In what may be the largest joint prosecution of sovereign citizens, authorities are bringing a 320-count criminal indictment against 10 of the antigovernment activists just arrested after a year-long investigation in Tennessee.
The suspects—all Tennessee residents—are charged with filing fraudulent liens and forgery, both felonies, which carry possible prison sentences upon conviction. A special prosecutor has been appointed to handle the case in Nashville.
It began, authorities say, after one of the sovereign citizen defendants, Lee Harold Cromwell, filed bogus liens for millions of dollars after he was arrested for recklessly driving his Dodge Ram pickup backward, striking several people and killing a man in Oak Ridge, Tennessee on July 4, 2015.
Cromwell filed the liens against the arresting police officer, the prosecutor and the judge who presided over his case. He was handed the new criminal charges in a Knoxville courtroom, just before a jury found him guilty last month of vehicular homicide, according to media reports.
The ensuing joint investigation by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the FBI revealed that over a period of recent years, Cromwell and other sovereign citizens living in Eastern Tennessee had filed $2 billion worth of bogus liens against assorted government officials.
Those targeted included police officers, sheriff’s deputies and state troopers, mayors, judges and various other elected and appointed city and state government officials, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said in a statement.
The liens, filed with the Tennessee Secretary of State’s Office in Nashville, were lodged against the public employees, ranging in amounts from $4 million to $12 million, encumbering their personal property.
“Anyone can file a lien in Tennessee by filling out an online form in a matter of minutes,” the Knoxville News Sentinel said in story published last week. “Removing the claims, which can haunt credit records for years, makes for a different story,” the newspaper report said.
Sovereign citizens, who generally believe most laws and licensing requirements don’t apply to them and frequently resort to “paper terrorism,” filed Uniform Commercial Code liens and financing statements with the Tennessee Secretary of State’s Office.
The investigation and prosecution are being supervised by a special prosecutor in the Davidson County where the state Secretary of State’s Office has its headquarters. Court appearances for the 10 defendants are set to begin next month.
The jam-up of needless, fraudulent paperwork prompted the Tennessee Secretary of State, Tre Hargett, to push for new, pending legislation, making it easier to purge fraudulent liens and recover legal costs against sovereign citizens who file them.
“The [fraudulent] liens were filed against dozens of different individuals across the state, encumbering their property,” in amounts ranging from $4 million to $12 million, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said in a statement.
“These arrests send a clear message,” Hargett said in a statement. “Public officials as well as state and local government employees shouldn’t be harassed with fraudulent liens just for doing their jobs.”
“The victims who had these liens filed against them range from citizens employed by government entities, police officers and attorneys, to elected and appointed officials, including city and county mayors, sheriffs, and members of the judiciary,” the TBI statement said.
Cromwell, 67, of Oak Ridge, was indicted on 14 counts of filing fraudulent liens and 14 counts of forgery.
Others indicted in the roundup are:
Michael Robert Birdsell, 45, of Andersonville, Tenn., charged with eight counts of forgery and of filing a fraudulent lien.
Austin Gary Cooper, 68, of Clinton, Tenn., charged with 10 counts of forgery and of filing a fraudulent lien.
Victor Douglas Bunch, 72, of Powell, Tenn., charged with 17 counts of forgery and of filing a fraudulent lien.
Christopher Alan Hauser, 51, of Del Rio, Tenn., charged with 21 counts of forgery and of filing a fraudulent lien.
Ronald James Lyons, 52, of Newport, Tenn., charged with 30 counts of forgery and of filing a fraudulent lien.
James Michael Usinger, 64, of Greeneville, charged with 22 counts of forgery and of filing a fraudulent lien;
John Jeffrey Williams, 50, of Powell, charged with three counts of forgery and of filing a fraudulent lien;
George Edward Williams, 76, of Powell, charged with three counts of forgery and of filing a fraudulent lien;
Kenneth Ray Foust, 73, of Clinton, charged with three counts of forgery and of filing a fraudulent lien.