As the standoff with a dozen armed freemen ended its first full day Tuesday, the scene near this tiny ranching town looked a little like Ruby Ridge in North Idaho.
There was no roadblock on the windswept county road leading to the freemen compound. But swarms of Montana Highway Patrol officers and FBI agents were patrolling the area.
Wearing flak jackets and carrying assault weapons, the officers pulled over cars near the freemen enclave and kept an eye out for armed vigilantes.
Forty miles away at the Garfield County Fairgrounds in Jordan, a small FBI city sprang up. It resembled the collection of tents, motor homes and other equipment federal agents hauled in during the Randy Weaver siege in August 1992.
The fairgrounds was circled by barbed wire, and only official vehicles were allowed entry. Firefighting equipment from the Montana Department of State Lands was on hand.
At least a dozen anti-government freemen, three or four women and a couple of children are believed to be holed up in a cluster of ranch houses called Justus Township.
The freemen deny the legitimacy of the government and insist they have their own laws and their own courts.
Freemen leaders LeRoy Schweitzer and Daniel Petersen Jr. were arrested Monday at the township on federal charges of conspiring to write bad checks and bogus money orders.
Another 10 freemen still at the township are charged in the conspiracy.
Indictments unsealed Tuesday revealed Schweitzer, 57, and Petersen, 53, also are accused of threatening to kidnap and murder U.S. District Judge Jack Shanstrom of Billings.
The indictments list 51 counts detailing at least $19.5 million in fraudulent checks and money orders written by Schweitzer, Petersen and other freemen since late 1994.
The checks commonly are called “LeRoy checks.”
The freemen also are accused of conspiracy for teaching others how to issue the drafts. About 800 people from at least 30 states have paid up to $100 each to attend “classes” at the compound on using phony documents, prosecutors said. Losses to banks, government and businesses were estimated at more than $1.8 million.
Six people who apparently were at the compound to attend classes were allowed to leave Monday. They were not named in arrest warrants and were allowed to go on their way, authorities said.
FBI officials said they were conducting “secret, delicate negotiations” with the freemen at the township. No other information about the standoff was released.
Telephone calls to the freemen’s headquarters got a recording that said the number had been disconnected. The telephone line was working as recently as Friday.
There was no indication that electricity to the township had been cut.
As officers moved in around the township, the FBI and U.S. Justice Department waged a public relations campaign to avoid turning the standoff into another Ruby Ridge or Waco, where dozens of members of the Branch Davidians died.
At a press conference in Billings, U.S. Attorney Sherry Matteucci pleaded with the freemen fugitives to “come in and talk with me.
“I really want to send a message to those people,” Matteucci said. “All of us very much want the situation to be resolved peacefully.
“We absolutely intend them no harm. I assure them that we are doing everything possible to make certain that a dangerous situation does not develop up there,” she said.
“We’ve shown it can be done without bloodshed, and that’s what we will continue to work toward,” said Garfield County Sheriff Chuck Phipps.
By nightfall Tuesday, a half-dozen freemen supporters who were ejected from Schweitzer’s and Petersen’s arraignment in Billings were promising to show up in Jordan.
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