Jury Convicts Some 'Freemen' Leaders of Federal Crimes

From Associated Press

Some top leaders of the antigovernment Montana "freemen" were convicted Thursday of threatening a judge and committing other federal crimes, but a jury deadlocked on the charge that the group engaged in a massive assault on the nation's banking system.

The jury was unable to reach verdicts on 11 of the 40 counts in the indictment, and it found three of the 12 defendants not guilty on two charges apiece.

U.S. District Judge John Coughenour refused, however, to declare a mistrial on the deadlocked counts. He ordered jurors to return to the courthouse Tuesday to resume work.

LeRoy Schweitzer, the principal leader of the group, was convicted on 20 counts involving bogus financial instruments he scattered around the country.

No other freemen came close to that number of guilty verdicts.

Jurors convicted Daniel Petersen, 55, of Winnett, Mont., the group's treasurer, on five counts; Russell Dean Landers, 46, of Four Oaks, N.C., and Dale M. Jacobi, 55, of Thompson Falls, Mont., on three; Rodney Skurdal, 45, of Roundup, Mont., and Richard E. Clark, 49, of Grass Range, Mont., on two apiece.

Schweitzer, Petersen, Skurdal and Clark were convicted of two counts of threatening to kill U.S. District Judge Jack Shanstrom and mailing a threatening letter to him.

Jurors were unable to reach a verdict on the first count, which accused all of the 12 freemen of a huge financial conspiracy.

Prosecutors contended that the freemen issued thousands of bogus checks totaling more than $15 million in a massive attempt to disrupt the nation's banking system.

Defense lawyers argued that the conspiracy never existed and the freemen and their followers genuinely believed that their various types of "checks," based on common-law liens, were valid. They argued that their clients also were true believers in the alternative "government" they thought the freemen had established.

The 40-count federal indictment charged the freemen with crimes that include conspiracy; bank, mail and wire fraud; armed robbery; interstate transportation of stolen property; and threatening to kill a federal judge.

The partial verdict came after four days of deliberations. The jury heard five weeks of testimony from 90 witnesses and two days of lawyers' arguments. It also examined several hundred pieces of evidence.

About two dozen heavily armed freemen kept hundreds of FBI agents at bay for 81 days in 1996 around the foreclosed farm property they called Justus Township.

The standoff began after FBI agents arrested Schweitzer and Petersen in a sting operation that lured them from the compound. The FBI hoped that the freemen, minus their top leaders, would then surrender peacefully. They did, but not for almost three months.

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