Neighbors, relatives of Freemen watch FBI standoff Families 'ripped down the middle' by movement

March 31, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

JORDAN, Mont. -- Two years ago, neighbors around here pitched in to save Casey Clark's life by donating equipment for a big farm auction.

The farmers raised $125,000, and Mr. Clark's brain tumor operation was a success.

"Now that same Casey wants to kill all of us," Frank Edwards, one of the farmers, said recently, shaking his head at the thought of the 21-year-old holed up with about 20 others at a fortified farm controlled by Montana's Freemen.

While officials say the Freemen run a forgery and financial fraud operation, the movement is also marked by a climate of violence and by severe alienation from families and the community.

The estimated number of people in the compound rose to 20 Friday when the FBI confirmed to Steve Mangum, a Salt Lake City truck driver, that the fugitive community included his former wife, Gloria Ward; their 8-year-old daughter, Jaylynn Mangum; Mrs. Ward's husband, Elwin Ward; and her 10-year-old daughter, Courtnie Gunn.

"A lot of families are ripped right down the middle," said Cecil Weeding, whose wife, Ada, long ago stopped speaking to her Freemen brothers, Ralph and Emmett Clark. Ralph Clark is Casey's grandfather.

"When Mother Clark died last November, Ralph and Emmett refused to come out for the service."

Last fall, Dean Clark went out to the Freemen farm, where he had leased some land, to start hauling away 20,000 bushels of wheat and barley that he had harvested last summer.

His father and grandfather, Richard and Emmett Clark, both Freemen, greeted him with shotguns and kept him from taking the grain.

If he ever returned, they warned, they would shoot to kill.

Two weeks ago, Tom Stanton, a farmer, organized a 25-man posse deputized by the sheriff, won commitments from neighboring towns to provide ambulances and drew up plans to storm the Freemen stronghold.

Assault plans were suspended only after the FBI arrested three Freemen members last Monday.

Had Mr. Stanton stormed the compound, he might have aimed his hunting rifle at blood relatives: Ebert Stanton, his wife Val, and their 5-year-old daughter, Mariah. A muscular 23-year-old who favors the camouflage jacket of the Freemen, Ebert Stanton swaggers around the compound with a Glock pistol.

Ebert Stanton's mother, Agnes, helps cook for the Freemen.

But firmly planted on the other side is her sister, Carol Hillyer, who is the dispatcher at the office of the Garfield County sheriff.

Last week she fielded dozens of calls from members of far-right paramilitary groups threatening violence if law enforcement officials moved against the compound.

The FBI has warrants for 13 of the Freemen at the hillside farm complex. But it is treating the fugitives cautiously.

"The government continues to try to resolve this matter peacefully," Janet Reno, the attorney general, said Friday in Washington.

"It intends no armed confrontation, no siege, no armed perimeter."

The Freemen apparently control a powerful arsenal behind the two barbed-wire barricades that they raised across a road Thursday to seal themselves off from the outside world.

According to court documents and interviews with recent visitors, the group has, at a minimum, an AR-15 rifle, two shotguns, three Ruger rifles, several handguns and SKS rifles, and at least 11,000 rounds of ammunition.

"A lot of people in this community are scared of them," said Frank Edwards, the farmer.

With last week's arrests, the leadership of the band has probably fallen to a highly militaristic leader, Rodney Skurdal, a 43-year-old Marine Corps veteran, local people speculate.

Until Monday the leader was LeRoy Schweitzer, a professional pilot. Before his arrest, Mr. Schweitzer masterminded the Freemen's complicated check-forging schemes, the authorities say.

"It's a pity they didn't get Skurdal," said Mr. Weeding, a former state legislator and rancher. "His proclamations are as heinous and as hate-filled as can be."

Most people predict a long standoff.

With warrants outstanding against so many members of the Freemen community, their choice is clear: a loose, indefinite house arrest on a 960-acre farm, or the prospect of a long stretch in a 25-foot-square jail cell.

"They have put all their eggs in that basket," Mr. Weeding said, jerking his thumb over his shoulder to the farm where his fugitive in-laws are holed up. "They have nothing to lose -- only their lives."

Pub Date: 3/31/96

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