One of the FBI’s top con men described Monday how he lured the leaders of the Montana freemen into a sting operation that toppled their multimillion dollar hot-check operation.
LeRoy Schweitzer, Daniel Petersen and other top freemen adamantly refused to leave their remote farm stronghold in eastern Montana for fear of arrest, but Timothy J. Healy figured a way to lure them to a blind spot on the edge.
Healy - “Mike Manson,” as the freemen knew him - and other FBI agents posing as a construction crew for a radio tower arrested Schweitzer and Petersen on March 25, 1996 - but the jury won’t hear that until today.
With a mystery writer’s sense of drama, U.S. District Judge John C. Coughenour halted the trial for the day at that point.
The arrests of Schweitzer and Petersen triggered an 81-day standoff with the remaining freemen, ending with their surrender on June 13, 1996.
Using a phony import-export company in New York to make it sound believable, Healy - “Mike Manson” - had negotiated several of the freemen’s worthless “comptroller warrants” over several months and brought the freemen cash, food, supplies and a $17,000 copying machine.
He even took their class in Bible studies and lien-writing, Healy testified. He could never get a straight answer about what gave the freeman liens any value, he said.
Schweitzer was intrigued because Manson was having more success with the freemen’s bogus warrants than Schweitzer was, Healy said.
“At this time LeRoy and I had a wonderful relationship,” Healy said. “I’d given him $5,000 and was negotiating other checks.”
One of those checks was for $3 million, Healy said.
“What was his motivation?” asked Assistant U.S. Attorney Jim Seykora.
“Greed” Healy replied. “Money - that’s what he wanted.”
Healy now is a supervisory agent in the FBI’s telemarketing fraud investigations program, based in Washington, D.C. It was Healy several years ago who engineered “Operation Disconnect,” which produced indictments against some 400 people around the country in connection with telemarketing schemes.
His testimony highlighted the opening of the second week in the trial of six secondary figures among the freemen who are charged as accessories for helping others avoid arrest on outstanding warrants.
State and federal negotiators who persuaded the remaining freemen to surrender peacefully and end the standoff testified Monday, and all praised one of the six defendants, Edwin Clark, for his role.
“I felt Edwin and I had developed enough of a relationship that if something had happened, he would be there for me,” said state Rep. Karl Ohs, R-Harrison, who is credited with the major role in the negotiations.
John Connor, chief of the Montana attorney’s general’s special prosecutions unit, said he never felt threatened by Clark, 47, but also recalled an ominous comment Clark made: “If all your conditions (for surrender) depend on arrests, then cock your cannons.”
The other defendants are Elwin Ward, 57, of Salt Lake City; Jon Barry Nelson, 42, of Marion, Kan., and Steven C. Hance, 48, and sons James E. Hance, 25, and John R. Hance, 21, all of Charlotte, N.C.
Healy was called into the Freeman investigation in the summer of 1995 to develop a way to get the Freeman leaders out of their compound where they could be arrested safely, he said. It was considered too dangerous, at first, for an agent to go inside.
But as Healy and Schweitzer developed a relationship, Healy made several trips into the farm complex, spending was much as three days at a time. It was not without hitches.
At one point Healy gained favor with the Freemen by bringing them a substantial amount of food - but he also irritated them because it included ham, which he said apparently is forbidden by their religion.