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`Freemen' Standoff Saw Mutual Fear

1996 incident casts Jordan, Mont., in uncomfortable spotlight.

April 09, 2006|Becky Bohrer | Associated Press Writer

JORDAN, Mont. — People here are friendly enough until a stranger brings up the "freemen." Then the smile disappears, the eyes roll, the chill sets in.

What happened along the gravel roads on the countryside northwest of here 10 years ago remains an embarrassment to the locals: There, for 81 days in the spring of 1996, the separatist group that called itself the freemen was locked in a tense -- at times tedious -- standoff with the FBI that thrust Jordan into the media spotlight and, in the eyes of many, forever linked this flag-waving farm-and-ranch town with the fringe element.

"It makes us look like hicks," the local sheriff, Kelly Pierson, says. "I'd rather my hometown be remembered for something more prestigious."

In this close-knit community, the freemen are known mainly for their divisive two-year reign of bullying and aggression -- anti-government rhetoric, threats against public officials who dared question them, bounty offers for people who'd crossed them, quick-money scams and tax dodges.

Elsewhere, observers say, the freemen -- if they're remembered at all -- may well be counted as just one of the right-wing groups that gained notoriety during the '90s but seemed to wither away.

"I often give talks to college groups about this thing. It's ancient history to them," said Karl Ohs, who acted as an intermediary for the FBI during the standoff.

The freemen espoused an alternate reality of sorts, with their own laws, courts and banking. But they went beyond a kooky weirdness when they attempted to pass their "notes" and "liens" in the legitimate system, taking thousands of dollars from people who accepted their gobbledygook legal papers. In the real world, it was called bank fraud. And when the freemen waved their guns in response, the FBI came in.

A decade after the standoff, four people who were there in different roles reveal insights into the group, the stakes and strategy at play to reach a peaceful end, and what -- if anything -- the freemen accomplished.

There's the reporter, whose chance encounter with the freemen brought him face to face with the group's reputed leader; the freeman wife, forced to start over after losing her home and livelihood; the veteran negotiator, criticized by some as moving too slowly but who considers the success of the operation one of his proudest moments; and Ohs, who met repeatedly with the freemen and saw how the lives of desperate people can take bad -- potentially dangerous -- turns.

*

It seemed a reporter's dream, covering one of the biggest stories in the nation at the time. And it was, Tom Laceky said -- some days.

But Laceky, a now-retired Associated Press reporter, said the moments of high drama were scattered among days spent watching through binoculars from afar for any signs of movement at the so-called freeman compound. Reporters also tried their luck, with limited success, at squeezing news out of the tight-lipped FBI.

"I remember being perpetually terrified I was going to miss something important," said Laceky of Helena, who usually left his post half a mile or more away just long enough to file stories from a nearby ranch house. "You had to see it, or you probably wouldn't know about it."

Perhaps the most dramatic moment for Laceky came a month before the standoff even began, in an unnerving roadside encounter with freemen leader LeRoy Schweitzer and eight gun-toting cohorts.

Freemen had noticed Laceky and an AP photographer near the road leading to the ranch where the group was based. They tracked the newsmen down, boxed them in with their vehicles -- and demanded the film, which the photographer eventually turned over. Laceky said that while the freemen never pointed their guns, there were threats, and Laceky was frisked.

"Yeah, we were scared. Eight guys with guns -- we were 20 miles from town," Laceky said.

Laceky's next trip came weeks later, and he was joined by a crush of reporters covering the standoff sparked by the FBI's arrest of Schweitzer and two other men on March 25. "That was my introduction to what I considered pack journalism," he said.

*

When Aggie Stanton heard about the arrests March 25, her first instinct was to drive to her neighbors', the Clarks. It was from their property that the standoff ensued.

Stanton, who was married to a freeman arrested in late 1994, was with members of the group at the Clark property for a couple of weeks. When she decided to leave, she was arrested and charged with bank fraud. She has never returned to her home in Jordan.

"I feel I'm a victim of circumstances," said Stanton, who now lives in Billings. "I was married to a man who really believed what he was doing."

Stanton eventually was convicted of two counts of bank fraud, but was never required to do jail time. She said she shared a bank account with her husband but was never involved in any of the freemen schemes. They are now divorced.

She said she did not understand a lot of what the freemen were involved in, and always feared things would end violently.

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