Fear And Loathing In Montana
On a decaying former Air Force base, antigovernment ‘sovereign citizens’ are battling the few remaining locals for control
ST. MARIE, Mont. — Howling winds sweep across the high plains. Weeds spring up in gravel streets that bend through the empty neighborhoods that once housed a vibrant community of airmen at the forefront of the Cold War. Only the sight of an occasional human dispels the atmosphere of total abandonment.
In the early 1960s, what would later be dubbed St. Marie grew up around the Glasgow Air Force Base, one of dozens of launch points for Strategic Air Command bombers. But when the Defense Department shuttered the base for a final time in 1976, after an earlier closing between 1968 and 1971, its military residents were shipped elsewhere. A population that once numbered over 7,000 people dwindled to a few hundred, infrastructure crumbled, vacant houses began to fall apart, and the settlement 50 miles from the Canadian border became a near ghost town.
There were efforts to repurpose the once-thriving community — by the military at first, then a private developer who sought to create a military retirement village, then another developer who ended in bankruptcy — but they each failed for reasons that remain hotly disputed among today’s population of just 264 people.
And then came the attempt that is still roiling St. Marie.
Three years ago, much to the consternation and bewilderment of those who lived there, odd signs began to appear around the bleak remains of the community, posted on homes, the dilapidated officers club, the former school and more.
“NO TRESPASS,” the posters warned. “YOU ARE HEREBY NOTIFIED, THAT THE OWNER OR TENANT OF THIS PROPERTY REQUIRES ALL PUBLIC OFFICIALS, AGENTS, OR PERSON(S) TO ABIDE BY ‘THE SUPREME LAW OF THE LAND,’ THE CONSTITUTION FOR THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, AND THE RATIFIED AMENDMENTS THERETO. … ALLEGED ZONING OR CODE NON-COMPLIANCES DO NOT ESTABLISH CONSTITUTIONAL REASONS FOR ENTERING THIS PROPERTY.
“VIOLATORS WILL BE TREATED AS INTRUDERS.”
The language, with its insistent references to the Constitution, didn’t sound like a normal no-trespassing notice. Some attributed the posters to the recent appearance of the Montana Aviation Research Company, a subsidiary of Boeing that maintains one of only a handful of runways long enough to land the now-discontinued space shuttle. The firm was engaged in top-secret research, and residents who lived among some 1,000 empty buildings thought that might explain the forbidding signs.
But then they remembered how three mysterious men had recently appeared in a green pickup truck, driving up and down St. Marie’s semi-abandoned streets for unknown reasons. They initially had been taken for just another odd set of visitors, maybe wildcatters or venture capitalists hoping to capitalize on the extraordinary oil boom happening just to the east in North Dakota’s Bakken Shale Formation.
They were, it turns out, something more than that.
Enter the Sovereigns
Nick Murnion, the Valley County attorney, remembers it well.
“They showed up and paid the back taxes on 400 condo units,” Murnion told the Intelligence Report in November. “We had no dealings until they showed up, speculating on these properties and trying to make a quick buck.”
Those units were just part of the town’s enormous inventory of empty and blighted buildings, which include a church, a high school, the officers club, a bowling alley and more. Huge numbers of the properties have been abandoned or are in bankruptcy proceedings, and many were years delinquent in their taxes.
Under Montana law, similar to that of many states, when a property’s taxes are delinquent, the county can impose a tax lien on it to prevent its sale without the tax bill being settled. Third parties are allowed to buy the tax lien by paying back taxes — a process known as “tax assignment” — and then, if the original owners can’t reimburse them within a set period, they are given clear title to the property.
It all took Pat Kelly by surprise.
A former Air Force officer with dreams of turning St. Marie into a retirement community where military veterans could swap stories and maybe play a round of golf on the course he planned to build, Kelly began buying up homes in the 1980s. According to Kelly, that was only the latest attempt to save the place.
Kelly says that the federal government had earlier spent “tens of millions of dollars” trying to find a new use for the base and its housing before ultimately giving the commercial buildings and runways to the county and putting the area’s 1,223 housing units up for sale. Those housing units were auctioned off, with a salvage firm winning the bidding but then backing out after failing to get financing.
Ultimately, Kelly found financing and he and his late wife, Judy, began to build what they envisaged as a “Christian Community” they named St. Marie. But in the end, after the county drastically raised taxes, they, too, fell behind on taxes.
It was in late 2012 when the three strangers showed up, Kelly said, telling him that they had plans to build camps for the surge of workers then flocking to the Bakken. They said they represented a Washington state company called DTM Enterprises. Welcoming them, Kelly put them up in a guesthouse he kept on his property. Then, to his shock and surprise, DTM Enterprises paid $187,086.43 in back taxes on 371 of his properties, leaving Kelly with only 60 days to regain them by settling the tax debt. Although that worked out to an average of just $504.28 per home, Kelly was unable to come up with the money and lost out to DTM.
Around the same time, Kelly began to research the men he’d initially welcomed to town. He is still amazed at what he found out about the two who said they were partners in DTM — Terry Lee Brauner and Merrill Leon Frantz.
Curiouser and Curiouser
Both Brauner and Frantz, it turned out, are self-described “sovereign citizens.” The term describes antigovernment radicals who, as a rule, believe that most laws, especially federal laws, do not apply to them. Typically, sovereigns believe they are not required to have driver’s licenses or pay federal taxes, and they are known for their nonsensical legal pleadings and theories and their use of property liens.
Brauner, who follows sovereign convention by writing his first names as “Terry-Lee” rather than Terry Lee, has a particularly colorful past. In the mid-1970s, he several times tried to go over towering waterfalls in a craft built of truck tire inner tubes in Washington state, telling reporters that he had been trying to draw attention to himself since childhood and wanted to live a life like that of Evel Knievel.
In 1992, he battled the IRS over more than $1 million in tax debt. In 2010, he ran for sheriff as a “constitutionalist” in Stevens County, Wash. After garnering almost 2,000 votes but losing the race, Brauner wrote to a local newspaper to say he had been the only “absolutely constitutional candidate.” Much later, in St. Marie, he spent two weeks in jail and paid an $800 fine for driving a car without a license or insurance. He told authorities he wouldn’t get a license because the application form required that he affirmatively answer the question, “Are you a U.S. citizen?”
In 2013, before his traffic arrest, according to the Glasgow (Mont.) Courier, Brauner sent a 25-page “memorandum of law” to officials explaining why he didn’t need a driver’s license. According to the Courier, he also “provided legal education on topics such as personal liberty, travel, distinctions between the terms ‘driver’ and ‘operator,’ licenses, traffic, surrender of rights and taxing power.” Brauner described himself as a “Citizen of the Republic of Montana” as opposed to the “municipal corporate State of MONTANA,” typical sovereign verbiage. His affidavit, the paper reported, referred to himself at the end as “Terry-Lee, a sovereign being.”
Much less is known about Frantz, who is listed as the registered agent of DTM Enterprises by the Montana Secretary of State. Frantz also appears as one-third owner of Alaska Premier Wood Products, LLC, which was “involuntarily dissolved” for reasons not explained in paperwork from that state’s licensing division.
According to an account in the Billings Gazette, the largest paper in the region, DTM has engaged in a series of maneuvers to take over St. Marie properties.
In 2012, the paper said, the sovereigns, calling themselves Citizens Action Committee of Valley County, posted a newspaper announcement that they intended to take over unincorporated St. Marie, declare it blighted, and then exercise eminent domain to take over properties. That failed, but was followed by an effort to join and take over the local property owners association by using proxy votes from the many properties DTM controlled. That failed as well, the Gazette reported. Then they tried to create their own homeowners association, an attempt that also fell apart.
But the biggest clarion call came from Pat Kelly, in an Oct. 19, 2013, letter to the Glasgow Courier, written after he lost a first wave of properties. “A member of DTM said he plans on teaching the sovereign citizen theory in St. Marie,” Kelly warned. “I believe that everyone needs to be aware of what I’ve written.”
Fears, Hopes and Promises
Is DTM Enterprises trying to build a sovereign citizens’ redoubt?
Terry Lee Brauner says no. He told the Intelligence Report that his whole interest has been to “make a pile of money” based on the boom in the Bakken Shale Formation, although that possibility seems to have faded dramatically with the plunge in oil prices and the near-halt in fracking for oil in shale sediments.
“We come in there as businessmen, just regular, ordinary businessmen, with a million dollars in our pocket,” he said. “We assumed that the oil boom was going to come all the way over. It got within 50 miles of [St. Marie] and stopped.”
Pat Kelly, for his part, doesn’t believe that. He worries that DTM is spearheading an effort to make St. Marie a sovereign enclave, and that without a local police department the community could do little to stop that. “Researching them,” he said, “you find that they’re big in the [sovereign] movement.”
Kelly has some historical reasons to be concerned. It was just two years ago that Craig Cobb, a foul-mouthed neo-Nazi, attempted to take control of another near ghost town, Leith, N.D., to build a white supremacist enclave. And just two hours’ drive from St. Marie, the Montana Freemen, whose beliefs were close to those of today’s sovereigns, declared their own independent “Justus Township” in 1996. That group engaged in an 81-day standoff before finally surrendering to the FBI.
And sovereigns in general don’t have a good reputation. In 2010, a sovereign father-son team murdered two police officers in West Memphis, Ark., and recent surveys have shown that sovereigns are a top concern of police. In 2011, the FBI released a report calling sovereign citizens “a domestic terrorist movement.”
Brauner and Frantz, aside from Brauner’s run-in with police over his refusal to get a driver’s license or insure his vehicle, apparently have not employed illegal tactics in their attempts to win control over St. Marie properties. Still, Brauner, at the very least, is clearly a true believer in classic sovereign ideology.
Reached by telephone, Brauner refused to speak to an Intelligence Report writer until the writer had read Plantation America, a book by longtime sovereign theorist Anthony L. Hargis. The book argues that the federal government is working to enslave every U.S. citizen and rob them of their rights. In 2005, it was advertised in the pages of an infamous anti-Semitic tabloid called American Free Press.
When Brauner finally did speak to the Report, he referenced a racist version of sovereign ideology promoted by the anti-Semitic Posse Comitatus in the 1980s. “Everybody’s an American, even the blacks are American,” he said. “We’re all Americans, but it’s whether you’re a federal citizen, with benefits and privileges, or a state citizen. … There are two different citizenships.” The Posse used to say only whites could be true sovereigns, or state citizens, because black people were granted citizenship by the 14th Amendment and so were beholden to the federal government.
That idea of different types of citizenship is a core belief of the sovereign movement, although it does not always take the racist form plugged by the Posse. “Once you understand how they’ve taken control of everybody,” Brauner said in an apparent reference to the federal government, “it just blows me away that nobody stopped this from happening and educated everybody to the two citizenships.”
But Brauner insists that he’s genuinely trying to spark development, and that opponents are hurting St. Marie. “They don’t want to see any development,” he complained. “They have cost the county and state of Montana over $10 million in lost property tax revenues because they stop every movement of guys like me coming in here to develop the place.” Apparently referring to Kelly, Brauner added, “Trying to force us out of there so he can take control, it’s all this is about.”
Meanwhile, residents can only shake their heads and wonder. As DeAnn Ketchum of the St. Marie property owners association told the Billings Gazette, “We all find it a little bit, I don’t know — I want to use the term unbelievable.”