If you can’t beat them in court, kill them in the street.
At least that seems to have been the legal strategy of an elderly Texas tax protester and suspected “sovereign citizen,” who authorities charged Monday with trying to hire a hit man to kill the federal judge presiding over his upcoming trial for filing false tax returns.
Phillip Monroe Ballard, 71, was already in federal custody, awaiting trial, when, authorities say, he offered to pay an assassin $100,000 cash – presumably tax-free – to shoot or blow up U.S. District Judge John McBryde of the Northern District of Texas.
As it turned out, the hit man was a G-man, an undercover federal agent posing as a killer for hire, according a press statement from the U.S. Attorney’s office in Fort Worth.
Ballard, according to the authorities, was fearful that if convicted of the tax charges, Judge McBryde would sentence him to more than 20 years in prison. He wanted McBryde killed so his case would be transferred to another judge.
He had reason to worry.
According to The Dallas Morning News, Ballard, who represented himself as a lawyer, helped the owner of a drywall business hide income by filing false tax returns on his behalf from 1997 to 2005. Ballard even created a “sham church” called Chapel of Light Ministries for the client to hide his income, the paper quoted court records saying.
The Texan’s alleged tax dodges appear to be straight out of the handbook of the fast-growing sovereign citizen movement, that wacky but sometimes deadly subculture of tax resisters, cheats and right wing extremists. Sovereign citizens generally believe that federal tax, criminal and other laws do not apply to them.
For the most part, though, sovereigns use paper and not bullets to avoid paying taxes. As the Intelligence Report noted in a 2010 cover story about the movement, “While a normal criminal case docket might have 60 to 70 entries, many involving sovereigns have as many as 1,200. The courts are struggling to keep up, and judges, prosecutors and public defenders are being swamped.”
But a few sovereigns have gone from lawsuits to gun battles. Since 2010, suspected sovereigns have killed four law enforcement officers in Arkansas and Louisiana.
According to federal authorities in Texas, Ballard was headed down that path.
He allegedly approached a fellow inmate at the FCI Fort Worth and told him about his legal troubles and his desire to have the judge killed. The inmate, who was working as a confidential source for the FBI, told Ballard that he knew just the guy on the outside who could do it.
Ballard allegedly provided the informant with detailed instructions on how the hit should be carried out with a high-powered rifle. If that failed, Ballard had a contingency plan. He said Plan B was for the killer to plant a bomb in the judge’s car, the authorities said.
Ballard promised to send the killer the $100,000 once the judge was dead.
The inmate informant gave Ballard a handwritten letter from the phony killer, outlining his terms. The “work,” the letter said, would be completed upon receipt of $5,000.
Ballard agreed and called the “hit man” four times on Sept. 26; the following day, Ballard directed that the $5,000 payment be sent to the address specified by the undercover agent, the authorities said.
Ballard’s tax trial, which was scheduled to begin Monday, has been postponed and Judge McBryde has recused himself from the case.
So Ballard got his wish. He will have a new judge in his tax case — and in his new case as well.
If convicted, the maximum statutory sentence for the charge murder-for-hire of an officer of the United States is 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
“These things fortunately usually come unraveled, as this one did,” the Dallas/Fort Worth CBS affiliate quoted former U.S. Attorney for Northern Texas Paul Coggins as saying about the plot. “You talk about turning a very bad situation for a defendant into a much worse situation. This is a much more serious crime.”