a newspaper and teaches Arabic lessons alongside seminars on how to declare sovereign citizenship, which it claims makes people free from laws, taxes and regulations. "We've been duped into playing a corporate, commercial game, and we can't see any light behind it no time soon, so we've got to take our lives into our own hands," Rashid told the Metro Times. "That's the basic thing, and that's what we're doing over here, using all the tools we can."

May 29, 2008
Slidell, La.

Dentist Louis Genard's 10-year battle with the IRS comes to an end when he's sentenced to 30 years in prison for tax evasion.

Genard's first salvo in that battle was fired in August 1997 when he declared:

"I am not now nor have I ever been a citizen of the United States. I am a citizen of the Republic of Louisiana." Over the next 10 years, Genard replied to IRS delinquency notices with letters using spurious legal theories pulled from sovereign-citizen anti-tax groups such as the We The People Foundation and the Guiding Light of God Ministries, a group forced to disband by a Florida court.

At a pre-trial hearing in July 2007, Genard filed a motion claiming he was an "ambassador and citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven under its King Jesus the Christ." The Embassy of Heaven is a sovereign citizens group and church in Oregon that sells fake passports and driver's licenses for so-called "Ambassadors to Heaven."

Aug. 13, 2008
Kansas City, Mo.

A federal grand jury indicts five men in a multi-state scheme to manufacture and sell fake diplomatic identity cards. The co-defendants, David Robinson, Daniel Denham, Larry Goodyke, Blake Bestol, and John Conrey, are described by the U.S. Attorney's Office of the Western District of Missouri as being "involved in various sovereign citizen groups that reject governmental authority and claim that most branches of the federal government are illegitimate entities."

The Department of Justice states that customers paid between $400 and $1,500 for the three-by-four inch photo ID cards which included the seal of the U.S. State Department and the words "Ambassador" and "Diplomatic Identification." The badges came with letters proclaiming that bearers of the cards "are no longer subject to the laws of the Corporate United States."

According to an affidavit filed by a special agent with the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force, associates of Goodyke said he leads seminars on obtaining diplomatic immunity and had registered over 30 Arizona residents as diplomats in March 2008 alone. Spreadsheets seized at his house indicated he recorded over $65,000 in sales of diplomatic documents between November 2006 and March 2008.

Aug. 29, 2008
Miami, Fla.

The U.S. Department of Justice charges Audie Watson, 75, Nancy Vertus, 40, Anibal Reyes, 38, and Laura Reyes, 38 with selling fake citizenship papers to undocumented immigrants. The documents were sold through a Florida religious group called Universal Service Dedicated to God and offered citizenship in the Little Shell Pembina Band of North America, a non-existent American Indian tribe. The Pembina Band is actually the front for an antigovernment sovereign citizens group that has been involved in dozens of cases of identity fraud over the past several years.

Oct. 16, 2008
Mobile, Ala.

Accused cocaine dealer Marvin Louis Adams, 38, submits a guilty plea after tying up his hearing for months by claiming that the federal government has no jurisdiction over his "flesh-and-blood" person. Despite facing a life sentence, Adams has filed spurious legal motions chock full of sovereign citizens phrases. In September, a federal judge in Alabama refused to accept Adams' first guilty plea because he employed the flesh-and-blood technique of pleading guilty only "on behalf of the debtor," an entity, in sovereign-citizen theory, that is entirely separate from the real-life Marvin Adams.

Nov. 12, 2008
Inland Empire, Calif.

In the Inland Empire region of California east of Los Angeles, news breaks of a group called the Sovereign Solomon Brothers Archbishop Sole that files dozens of false deeds on half-million dollar, foreclosed homes in the counties of Riverside and San Bernardino.

After filing the bogus papers, the Solomon group then rents out the properties to squatters for $500 a month. Members of the black sovereign citizens group remain open about their deceit, notarizing and filing their phony deeds while explaining to reporters that they have "sovereign immunity" from federal and local laws.

Gwendolyn Johnson, who signed a number of the fake deeds, tells the Riverside, Calif., Press-Enterprise that her group is based in Nevada and headed by her uncle, "King Solomon II," whom she describes as an archbishop not subject to taxes, mortgages or homeowner fees. Public records show King Solomon II is actually 42-year old Terry Lee Herron, who has a felony conviction for auto theft.

Posted inside the front windows of homes seized by Herron's organization are "notices of forfeit" that claim the legal owner has 24 days, excluding the Sabbath, to accept a small amount of silver as payment. The "no trespass" posts describe the property as now being a "spiritual sanctuary," citing as authority passages from the Old Testament.

But the Solomon group does not limit their ruse to taking over foreclosed homes. The Sovereign Solomon Brothers also take titles from homeowners struggling with their mortgages. In fear of foreclosure, one man pays $500 to deed his Murrieta, Calif., house to King Solomon II Archbishop Sole. Instead of saving the house, Solomon changes the locks and orders Fuller to pay rent or face eviction by "Homeland Security."