JORDAN, Mont. — When Colorado state Sen. Charles Duke first entered the "freemen" compound, it was with the hope of preserving the rights of free Americans to oppose their government, and of ending the FBI standoff without bloodshed.
When he left five days later, Duke--a longtime supporter of the patriot movement with sympathies for right-wing groups across the country--had had enough of this particular brand of anti-government militancy.
The legislator was so mad that he could be seen waving his arms in fury from a mile away. He was yelling, he said, at Rodney Skurdal, who had--along with the rest of the freemen--reneged on the second of two carefully crafted deals, this one to release two young girls held at the compound.
"You aren't enough of a man to come face me, get out of that car!" Duke shouted as Skurdal climbed into an automobile. "I told him, 'I'm going to go out of here and I'm going to tell the American people what you're doing here. You will not get support from the patriot community, you will not get support from the militia community and if you die, nobody's going to avenge you.' "
The 72 days since the freemen began their defiant stand against the FBI on a 930-acre wheat and cattle ranch northeast of here have cost them far more dearly than a dent in their food supplies and a toll on their spirits.
Through a strategy of patient negotiation and co-opting of potential right-wing opponents, the FBI has undermined the freemen on their own turf: the anti-government patriot movement that might otherwise have established the freemen as the next generation of constitutionalist martyrs.
No longer are pickup trucks carrying militia members barreling up to FBI checkpoints outside the ranch. No longer are anti-government groups convening freemen support rallies in surrounding communities. Some of the most prominent leaders in national right-wing circles have instead spoken out to denounce the freemen, or have fallen silent.
"People in contact with them understand now that what they were doing was fraud," said Randy Trochmann, spokesman for the Militia of Montana. "With the public, a good percentage of them want the FBI just to leave, put a berm around the house and let the state police patrol it. And another percentage just want them [the FBI] to go in and finish them off."
On Tuesday, federal agents delivered what appeared to be a message to the freemen compound, a day after shutting off electricity to the ranch and buzzing the complex with a low-flying helicopter. It was yet another sign that the FBI would rather talk than fight.
It is a position that has not been lost on the right-wing community, some of whose leaders have joined a chorus demanding that the FBI up the ante against the militants.
Duke, who said he twice crafted deals with the freemen for release of the girls, ages 8 and 10, said he lost all confidence when the FBI carefully agreed to the conditions, only to see the freemen's demands escalate.
"Initially, we believed they were trying to stand for constitutional principles and were simply trying to do some of the same techniques that are practiced on a daily basis by the banks and the Federal Reserve system," said Duke, referring to the freemen's declaration of the U.S. monetary system as invalid and their subsequent issuance of their own money orders, the subject of a federal indictment against about a dozen of the 21 people still at the ranch.
"But the overall group there has very little to do with the patriot/constitutionalist movement. They're trying to hide behind that as a way of avoiding arrest, in my opinion," Duke said. "They're just scam artists. And the fact that they're willing to hide behind those two little girls, I realized we're not dealing with honorable people here."
The FBI--hoping to avoid the widespread criticism that followed incidents near Waco, Texas, and at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in which law enforcement sieges of anti-government groups had bloody outcomes--has adopted a strategy of negotiations that have become excruciating in degree. A total of 42 interveners and consultants has been called in--including religious experts, Montana state legislators, state prosecutors and right-wing sympathizers such as Duke and former Army Col. James "Bo" Gritz.
One by one, all of those initially most prepared to be sympathetic to the freemen and to help them meet their demands for a public forum against the federal government have thrown up their hands in exasperation and denounced the group as unreasonable.
Gritz, in obvious disgust, said he had come close to working out a deal in which half of those at the compound would have left willingly. "But any time that happens, they are immediately put down verbally by these vitamin salesmen who would have to get a job if this whole thing collapses," Gritz said of the two to four most militant freemen leaders.