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Standoff in horse country: Well-heeled couple stares down feds

June 10, 1997

HAMILTON, Mass. (AP) _ John and Rhetta Sweeney are staring down federal agents from inside their million-dollar, French-style mansion.

The well-heeled couple are no camouflage-clad survivalists, but their standoff with federal authorities who want to seize their property as repayment of a bank loan entered its second week Monday.

``A siege has begun,″ Mrs. Sweeney, 53, who has three adult daughters, said last week. ``If it’s a day, a week, a month or the summer, we are prepared to stay.″

The dispute is over the Sweeney homestead, which sits at the end of a winding, woody drive. Climbing bushes of pink and yellow roses dot the 14-acre property. A few roads away, horses run the polo fields.

The federal government claims it has owned the property _ 20 miles northeast of Boston _ since a 1994 foreclosure sale. A 30-day deadline for the Sweeneys to leave expired last week.

``There’s really not a negotiation here as to whether they can stay,″ U.S. Marshal Nancy McGillivray said.

McGillivray was concerned about violence and said marshals were to meet with Sweeney representatives to discuss solutions. No immediate enforcement of the order was expected.

The Sweeneys said they will not leave the property and appealed to friends and groups with anti-government feelings to bring them generators and cellular telephones, and they are looking for volunteers to help patrol the property.

When asked about how they’re getting food and other day-to-day supplies, the couple were evasive. They survive through the help of family _ their daughters live in Seattle, New Orleans and near Atlanta _ and friends.

They seem an unlikely pair to be involved in such a dispute.

Sweeney’s great-grandfather, George vonLengerke Meyer, was President McKinley’s ambassador to Italy, President Teddy Roosevelt’s ambassador to Russia and postmaster general, and President Taft’s secretary of the Navy.

Meyer also built the house _ on Meyer Lane _ and helped found the exclusive Myopia Hunt Club polo grounds nearby.

``It’s a legacy and we’re not leaving here,″ Sweeney, 57, a former U.S. Army captain and Green Beret, said in a raspy voice.

The standoff revolves around a $1.6 million loan the Sweeneys took out in 1987 from a now-failed Lowell bank. The couple borrowed from ComFed Savings Bank to subdivide their land for homes but spent most of the money repaying old business debts.

The next year, ComFed began foreclosing on the Sweeneys for not repaying the loan.

In 1989, the Sweeneys sued ComFed in state court, claiming loan officers reneged on a promise of another $900,000 loan to finish the subdivision. Without monies from housing sales, the Sweeneys couldn’t repay the original loan, the family said.

The case bounced around the courts.

A state judge in 1991 ordered ComFed to pay the Sweeneys $3.9 million for ``unfair business practices designed to deceive″ the couple.

``We had our day in court and we proved it,″ Sweeney said.

A federal court, though, said the state court had no jurisdiction. In February 1993, a federal judge supported a March 1990 jury verdict and ruled for Resolution Trust Corp. on the outstanding counts. The RTC took over the insolvent ComFed.

``It’s our property. We own it,″ said Robert Garsson, a spokesman for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., which inherited the RTC’s assets.

The RTC bought the Sweeney property at foreclosure in 1994 and paid more than $150,000 in back taxes and penalties, using taxpayer money.

Twice, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the Sweeneys’ appeals.

Garsson said the couple haven’t made any mortgage or tax payments in 10 years and haven’t paid any rent since 1994. He also said they have rejected several settlement offers.

Sweeney would not discuss whether he had any weapons. But he reiterated that the couple would not leave even if federal marshals come up the driveway.

``We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,″ he said.