Patience pays off for FBI in Freeman siege

An 81-day standoff between Federal law enforcement officials and a band of tax-resisters who called themselves the Montana Freemen ended June 13, not with a bang, but with a whimper. And that suited Federal authorities  still smarting from earlier, bloody confrontations with extremists  just fine.

Officials appeared to do everything possible to prevent the siege at the remote, 960-acre ranch that the Freemen dubbed “Justus Township” from deteriorating into a deadly conflict that would not only further tarnish Federal law enforcement but make martyrs of the group  and thus give extremist groups more fuel for their strident anti-government rhetoric.

Federal law enforcement agencies, particularly the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the FBI, came under heavy criticism for their roles in the 1993 siege at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, that ended after 51 days in an inferno that killed 86 people.

The year before, in August 1992, the wife and son of white separatist Randy Weaver, as well as U.S. Marshal William Degan, were shot to death near Ruby Ridge, Idaho, during a standoff that began when U.S. Marshals tried to arrest Weaver on firearms charges. Weaver and a friend were later acquitted in connection with Degan’s death. In August 1994, the Justice Department agreed to pay surviving members of the Weaver family $3.1 million.

[The FBI continues to grapple with reverberations of the Ruby Ridge incident: On Oct. 30, E. Michael Kahoe, an FBI official who headed the bureau’s violent crimes and major offenders section, pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, admitting that he ordered a subordinate to destroy a report criticizing the FBI’s handling of the incident in order to prevent lawyers representing the Weaver family. He faces up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.]

The impasse with the Freemen, a group of self-styled patriots who declared themselves immune from Federal law and who ascribe to the white-supremacist, anti-Semitic doctrines of the Christian Identity movement, began March 25 when authorities arrested two members of the group. The pair had been named in an indictment charging them with involvement in a Freemen scheme to generate phony money orders that defrauded banks, credit card companies and mail-order houses of more than $1.8 million.

The pair, who had been hiding at the ranch since 1995, shouted objections and protests at their arraignment, declaring that the court had no authority over them, forcing the judge to postpone the proceeding.

Meanwhile, about 18 other Freeman and their families, including three children, holed up in the complex near the town of Jordan and refused to surrender. But this time, unlike in Waco, there were no deadlines set for surrender, no rock music blasting at the compound at all hours, and no high-powered, klieg lights beaming at the ranch at night. Lightly armed law enforcement officials maintained a distant perimeter, but maintained a line of communication with ranch occupants.

The site became a magnet for sympathizers and militia members, as well as the curious, from all over the nation. Some said they came to serve as witnesses should the siege become violent. The Montana Anti-Extremist Coalition, a group that deplores the state’s becoming a haven for far-right fringe groups, also converged on the area to protest the presence of the Freemen.

Others offered to mediate an end to the standoff. Randy Weaver and James “Bo” Gritz, the ex-Green Beret officer who had convinced Weaver to surrender, were rebuffed by agents who turned them away from the checkpoint near the ranch. Gritz eventually did meet with the Freemen several times as the siege dragged into its second month. But on May 1, Gritz gave up trying to negotiate a surrender, saying the Freemen had taken an “oath to God” not to leave their compound until their demands were met.

Among the approximately 40 intermediaries who met with the Freemen, it was Butch Anderson, a local rancher whose daughter and 5-year-old granddaughter were at the ranch, who fared best. Following several meetings, as well as the delivery of a petition by some relatives calling for an end to the siege, Anderson’s relatives left the compound  the first of several people in the ranch who would surrender individually during the long siege.

In May, negotiations appeared to be at a standstill. In subtle but increasing displays of frustration with the status quo, the FBI added a second plane to its aerial surveillance of the complex, eventually bringing in three armored vehicles and a helicopter and setting up more checkpoints around the site.

On May 16, FBI agents and Freemen met face to face for the first time since the standoff began, signaling a turning point but no impending closure to the situation. Five days later, as the latest mediator stormed away from the compound in anger and frustration at being unable to sway the Freemen, six armed members of the group were seen for the first time conducting foot patrols of the compound.

On June 3  Day 71 of the siege  the FBI cut off power to the compound in what the bureau said was  “another effort to persuade the Freemen negotiations for a peaceful settlement.” Three days later, two adults and two children left the compound. Then on June 11, Federal agents agreed to take Edwin Clark, one of the Freemen leaders, to Billings so he could meet with jailed comrades, guaranteeing him safe passage to Billings and back to the ranch and promising he would not be arrested. The last minor at the ranch left on June 12 when a teen-age girl, who later told authorities she feared for her life if she remained, was released.

Finally, as the FBI prepared to ratchet up pressure on the group once again, the last 16 members of the Freemen surrendered to authorities, bringing a peaceful end to one of the longest sieges in U.S. law enforcement history. FBI Director Louis Freeh said the standoff showed the effectiveness of new procedures on hostage situations that were adopted by the bureau following the Waco debacle.

“The prudent thing was to put patience above the risk of bloodshed,” Freeh said. “A strategy from Day 1 of patient, honest and persistent attempts at negotiation ultimately prevailed.”

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Published in Law Enforcement News
Dec. 31, 1996.
© 1996, LEN Inc.  [ Subscribe.]