JORDAN, Mont. -- In the first defections from the Freemen fugitives in two months, a couple, along with the woman's two children, voluntarily left the group's High Plains farmhouse yesterday and were whisked away by federal agents.
The break follows the government's increasing pressure tactics, which began Monday with the shut-off of electricity to the compound, where 18 people, including the two children who left yesterday and a 16-year-old boy, had been holed up since March 25.
The four who left the compound were identified as Elwyn Ward, 55, Gloria Ward, 35 (also known as Tamara Mangum), and her two children, Courtnie Joy Christensen, 10, and Jaylynn Joy Mangum, 8.
Federal authorities said child custody charges that were outstanding against Mrs. Ward in Utah had been dropped, and that the woman's sister, who was not named, had played a crucial role in persuading her to leave the farmhouse.
"The love of family played a significant part in this result," said Sherry Matteucci, the U.S. attorney for Montana.
"This is a positive indication we're moving forward. It was a very important accomplishment to get those kids out of there."
Authorities said her two children would be taken to the Montana child welfare agency, pending a hearing by a state judge to decide their placement.
Mrs. Ward and her children were seen being escorted to the fairgrounds here that is used as a command post by the FBI.
While the children and their mother were inside, one federal agent came out to get a six-pack of cold soda, and then returned to the family.
Federal officials, while buoyed by the departure of four people from the ranch, said they had no reason to expect the remaining members of the compound to follow suit.
But they were hopeful that yesterday's events meant that their negotiating strategy was the right approach and would ultimately resolve the standoff.
Until the last 24 hours, negotiations had been stalled for two weeks between federal agents and the Freemen, some of whom are wanted on charges of circulating millions of dollars in bogus checks and threatening to kidnap and kill a federal judge.
But late Wednesday afternoon, one of the group's leaders, Edwin Clark, emerged from the compound and met with a federal agent at a former one-room schoolhouse.
Clark and the agent shook hands, and then stepped inside the building. Two hours later, Clark returned to the farmhouse.
In the craggy plains of the Missouri Breaks, where fewer than 5,000 people are scattered over 15,000 square miles, the Freemen case has divided some families and turned friends into enemies.
As the standoff has dragged on, many Montanans have lost patience with their anti-government neighbors and taken up petitions urging the FBI to use force, if needed, to stop the charade of a self-styled government in the municipality that the Freemen invented and called Justus Township.
Although power was cut to the compound Monday, it is assumed that the farmhouse has its own power generators like many other ranch operations in this region.
Indeed, some leaders of the Freemen have said they could survive for years on their own power generator and food supplies, according to transcripts of a shortwave radio show released yesterday.
Pub Date: 6/07/96