Based upon the ideas of past radicals, like the Posse Comitatus and Christian Identity movements, the Freemen movement of Montana coalesced around a basic conspiracy-minded distrust of the government, the corporate banking industry, and the meaning of citizenship.
Jordan, Montana, rests on the western Great Plains far from urban intellectual centers, but the thoughts of that community’s Freemen stood close to the hearts of many Americans. By the mid-1990s, the ideology of the Freemen reflected powerful fears prevalent in U.S. thought.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Ralph Clark family felt the sting of bankers’ investments and the government’s policies. Caught between rising interest rates and falling property values, the Clarks sought shelter from government foreclosure on their home, which had been mortgaged to finance a land purchase.
The seed of discontent planted by the local Posse Comitatus bore fruit as local farmers, like Clark, banded together to “study” their common concerns. The government, they thought, was in cahoots with Jewish bankers and meant to destroy the United States, beginning with bankrupting the farmers and ranchers.
In February 1994, the Freemen took action, flooding the area’s county courthouses with documents asserting personal sovereignty and charging elected officials with failing to carry out their duties. When the office holders failed to respond, the Freemen held a “common law” court, found them guilty, and filed liens on their property for as much as $1 million.
In March, the county attorney issued arrest warrants against the Freemen for impersonating public servants and charged some with criminal syndicalism. After issuing the order, Nickolas Murnion, the county attorney, said that one of the Freemen approached him, saying that they were going to leave him swinging from a bridge. The Freemen’s plans, however, encompassed more than intimidation of local, state, and federal employees.
LeRoy Schweitzer provided the financial instrument for the group’s initial exploits. Embittered by run-ins with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), Schweitzer came upon a solution for revealing the government and banking fraud. By using a line of “credit” from the liens filed against local and national officials, the Freemen could supposedly access money without interference from financial institutions. By utilizing this system, the Freemen believed they could prove the falsehood of the banking system while paying off their debts.
In Montana, the Freemen exercised their own law and order to score a series of successes. Schweitzer’s credit scheme converted liens into “LeRoy checks.” Several businesses, state agencies, and even the IRS accepted the payments. The Freemen have maintained that they paid off their debts fairly. Schweitzer believed it was “honorable to repay a debt in double, which he did for himself and anyone else who needed relief.”
Of course if the state or federal agency sent the Freemen a return check for the overpaid amount, they kept it as their own money. The Freemen eventually issued 3,432 checks totaling $15.5 billion. With this evidence, the Freemen thought it was possible to expose the government and return the nation to a sound financial basis.
Mobilized by an influx of cash, the Freemen purchased a variety of devices to send and receive information. Schweitzer filled his home with the latest computers, modems, laser printers, and facsimile machines that allowed the group to tap into international sources. The men also attempted to purchase materials for armed confrontation, such as radio equipment, rifles, and high-power ammunition.
In June 1995, four Freemen instructors held three-day training sessions for $300 per pupil. Schweitzer offered to waive the $300 fee for the attendees, largely out-of-state Patriot organizations, if they would pledge their manpower, skills, and armaments to help found their own sovereign territory.
The FBI informer within the cabin witnessed LeRoy Schweitzer’s presentation on economics, which captured the attention of the students during the threeday seminar. This hands-on instruction included how to file liens against private individuals or government officials and how to write “LeRoy” checks. The presentation also included segments on forming independent republics with small armies of approximately 200 men.
In September 1995, the Freemen leaders moved their home base from a cabin outside Roundup, Montana, to a new location, dubbed Justus Township, outside of Jordan, Montana, on the Ralph Clark ranch. For almost seven months, the FBI watched, waited, and collected more evidence on the Freemen as hundreds of people entered the compound to hear their message.
In the end, a standoff resulted from the local community’s unwillingness to put up with the Freemen. In early March 1996, the Freemen issued a statement that they would arrest and punish all trespassers, including ranchers who leased land from the state of Montana.
The threatened ranchers, tired of the FBI’s “Weaver Fever” inactivity—a reference to the agency’s hesitation after the botched Ruby Ridge assault—approached Sheriff Charles Phipps about forming a legal posse to protect local citizens and arrest the Freemen. On 25 March 1996 the community’s resolve forced the FBI to move quickly and arrest Schweitzer and another leader, Dan Petersen.
Although the standoff continued eighty-one days after the arrest of key leaders, the Freemen movement had died from a lack of support in the eastern Montana communities. Support from fellow militia groups fell short of expectations as only ten Patriots mustered for a rally in nearby Lewistown. The FBI’s evidence eventually helped convict fifteen Freemen and convinced six to plead guilty.
At the turn of the twenty-first century, the goals of the Freemen nevertheless still resonated in rural America, echoing concerns about getting back to the faith of Christianity, limiting the role of government, and revising the financial system of the United States.
The nonviolent negotiations carried out by law enforcement in 1996 contrasted with the Ruby Ridge and Waco incidents earlier in the decade and forced organizations like the Freemen to rethink their methods of battling cultural, political, and economic decline.