No shots were fired. No lives were lost. And when the last of the “freemen” gave up their compound under a fading Montana sunset, it was clear who had won: the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
After it had taken heat for nearly four years because of tragedies during confrontations at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas, the agency’s time had come. It ended the 81-day standoff on the Northern Plains by following new techniques drawn up after those disasters.
Along the way, it also learned that--sometimes--the best friend you have is the enemy at your door. For years, the community of far-right extremists had railed against the government in general and the FBI in particular for its handling of the standoffs at Ruby Ridge, where three people died, and at Waco, where more than 80 died.
In Montana, the FBI ended the latest confrontation peacefully by turning to those same extremists for help, and they managed to nudge the freemen off the farm called Justus Township where the group had holed up.
The finish came this week when Kirk Lyons--a lawyer with ties to the Aryan Nations white supremacist network, and a representative of some of the survivors of the Branch Davidian tragedy in Waco--helped broker a deal that allowed one of the freemen to meet with a jailed leader. The talk then turned to surrender.
“Overall, our approach was to find a balance between negotiations and other lawful means,” said FBI Special Agent Ron VanVranken, who helped with the settlement here Thursday night.
“We recognized it would be prudent and beneficial to use the services of third-party intermediaries and to be constantly soliciting the advice of outside experts.”
In Washington, FBI Director Louis J. Freeh also spoke of the decision to seek help from third-party negotiators who espouse the same anti-government views as the freemen.
“I think that, given all the other cumulative steps over the last 81 days,” Freeh said, “that that helped persuade the remaining subjects to finally come out of the compound.”
The FBI also sought advice from almost four dozen outside experts on hostage or standoff negotiations. But it was the rightist leaders who apparently held the key to ending the standoff.
The strategy may have had the added benefit for the FBI of creating dissension among elements of the far right. Some archconservative militia leaders said that there is a fierce debate within the “patriot” movement over whether any of its leaders should have joined ranks with the FBI.
“It was probably a wise move that the freemen came out, as opposed to being burned out or shot,” said Clay Douglas, publisher of the far-right Free American newspaper and a leading member of the patriot movement. “And it’s an election year, so the FBI had to be good.”
But, he said, the FBI’s decision to seek negotiating help from the patriot movement “was pretty smart on their part.”
“It has divided a lot of patriots,” Douglas said. “A lot of people thought they were being traitors for going in and trying to talk them out. Some people side with the freemen. Some people side with the patriot leaders.
“So it’s just another small part of how the government keeps America divided,” Douglas said. “It’s called gradualism. They keep gradually encroaching on our freedoms.”
Other factors also contributed to the end of the standoff.
FBI negotiators identified the one freeman they considered most likely to agree to leave the Justus compound and tried to build him up as a leader in the hope that he would persuade the others to give up.
The agents brought in generators and other heavy equipment under the pretense of shutting off power to the farm, hoping to suggest to those holed up at the compound that they might be intending to charge in and arrest them.
When the siege began March 25, the 21 freemen inside barricaded themselves in cabins, machine sheds and other outbuildings on the farm in rolling hillside country not far from the Missouri Breaks. Members were wanted on a wide range of federal charges, including threatening a U.S. court judge and a check fraud scheme involving $1.8 million.
As the weeks dragged on, a number of anti-government leaders were brought in by the FBI to try to promote a resolution to the stalemate. Among those who tried but failed to end the standoff were James “Bo” Gritz, a Green Beret Vietnam War veteran turned survivalist, and Jack McLamb, a retired Phoenix police officer who recruits law enforcement personnel for the patriot movement.
Also invited was Colorado state Sen. Charles Duke, a Republican and rightist sympathizer. But he too failed. In an interview Friday, Duke said that he tried to help FBI officials prop up Edwin Clark, one of the freemen, as the compound spokesman in the absence of LeRoy Schweitzer, the freemen leader who was jailed at the beginning of the standoff when FBI agents coaxed him off the farm.
“Edwin had a deep sense of personal commitment to his friends,” Duke recalled. “He’s straightforward. No fluff. . . . He just tells the truth.”
But the resolution to the standoff was not set in motion until Sunday, when the FBI brought in Lyons and members of his CAUSE Foundation, a legal firm specializing in defending white supremacists, patriots and others on the fringe right.
Neill Payne, a CAUSE director, said in a telephone interview from the group’s headquarters at Black Mountain, N.C., that Lyons first offered to help in March. But Payne said nothing happened until three weeks ago, when an FBI agent called and said:
“You have been elevated to viable options.”
On Sunday, Payne said, the FBI asked Lyons to put in writing “what our plan would be, what we would say to the freemen.” CAUSE faxed a response to the FBI, which approved it, and it was delivered to the freemen. “It was well received,” Payne said.
Lyons and other CAUSE members flew to Montana, Payne said, with plane tickets purchased by the government. “By Tuesday, Kirk was optimistic of a peaceful settlement,” Payne said. “He said it would be soon.”
Lyons proposed that Clark be flown to meet with Schweitzer, who was jailed in Billings, Mont., ostensibly to “get his blessing” for a surrender.
According to Payne, an FBI official responded: “Let me get this straight. You want us to take a man who is technically under arrest, fly him in an FBI plane to a jail we hope to see him incarcerated in, bring him home and then put him under siege again? Is that what you’re asking?”
Lyons said yes, Payne said, adding that the FBI agreed.
The jailhouse meeting took place Tuesday. But the deal almost fizzled later when the freemen saw large tractors in neighboring fields and became alarmed, fearing an FBI trick.
“Seeing those tractors was like waving a red flag at a bull,” Payne said. “Our guys were incredulous, and the freemen were acting like an ant’s nest that got kicked over. They got their guns, and they manned their sentry posts.”
But the fears gradually receded, and by Thursday’s sunset Clark was personally helping to usher the final 16 out of the ranch and into the custody of federal agents.
Law enforcement officials insisted that no special deals were cut to bring about the surrender. The FBI said that the only special consideration was government agreement to allow Karl Ohs, a Montana state legislator, to take possession of a truckload of documents that the freemen contend will prove government wrongdoing. The freemen had worried that the FBI would destroy those records.
Said Special Agent VanVranken: “We were true to our word throughout this whole thing.”
But Kevin Etzel, a relative of Daniel Petersen, who was arrested with Schweitzer at the onset of the siege, said that promises were broken. He said that he spoke with Schweitzer after the jailhouse meeting with Clark and that Schweitzer told him there was a list of five conditions on surrender that the FBI was supposed to have published in the local newspapers.
“But that never happened,” Etzel said. “And it makes me think the system makes up the law as it goes along.”
But others said that, despite differences over the nuances of the surrender, the important thing is that the standoff is over. And for Payne and others belonging to the anti-government network, it was amazing that the FBI had turned to them.
“It is to Director Freeh’s credit,” Payne said, “that he was broad-minded enough to go along with a crazy scheme like ours.”
Sahagun reported from Jordan, Mont., and Serrano from Washington.