Freemen 'revolution' started with money Farmers' schemes grew from effort to climb out of debt, neighbors say

April 03, 1996|By BOSTON GLOBE

JORDAN, Mont. -- It's tough to say how this all began, how a couple of brothers named Ralph and Emmett Clark changed from affable farmers into nationally known revolutionaries.

But some of the locals think a visit by Geraldo Rivera in the early 1980s is as good a starting point as any.

There were no so-called Freemen at that point, no hatred of the government. Back then, there was only Ralph Clark's foundering farm, and the Farmers Home Administration officials who wanted to foreclose on it.

From Mr. Rivera's visit, one thing led to another. The network story on the farmers was followed by a moratorium on farm foreclosures, which was followed by Ralph Clark becoming eligible to borrow more money until he plunged deeply into debt.

It was then that alleged con men pulled into town from Montana and Colorado pushing a scapegoat for Mr. Clark's misfortunes -- the federal government -- and a plan to recover the money.

So, the way locals see it, the Clarks' revolution isn't based as much on politics as economics. Ralph Clark and the other townsmen holed up on the family ranch aren't extremists. They are broke farmers, unable to come to terms with their failure to reap the land.

"The Clark boys tried to get too big too fast," said Merv Jackson, a longtime resident of Jordan who has relatives on the ranch. "They kept buying more sections, and they had to buy machinery to go with the land."

About 100 FBI agents, county sheriffs and Montana Highway Patrol officers ring the Clark ranch, many dressed in sweaters rather than camouflage outfits in hopes of differentiating this standoff from prior, deadly ones at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas.

"We can't just back off and let them go," said Sheriff Charles Phipps. "Whatever it takes to get it resolved peacefully, we're set here."

At the ranch are Ralph and Emmett Clark and a collection of Freemen and some spouses, possibly 24 in all. Already, five have been captured or surrendered, and have been arraigned on a battery of federal and local charges, ranging from an elaborate check fraud scheme to threatening local law enforcement officers.

Seven Freemen remain on the ranch as fugitives.

In a federal indictment unsealed last week, authorities charge that the group has used computers in operating a scheme that has produced bogus checks and money orders.

According to the indictment, 800 people traveled to the compound over the past year to learn the forgery methods, which have netted the Freemen more than $1.8 million.

Down in the village of 450 residents, there is consternation over how all this came to be.

Almost everyone here is related to one of the Freemen on the ranch, and almost everyone has shared the frustration of generations before them in trying to turn wheat into money amid wildly fluctuating prices.

Still, the blood relations, the commonality of the farmers' plight, has brought little in the way of support.

"They're absolutely wrong," said Dale Stanton, a first cousin of William Stanton, a Freeman who is already in jail. "They all got in trouble. They all borrowed a slug of money, and these outsiders came in and said, 'You don't have to pay your taxes.' "

It wasn't always this way. Emmett Clark was one of the most respected farmers in town.

"He was a pillar of the community," said friend Ron Saylor, also a farmer who has hit hard times. "One night I was still doing some trucking and I broke down, and he came out in 10-below weather. He pulled me out of that predicament and he wouldn't take a dime. I'd trust him with Fort Knox."

And Ralph, though perhaps not as respected, was still a popular resident, so much so that when his property was threatened with foreclosure again three to four years ago, fellow farmers descended with tractors and helped him plant a new crop for the season.

"Somebody has a catastrophe, the community kicks in and helps out," said Pat Murnion, a fellow wheat farmer who helped Clark with his planting.

But all that started to change when loan officers launched their latest foreclosure on Ralph Clark's land. First, Mr. Clark sat on his land and brooded.

Then, in the words of his friend, Murnion, he all but wore out his Lincoln Continental driving around Montana to meetings of rightists.

Others changed as well. Bill Stanton began borrowing even more heavily from the FHA, then taking his money down to the Bahamas or to Nevada to gamble.

"He didn't care," said Dale Stanton. "He kept saying, 'Live it up.' "

It was against this backdrop in early 1994 that Roy Schwasinger, leader of the Colorado-based We the People, arrived in Great Falls, to give a talk to financially ailing farmers and ranchers.

His pitch was that, for a $300 fee, he could show them how to win a bankruptcy settlement from the federal government because of faulty government loans. He was aided in his pitch by out-of-towners Rodney O. Skurdal and LeRoy Schweitzer. Mr. Schweitzer was arrested on the ranch last week, while Mr. Skurdal, believed to be the current leader, remains at large there.

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