July 5, 1997 in City
Judge Goes Easy On Freemen Member Passing Bogus Check To Court Earns Man $2,699 Fine, Three-Year Suspended Sentence
A man who claims membership in the Montana Freemen has drawn a fine and suspended sentence in a phony check case here.
Steven McNeil was convicted in April of passing a bogus check to Gallatin County District Court in 1995. The check had been issued by Freemen leader LeRoy Schweitzer.
District Judge Nels Swandal sentenced McNeil to a three-year deferred sentence. At Thursday’s sentencing he ordered the 49-year-old carpenter to pay $2,699.20 in fines for traffic violations and court fees.
McNeil faced a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and fines up to $50,000 for handing Judge Thomas Olson a phony check made out for twice the $1,287 in fines he was originally ordered to pay.
The sentence “was probably lighter than I expected,” McNeil said.
He told reporters he plans to appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court.
Schweitzer, a former Bozeman-area resident, was considered a leader among the Freemen who engaged federal agents in a standoff near Jordan last year. He is in federal prison in Billings on charges of bank fraud, mail fraud and threatening to kidnap a federal judge.
County Prosecutor Marty Lambert said the case for him was one of “paradoxes,” and recommended that McNeil be sentenced to the three years, with all of it suspended.
“I found McNeil to be a perfect gentleman … in every respect a very good guy, not at all who you would think would be a felon,” Lambert said. “He’s a solid citizen, yet he sends Olson a bad check. It’s very perplexing in my mind.”
Lambert said McNeil “knew doggone well (the check) wasn’t going to be paid,” but John Keats, McNeil’s lawyer, argued his client wasn’t “thumbing his nose at anyone;” he was just doing what he thought was acceptable.
“If you were trying to be deceptive, then you’d give the check to the clerk,” Keats said.
“Who better to look at this - and bring it to the court’s attention - than to give it right straight to the judge.”
Sitting slightly slouched with his chin resting on his hand, McNeil watched as the lawyers debated over his intent with the check.
Before Swandal sentenced McNeil, he told him he was treating the issue strictly as a bad-check case.
“I want you to know I am sentencing you not because of what you believe … but for what you did,” Swandal said. “Your beliefs will not get in the way unless you don’t follow my orders.”
McNeil paid $20 of the fine under protest immediately after the sentencing. He will have to begin making $200 payments each month starting Aug. 1, but any appeals would delay actual collection, Lambert said.
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