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Montana Officials, 'Freemen' Discuss Surrender

Law enforcement: Pair talks for two hours with group, which wants to press case before Legislature. Lawmakers, however, don't convene until 1997.


JORDAN, Mont. — Two Montana state officials met Tuesday with anti-government activists in an attempt to close a deal for surrender of more than a dozen "freemen" locked in a five-week standoff on their wind-swept wheat farm on the Montana prairies.

State Rep. Karl Ohs and Assistant Atty. Gen. John Connor Jr. negotiated for just under two hours with the freemen, then returned to the FBI compound outside Jordan for consultations.

State officials said the purpose of the meeting was to discuss the freemen's offer to surrender if their leaders are given safe passage to Helena, the state capital, and a public forum with the Legislature or the governor to present their case.

A legal tract released as part of the surrender offer outlines the group's views that the government has no authority to challenge its refusal to pay taxes, its common law courts or its issuance of hundreds of thousands of dollars in private money orders.

"We're ready to discuss it, but one of the things they're talking about is a legislative forum, and our Legislature isn't in session until January 1997," said Sue O'Connell, spokeswoman for Atty. Gen. Joe Mazurek.

But other state officials said there might be a way around that constraint. Legislative committees regularly meet between sessions of Montana's biennial Legislature, said Andrew Malcolm, spokesman for Gov. Mark Racicot.

He said the governor has not been approached about meeting with the freemen.

"I think there's a fairly open and close communications process between the feds and the governor," Malcolm said. "But the governor has not seen all the proposals, and he has said that as a general rule, he would never seek to interfere with an order of the court. . . . If there is a request [to enter the process], he would consider it, but it would have to come from the feds who are monitoring the situation."

Former U.S. Army Col. James "Bo" Gritz was preparing to head into the compound for a fourth day of negotiations, to discuss a surrender agreement and to attempt to close a deal for release of two children and a South Carolina family from the compound.

Gritz said Monday that one of the holdouts at the ranch, Gloria Ward, who is wanted in several states for matters relating to the custody of her two daughters, has tentatively agreed to allow the girls, Courtnie, 10, and Jaylynn, 8, to leave the ranch--and perhaps will accompany them herself.

He said he was also trying to complete an agreement that would suspend most pending state charges against Steven C. Hance, 46, John R. Hance, 19, and James E. Hance, 23, who were arrested in August 1995 for allegedly assaulting a police officer and resisting arrest after they were cited for driving without a license plate in Gaston County, N.C.

"It's all over a tiny thing about a license plate," Gritz said.

Tuesday's meeting was not the first between the state officials and the freemen. Ohs and three other legislators have met with the group several times in an attempt to negotiate an agreement said to be similar to the freemen's latest public proposal.

The negotiators refused to discuss their meeting after Tuesday's talks, but there was a slight sense of optimism that talks at least were underway.

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