$500,000-a-day siege declines to spring any Easter surprises

Country life goes on despite a tense stand-off, Tim Cornwell discovers in Jordan, Montana
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The Independent Online
The word at the Hellcreek bar, where the FBI, ranchers, and camera crews drink out their lonely evenings in Jordan, is that the government operation against the Montana Freemen is costing more than $500,000 (pounds 330,000) a day.

But yesterday there was no sign of an end to the stand-off, in which the FBI has surrounded a collection of bankrupt sheep ranchers and anti- government conmen who promised to pay their debts with homemade money orders. Two weeks after agents arrested three Freemen leaders and issued warrants for eight others, there was no sign that the fugitives were ready to give themselves up from their self-proclaimed Justus Township, a ranch 40 miles from Jordan, as officials had begun to hope at the weekend.

"It is a very, very volatile situation," said Joe Quilici, a Montana legislator and member of the negotiating team that met twice with Freemen leaders last week in a trailer 200 yards from their farmhouse. "It is so deep and complicated, it's hard to get a handle."

The Freemen and the television crews overlooking the ranch spent a peaceful Easter studying each other through binoculars at a safe distance. The FBI, though they man every crossroad for miles, were nowhere to be seen. The Freemen could be seen sitting on deckchairs in the sunset, clutching drinks, waving occasionally. They have warned the media to stay at least a quarter of a mile away and are said to be heavily armed.

"Here he comes ... come out buddy," a cameraman whispered to his television monitor and then struggled in the dusk light to capture the most vivid image of the weekend: a little girl venturing out of the house carrying an Easter basket, followed by a man with a rifle over his shoulder. Three men standing by a truck on a bluff about two miles away were manning a Freemen outpost and they changed shifts at teatime. Earlier, two young girls rode a horse. Geese honked as they flew over the ranch's pond, and a neighbouring farmer chased down a calf, in a curiously bucolic scene.

The Freemen are led by men like Leroy Schweitzer, 57, a former crop- dusting pilot who travelled the country offering financial classes in which he handed out fake money orders drawn on fictitious banks. Hundreds of people, including many struggling farmers, paid $300 to sign up. Mr Schweitzer was one of the first to be arrested, but a close associate is still in the besieged ranch.

Other Freemen include a family on the run from criminal charges associated with far-right anti-tax groups in North Carolina, and a 10-year-old girl with her mother, who is a member of a fringe religious cult.

But most of the Freemen are members of two long-established families of third- and fourth-generation ranchers, the Stantons and the Clarks, who have lost legal possession of family land after running up millions of dollars in farm loans.

After threatening to hang the local sheriff, and handing out fake cheques, they now face several years in jail.