Montana’s anti-government freemen surrendered peacefully to the FBI Thursday evening, ending an 81-day armed standoff at an isolated ranch complex on the plains of Eastern Montana and a more than two-year campaign of intimidation by the rebels against their own community.
The finale of the longest such confrontation with federal law enforcement in U.S. history began at 5 p.m. as a convoy of FBI vehicles drove to the edge of the 960-acre ranch which the freemen had occupied for months and named Justus Township. Less than an hour later, the first group of freemen drove to the surrender point, gave themselves up to armed FBI agents and were escorted to waiting vans. Several of them hugged each other and appeared to be praying as the standoff ended.
Within another half hour, all 16 members of the group, which refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of the federal government, had surrendered, and the convoy left for Billings.
There, 12 members of the group, who face an array of state and federal charges ranging from financial fraud to threatening public officials, were to be processed at the Yellowstone County jail Thursday night and then brought before a federal magistrate this morning.
As the convoy slowly made its way from the ranch, an FBI agent in one of the rear cars waved an American flag out the window.
Some 100 FBI agents have been surrounding the ranch all spring, imposing a loose blockade. Thursday, a handful of agents stayed at the ranch after the convoy had left, apparently to search the premises.
An ending to the lengthy saga appeared certain by midmorning Thursday when several vehicles, including a Ryder rental truck and a motor home, lumbered onto the compound and the freemen began packing up their belongings, including, apparently, papers they have collected documenting their grievances with the U.S. government.
They also lowered an upside-down American flag - a traditional sign of distress - and replaced it with a Confederate battle flag at their hilltop sentry post overlooking the ranch, which had been owned by a member of the group until he lost it to bank foreclosure.
The peaceful surrender, under still-undisclosed terms hammered out with the help of a Montana legislator and a North Carolina legal group with right-wing ties, is a victory for the Justice Department and the FBI, whose reputations had been severely tarnished by violent conclusions to previous stakeouts involving white separatist Randy Weaver at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and the Branch Davidian religious sect near Waco, Texas. In the Idaho confrontation, three people died, including Weaver’s wife and son and a U.S. deputy marshal. At Waco, an estimated 80 members of the sect died as well as four federal officers.
Though the FBI had been criticized for its new policy of patience and tolerance as the freemen standoff dragged on through the spring, the less confrontational policy brought the standoff to the peaceful conclusion the agency had desperately sought.
Moments after the convoy carrying the freemen had set off for Billings, Attorney General Janet Reno issued a statement that the Department of Justice and the FBI had worked “with steadfast determination to reach Thursday’s result - arrest of the freemen without loss of life or injury and without compromising our mission to fully and firmly enforce federal law.”
She said “this episode was the first real test of the reforms the Department of Justice has instituted for resolving crisis situations. As we saw in Montana, these reforms emphasize negotiations where possible and appropriate.”
FBI Director Louis Freeh, in an evening news conference, said the agencies’ “unwavering goal” had been to find a peaceful solution to the standoff. “We have accomplished our mission,” he said. Freeh said that reforms put into effect last fall to deal with crisis situations required the FBI response to fit the crime committed. Because none of the freemen had been charged with violent crimes, a plan of patience and negotiation, and avoidance of bloodshed, was chosen, he said, and the peaceful surrender showed that it had been the correct approach.
In Montana, U.S. Attorney Sherry Matteucci said Thursday night all 16 freemen had “voluntarily turned themselves over to authorities without incident.” She said that negotiations to bring about their surrender did not involve any discussion of dismissal or reduction of federal charges. “That was never a possibility,” she said. Matteucci also said that “no Montana state charges have been dropped and no agreement to drop any of those charges has been made.”
Beginning on March 25, when an FBI sting operation resulted in the arrest of two of the freemen leaders, LeRoy Schweitzer and Daniel Petersen Jr., armed FBI agents kept the freemen ranch under close surveillance but had made no moves to forcibly arrest its occupants. For weeks on end, the FBI turned to outside negotiators - many of them with political points of view similar to the freemen - in an effort to wear down the group and convince members the FBI was never going to go away.
As the FBI played its waiting game blocking access to the ranch with roadblocks and maintaining electronic and aerial surveillance - several of the less militant freemen followers trickled out. Within the last week as the agency intensified pressure on the fugitives by cutting off electricity and bringing in armored vehicles, five individuals, including all three children at the ranch, surrendered.
After the FBI provided safe passage for one of the group to talk to Schweitzer, in jail in Billings, and Schweitzer apparently gave his blessing for followers to surrender, movement toward surrender seemed to pick up. On Wednesday, FBI officials were confidently predicting that the long ordeal was almost over.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: The charges Several freemen are accused of threatening public officials and promoting a bogus check scheme. Millions of dollars in phony checks and warrants supposedly backed by common-law liens have cropped up nationwide. They have been used to buy cars, pay off mortgages and settle back taxes.