Holy War on the Range
JORDAN, MONTANA--The windy plains of Eastern Montana are bleak and desolate this time of year. Ranchers struggling to survive here, fighting constant battles against the elements and the isolation of the landscape. The still-frozen earth surrounding Ralph Clark's ranch is barren and flat. Nothing but occasional sheep and law-enforcement cars mark the stark white land. Clark's ranch is the headquarters for the Freemen of Granite County, 960 acres they now call Justus Township. In coming days or weeks, it may become the last battleground for the Freemen's long-standing holy war against the government, Satan, and the rest of the world. As many as 25 people, including women and young children, are holed up in the farmhouse of what used to be a prosperous sheep ranch. They have stockpiled food and weapons for the past year, anticipating a battle to prove the sovereignty and supremacy of white, Christian landowners. And from this house and others in the area, they have been spreading the word across the country. At least 800 people from 30 different states have made the long pilgrimage to this secluded spot in the past few months to hear the Freemen's gospel of "constitutionalism," apocalypse and racism--and to learn how to get away with writing fake money-orders and not paying taxes. Each visitor was charged $100. According to U.S. Attorney Sherry Scheel Matteucci, these workshops have resulted in nationwide scams against banks, government agencies and private businesses, costing over $1.8 million. As a result, ten of the Freemen holed up at the ranch are wanted on charges of conspiracy, mail fraud and bank fraud by the federal government. Garfield County Attorney Nick Murnion has been dealing with these people all his life. His family is one of the two largest in a county with a population of only 1,500. And for the past year, Murnion has been living with a million-dollar bounty on his head, ordered by the Freemen. Sheriff Charles Phipps and four other county officials were also threatened with similar bounties over the foreclosure of Clark's ranch. As bizarre as these threats may seem, Murnion takes the Freemen seriously. "I'm taking precautions," he says. "If they come after me, I'm not going down easy." To further combat these threats, Murnion unearthed the obscure "criminal syndicalism" statute from Montana law. Criminal syndicalism makes it illegal to "knowingly becoming a member of an organization that advocates crime, violence, damage to property, or unlawful means of terrorism for industrial or political ends." The Freemen are not only dangerous to their neighbors, Murnion says, they are part of a nationwide conspiracy. "I think it must be communicable." The Freemen believe that they are God's chosen people, and justify their actions with a mangled interpretation of the Bible, the Magna Carta and the Constitution. Underneath their alleged crimes is a belief that they are warriors of God in a battle to the death against lawmakers, homosexuals, Jews and all minorities. Rodney O. Skurdal, 43, a Freemen leader currently barricaded in the Clark house, says that "the Bible was only written for one race of people," and that only white people can be Christians. In a tedious, obsessively annotated 20-page manifesto which has been distributed here, Skurdal "proves" that the Freemen's beliefs come straight from God's mouth, so that "even the most jaded mind can comprehend." In language that is becoming more and more familiar these days--from Militia of Montana dispatches, quotes of Ravalli County "patriot" activist Calvin Greenup, Internet postings from Michigan Militia leaders and sermons of the nationwide Christian Identity movement--Skurdal mocks law-abiding citizens as "slaves" to government. Only Justus Township knows true freedom, he writes. And their Frankensteinian doctrine of history, religion and politics goes a step further: the Freemen claim that all those who are not following the path of patriotic righteousness which they have created are Satan's offspring. In their reading of Genesis, Eve had sex with the serpent in the Garden of Eden and gave birth to Cain, whose descendants worship the false god Baal. State and federal legislators--as well as all taxpayers--are the modern day prophets of Baal, and as such must be killed. The Freemen see themselves as the instruments of God's wrath. Skurdal's Freemen manifesto quotes from the Bible: "And Elija said to them, 'Seize the prophets of Baal; let none of them escape.' And they seized them; and Elija brought them down to the to the brook Kishon, and killed them there." The only thing the Freemen may revere more than their God is money. According to law enforcement officials and many of their neighbors, this holy war is really about the Freemen lining their own pockets. LeRoy Schweitzer, one of the two Montana Freemen arrested on March 25, is a good example. Far from being a put-upon farmer who simply couldn't pay his taxes, Schweitzer simply chose to spend his money on other things. In a raid of the Clark ranch in June of 1994, federal agents found Schweitzer in possession of a fancy crop dusting plane, which the IRS confiscated and sold for more than a quarter of a million dollars to pay off taxes he owed from profits on grain sales. Dale Jacobi, 54, another Freeman involved in the stand-off, had $80,000 cash--much of it in gold coins--when he was arrested on March 3, 1995 in Roundup. Militia of Montana leader John Trochmann and a half-dozen others were with Jacobi at the time of the arrest. An arsenal of weapons was also seized. The Clark ranch itself was repossessed by the Farmer's Home Administration because the Clark family refused to pay back a loan--money they had borrowed from the government. Murnion says it is common for armed far-right groups to be as well stocked with money as they are with guns. "The thread that connects all of these groups--Freemen, constitutionalists, militias, whatever--is that they are people who never pay their bills," he says. "This is the most self-centered movement I have ever seen." According to the Billings Gazette, the Freemen sent documents they call "True Bills" to people they considered their enemies. Also called "covenant letters," these were pre-written confessions listing their enemies' purported crimes. When their targets didn't respond, the Freemen found them guilty in home-made court hearings and filed liens on their property. The Coalition for Human Dignity, an Oregon-based non-profit organization, reports that these tactics are commonly used by Christian Patriot groups in efforts to avoid paying taxes. Schweitzer, 57, who is being held in a federal prison hospital in Springfield, Mo. following a hunger strike in the Yellowstone County jail, was the guru at the Freeman compound, and an architect of the local version of the "covenant" scam. Schweitzer was arrested with Daniel E. Peterson on the ranch in an FBI sting operation on March 25. In an instructional videotape filmed at Justus Township, Schweitzer explains how sending "true bills" can be a profitable business. "Every time they breach a covenant with me, it's a hundred million. And if I'm feeling a little bit bad that day, I charge them a billion," Schweitzer says. It must have been a particularly bad day when the Freemen put a $100 billion lien on the property of a young Lutheran Minister stationed in Roundup. Jerry Walters was called "an agent of Satan" by Skurdal, who sent him a "covenant" letter for the "crime" of spreading false teachings. At issue was Walter's refusal to preach that only white people can be Christians. Matthew Sisler, a Missoula attorney, has also been served with a $1 billion dollar lien, for representing a Lincoln County man in a suit against Schweitzer, who allegedly issued a worthless check for $1,424,800 for radio and electronic equipment. The Freemen's demands for money often contain an overt threat of violence. In the videotape, Schweitzer plainly states his plan to kill his enemies. "My liberty is worth a lot more than their hanging, so we're not hanging them...yet," Schweitzer says. "What we're doing is going after their property first. We'll get to the clean-up later." Murnion won the one criminal syndicalism case that has come to court so far. In March of last year, William Stanton was sentenced to ten years in Montana State Prison on felony syndicalism charges, stemming from the bounty on Murnion. "He told me they weren't going to bother building a gallows," Murnion says. "They were just going to let me swing from a bridge." Since Stanton's conviction, syndicalism charges have spread to other parts of the state. Francis Joe Holland, head of the Indiana-based North American Volunteer Militia, pled guilty to criminal syndicalism charges in a Missoula court in 1995, stemming from his association with Calvin Greenup. Ravalli County Attorneys, with the assistance of Montana's Assistant Attorney General, argued that the two had threatened to kill local law enforcement officials. According to court documents, between December 1994 and April 1995, Holland distributed letters promising that Sheriff Jay Printz, County Attorney George Corn and other public servants would be killed. In one, Holland wrote, "How many of your agents are going to go home in body bags before you hear the pleas of the people?" The slew of reporters gathering in Jordan don't know whether to call the locals "Jordanians" or "Jordanites." The locals say they don't know either, since they've never been called anything. All they know for sure is that they don't want to be seen as a bunch of constitutionalist crazies. Appearing on CBS's "Face the Nation" from the back-room of Jordan's QD Cafe, Nick Murnion wears a blue tie with multicolored dinosaurs on it. He says he wears it because he wants Jordan, a town of less than 500, to be known for the area's record number of Tyrannosaurs Rex fossil discoveries--not for the Freemen. "Jordan is the T-Rex capital of the world," Murnion says. "I hope the Freemen become as extinct as the dinosaurs." It's almost impossible to find someone who calls themselves a Freeman supporter in Jordan. The militia leaders who planned a demonstration in Lewiston, Mont. in a show of support for the Freemen could only muster eight men. (The daily Missoulian ran a headline the following day that read: "The Eight Man March.") Murnion says that probably 90 percent of Jordanites are on the side of the FBI, although he knows of absolutely nobody outside their ranks who is a Freemen sympathizer. "We're concerned with our community and we're pretty united," Murnion says. "Even if you believe in the One World Order, you still can't behave that way." Homer Hansard, who has lived in Jordan for more than 40 years, says the Freemen are giving Jordan a bad name, and he doesn't like it. Sitting on a stool at the Hell Creek Bar, Hansard says he used to admire the Clark family before they started to refuse to pay their bills and threaten people. But now, he says, he's lost all respect for the Freemen. And he doesn't blame the banks or the IRS for his neighbors' problems. He says they did it to themselves. "They got money [from government programs and bank loans], and all they did was play with it," Hansard says. In between sips from his bottle of Rainier, Hansard talks about the troubles the Freemen have caused in town, like holding their own kangaroo courts in the Garfield County Courthouse. "That's the first thing they did was to start raising hell with the courthouse," Hansard says. The courthouse, which was originally constructed as a dance hall in 1915, was the setting for a meeting where 30 Freemen declared themselves the "Supreme Court of Garfield County Comitatus," on Jan. 27, 1994. Murnion has already successfully prosecuted William Stanton for impersonating a public official at that meeting. Clark and Skurdal were also there, but have avoided prosecution thus far. The Freemen have gone too far, Hansard says, and now he's rooting for the feds. "They need to clean this horse-shit up," he says. "The quicker the better. Stuffed elk heads and moose heads hang on the walls of both the Hell Creek Bar and the Rancher's Bar, which is three doors down. At the Rancher's, Mark Bibeau says that if the FBI hadn't shown up in Jordan, he and his neighbors might be trophy hunting for Freemen. Almost exactly two years before the stand-off began, on March 21, 1994, more than 70 locals showed up at a meeting to form a posse to go after the Freemen themselves. Since then, Murnion and others have pleaded with federal law enforcement officials to intercede. Bibeau holds up a hand-scrawled poster that has been distributed around town for "The First Annual Freeman Hunt." The contest offers $40 for a male Freeman, and provides free taxidermy services for Freemen-hunters. Bibeau, who sports a waxed moustache and is missing a few teeth, says the Freemen should have been paying their taxes like the rest of the people in Jordan. "If they don't want to pay their taxes, we should cut of the road to their house," Bibeau says. "It's a hard winter." Olene Jernigan, stopping to talk with Bibeau, agrees that the Freemen should suffer the consequences of their actions. "They've had plenty of time to surrender and the feds should come in and get them," she says. "I don't feel sorry for them, they've been asking for it." Some townsfolk believe that the Freemen's wives are at the Clark ranch against their will. The Freemen make it clear in their manifesto that the women on the compound couldn't surrender if they wanted to. They believe that women must be submissive to men, and keep silent. Another suspected hostage is Steve Mangum's eight year-old daughter, Jaylynn Joy, who is living on the Clark ranch with his ex-wife, Tammy Mangum, also known as Gloria Ward. Mangum, a truck driver from Salt Lake City who wears a laminated photo of his daughter around his neck, says he arrived in Jordan to see if he could help keep his daughter safe. "I'm here to get her out, or at least make sure she's okay," Mangum says. Murnion says Justus Township is just too dangerous not to be taken care of. But from the tone of his comments over breakfast with his family at the QD Cafe last Sunday, he clearly is not after revenge. He says he hopes the confrontation ends peacefully, and he wants redemption for his belligerent neighbors. But he believes they first must face criminal charges. He is a man who believes that the criminal justice system works, and that the Freemen can become productive members of society again--only if "they get back into our system." "There is a chance they could regain their status in the community," Murnion says. "But it's a gradual process to heal wounds."