Promising to prevent another Waco or Ruby Ridge, militia followers and freemen set up an encampment Monday in Lewistown, 150 miles from the Montana freemen compound where a stalemate continues.
Organizers who promised 800 sympathizers for a noon-hour rally at a park west of town saw fewer than a dozen show up for the rally. Media outnumbered the protesters 5-to-1.
Those protesting the FBI’s encirclement of the freemen fugitives included organizers Ed LeStage, of Kamiah, Idaho, and Dan Wooten, a tax protester and self-described patriot from Rathdrum, Idaho.
The standoff began after the March 26 arrests of two freemen leaders, LeRoy Schweitzer and Daniel Petersen.
LeStage said he decided to organize the demonstration “to create an outlet for the frustration with the federal government that’s out there.”
LeStage, 42, and Wooten, 33, said they set up their encampment in Lewistown instead of Jordan to put some distance between the anti-government demonstrators and the FBI.
“We are assembled here in Lewistown so as to not exacerbate the situation in Jordan,” said LeStage.
“We don’t need another Waco or Ruby Ridge,” LeStage said. “We will not stand for another one of those.”
He sat under a covered picnic table shelter, a can of Bugler tobacco and a well-used coffee Thermos nearby. He and Wooten pitched two small tents on the park grounds.
Wooten, who heads “American Patriots With Zero Taxes,” said his fellow “patriots” were being urged through fax networks and the Internet to travel to Lewistown.
“Hundreds of patriots from all over the country are on their way here,” Wooten said. “We’ll watch this thing grow.”
“We’re asking them to bring their Bibles, not their guns,” said Wooten.
Not everyone at the rally heeded that advice.
Freemen supporter Marvin Maxwell, 59, of Billings, Mont., dragging a portable oxygen machine for his breathing problems, said he also brought two SKS assault rifles and two semiautomatic pistols.
“If I’m shot at, I’ll shoot back,” the disabled construction worker wheezed, shivering in the below-freezing weather. “Carrying guns is the code of Montana, you know.”
Protesters Dave Sullivan and Christine Ballinger, both of Bozemen, Mont., handed out literature they claimed indicates imprisoned freemen leader Schweitzer is wrongly accused.
Their literature showed IRS tax refund checks issued by the government to freemen who overpaid their taxes with freemen checks signed by Schweitzer.
“We believe these freemen checks are good,’ Sullivan said.
“We’re going to stay right here unless the situation up there in Jordan gets out of hand,” LeStage said. “Then we’ll go over there to prevent another Waco or Ruby Ridge.”
“This time, if I have to put myself between those government boys and the men in those freemen houses, I’ll do it,” LeStage said. “Those are our brothers in that compound.”
LeStage claimed he was among 200 to 300 demonstrators who protested the FBI’s actions at Ruby Ridge in August 1992.
“We are supporting their right to believe as they wish,” he said. “Who’s breaking the law up there - the men in the houses or the men surrounding the houses?
“The federal government at this point is forcing the standoff in Jordan,” LeStage said. “The FBI should go home. There’s no way the FBI is going to resolve this.”
LeStage said the sheriff of Garfield County should deal with the freemen issue, not federal agents.
LeStage didn’t respond when told Garfield County Sheriff Chuck Phipps and Jordan-area ranchers pleaded for the FBI to intervene.
Near Jordan, the FBI continued in vain in its attempts to coax an estimated two dozen people living in the fortified freemen compound to surrender.
“I think we’re here for the long haul,” one FBI agent said. He and other agents are putting diplomacy, public relations and negotiations ahead of armed confrontation.
“I’d hate to be the first agent to take anybody down” in the standoff, the agent said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
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