Montana jury convicts Freemen leaders

Reuters/July 3, 1998

BILLINGS, Mont. (Reuters) - A jury has convicted leaders of the anti-government Freemen group of threatening to kill a federal judge, but deadlocked over the chief charge of conspiracy to commit financial fraud.

After four days spent deliberating 492 criminal counts, the jury Thursday returned a partial verdict to U.S. District Court Judge John Coughenour that included a number of convictions against the 12 Freemen defendants.

But jury members were unable to agree on the central part of the prosecution's case -- that the Freemen, despite their fiercely anti-government rhetoric, were really a group of con artists engaged in "epic fraud" against the banking system.

"The jury can go no further," the group said in a note to Coughenour announcing the partial verdict.

Instead of declaring an immediate mistrial on the remaining 11 of the 40 counts, however, Coughenour ordered the jury to return to work next Tuesday after the holiday weekend.

Thursday's decision marked a typically convoluted turn in the trial of the Freemen, whose 81-day standoff with armed FBI agents at their fortified ranch in rural Montana in 1996 briefly gripped national attention.

LeRoy Schweitzer, the group's leader, was found guilty on 21 out of 30 counts -- most of them involving fake checks and money orders that the group used in its efforts to drum up cash.

The jury also found Schweitzer and three other major Freemen figures -- Daniel Petersen, Richard Clark and Rodney Skurdal -- guilty on two counts of threatening to kill U.S. District Judge Jack Shanstrom.

But much of the rest of the government's case against the group was left undecided, including the prosecution contention that the defendants used their anti-government dogma as a cover for financial fraud.

The Freemen, who reject U.S. federal government authority, write their own checks to buy goods and services, put their own liens on houses, and cheat taxpayers and businesses out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, government prosecutors say.

The group's court-appointed lawyers say they are sincere, if naive, political dissidents who felt betrayed and mistreated by the federal government.

"These were folks that legitimately believed that their government was no longer their government," defense attorney Anthony Gallagher said during the trial.

Although two members of the original group entered guilty pleas at the beginning of the trial, most of the remaining 12 have boycotted the proceedings and refused to cooperate with their lawyers.

Schweitzer and Petersen were among some seven Freemen who went on hunger strike after the trial began in late May and had to be transferred to a federal prison hospital in Springfield, Mo. They are now reported to be eating.

The Freemen's troubles with the Federal Bureau of Investigation began March 25, 1996, when agents captured Schweitzer and Petersen near the group's ranch outside the town of Jordan.

Other Freemen quickly holed up at the 960-acre ranch and about 100 FBI agents gathered outside, sparking fears of a bloody repeat of the 1993 debacle at the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas.

After weeks of mediation, the Freemen abandoned the ranch peacefully June 13, 1996, when lack of electricity and health concerns forced an end to the siege.

At an earlier Freemen trial in March, defendants repeatedly disrupted proceedings by yelling threats and obscene insults to show their contempt for the court.

At that trial, five lower-ranking Freemen were convicted of a similar list of crimes. A number of other members of the group have pleaded guilty under deals with the government.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.