JORDAN, Mont. — Four people, including two girls, voluntarily left a barricaded farmhouse near here Thursday, giving federal authorities a break in their 74-day standoff with the anti-government "freemen."
Gloria Ward, 35, her daughters, Courtney Joy Christensen, 10, and Jaylynn Mangum, 8, and her common-law husband, Elwin Ward, 55, emerged from the modest white building at 1 p.m. They were the first people to leave the ranch since April.
Authorities said no one in the group was facing federal charges. Gloria Ward had been charged with felony custodial interference in Utah for taking the children out of state against a court order. The state agreed to drop the charge as part of the deal that persuaded the family to leave.
The girls, one wearing a blue bow in her hair, were taken away in an FBI van to be placed in the protective custody of the state Department of Public Health pending a state court hearing to determine where they should live.
The surrender came a week after the FBI began squeezing the freemen by shutting off electrical power to their compound, moving three armored cars, two helicopters and SWAT teams to the edge of the 960-acre ranch, and scrambling their cellular phones and cable television.
It also coincided with the filing of a community petition urging the use of "reasonable force" to end the face-off.
"The FBI is finally doing what we've been calling for for 10 weeks," said rancher Brent McRae, who delivered the petition to Garfield County Sheriff Charles Phipps on Thursday. "But I think the use of reasonable force had more to do with this surrender than my petition."
Garfield County Atty. Nick Murnion, who has been threatened by the freemen, put it another way:
"When a mother with two children sees armored vehicles, helicopters and SWAT teams come into position with her power cut off, she's going to realize it's getting dangerous," Murnion said.
Smiling broadly, he added: "I don't see this as a green light for the FBI's tanks to roll in tomorrow. But this is a relief to everybody in this community."
Still, no one here expects an end any time soon to the confrontation that began on March 25 when FBI agents surrounded the sprawling ranch and arrested two freemen leaders.
U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno has repeatedly vowed that the standoff would be resolved peacefully.
Beyond that, 17 others, including a 16-year-old girl, Ashly Landers, remain holed up in the ranch complex, which has a considerable store of emergency provisions and fuel for electric generators.
More than a dozen of these tax protesters, who reject the validity of state and federal governments, are wanted on a variety of charges. Some are accused of writing millions of dollars in bogus checks and threatening to kidnap and kill a U.S. district judge.
They have declared the foreclosed wheat farm they call "Justus Township" a sovereign territory.
"You still have some hard-core people in there," Murnion said. "It remains to be seen how hardy, courageous and ready to go into battle they really are.
"But the FBI can't afford to have anyone hurt," he said, "and I don't want Jordan to be known as the place where [the freemen] bought it."
Montana U.S. Atty. Sherry Matteucci said the FBI is "continuing to urge the freemen to negotiate in good faith, and, at the same time, intends to keep open all lawful options."
She also praised Gloria Ward's sister for helping to coax the four people out of the ranch. The sister is the 43rd third-party intermediary used by the FBI to try to persuade the freemen to turn themselves in.
Previous face-to-face talks broke down on June 3 when Colorado state Sen. Charles Duke, who earlier had professed sympathy for the freemen, left Jordan in frustration. He said the freemen were not negotiating in good faith and that some were criminals trying to avoid prosecution.
The freemen asked that Duke mediate talks with federal agents after state legislator Karl Ohs and former Green Beret Col. James "Bo" Gritz failed in their negotiating attempts.
Gritz has suggested that only a nonviolent raid by FBI agents using night-vision goggles, so-called flash-bang bombs and stun devices would pry the freemen out.
Matteucci attributed Thursday's breakthrough to family compassion.
"We are all very glad the children have come out safely and we are exceedingly grateful for the assistance of Gloria Ward's sister in helping achieve this outcome," Matteucci said. "The love of family played a significant part in this result."
Freemen leader Edwin Clark and his wife, Janet, met for about an hour Thursday with FBI agents at a checkpoint outside the ranch before Janet Clark drove her husband back inside the compound.
Janet Clark did the same on Wednesday. Her husband has been holed up on the ranch with their son, Casey, since the standoff began March 25. The FBI has declined to comment on what was discussed.
The last people to previously leave the compound were Ebert W. Stanton, 23, and his mother, Agnes B. Stanton, 52, who surrendered to FBI agents on April 11. Stanton was taken into custody and his mother put under house arrest.
On April 27, freemen sympathizer Stewart Douglas Waterhouse of Osage, Ark., who had run a roadblock to enter the compound the month before, emerged and surrendered to the FBI.