'Freemen' Wage War Against Authority In Montana

July 31, 1995|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writers Lisa Respers and Joe Mathews contributed to this article.

ROUNDUP, Mont. -- From a log house in the foothills of the Bull Mountains, Rodney O. Skurdal wages war against the officials of Musselshell County.

He spares no one. The sheriff, the county attorney, the judge, the county commissioners, all deemed traitors to the "country" of Montana. He summons them before a supreme court of his own creation, a tribunal of "Freemen" who obey what they view as God's laws, refuse to pay taxes, and threaten to hang treasonous public officials.

Rodney Skurdal is among a small but nascent group of anti-government tax protesters confounding officials in Montana. But they can't be dismissed as a bunch of irritating nonconformists. The Freemen represent another faction in a movement that includes citizen militias, Christian Patriots and white supremacists, according to experts who monitor these groups.

Earlier this month, Montana law enforcement officials ended a three-year standoff in a shoot-out with another anti-government protester at a fortified home. The lumberman, who espoused anti-government philosophies and had been wanted in the shooting of a local sheriff's deputy, and three other people were arrested.

Holed up on a hillside, amid Ponderosa pines and skull-white sandstone, Mr. Skurdal spews his war of words in petitions, legal notices and pseudo-summonses -- a kind of "paper terrorism" intended to harass officials and tie up the courts.

But the Freemen in Roundup are outlaws, sought on multiple warrants.

Charged with threatening public officials, Mr. Skurdal and two Freemen living with him -- LeRoy M. Schweitzer and Daniel E. Petersen -- have failed to appear in court. They refuse to leave the log house Mr. Skurdal lost to the government for failing to pay income taxes. Mr. Schweitzer, 57, a one-time crop duster, is also wanted on federal charges of flying an airplane without a license in two states.

They are armed -- Mr. Skurdal, a 43-year-old ex-Marine, is often seen walking on his land with a gun strapped to his hip.

"They are encouraging anarchy and lawlessness," says John H. Bohlman, the county attorney in Musselshell who has filed charges against the men.

With the debacles at Waco and Ruby Ridge lingering in the public consciousness, local law enforcement officials are wary.

"These people want to be martyrs," says Musselshell County Sheriff G. Paul Smith, a frequent target of the Freemen's verbiage. "I don't know how far they are willing to carry that."

Sheriff Smith, a burly man who oversees a six-man department in a rural county, has reason to be cautious.

In the spring, associates of the Roundup Freemen and Militia of Montana were arrested on Main Street. The sheriff seized a cache of weapons, $80,000 in cash, body armor and a video camera.

The arrests occurred within days of Sheriff Smith receiving a tip that Freemen were planning to kidnap a judge, try him in their court, sentence him to hanging and videotape the proceeding. In the pocket of one suspect was a hand-drawn map that showed the home of a neighboring county attorney who had successfully prosecuted a Freeman.

When the arrests hit the Patriot and militia computer networks, the sheriff's office was deluged with calls. Many threatened violence if the Freemen weren't released.

Changing the town

Roundup (pop. 1,808) is a homespun place.

Townspeople give only the last four digits of their phone numbers because everyone in Roundup has the same 323 exchange. A cup of coffee costs 25 cents at Cow Patty's Cafe (and the refills are free). And the same family has operated the local Ford dealership for 51 years.

The present standoff and its potential for violence have changed the town in subtle ways.

Doors at the Musselshell County Courthouse that once remained open are now locked and posted signs warn, "Firearms not permitted in building." The fire chief says his crews won't respond to the log house without a police escort. And Mr. Bohlman, the county attorney, has bought two new guns.

"This was like Mayberry and the 'Andy Griffith Show,' " says Kathy Fister, the deputy school superintendent. "This was like hometown America."

So when Mr. Skurdal began filing a battery of legal papers and liens against elected officials, he wasn't harassing faceless government workers. He was "threatening friends," says Cheri Kilby, a Roundup native who owns the town's office supply store.

Part of a movement

On a shelf in John Bohlman's courthouse office are two thick binders: "Freeman Vol. I" and "Freeman Vol. II."

The so-called Freemen declare themselves sovereign citizens; they reject the government and its tax and regulatory authority. They follow common law and the Bible. Theirs is a white, male-dominated society; blacks and Jews are second-class citizens.

"This is a national movement," says Ken Toole, executive director of the Montana Human Rights Network. "They file the same kind of papers saying the same kind of stuff. California, Oregon, it's the same."

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