A Montana freeman pleaded guilty to bank fraud on Thursday and agreed to discuss the group’s activities with the FBI. It was the first guilty plea by any of the anti-government militants.
Lavon T. Hanson entered the plea before U.S. District Judge John C. Coughenour, who set sentencing for Oct. 3. He could face 18 to 24 months in prison. Prosecutors said they would make no recommendation on sentencing.
Hanson was arrested on March 25, 1996, in the sting that also nabbed freeman leaders LeRoy Schweitzer and Daniel E. Petersen and sparked last year’s long standoff on the eastern Montana plains.
An undercover agent had lured the trio to an isolated hilltop on the ruse of asking them to approve the site for a radio antenna; the FBI nabbed them there.
But Hanson, a rancher from Opheim in far northern Montana, was never considered one of the freemen leaders or one of its more militant members.
While Petersen and Schweitzer shouted angrily and attempted to disrupt their federal court appearances, Hanson objected - but also sat quietly and referred to the judge as “sir.”
He was jailed only a brief time after his arrest before being freed without bond, on condition he avoid contact with other freemen.
The arrests of Schweitzer and Petersen set off the standoff at the group’s compound nearby. The siege ended 81 days later on June 13, when freemen remaining in the rural Montana compound surrendered to FBI agents.
In his appearance Wednesday, Hanson pleaded guilty to one count of bank fraud, unrelated to the standoff. He admitted that in 1993 he submitted a fraudulent “certified money order” in the amount of $428,000 to the Farm Credit Bank for payment of a debt owed by a neighbor whose property was being foreclosed.
Bogus financial instruments have surfaced around the country, many of them bearing Schweitzer’s signature, and Schweitzer taught classes on how to produce the documents.
Two charges of mail fraud against Hanson were dropped as part of the negotiated plea, said U.S. Attorney Sherry Scheel Matteucci. Those charges also were unrelated to the standoff.
Hanson also agreed to be “debriefed” on the freemen by the FBI, and was granted limited immunity. Prosecutors also reserved the right to call him as a witness at freemen trials, though they indicated that was not expected.
Hanson was scheduled to go on trial July 21. It would have been the first trial among the 24 people facing freemen-related charges in Montana.
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