A Sigh of Relief the Size of Montana (How the Feds avoided a Waco-style Bloodbath)

Newsweek/June 24, 1996
By Gregory Beals and Marc Peyser

It took 81 days, 633 FBI agents and millions of dollars to get the Freeman to surrender, but it was actor Chuck Norris who helped end the standoff as much as anyone. Or, more precisely, Chuck Norris's movies - a steady and eventually stultifying diet of them, along with "Gremlins," Tanya Tucker tapes and the book "Born Free." When the 26 anti-government zealots first holed up on a Jordan, Mont., farm 12 weeks ago, they ate barbecue together and channel-surfed for news about themselves on satellite TV. "It was like camping," says Gloria Ward, who left the ranch a week before the final capitulation.

But it didn't take long before so-called Justus Township turned into the camp from hell- a bored, faction-ridden collective that couldn't agree on much, least of all how to get what it wanted in exchange for getting out. The native Montanans banished some of the out-of-staters from their FBI-negotiating sessions. The women did the cleaning while the men paraded around with store-bought sherrif's badges and a gun on each hip. And then the Marlboro 100s ran out. The FBI was happy to satisfy the Freemen's addiction - one pack at a time.

Some standoffs end with a bang. This one didn't even startle the cows. There was no gunfire when the 16 remaining Freemen piled into two cars and a motor home and slowly drove themselves to a dozen waiting FBI agents. No one screamed bloody murder - as they did at Waco and Ruby Ridge. Instead, the peaceful resolution brought a sigh the size of Montana.

Some people in Garfield County, Mont., and beyond still criticize the patient - even solicitous - FBI-led negotiations that made this one of the longest armed sieges in U.S. history. Yet as details of life in the 960-acre compound seep out, it's clear that the FBI's strategy of accommodation coupled with slowly ratcheted pressure deserves real credit for bringing about a corpse-free conclusion. "The prudent thing was to put patience above the risk of bloodshed," FBI Director Luois Freeh said at a press conference minutes after the Feds carted the Freemen away. "That approach may not always work, but it worked here."

The Feds say that no single action persuaded the Freemen to surrender tot he government the despise. But a turning point came when the FBI cut the electricity to the ranch, 10 days before the last roundup. The toothpaste and toilet paper had run out weeks before; without electricity, the water pump that supplied the faucets went dry. Though the Freemen had generators, they barely supplied enough power to keep food in the refrigerator from spoiling. Not that the Freemen had a lot of food left. Their supplies of cracked corm, potatoes and powdered mild held up, but the deer and other meat dwindled. When Ashley Landers, 16, said she left the compound in part because she craved Taco bell, is sounded silly. Yet the Freemen took it very seriously. "They were using the girls as shields," says Lynn Nielson, whose sister Gloria Ward - a renegade Mormon who believes children should marry at puberty - sought refuge at the ranch rather than lose custody of her 8-and 10-year-old daughters. "They absolutely knew that the FBI would not come in as long as the children were there." In fact, the 16 remaining Freemen gave up the day after the last child departed.

No deals: Over the course of the standoff, the FBI allowed 45 outside mediators - including several self-proclaimed right-wind activists - to negotiate with the anti-government group, most to little avail. FBI Special Agent Thomas Kubic told NEWSWEEK that when agents would leave negotiating papers with the renegades, Freeman Rodney Skurdal, an ex-marine who once helped guard Presidents Nixon and Ford, would stamp the documents with the bizarre phrase REFUSED FOR CAUSE. (A habit of sorts: Skurdal also refuses to recognize daylight saving time.) The Freemen even declined an earlier FBI offer that would have dropped some state charges, says Nick Murnion, the Garfield County prosecutor, although the Feds insist they did not excuse any charges as part of their final deal. In the end, the Freemen settled for a promise to allow a Montana state legislator to safeguard a Ryder truck full of documents they believe substantiate their complaints against the government.

Still, some locals say the Feds have been too soft on the Freemen all along. "We went to the other extreme from Ruby Ridge," Murnion says. "We went to the extreme of being very, very nice to these people. The community here believes pressure should have been applied a lot earlier." Some even argue that the FBI's kinder, gentler negotiating strategy will do little to discourage other headline-grabbing antigovernment groups. Freeh disagrees. "The law was enforced in Montana. We stayed there until we arrested them," he says. "That's a pretty strong message to send to anyone who would break the law." Unless they bring a lifetime supply of cigarettes.

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