Feds Crack Down On Freemen Leaders Arrested; Followers Holed Up
Two leaders of the militant freeman movement were arrested Monday near the fortified farm where their band of outlaws has flaunted anti-government views for months.
Federal agents worked late into Monday night to persuade other members of the heavily armed group to surrender.
LeRoy Schweitzer, 57, and Daniel E. Petersen, 53, were arrested without incident near this small eastern Montana town, U.S. Attorney Sherry Matteucci said.
They will be arraigned today in Billings, Mont., before U.S. Magistrate Richard W. Anderson.
Hours after the arrests, the FBI established a full-blown command post at the Garfield County Fairgrounds, about 40 miles down a county road from where the fugitive freemen showed no signs of surrendering.
But unlike four years earlier at Naples, Idaho, there were no roadblocks that could become magnets for anti-government protesters.
“We’re low-keying this thing,” said an FBI official at the fairgrounds.
There, the FBI’s presence was evident: A Ryder rental truck, a tractor-trailer and a dozen other vehicles were parked outside. The entrance was guarded by FBI agents wearing camouflage.
U.S Attorney Sherry Matteucci said FBI agents have warrants for the arrest of eight freemen who remain holed up in their compound - a cluster of houses and other buildings on a 960-acre wheat farm, Justus Township.
A federal indictment charges Schweitzer, Petersen and up to 10 others with orchestrating scams involving fraudulent checks and money orders.
The freemen deny the legitimacy of the government and insist they live by their own laws administered by their own courts.
The wheat farm was sold at a foreclosure auction in October, and the new owners have grown increasingly impatient to take possession as spring planting time approaches.
“When spring comes we can’t afford to stand still,” said rancher K.L. Bliss, who bought part of the farm.
“The people here will eventually clean out that rat’s nest if they (law enforcement) don’t. They’re already organizing. We’ve been telling the feds that for months.”
Authorities had held off on any attempt to arrest members of the group for two years, fearing a violent confrontation similar to that with white separatist Randy Weaver in August 1992. In that siege atop Ruby Ridge in North Idaho, a federal marshal and Weaver’s wife and son died.
Garfield County Attorney Nick Murnion said he had no idea whether the remaining freemen would surrender or if there would be a standoff.
“You know, I have some concerns - some real concerns,” he said.
A source familiar with the 7:25 a.m. arrests said FBI agents used a ruse to get the pair to leave one of the Justus Township ranch houses. The same house is believed to have been used as the freemen’s headquarters and what Schweitzer described as the “Montana State Supreme Court.”
Garfield County Sheriff Chuck Phipps said the arrests were planned in advance, and there were no injuries or shots fired.
Claudia Stanton, whose ranch is about six miles east of the freemen’s stronghold, said she saw about a half-dozen vehicles pass by on the road leading to the farm about 8 a.m., but the rest of the day was quiet.
If there was gunfire at the farm, she would know, Stanton added.
“When the freemen are practicing, we can hear their guns,” she said. “Some of them sound like some pretty heavy equipment.”
Petersen’s stepson, Kevin Entzel, who lives 85 miles southwest of Justus Township in Winnett, said federal agents disconnected the telephones at the compound.
Entzel’s mother, Cheryl Lynn Petersen, remained there in the home she shared with Daniel Petersen, and Entzel said he feared for her safety.
“You can’t call anybody out there,” he said. “They’re not telling us anything. I don’t trust the feds, not one iota.”
Col. Craig Reap, chief of the Montana Highway Patrol, said the patrol beefed up its force in the Jordan area from the usual six officers to 15 to monitor area roads as the arrests took place.
He said while the patrol was not involved in the arrests themselves, “There’s always the possibility that some sympathizers may come to assist them.”
Federal agents negotiated with other fugitives at the remote farm 30 miles northwest of Jordan, Matteucci said. She would not elaborate.
“We’re hoping to get everyone arrested without incident,” said Sue O’Connell, a spokeswoman for the state Justice Department.
Immediate supervision for the FBI operation is being directed out of the agency’s regional headquarters in Salt Lake City, but it is being monitored all the way to the top of the FBI and Justice Department.
The freemen have issued thousands of dollars in bogus money orders and checks. Some were drawn on a Norwest Bank account that does not exist, the bank has said.
Tax protesters in several states have been arrested and charged with trying to pay taxes with worthless checks bearing Schweitzer’s signature.
“The root issue here is that LeRoy is making a mockery of the system,” one of his longtime friends in Colfax said of his check-writing scheme. “It’s a game to him issuing these checks.”
Schweitzer, Petersen and others also face state charges of criminal syndicalism - promoting violence for political aims.
While the freemen share some philosophy with militia movements, they are not part of any organized militia.
In fact, John Trochmann, co-founder of the Militia of Montana, said in January that the freemen had issued an “arrest warrant” for him because of public comments he made about bringing their standoff to a peaceful conclusion.
Two years ago, almost a dozen freemen took over the Garfield County Courthouse for two hours, leading to warrants for their arrest on charges of threatening public officials and related crimes.
They’ve been fugitives ever since.
Authorities have been criticized for months for not arresting the freemen. But in January, Montana Attorney General Joe Mazurek said the freemen “have not escaped attention,” and he urged patience.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos