Silences, Peaceful and Troubling, Follow End of Freeman Standoff
JORDAN, Mont. (AP) _ Justus Township, the Freemen’s bucolic stronghold for 81 days, sits empty and padlocked, baking in a summer silence broken only by the faint drone and chug of tractors in surrounding fields.
Armed guards still look down from the Freemen’s sentry hill, but they work for the Farm Services Agency which now owns the core of the 960-acre sanctuary that belonged to Ralph Clark. They use the same tattered house trailer the Freeman sentries used, but the upside-down American flag that signaled the antigovernment extremists’ defiance is gone.
The trailer, like every road leading to the property and most of its buildings, bears a gaudy red-white-and-blue ``No Trespassing″ warning from the U.S. Marshal Service.
Still, sightseers are rare. The bright blue wooden mailbox where the Freemen issued proclamations to reporters has escaped souvenir hunters and lies broken in a roadside ditch.
``We make the rounds every so often, mainly just to break the boredom,″ said Dennis Hoke of Sundown Security, a private firm hired by the government.
Here in town, 30 miles from the Freeman compound, a different kind of silence has set in since the standoff ended a month ago, on June 13, when the last of the Freemen peacefully surrendered.
``You can sit here and eat three meals a day and nobody even mentions the Freemen,″ said William Brown at QD’s, the town’s only restaurant and a social center. ``It’s just when it’s in the news, more or less, and nobody gives a damn.″
The Freemen are jailed without bond in Billings on federal charges that include conspiracy, bank and mail fraud involving millions in worthless checks, firearms violations and threatening to kidnap and kill a federal judge. Some also face state charges.
Talk in this town of 500 faded quickly, maybe too quickly, after the last 16 antigovernment extremists surrendered to the FBI. Some say bitterness lingers.
The silence worries the Rev. Helen Young, who serves both the Lutheran and Presbyterian churches.
``To be honest, I don’t really have a feel for″ community attitudes, she said. ``It was over, and people just clammed up and went about their ways.″
County Attorney Nick Murnion thinks life is just getting back to normal in a farming and ranching community.
``We’re back to the problems of survival,″ he said. ``There’s been very little rain since June 1.″
But Darlene Loomis says she and husband Freddie Loomis, among the nearest neighbors to the Freemen, are being ostracized, and so are others. She would not be specific.
``Let’s put it this way: 20 percent of the community defended these people and 80 percent didn’t.″
The local members of the Freemen, especially the Clark clan, are good people who got sucked into a scam by the outsiders who moved in last September, she said.
``Fifteen years ago it was the Clarks that came up and gave us the fuel and the seed to get a crop in the ground. It wasn’t the other people in the community.″
Josie Wright explained what Darlene Loomis would not: Several people have stopped hiring the Loomises to harvest hay for them.
Mrs. Wright’s grandparents, Emmett and Rosie Clark, were among the last to surrender. She feels the community is punishing her for defending them, and her business, Big Dry Saddlery, is suffering. There has been nothing overt. ``It’s just an attitude, I guess,″ she said.
She agrees with Darlene Loomis that her grandparents were victims, not crooks: ``Those people, when they wrote those checks, they believed that money was there.″
Dean Clark, the man possibly most entitled to be bitter, could tell attorney Murnion all about the ``problems of survival.″
Those tractors churning the fields day and night are driven by him and neighbors who are trying to wring a crop from the land the Freemen barred him from for nine months. He was a month late planting this spring, and has no time for interviews.
``Dean said he made the mistake of putting lights on his tractor, so now he has to work at night, too,″ neighbor Tom Stanton laughed.
In November 1994 Clark bought 3,200 acres that had been taken in foreclosure from his grandfather, Emmett Clark, thinking to keep it in the family. He worked it last year and stored $70,000 worth of grain there. Then the Freemen said he couldn’t come back.
He recovered the grain after the surrender, and got an additional boost when Farm Services awarded him the contract to harvest hay from Ralph Clark’s land.
Sometime soon Farm Services will offer Ralph Clark’s place for sale. The debt on it totals about $2.5 million.
``The original principal was only around $900,000, but after not making payments on it for years, the interest accrued,″ said Ken Tonn in the agency office at Bozeman. ``The last payment they made was in 1982.″