By Erika Hayasaki
Times Staff Writer
July 20, 2007
High in these humid hills, Ed and Elaine Brown have been holed up in their home for six months, refusing to serve a five-year prison sentence for tax evasion. They all but dared law officials to come and get them. This, they say, is a fight they're ready to die for.
"Show me the law!" says Ed, a trim 64-year-old with a silver mustache, whose forehead crinkles when he gets heated. The Browns stopped paying income taxes in 1996. They say the Constitution and Supreme Court decisions support their claims that ordinary labor cannot be taxed. But a judge ruled against them in January, convicting the Browns of conspiring to evade paying taxes on $1.9 million in income from Elaine's dentistry practice.
Now, the Browns say they're in a battle for freedom, and it just might end in bloodshed right here, in a towering turreted house with 8-inch-thick concrete walls and an American flag fluttering over the double-car garage. They have garnered national support, with blogs devoted to news about the standoff and supporters regularly showing up on the couple's doorstep with groceries.
Government and law officials have cut off power, Internet, house phone, cellphone, television and mail service to the couple's 110-acre compound. But their house is equipped with solar panels, a watchtower, a satellite dish and a stockpile of food.
"We are self-sustained like a ship," Ed says. "We don't need power from the shore to run the ship."
FBI agents are trying to avoid a deadly shootout reminiscent of Waco, Texas, or Ruby Ridge, Idaho. They have tried negotiating, waiting, begging.
"We are proceeding carefully to make sure no one gets hurt," says U.S. Marshal Stephen Monier, the lead officer handling the siege. "We are aware that there are guns in there."
Monier says the couple broke the law and should turn themselves in peacefully. "They have been tried and convicted and sentenced."
But the Browns aren't budging.
"You remember that little gentleman in China, Tiananmen Square?" Ed says, peering through his sunglasses. "He was the same as we are. You can scare me, you can kill me, but you can't intimidate me."
"We're fighting for you, your country," adds Elaine, 66, a calm woman with short, wavy dark hair. "This isn't just taxes."
"There's no more America," Ed says. "It's already gone."
"I'll die fighting, rather than live in slavery," Elaine says. "I'll tell you that."
THE mountain air outside the Browns' home is hot and thick with flies. On the shaded front porch overlooking a small duck pond, a visitor in a straw hat — who drove his pickup truck for two days from Texas to meet the Browns — eats grapes out of a paper bag and flips through an issue of Shotgun News magazine. He introduces himself as Doug. His last name is Tibbetts, he says, "like that guy who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima."
Another guest, who refuses to give his name and makes it a point to tell everyone he is armed, drove here from Massachusetts. He talks about illegal immigration and government corruption in a slow deep drip of a voice that seems to irritate Ed, who frequently cuts him off.
The government, Ed says, is at a point of "communism in its purist form."
"It's not communism though," says the Massachusetts man. "It's totalitarianism."
"It's Marxism," interjects Tibbetts, 60.
"No, no, no, guys, guys, don't give me that," says Ed, raising his voice. "I've done 15 years of research here."
Since the standoff began, the Browns' home has turned into a commune for anti-government activists. Admirers from across the country make their way to the secluded home on Center of Town Road in Plainfield, population 2,200, in a state where license plates carry the motto "Live Free or Die."
To get to the Browns' house, travelers ascend along a jagged gravel and dirt road, stopping at a silver sign nailed to a tree trunk on the couple's property, which warns: "If not friendly, Go, Go Away!" Unable to telephone the Browns and notify them of their arrival, some visitors proceed slowly down the long driveway or attach small flags to their trucks to show that they've come in peace.
The guests often come bearing gifts: hamburger buns, ginger ale, cellphones with prepaid minutes, gun ammunition. Someone gave the Browns their German shepherd, named Zoey. The visitors pitch tents in the Browns' yard or sleep inside the house. Some bring laptops from which they manage the Browns' blog and MySpace page, both created by volunteers.
Shaun Kranish, 21, of Rockford, Ill., read about the Browns online earlier this year. In March, he drove to New Hampshire and spent a few nights at their home talking about politics and freedom. A gun rights advocate, he started a website, MaketheStand.com, devoted to the couple's battle. He has solicited rechargeable flashlights and candles for the Browns and helped promote concerts supporting them.
People back the Browns, he says, because they are standing against everything that is wrong with government.
"It's about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan," Kranish says. "It's about the truth about the 9/11 attacks . They're saying, 'We're not going to be a part of it; we're not going to fund it.' "
There are 250,000 to 500,000 people in the United States who are tax protesters, says JJ MacNab, a financial analyst who has written a book on the issue and testified before Congress on behalf of law enforcement.
Some, she says, are elderly, uneducated or disenfranchised people who buy into tax evasion scams. Others are disgruntled — sometimes dangerous — citizens who believe the wording of tax laws does not make them liable to pay.
"The tax laws are almost 100 years old, and no one has ever won," she says. "Thousands and thousands of people have challenged them. It's a constant flow of the same tired arguments over and over."
MacNab says the Internet has connected Iraq war veterans, college students, minorities and women to the tax protest movement, which was once associated mostly with white supremacists and militia groups that held meetings at local diners.
Supporters have hailed the Browns as heroes, akin to Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., which has made law enforcement officials cautious about turning them into martyrs.
"There are lots of people that want it to be over," says Stephen Halleran, Plainfield's town administrator. "They feel Ed and Elaine need to play by the same rules as the rest of us."
Halleran says the Browns have always had strong beliefs, but they haven't been considered dangerous until now.
Residents are anxious, he says, because of the steady stream of out-of-towners — white supremacists, anarchists and other activists — roaming through Plainfield and showing up at community meetings. Neighbors with children worry about what could happen if the standoff ends in gunfire.
MacNab, who has studied tax protesters since 1997, says some supporters of the Browns have compiled a list of enemies — including judges and journalists — and their families. People have warned that if the couple die, retaliatory killings will follow.
MacNab has little faith the Browns will turn themselves in without a fight.
"I think there's going to be death and violence," she says. "I don't see it happening another way."
THE way the Browns see it, they skirted a bloodbath on June 7.
That was the day their compound was surrounded by armed officers, armored vehicles, state police cruisers, trucks and roadblocks. Law officials say the showing of force was intended for surveillance of the compound while its agents seized Elaine's dental practice a town away. A houseguest of the Browns noticed the convoy while walking Zoey.
The Browns believe that a confrontation between the houseguest and law enforcement helped them avert an attack.
"Whenever we go into the vicinity, we go in a manner to ensure the community is protected and the officers are protected," says Monier, the marshal. He added that law enforcement conducted surveillance on the Brown compound "from time to time."
Elaine doesn't buy it: "We know they were on their way in to kill us that day."
Two weeks later, Randy Weaver, whose wife and child were killed in Ruby Ridge 15 years ago, held a news conference at the Browns' home, in which he vowed to stand with them.
"What makes people willing to put their lives on the line?" said Weaver, holding up a picture of his late son for reporters. "They'll take so much B.S. from the so-called government, the de facto government, that they just say, Back off. This is just what has happened right here."
It was the Ruby Ridge siege, along with his brewing anger over paying taxes, that inspired Ed to rebel.
In 1992, U.S. marshals converged on Weaver's remote mountain cabin to arrest him on a federal weapons trafficking charge. A marshal shot and killed Weaver's teenage son. In another gun battle a marshal was killed. The next day, an FBI sharpshooter shot Weaver, then fatally shot his wife, Vicki, as she was holding the couple's baby girl.
A year later, Branch Davidian leader David Koresh and his followers were engaged in a 51-day standoff with federal agents surrounding their compound in Waco, Texas.
Ed watched it all on television.
Federal agents were trying to carry out search and arrest warrants against Koresh because of reports that his group was stockpiling illegal weapons. In a shootout, four agents were killed and 20 others injured. The siege ended with a raging fire. When it was over, 82 Branch Davidian members were dead.
"I was calling him the Waco wacko at the time," says Ed, "and I said, 'Wait a minute, they're planning to go in and kill these people.' You can't do that. Now they lost me. Now I was angry."
The events at Ruby Ridge and Waco energized conspiracy theorists and anti-government activists, including the bomber of the Oklahoma City federal building, Timothy J. McVeigh.
Ed focused his fury on the Internal Revenue Service.
"It affected so many people," he says. "The IRS is the most brutal, ruthless organization out of all there is."
INSIDE their home, Elaine boils hot dogs over a gas stove. Sunlight shines through windows offering the only light. The dim kitchen is cooler than outside. The shelves are lined with plastic containers of dry beans, bottles of hot sauce, bags of potato chips, a can of Folgers coffee, a watermelon. A bouquet of pink and blue daisies sits on the table, near a copy of the local newspaper featuring an article about the Browns.
There is a rumble in the driveway. Zoey begins to bark.
Everyone runs to the front window.
"Check the side door!" Ed yells to Elaine.
It's just a visitor with a flag on his truck. He stopped by to tell the Browns that he, too, has stopped paying taxes.
"You must understand," says Ed, sitting in his rocking chair, "this is personal for each and every one of us."
He brings up how law officials have bullied him and harassed his wife. He becomes flustered when he recalls his wife being handcuffed when she was arrested for tax evasion.
"This is American, what he's talking," Tibbetts says. "This is what made America. Not sitting back and getting abused. Standing up for what's right. Standing up for what God gave you."
Elaine offers Tibbetts another hot dog.
"There's two freight trains going just like this toward each other," Ed says. "So you better take a side, buddy, because when they hit, it's going to be hellacious.
"And," he says, "it all could start right here."
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