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Montana Freemen Trial Begins Mon.

March 14, 1998

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) _ Six Montana Freemen with attitudes head into court Monday for the first trial resulting from the anti-government group’s 1996 armed standoff with the FBI.

The trial may last several weeks, but how long the defiant Freemen will remain in the courtroom with a no-nonsense federal judge is anybody’s guess.

All six have refused court-appointed lawyers and will defend themselves. They deny the American courts have any jurisdiction over them. They dump documents on the courtroom floor, argue with judges and generally express contempt. One has threatened a federal magistrate in court.

U.S. District Judge John C. Coughenour of Seattle, however, has laid the groundwork to swiftly expel Freemen who cross the line.

He has appointed lawyers to act as standby counsel for each Freeman, so the trial can continue if he banishes any defendant to a holding cell to watch on a TV monitor. The standby counsel would step in to protect the interests of the absent defendant.

About two dozen Freemen have been jailed since June 13, 1996, when they surrendered after an armed, 81-day standoff with FBI agents at their isolated farm compound in the remote outback of eastern Montana’s ``Big Open.″

Charges against various Freemen include wire and bank fraud and threatening the life of a federal judge and other public officials.

The FBI says some 800 people from around the country visited the rural stronghold for Freemen lessons in issuing the worthless liens and ``warrants″ the Freemen claim are legal tender. They also heard lectures on what the Freemen claim as their legal principles, a mishmash of odds and ends from the Bible, the Constitution, the Magna Carta and the Uniform Commercial Code.

Appearances by Freemen supporters have faded from few to none in the 21 months since the standoff ended, but courthouse security will be tight. Federal marshals have diverted city buses away from a transfer station beside the federal building since March 2.

These six defendants are not the major figures of the standoff _ those trials begin in late May _ but they include Edwin F. Clark, who emerged as a leader late in the standoff and helped bring it to a bloodless conclusion.

Clark is an original owner of the foreclosed farm where the Freemen operated for two years and the only Montanan in this group. He also is charged with attempted bank fraud for trying to deposit a $100 million Freeman check in the Garfield County Bank at nearby Jordan and writing checks on the account to pay real estate loans.

The other defendants are Steven C. Hance and his sons, John R. Hance and James E. Hance, all of Charlotte, N.C.; Elwin Ward of Salt Lake City; and Jon Barry Nelson, whose home is given simply as Kansas.

All six are charged with being accessories by aiding federal fugitives, other Freemen in the stronghold, to avoid arrest during the 81-day standoff.

All three Hances are charged with being fugitives in possession of firearms _ assault rifles and pistols _ when they came to the Freeman stronghold. They were charged in North Carolina in connection with an assault on a police officer.

Steven Hance was removed from a hearing last June when he jabbed his finger toward U.S. Magistrate Richard Anderson and said, ``You’re going down, son.″

Ward also is charged with trying to pay his federal taxes with a worthless check for $282,634, twice what he owed, and asking for a refund of the balance.

Two others charged as accessories in the same indictment, Casey Clark and Stewart Waterhouse, pleaded guilty last September.

Top leaders in the Freeman organization are among 14 defendants scheduled for trial here May 26. They include LeRoy M. Schweitzer of Belgrade, Mont.; Daniel E. Petersen of Winnett, Mont.; and Rodney O. Skurdal of Roundup, Mont.

The standoff at the remote Clark farm compound in eastern Montana began March 25, 1996, when undercover FBI agents lured Schweitzer and Petersen outside with a sting operation. For the next 81 days more than 100 FBI agents at a time, augmented by Montana Highway Patrol officers, ringed the compound.

The General Accounting Office estimated the total cost at $7.5 million, but said $3.7 million would have been spent anyway for such expenses as salaries and benefits.

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