FBI Lets 'Freemen' Talk Themselves Out of Allies

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Colorado state Sen. Charles Duke first entered the "freemen" compound, it was with the hope of preserving the rights of free Americans to oppose their government, and of ending the FBI standoff without bloodshed.

When he left five days later, Duke--a longtime supporter of the patriot movement with sympathies for right-wing groups across the country--had had enough of this particular brand of anti-government militancy.

The legislator was so mad that he could be seen waving his arms in fury from a mile away. He was yelling, he said, at Rodney Skurdal, who had--along with the rest of the freemen--reneged on the second of two carefully crafted deals, this one to release two young girls held at the compound.

"You aren't enough of a man to come face me, get out of that car!" Duke shouted as Skurdal climbed into an automobile. "I told him, 'I'm going to go out of here and I'm going to tell the American people what you're doing here. You will not get support from the patriot community, you will not get support from the militia community and if you die, nobody's going to avenge you.' "

The 72 days since the freemen began their defiant stand against the FBI on a 930-acre wheat and cattle ranch northeast of here have cost them far more dearly than a dent in their food supplies and a toll on their spirits.

Through a strategy of patient negotiation and co-opting of potential right-wing opponents, the FBI has undermined the freemen on their own turf: the anti-government patriot movement that might otherwise have established the freemen as the next generation of constitutionalist martyrs.

No longer are pickup trucks carrying militia members barreling up to FBI checkpoints outside the ranch. No longer are anti-government groups convening freemen support rallies in surrounding communities. Some of the most prominent leaders in national right-wing circles have instead spoken out to denounce the freemen, or have fallen silent.

"People in contact with them understand now that what they were doing was fraud," said Randy Trochmann, spokesman for the Militia of Montana. "With the public, a good percentage of them want the FBI just to leave, put a berm around the house and let the state police patrol it. And another percentage just want them [the FBI] to go in and finish them off."

On Tuesday, federal agents delivered what appeared to be a message to the freemen compound, a day after shutting off electricity to the ranch and buzzing the complex with a low-flying helicopter. It was yet another sign that the FBI would rather talk than fight.

It is a position that has not been lost on the right-wing community, some of whose leaders have joined a chorus demanding that the FBI up the ante against the militants.

Duke, who said he twice crafted deals with the freemen for release of the girls, ages 8 and 10, said he lost all confidence when the FBI carefully agreed to the conditions, only to see the freemen's demands escalate.

"Initially, we believed they were trying to stand for constitutional principles and were simply trying to do some of the same techniques that are practiced on a daily basis by the banks and the Federal Reserve system," said Duke, referring to the freemen's declaration of the U.S. monetary system as invalid and their subsequent issuance of their own money orders, the subject of a federal indictment against about a dozen of the 21 people still at the ranch.

"But the overall group there has very little to do with the patriot/constitutionalist movement. They're trying to hide behind that as a way of avoiding arrest, in my opinion," Duke said. "They're just scam artists. And the fact that they're willing to hide behind those two little girls, I realized we're not dealing with honorable people here."

The FBI--hoping to avoid the widespread criticism that followed incidents near Waco, Texas, and at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in which law enforcement sieges of anti-government groups had bloody outcomes--has adopted a strategy of negotiations that have become excruciating in degree. A total of 42 interveners and consultants has been called in--including religious experts, Montana state legislators, state prosecutors and right-wing sympathizers such as Duke and former Army Col. James "Bo" Gritz.

One by one, all of those initially most prepared to be sympathetic to the freemen and to help them meet their demands for a public forum against the federal government have thrown up their hands in exasperation and denounced the group as unreasonable.

Gritz, in obvious disgust, said he had come close to working out a deal in which half of those at the compound would have left willingly. "But any time that happens, they are immediately put down verbally by these vitamin salesmen who would have to get a job if this whole thing collapses," Gritz said of the two to four most militant freemen leaders.

In Jordan, the small town 35 miles southeast of the ranch where almost everyone has a relative at the compound, petitions were circulating this week calling for the FBI to use "reasonable force" to bring the standoff to an end. That stands in contrast to the first month of the ordeal, when Ellen Saylor, an aunt of some who are at the compound, was gathering signatures expressing neighborly solidarity with the group.

"I've washed my hands of the whole thing. There's nothing more we can do to help them," Saylor said. "It would be different if it was for a good cause. But I don't know what they hope they're going to gain except overthrow the government."

Brent McRae, who is heading the current petition drive, said the new attitude comes in part with a growing respect and sympathy in Jordan for the FBI, which initially was regarded with suspicion. For months, Jordan residents have had the chance to shoot pool and lift a beer with off-duty agents at the Hell Creek Bar; they run into each other at the hardware store and the supermarket. They stop for a chat at the checkpoints on the way out toward the freemen ranch, where bored but cheerful agents are continually begging for homemade cookies and coffee.

"It's humanized a government agency. We found out FBI agents aren't like they're portrayed on TV," McRae said. "It's been a shock to everybody, myself included. The people have had the opportunity to meet them, and found them to be very courteous. But they're frustrated. This isn't what they're trained to do, to sit and watch. These people that are here have the ability and the expertise to bring this thing to a conclusion, and feel they could do it without bloodshed if they were given the ability and the go-ahead to do it."

Ken Toole of the Montana Human Rights Network, who closely follows anti-government movements in the Northwest, said Jordan's response to the crisis has been a triggering point for the reaction--and subsequent lack thereof--by outside militant groups.

"At the beginning, it was all about, 'Here was this poor community in Montana that was being descended on by the federal government.' But it became very apparent very quickly to the general public that this was not a community rising up in opposition to the federal government, that in fact some of them had even asked the federal government for help. To me, that's when the spin started to unravel out of the right," Toole said.

On radio talk shows across the country, Toole in recent weeks has said that he had expected hate calls from right-wing sympathizers. But instead, "everywhere what I was getting is: 'The government is mollycoddling those guys.' "

Toole said that people like Gritz, Duke and the Militia of Montana's Trochmann brothers found themselves facing a choice of courting either mainstream political support or the freemen. And it was an easy pick. "They could come out and say, 'Those guys are extremists, and we're the reasonable middle.' They could say, 'Those guys don't want to pay their bills, and they're acting like 2-year-olds.' "

Duke said his talks broke down because the freemen refused to live up to the bargains they'd made. They reneged on a pledge to allow him to see all 21 people at the compound. He was refused access to 10, including one of the three children, "and I can't honestly tell you they're there of their own free will," he said. The third child at the ranch, a 14-year-old, is the daughter of one of the holdouts.

Next, the freemen pledged to allow the release of the two girls whose mother is holding them in violation of a custody order. The FBI, he said, with difficulty agreed to all the freemen's conditions for the release. But when he went back to execute the deal, the freemen issued a new demand, a letter from President Clinton declaring that the FBI was deployed at the ranch under presidential emergency powers. That's when Duke blew his top and left.

Saylor said she has traveled twice to the ranch since the freemen began hiding out there, begging them to surrender to police.

Kay Clark, the wife of ranch owner Ralph Clark, vowed to Saylor that she would stay no matter what happens. Kay, who is in her late 60s, has always been the good ranch wife, as Saylor describes it. Now, remembering the encounter, Saylor sighed.

"I said, 'Kay, somebody's going to get killed.' She said, 'So what if we do get killed?' They think they're being martyrs."

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