LeRoy M. Schweitzer, the one-time leader of the Montana Freeman and a dean in the antigovernment “Patriot” movement, has died of apparent natural causes in the federal “Supermax” prison in Florence, Colo. The 73-year-old Schweitzer was serving a 22-year federal prison sentence related to crimes prosecuted after the longest police-standoff siege in U.S. history.
In 1996, he led a heavily armed antigovernment group called the Montana Freemen before he was arrested that March 25 in an FBI ruse on a piece of land he called “Justus Township.” His arrest prompted 16 other members of the Freeman group, who believed the government had no authority over them, to barricade themselves in a 960-acre ranch compound in Jordan, Mont. They held FBI agents at bay for 81 days before finally surrendering without firing a shot.
Schweitzer later was convicted in U.S. District Court on 25 counts, including conspiracy, bank and wire fraud, failure to file federal income tax returns, fugitive possession of a firearm and threatening a federal judge. Schweitzer, who called himself the "chief justice" of Justus Township, also was charged with participating in the armed robbery of an ABC-TV crew whose camera gear was taken after the journalists were stopped by gun-toting Freemen near their compound.
Schweitzer died at a time when the so-called "sovereign citizens" movement, which shared most of his beliefs about the lack of federal government authority, is resurgent. Patriot groups, which include sovereign citizens organizations, have grown explosively, from 149 in 2008 to 824 last year.
When he was sentenced in 1997, Schweitzer -- still defiant of the federal government and its court system -- stood gagged, chained and handcuffed before the judge. After his gag was briefly removed, Schweitzer shouted that was a citizen of “the country of Montana,” not of the United States.
Schweitzer was found unresponsive in his cell Tuesday in the maximum-security Federal Correctional Complex in Florence, and appears to have died of natural causes, The Denver Post reported. Authorities said an autopsy would be performed. Funeral arrangements were not immediately announced.
A native of Belgrade, Mont., Schweitzer also lived in eastern Washington, for several years.
Like many others in the ranks of the Patriot movement, Schweitzer’s introduction to the radical right came after he had a run-in with the Internal Revenue Service. That occurred after he moved in the late 1960s from Montana to the Palouse area of eastern Washington, where he worked as a pilot for Fountain Flying in Moscow, Idaho, before starting his own business, Farm-Air, in Colfax.
“He’s simply the best pilot I’ve ever ridden with,” one of Schweitzer’s friends in Colfax, also a pilot, said in 1996. He described Schweitzer as a “very self-sufficient, loner type.”
After building his own hangar and starting his farm-spraying business in Colfax, Schweitzer decided he wanted a helicopter, so he bought one and taught himself how to fly it, friends recalled. On another occasion, Schweitzer flew a plane with an oversize, experimental engine from California over the Sierra Nevada mountains to Reno, Nev. When oil spewed from the engine, coating the plane’s windshield, Schweitzer landed the aircraft by poking his head out the window so he could see.
Schweitzer balked when the federal government said he owed $700 more in taxes in 1977. He relied on advice from his accountant and attorney, and didn’t believe he owed another dime, his former associates told The Spokesman-Review in 1996.
When the IRS then froze $6,000 in his business account, Schweitzer’s partner paid the delinquent taxes. “He couldn’t believe his bank would let anybody touch his money,” a friend told the Spokane newspaper in 1996.
“I can remember LeRoy saying, ‘The IRS can steal my money, but nobody else can,”’ the friend said. “That’s where his trust in banks went down the drain, and his hatred of the government began.”
In 1978, Schweitzer was audited again by the IRS. He eventually stopped paying federal income taxes and became a “full-blown tax protester.”
In the early 1980s, Schweitzer befriended eastern Washington rancher Ray Smith, who lost his land in Whitman County after failing to pay the federal Farmers Home Administration nearly $1 million in delinquent loan payments. The two attended meetings in Whitman County of the Posse Comitatus, a radical anti-Semitic group that believed the government had no authority over its members.
“LeRoy and Ray Smith were good friends and shared a hatred of the federal government,” said a Colfax businessman who knew both men.
Members of a neo-Nazi group known as The Order practiced firing automatic weapons on Smith’s ranch near LaCrosse, Wash., in the early 1980s, authorities said. One Smith ranch employee, Eldon “Bud” Cutler, was the security chief at Aryan Nations, a neo-Nazi group then headquartered in Hayden Lake, Idaho. Cutler was arrested and convicted in a murder-for-hire plot tied to The Order in 1986.
Schweitzer told friends he didn’t believe individuals needed to rely on government for anything. When fire broke out in a Palouse wheat field one day, Schweitzer loaded his spray plane with water and doused the flames without being asked.
In 1983, when Whitman County fair officials were pestered by flies at the fairgrounds, Schweitzer volunteered his plane to spray the pesticide malathion. People on the ground got doused by the chemical, and at least one lawsuit was filed. Schweitzer was sued by his own insurance company before the dispute was settled.
“That whole deal at the fairgrounds just made LeRoy even more bitter,” the pilot friend said.
On another occasion, a Washington state safety inspector showed up for a surprise inspection at Schweitzer’s hangar and cited the businessman for not having an electrical ground on a grinding machine. The inspector explained the regulations were intended to protect employees.
Schweitzer fired his only employee on the spot, right in front of the inspector, his friend said. “Now there are no employees who work here, so see how your regulations protected that man,” the friend recalled Schweitzer saying.
About that same time, Schweitzer stopped renewing his state and federal licenses for his cars and airplanes. “He contended they had authority over him only because he became voluntarily licensed. Without licenses they had no authority over him,” the friend said.
His fight with the federal government continued until the mid-1980s when he sold his business and moved back to Montana. Schweitzer and his wife, Carol, moved to Bozeman, where they went into the fireworks business with his brothers.
In Montana, Schweitzer associated with others in Patriot movement before moving to a complex of ranch houses, including one facing foreclosure, near Jordan. There, he established “Justus Township,” his own form of fantasy government. Before long, Schweitzer and his “freemen” were offering courses in the “common law” and attracting students nationwide.
Federal authorities later said at least 800 people from 30 states attended such classes at the Montana Freemen compound. Along with common-law court “judgments” against “corrupt” political entities and officials, the Freemen learned how to write bogus warrants, checks and money orders, affectionately known as “LeRoy checks.”
Back home in various states, the graduates wrote such money orders to pay for everything from new cars to funeral services. The FBI’s interest ramped up when losses in the fraud scheme began to exceed $2 million.
After being named in an arrest warrant, Schweitzer refused to surrender and defied the federal government to come get him. Reached on the telephone before his arrest, Schweitzer said he wouldn’t grant interviews because, in his opinion, Jews controlled the media.
“You people have a history of lying,” he said. “You’ve got to come out from under the satanic hold you’re under.”