JORDAN, Mont. — The last of the fugitive "freemen" gathered in a quiet circle for a final few minutes of prayer and then surrendered two-by-two into the waiting arms of the FBI late Thursday, peacefully ending an 81-day standoff--one of the longest law enforcement sieges in U.S. history.
Sixteen in all, the men and women rode in cars, pickup trucks and a Winnebago motor home to a cattle guard at the entrance to their compound, where a dozen FBI agents waited with two 15-passenger vans backed up to a gate. The freemen stepped out of their vehicles. They hugged each other.
Soundlessly they gathered and prayed. Finally, at 6:45 p.m. local time, with a surveillance plane circling overhead, their leader, Edwin Clark, approached the FBI and shook hands with an agent standing near the cattle guard. The sun broke through dark clouds shrouding the evening sky. Slowly, Clark returned to his people.
Then, two at a time, he led them off the compound and turned them over to the FBI. Each of the freemen clung to his arms as he walked them forward. After surrendering each pair, Clark turned, walked back to his group and then stepped forward with still another pair. There was no scuffling. Not a shot was fired.
In Washington, FBI Director Louis J. Freeh praised a policy of "patience and resoluteness" that he credited with the outcome. He said the law was enforced "in a way that did not do harm to anyone." President Clinton told guests at a White House state dinner: "We will all say a little prayer tonight for this peaceful settlement."
The peaceful surrender contrasted sharply with the bloody resolution of two other sieges conducted by federal agents during the past four years, one near Waco, Texas, and the other at Ruby Ridge in Idaho. It seemed to vindicate the FBI's new strategy of carefully calibrating pressure on fugitives who have been surrounded and are trying to avoid arrest.
Fourteen of the freemen were believed to be facing charges ranging from threatening a federal judge to being involved in check frauds totaling $1.8 million. The FBI drove them to the Yellowstone County jail in Billings, 175 miles away. The other two freemen were free to go, but the FBI said they would not be allowed to return to the compound.
No handcuffs were in sight as the freemen and the federal agents stepped aboard the two FBI passenger vans and a sedan. Some of the freemen wore cowboy hats. They sat tightly together, side by side, and stared straight ahead as the vehicles carried them 33 miles from the ranch to the small town of Jordan, over a rutted, teeth-rattling dirt road.
Behind the vans rolled a convoy of four-wheel-drive vehicles filled with grinning FBI agents. Some had American flags flying from their radio aerials. Many of the agents waved thumbs-up to reporters and to farm and ranch families standing by the side of the road. Some of the ranchers sipped an occasional beer, enjoying the spectacle.
Ahead of the convoy as it passed through Jordan and arrived in Billings was a large yellow Ryder rental truck. FBI agents had driven it into the compound earlier in the day filled with packing crates, reportedly to remove personal belongings and documents that the freemen say are their evidence of government wrongdoing.
A surrender agreement between the freemen and the FBI reportedly requires Karl Ohs, a Montana state legislator acting as a mediator, to safeguard the documents, which includes information sent to the freemen by supporters from across the nation. Unless the documents were preserved by a third party, the freemen feared that the FBI would destroy them.
The day began with sightings of freemen going to structures within the compound for meetings and then leaving afterward. At one point, they lowered an upside-down American flag at an outpost called Sentry Hill and ran up a Confederate battle flag in its place. At the same time, they abandoned the outpost.
Flying the American flag upside down is a traditional signal of distress, most often used on the high seas. The Confederate flag has a special significance to the freemen. A representative of the group told CNN that it connotes the flag of Jacob, a symbol of the 13 tribes of Israel.
Shortly after the surrender convoy departed, six FBI agents drove to Sentry Hill. One of them pulled down the Confederate flag.
At another point, Clay Taylor, a former freeman, drove into the compound towing a red horse trailer. He returned with two horses. The freemen include hard-luck farmers as well as anti-government extremists. They called the 960-acre ranch that surrounded their compound Justus Township, where they renounced government authority.
When they finally gathered to leave the compound, none of the remaining freemen were minors. Amanda Kendricks, 16, departed the ranch on Wednesday, leaving only adults at the standoff. Two other children and seven adults already had fled.