Authorities in this small central Montana town said Tuesday they believe armed men with ties to the militia movement intended to kidnap and possibly hang a judge or other public officials.
Seven men were arrested and are being held on $100,000 bond each in nearby Billings. Among them is John Trochmann, of Noxon, Mont., the 51-year-old co-founder of the Militia of Montana.
The case is being treated as though the suspects were high-risk terrorists. They were arraigned in a late-night court session.
The year-old Militia of Montana is considered a prototype of citizen militias - groups of people who are fed up with the federal government and its laws, particularly those restricting the sale and ownership of guns. Critics and civil rights watchdog groups claim white separatists and others advocating hate have infiltrated many militia groups, including MOM.
While representatives of the Montana militia were recruiting in Deer Park north of Spokane last weekend, the sheriff and county attorney in Roundup, Mont., were involved in a showdown with Trochmann and his companions.
They were formally charged late Monday with felony intimidation, criminal syndicalism and carrying concealed weapons.
“I believe they were here to attempt to capture or kill us,” County Attorney John Bohlman said Tuesday, moments before he left to buy a $245 shotgun for personal protection.
Bohlman said he believes the suspects had come to the Musselshell County Courthouse in Roundup - a town of 2,500 named for turn-of-thecentury cattle drives- “to possibly kidnap, try and hang” District Court Judge Roy Rodeghiero.
Those arrested, who call themselves “freemen,” were caught with an arsenal of weapons, including assault rifles equipped with bayonets, and thousands of rounds of ammunition.
Musselshell County deputies also found $80,000 in cash and silver and gold, plastic ties that could be used for handcuffs, duct tape, a video camera, high-tech radio communication equipment and a quantity of food. They also seized a pile of $3 bills with President Clinton’s picture on them.” Although clearly bogus, the bills will be examined by the Secret Service for possible counterfeiting violations.
“I do believe they were here on a mission,” Musselshell County Sheriff G. Paul Smith said in the doorway of his office where the skirmish unfolded on Friday. There were no injuries or shots fired.
“I do believe now that the information that we were given, that they may be trying to kidnap a judge or some of the others of us, was valid,” the sheriff said. Some of the information came from the FBI, Smith said.
“Exactly who the targets were, that’s not been confirmed,” he said. “But it does appear from the evidence that they intended to take a hostage.”
Deputies and state investigators were back out looking for another possible cache of weapons Tuesday while a cold wind snapped across the plains of central Montana.
John Trochmann’s nephew, Randy Trochmann, was critical of a late court session Monday evening in the Yellowstone County Jail in Billings, where six of the seven defendants were formally arraigned. A seventh remains in the Musselshell County Jail, where there is limited space and less security.
John Trochmann and the others were shackled in waist and ankle restraints, said Randy Trochmann, another militia co-founder.
“What we believe is that it was held at that time and location so people wouldn’t show up and there wouldn’t be any witnesses,” he said.
He estimated there are 25,000 to 50,000 militia followers or sympathizers in Montana, and 5,000 to 10,000 in Eastern Washington and North Idaho.
“We are telling people to stay home,” Randy Trochmann said. “We do not want armed men coming to the state of Montana.”
“This will be handled peaceably.”
Randy Trochmann said his uncle went to Roundup to serve as a “moderator” between county officials and a group of “freemen,” who espouse constitutionalist views similar to the militia.
Generally, they detest government and taxes. Many of the “freemen” drive around boldly in Musselshell County without license plates on their vehicles.
Another member of the movement is named in unrelated felony warrants, but the sheriff hadn’t mustered the courage or manpower Tuesday to arrest the wanted man.
The sheriff and county attorney weren’t afraid Tuesday to admit that they’re afraid.
“I don’t sleep very well,” said the county attorney, who was wearing a bulletproof vest. “I wish my wife and kids could leave for a while.”
The episode unfolded Friday, Bohlman said, when a “freeman” later identified as Frank Ellena, 45, showed up at the courthouse to file some self-drafted trust documents. The papers he wanted to file only contained the first and last pages, consistent with the group’s view of constitutional rights.
The clerk of the court refused to accept the papers after seeing they involved Rodney Skurdal, of Roundup, who has long-standing ties to the “freeman” movement. Judge Rodeghiero issued a court order in October 1993 permanently barring Skurdal from filing court documents.
Skurdal and others in the constitutionalist movement commonly file liens and other self-drafted court documents that Rodeghiero and other judges have said are frivolous and clog the legal system.
After Ellena left the courthouse, a sheriff’s deputy saw him drive away in a truck that did not have license plates on it. The deputy stopped the truck and identified its driver as Dale Jacobi, 53, of Thompson Falls, Mont., near Noxon.
Handguns later were taken from Jacobi and Ellena. A further search of the truck turned up the remaining weapons, cash, plastic restraints and other items in a tool box, Bohlman said.
After Ellena and Jacobi were taken to jail, Cajun James, 53, also of Thompson Falls, Amado Lopez, 35, of Rexford, Mont., and Paul Stramer, 46, of Eureka, Mont., also near Noxon, showed up at the sheriff’s office.
The three men demanded the return of items, including the money and firearms, seized earlier from Ellena and Jacobi, the county attorney said. Bohlman said the prosecution will allege that the conduct rose to the level of felony intimidation.
Deputies who talked to the three men spotted a handgun when Cajun James pulled back his coat. Bohlman said at least two of the men were equipped with high-frequency radios, similar to those used by police.
After the three were arrested in the jail, deputies went outside to an adjoining parking lot where Trochmann and Marc Basque, 34, of Alberton, Mont., were spotted in a car. Bohlman said authorities believe they were using radios to monitor activities of the others who entered the jail.
When one of the men in the vehicle displayed a gun and refused to get out, a shotgun-wielding deputy used the butt of his weapon to smash out the passenger side window. Trochmann and Basque were arrested without further incident.
The county attorney said after the men were arrested, they made threatening remarks to him and the sheriff, “things like, ‘Well, you’ve committed a felony against us now.”’
Bohlman said because he had become a witness to the alleged criminal conduct, he called Montana Attorney General Joe Mazurek for assistance. Mazurek assigned the case to Assistant Attorney General John Connor, who has 20 days to file formal charges.