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Trial of Montana Freemen Begins

March 17, 1998

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) _ Six Montana Freemen were ``ready, willing and able″ to shoot FBI agents during their 1996 standoff, a prosecutor told a federal court jury today.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jim Seykora said in an opening statement that the jury would see videotapes showing violent acts, the six defendants carrying weapons and robberies of two TV news crews.

``The evidence will make it clear they were ready, willing and able to shoot FBI agents and other law enforcement officers to prevent them from arresting their friends,″ Seykora said.

The trial is the first resulting from the Freemen’s 81-day standoff with the FBI on a foreclosed farm in eastern Montana.

Four of the defendants watched the proceedings from a holding cell. U.S. District Judge John C. Coughenour banished them from the courtroom Monday for shouting and cursing. Their court-appointed lawyers said they had received no cooperation from their clients.

Two Freemen sat at the defense table but also refused to participate as court-appointed defense lawyers began their opening statements.

Joseph Massman, who is representing 48-year-old Steven C. Hance, said his client was merely a follower and ``not acting with knowledge or purpose.″

The banished defendants _ Jon Barry Nelson, 42, of Marion, Kan., Hance and his sons, James E. Hance, 25, and John R. Hance, 21, all of Charlotte, N.C. _ had to be dragged into court or pushed in a wheelchair.

They had refused to leave their cells at the Yellowstone County jail, refused to change out of jail coveralls to civilian clothes, then refused to walk to a vehicle or into the federal building.

The others, Ward, 57, and Edwin Clark, 47, sat impassively, refusing the aid of court-appointed lawyers who sat beside them anyway. They remained seated when Coughenour entered and left, a bit of contempt he ignored.

The jury is expected to hear testimony for two to three weeks.

The six men are charged with being accessories by aiding federal fugitives _ the other Freemen in the stronghold dubbed ``Justus Township″ _ to avoid arrest during the standoff, which ended June 13, 1996.

The Freemen’s leaders are scheduled for trial in May on charges including bank fraud and threatening to kidnap and kill a federal judge.

Clark, an original owner of the foreclosed farm compound, also is charged with attempted bank fraud for trying to deposit a $100 million Freeman check in the Garfield County Bank in nearby Jordan and writing checks on the account to pay real estate loans.

Two dozen people are charged in connection with the Freemen’s two-year operation from their isolated compound. The FBI says 800 people from around the country took lessons at the rural stronghold in how to issue worthless liens and ``warrants″ the Freemen claim are legal tender.

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