Sitting on folding chairs on a dirt road, the besieged freemen met face to face with negotiators Thursday for the first outward sign that the 11-day standoff might be resolved peaceably.
Four men drove a white Chevy Suburban truck about 200 yards down a road from a farmhouse within their compound, laid down a blue tarp and set up metal folding chairs.
They waited for about 45 minutes until a mud-caked green Suburban arrived from outside the barricaded Justus Township.
Four men got out of each vehicle, shook hands, and sat down to begin a meeting that lasted about an hour and 20 minutes.
One of the freemen did most of the talking, occasionally standing, walking around and waving his arms.
Reporters were kept about a mile away from the negotiations by highway patrol cars. But through binoculars and telephoto lenses, the negotiations could be seen clearly.
At least one of the negotiators meeting with the freemen was a federal agent, but the identities of the other three could not be immediately confirmed. It was unknown who the freemen representatives were.
At least one freemen pickup truck parked 100 yards away and watched the meeting closely. Federal agents did the same from another vantage point. A surveillance plane circuled high above the area.
When the meeting ended, the freemen packed up the chairs, dragged the tarp back to the ranch house and went inside. The negotiators got in their car and drove off. They passed about a dozen TV crews and reporters without stopping to offer any explanation or comment.
However tentative, it was the first sign of a break in the standoff that began with high tension March 25 when agents arrested two freemen leaders. The tension has dulled into routine.
The FBI continued its laidback surveillance approach. Some agents staffed checkpoints at crossroads around the freemen’s 960-acre farm, while others kept watch from hilltop vantage points.
When the freemen look out from their barricaded farm, they see much the same scene as they did before the standoff began - miles and miles of treeless plains, the wheat stubble poking through a few inches of snow.
About half the 22 men, women and children estimated to be at the freemen compound are wanted on federal charges including mail fraud, bank fraud and conspiracy for threatening public officials. The freemen have renounced all established authority, set up their own government called Justus Township, issued millions of dollars in bogus checks, and threatened to kill those who stand in their way.
They are thought to have stockpiled weapons at their compound, but so far their aggression has been only verbal, not physical.
The standoff began when undercover federal agents infiltrated the farm and arrested freemen leaders LeRoy Schweitzer and Daniel Petersen Jr.
There is little chance of escape for those remaining at Justus Township, but the FBI’s approach is more judo than karate, a flexible defense that seems calculated to defuse tensions, not heighten them.
The freemen have also abandoned some of their attack-dog stance. The standoff began with armed freemen sentries on the hills. They’re mostly inside the compound’s buildings now.
Tuesday, they posted a notice on their barricaded county road asking, not demanding, that the media stay back a half-mile from their gates - still well within camera range.
Visits to the freemen from relatives have become a regular occurrence.
They check in with federal agents, who allow them to call on the FBI’s direct phone line to the barricaded farm. If the freemen invite them in, they can go past federal checkpoints set up on the road.
Ominous warnings that “patriots” would flock to eastern Montana to support the cooped-up freemen have fizzled.
In Lewistown, 130 miles west of Jordan, an encampment that freemen supporters predicted would draw hundreds instead has drawn a handful.
“It’s the ‘three men’ instead of the ‘freemen,”’ Fergus County Undersheriff Tom Killham said Thursday. “I think when I came by there this morning, there were two or three out there.”