'FREEMEN' WAGE WAR AGAINST AUTHORITY IN MONTANA

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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."

Mr. Bohlman, the 41-year-old county attorney, inherited the Freeman case from his predecessor, Vicki Knudsen. She spent the better part of four years battling Mr. Skurdal in court as he pushed his self-proclaimed right to drive without a license and car insurance. The fight went to the Montana Supreme Court three times, but he lost.

Meanwhile, Mr. Skurdal filed frivolous civil complaints and bogus but potentially damaging liens against county officials. Ms. Knudsen spent even more time in court defending herself and other county officials against Mr. Skurdal's bizarre claims.

Reclusive lifestyle

The men holed up at the Skurdal place may as well be under house arrest. Friends say Mr. Skurdal and the others rarely leave the log house because of the outstanding warrants. The house, located on 20-acres of rolling land, is about 12 miles outside town. It looks like a well-appointed country home. There is a vegetable garden, a pool and satellite dish out back, a swing set and basketball hoop in the neatly trimmed yard.

Only the ungated electric fence and a sign appear ominous. "Do Not Enter Private Land of the Sovereign . . . The right of Personal Liberty is one of the fundamental rights guaranteed to every citizen, and any unlawful interference with it may be resisted . . ."

Unexpected visitors are told to leave. "I have nothing to say to you. Get off my land," Mr. Skurdal says, when asked if he will speak to a reporter.

When reached by phone at the Skurdal place, Mr. Schweitzer said bluntly: "We don't talk to reporters."

Taking on government

A native of Montana, Mr. Skurdal joined the Marines in 1971, out of high school. He re-enlisted in 1975. As a Marine, he served in a security detail, as a driver in a "presidential" support unit. He served at Camp Pendelton in California and in Washington. He attained the rank of staff sergeant and was discharged in 1980.

Within a year, he surfaced in Gilette, Wyo. There, he took on the local government, espousing his Freemen's philosophy in a legal challenge to a worker's compensation claim. Mr. Skurdal, who had injured himself while on the job on an oil rig, wanted to be paid in gold bullion. He pursued the case to the Wyoming Supreme Court, but lost.

Thomas D. Roberts, a Wyoming attorney who represented the county, said Mr. Skurdal wasn't the first person who wanted to be paid in gold. He recalled Mr. Skurdal as an imposing figure who cited the Federalist Papers in his arguments.

"He was always very courteous, but he was always very emphatic about his position," said Mr. Roberts, who works for a state agency. "We came back to Campbell County, tried to collect the [court] costs from him and he just disappeared."

Mr. Skurdal apparently returned to Montana after 1988. A traffic violation in 1992 began Mr. Skurdal's dispute in Musselshell County.

Among the court papers Mr. Skurdal filed over the years was a "Citizens Declaration of War." It spoke of "foreign agents" within the "country of Montana" and cited Jesus' command "to get a sword/weapon."

Another filing by Mr. Skurdal accused county officials of attempting to overthrow the government to bring in the "New/One World Order" -- a contention voiced by many conspiracy theorists in the militia and Patriot movements.

Continuing challenges

Ms. Knudsen, the former county attorney, eventually won a court order banning Mr. Skurdal from filing documents in any state court unless they are reviewed by an attorney or judge. Calling the Skurdal pleadings frivolous, vexatious, and overly burdensome, District Judge Roy C. Rodeghiero wrote: "When will it end? Hopefully now."

That was nearly two years ago.

Rodney Skurdal's word processor kept running. Vicki Knudsen didn't run for re-election. She practices law on Main Street now.

"We had five cases going in four different courts at one time," the 37-year-old single mother recalls. "It's a form of harassment. I started out frustrated at Skurdal and his [buddies]. I ended up very frustrated with the court system and its ability to deal with it. If the government can't stop that harassment, who's going to?"

Ms. Knudsen wants to know why law enforcement officers won't arrest the Freemen. But then she answers her own question. "Because the threats are real. Because we don't want another Branch Davidian [debacle] . . . because the general public wants to believe the worst of the government they sponsor."

Eviction efforts

In July 1993, the Internal Revenue Service seized Mr. Skurdal's house and 20 acres to settle a $29,311 tax debt. They failed to sell the property at auction, so the government took title to it. When Mr. Skurdal failed to redeem it, it became the property of the federal government. In June of last year, the government tried unsuccessfully to auction the property again, according to IRS spokeswoman Theo Ellery.

In April, the IRS sued Mr. Skurdal to remove him from the house. "We are taking all of the legal remedies afforded by law to get this person off the land," said Ms. Ellery, the IRS spokeswoman in Billings. "We are moving as quickly as the law would allow. You have to consider who we're dealing with."

It's unknown how the Roundup Freemen support themselves. Some officials say they hold seminars for sympathizers at the Skurdal house to promote lawsuits against the government and to sell bogus money orders. An item in a Militia of Montana newsletter encouraged readers to spend a few days with the Freemen at one of these seminars.

Money orders signed by Mr. Schweitzer, who lives at the Skurdal place, have appeared in Arizona and are the subject of a criminal investigation there, according to law enforcement officials. Similar money orders have appeared in Minnesota.

Mr. Schweitzer is wanted in Montana and Idaho on federal charges of flying without a license.

He, too, has had tax troubles.

Since November 1992, the IRS has seized and sold his Cessna crop duster plane, his house outside of Bozeman and another piece of equipment to settle $389,000 in outstanding federal taxes dating back to 1973.

"They don't believe in the system, and that's the crux of their whole problem," said Bill Strizich, the U.S. marshal in Montana. "As far as pursuing him [Mr.Schweitzer], at this point we know where he is. They've basically threatened that they will go down in flames if confronted."

Remaining defiant

To neighbors along Johnny's Coal Road, the men at the Skurdal house appear friendly.

"They wave. We wave," says Shawn Bellows, who runs a bull-riding school at his parents' ranch, which abuts the Skurdal land. "As long as you're not government, they won't bother you."

What worries neighbors, says Mr. Bellows, is "what's going to happen if they [law enforcement] push them too hard."

Those who gripe about the government -- too many taxes, too much regulation -- strongly disagree with the Freemen's actions.

"Call the IRS and ask them why they haven't seized their property," says Brian Hoiland, who helps run the family-owned Ford dealership in Roundup. "Why do they get special treatment? I think the federal government has a responsibility to the people who are paying taxes."

Mr. Hoiland's twin brother Bruce talks about a Montana highway patrolman whose attempt to refinance his house was stalled by a lien filed by the Freemen.

It took the trooper two years to clear the bogus lien, says Bruce Hoiland, the town's volunteer fire chief.

"There's no reason in the world they don't go up there, arrest them, clean it up and be done with it," says the fire chief. "What kind of message does that send . . . Not a good one."

But another attitude has surfaced in the community -- that the Freemen, if left alone, will cease to be a problem.

Besides, there are other issues before the community -- should the hospital be remodeled? Is the local mine going to expand?

But when county attorney John H. Bohlman received the latest missive from the Freemen's self-appointed judicial body, he noticed three new signatories. The Freemen's court had three new justices.

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