Besieged vigilantes `close to surrender'

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The Independent Online
The Freemen of Montana live in "a netherworld of alternative reality", according to experts on the American far-right fringe. They write cheques for huge sums, drawn on fictitious banks, take grand titles like Justice of the Peace and spout English common law in court submissions that run to hundreds of pages but make little sense. But their cheques were good enough to persuade car dealers to hand over a small fleet of late-model trucks and to defraud banks and mail-order firms of $1.8m (pounds 1.2m), it is alleged. And their smoke-and-mirrors financial schemes convinced hundreds of people to join expensive "training" courses in Montana and California.

A reported 100 FBI agents and local police yesterday continued to surround a remote Montana ranch where about a dozen armed Freemen were said to be holed up. Yesterday the stand-off, which authorities are at pains not to describe as a siege, entered its fifth day. The FBI remained determined to avoid a repetition of blundered and bloody encounters with fringe and cult groups at Waco, Texas and Ruby Ridge, Idaho.

Though supplies of food and electricity to the ranch were cut off, agents have allowed a sister of two Freemen leaders to deliver a surrender petition which she helped to write. The Freemen, like other militant anti-government groups that have flourished in the US in recent years, typically denounce the US government as an illegal conspiracy. They refuse to pay taxes, carry drivers' licences or recognise American courts and believe the US Constitution grants more rights to white than non-white citizens. But the Freemen and associated groups, said to number several hundred across the US, are also described as able conmen.

While other pro-gun militia groups began military training, the Freemen made their protests through legal gobbledygook and financial fakery.

They used phony law suits to harass local officials. In Colorado, for $300, they showed farmers how to pay off farm loans by printing certified money orders on home computers.

Several dozen people showed up for courses each weekend at their ranch, the "Justus Township", where those inside are wanted for fraud and death threats. One Freemen graduate, Mary Broderick, held two-day workshops in the Los Angeles area offering a quick fix to money and tax problems and drawing hundreds of people.

Ms Broderick dropped out of sight in the desert town of Lancaster, California this week when prosecutors sought a restraining order, saying $30m worth of fake cheques had reached the Government.