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'Freemen' Spar With Magistrate at 1st Hearing

June 15, 1996|LOUIS SAHAGUN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BILLINGS, Mont. — Despite their peaceful surrender after an 81-day standoff with the FBI, 14 Montana "freemen" were defiant and unyielding Friday in a U.S. district courtroom, where most objected to the proceedings and refused to acknowledge the charges brought against them.

But U.S. Magistrate Robert M. Holter firmly dismissed their contention that their own alternative government's rules applied in the federal legal system. He appointed "standby" lawyers over their objections and set arraignment and bond hearings.

The freemen were among 16 anti-government militants who put down their guns, vacated sentry posts and walked away from their barricaded wheat farm near Jordan, Mont., on Thursday night.

The elderly wives of two freemen who left their "Justus Township" under FBI escort face no criminal charges.

But the tone in Holter's courtroom was anything but peaceful as the failed farmers and urban fugitives were led into court, one at a time, for initial appearances on charges including circulating bogus checks and money orders and threatening to kill a federal judge. The freemen were not asked to enter pleas Friday.

It took more than three hours to complete the pretrial proceedings marked by sometimes belligerent exchanges between Holter and the freemen, who were not handcuffed. Throughout the process, Holter was challenged, interrupted and shouted at by the men and women who have rejected the authority of the federal government and created their own legal system.

Most of the defendants refused to let Holter appoint defense lawyers. Several would not acknowledge their names as recorded on court documents because they were typed in capital letters. One man had to be physically restrained.

Among the first of the freemen to appear in court was Emmett Clark, 67, who is charged with involvement in a $1.8-million check fraud scheme, threatening the life of a federal judge and stealing camera equipment from a news crew.

Holter asked Clark if he could afford an attorney. Clark responded: "That's personal." Then the small man with stooped shoulders demanded to be represented by famed defense attorney Gerry Spence or by jailed freemen leader LeRoy Schweitzer, whose arrest March 25 sparked one of the longest law enforcement standoffs in U.S. history.

Holter explained that Clark could not select his own court-appointed attorney, nor could he be represented by a "lay person." However, Holter said, a court-appointed standby lawyer would be available if he decides he wants one.

During his appearance, 46-year-old freemen Steven Hance pointed to the American flag and said: "That's not my flag."

Holter ended the discussion by saying, "My brother died for that flag."

Nervously cracking his knuckles, freemen leader Rodney Skurdal, 43, a former Marine and proponent of the racist Christian Identity movement, had a problem with Holter referring to him as "a person."

At one point, he stood up, pointed an angry finger at the bench and objected to the entire proceeding. He was swiftly surrounded by five court marshals, and his objections were overruled.

Skurdal later objected to having "any member of any bar association" appointed to defend him--unless he could first put the lawyer on the stand and determine "whether he would be effective."

"Well, let me tell you what's going to happen," Holter said before appointing a standby counsel for Skurdal and scheduling arraignment for Thursday.

When another defendant interrupted, Holter said: "Just shut up. I do the talking around here, and I run a pretty tight ship."

Only Ralph Clark, 65, on whose foreclosed farm the freemen holed up, accepted Holter's offer of a court-appointed attorney. Clark explained that he wanted to select his own defense attorney but could not afford to retain one.

"Mr. Clark," Holter said, "do me a favor: Let me appoint you a lawyer, and we'll go from there."

Later, Montana U.S. Atty. Sherry Matteucci told reporters gathered outside the downtown federal court building that despite the testy dialogue, "I thought the proceedings went rather well."

"Obviously," she said, "this case will have some peculiar aspects to it."

She also emphasized that terms of surrender did not include dismissed or reduced charges, or the possibility of a public forum for the freemen to express their political and religious views.

Thursday's surrender was mediated in part by lawyers for CAUSE, a North Carolina civil rights organization for right-wing activists that has defended a former grand dragon for the Texas Ku Klux Klan and a former member of the Posse Comitatus movement.

However, CAUSE lawyers will not be representing any of the freemen in court. Having been on the ranch before the surrender occurred has made those lawyers potential material witnesses.

On Friday, a spokesman for the organization said that the freemen have amassed evidence they believe "will exonerate them." Under terms of surrender, those documents have been placed in the custody of Montana state Sen. Karl Ohs.

Ohs, who was among 46 third-party mediators recruited by the FBI to help resolve the stalemate peacefully, drove a large Ryder truck loaded with freemen evidence off the farm Thursday.

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