A softly, softly siege

So far, the FBI has waited patiently while armed extremists play out America's longest stand-off. Now the pressure is on, says Tim Cornwell
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The Independent Online
In the early morning darkness of 29 September last year, a six- vehicle convoy left a log house in the Bull Mountains in eastern Montana. The Freemen were on the move, heading 120 miles north-east to the family ranch near Jordan occupied, but no longer legally owned, by 65-year-old Ralph Clark. At least two of about a dozen people in that midnight caravan - Rodney Skurdal, a former Marine sergeant, and LeRoy Schweitzer, a crop- dusting pilot - were wanted fugitives. But while the FBI tipped off Montana patrolmen about their journey along mostly empty roads, there was no attempt to stop them.

Though a company of right-wing survivalists was about to arrive on his doorstep, Sheriff Charles Phipps concluded they were heavily armed and "ready to kill", and best left alone. In one of the most remote and unpoliced areas of the US, he simply did not have the manpower - or the firepower - to challenge them. It was six months before the FBI itself elected to challenge the Freemen, though it had had them under surveillance for nearly a year, well before the Oklahoma City bombing last April horribly brought home the threat from a resurgent loony right. By that time they were well settled in their new headquarters; they had a bunker, a fishing lake for water and food, supplies and a well-stocked arsenal.

Using an undercover agent posing as a Freemen sympathiser, Schweitzer and a second Freemen leader were lured out and arrested on 25 March. Without them, it was thought, the motley crew left inside the ranch would rapidly crumble. But a curious milestone passed this week. At 75 days and a cost of several million dollars, Jordan became the setting of the longest armed siege by law enforcement on record in the US.

Jordan is deep in the northern plains, far from the breathtaking beauty of the Rocky Mountains to the West, a place where few tourists venture. It is bitterly cold in winter and baking hot in summer, and the chinook winds sweeping over the Rockies produce dramatic swings in temperature. The nearest city of any note is Billings, 150 miles away down straight, single-lane roads where tiny towns are typically 30 miles apart. Ranching is practically the only way of life for the 1,500 residents of Garfield County, high school rodeo the favoured summer sport. Signposts on the dirt roads point to family ranches as much as 10 miles away. After more than two months on the Freemen beat, reporters forced to hunt down rooms with local ranchers have ended up helping them deliver their calves.

A cartoon from the early days of the siege has the FBI and all its gunnery pointed squarely at the Freemen's shack. "You're surrounded," an agent is shouting through a megaphone. "If it'll make you happy, we'll mow your lawn. OK, who wants pepperoni on their pizza?" But the siege has, so far, been a public relations success for the FBI. In its extraordinary display of patience - the Freemen have toted their rifles as they sipped drinks in deck chairs on their veranda, and rode round their compound on horseback - it has massaged even its toughest critics.

The mass deaths at Waco and the shootings of a 14-year-old boy and his mother in an earlier stand-off with white supremacists at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, have led FBI and other federal agents to be blasted as trigger- happy paramilitaries. Militia groups have portrayed them as the enforcers of a tyrannical government.

Now the FBI has proved it can wait. In Jordan's bars, agents hob-nob with Montanans to show they are salt-of-the-earth types. Many residents, fearful at first of a bloody firefight, have signed a new petition urging the FBI to employ "reasonable force". Ranchers have laid flowers at the site where one agent, the operation's only casualty, was killed in a car accident.

By contrast, the Freemen's stock has sunk with their natural allies in the militia and "Patriot" movements. Two right-wing leaders, Charles Duke, a Colorado legislator, and James "Bo" Gritz, a decorated Vietnam veteran who runs combat training courses popular with survivalists, have denounced them after failing to talk them out. Gritz was frustrated by what he called their "legal mumbo-jumbo". Duke ended by calling them common criminals sheltering behind children and said the FBI should "teach them some pain". And the Militia of Montana, one of the best-known of such groups in the country, has also washed its hands of them.

This week, however, the siege entered what is potentially a dangerous endgame. On Monday, the new-look FBI director, Louis Freeh, reluctantly signaled a tougher stand by cutting off the electrical power to the ranch. The bureau hinted that it was losing patience after 42 different intermediaries had failed to talk the Freemen out. In a transparent show of force, three armoured cars were moved closer to the site while a helicopter buzzed overhead. The next likely step, it is reported, is to jam radio and television reception to further the Freemen's sense of isolation and uncertainty.

On Thursday the new tactic seemed to produce results: the two children remaining inside, Courtnie, 10, and Jaylynn, eight, left with their mother, Gloria Ward, and her common-law husband. For weeks negotiators had tried unsuccessfully to get them to leave. The children remove a major headache for the FBI in the event that they force the Freemen out. But the nagging question is how those left inside will respond to the ratcheting up of pressure, what one veteran negotiator called this "psychological brain surgery" used in many a siege but which failed so miserably at Waco.

The remaining Freemen and their hangers-on, including a 16-year-old girl with her parents from North Carolina, are an unpredictable mix. After approaching them so softly for so long, the FBI may have a hard time persuading them that it is seriously considering a "tactical solution".

The 18 or so men and women inside include ranchers and their wives from two old established Jordan families, the Stantons and the Clarks, led by the patriarch, Ralph Clark. Locally, there are plenty of fond stories of Mr Clark, the descendant of homesteaders, who has fought more than 15 years to save the family ranch from creditors. He was "the rudest, crudest, boy but he could shear sheep like a house afire, 200 in a day," one schoolmate recalls. Others describe him less sympathetically as a man who frittered talent on fanciful schemes, like a barge on the local lake to ferry people to favourite hunting spots.

But a second group of outsiders is led by Rodney Skurdal and his partner Dale Jacobi, who hold dear to the bizarre beliefs that characterise Freemen- style groups dotted across the western US. Freemen draw on a free mix of legal gobbledygook ranging from Magna Carta to the US Constitution to reject the authority of the government. They take lordly titles and set up their own courts to try local officials in their absence. They write forged cheques for huge sums against fictitious financial institutions.

Skurdal and Jacobi ran financial "training courses" charging several hundred dollars to teach how to draw up fake money orders, and face charges of "criminal syndicalism" as a result. Jacobi, a former Canadian policeman, is an adherent of the white supremacist Christian Identity church and is described as the Freemen's religious instructor.

The county attorney, John Bohlman, pleaded publicly with President Bill Clinton to move earlier against the Freemen after they defied a series of warrants in his district. He recalls a 27-page declaration that Skurdal sent him one week before the siege began, outlining a "true bill" for $1bn against the local Lutheran church. Rodney Skurdal promised to issue "hunting rights" on judges and ministers and said there would be "no bag limit". He forecast his own death. While the 43-year-old man has no history of violent crime, Mr Bohlman believes there is plenty of potential.

"Skurdal, unless he is taken by surprise, will not surrender," Mr Bohlman says. "I think he has to have a violent end in order to fulfil his own concept of his destiny. I don't think he is just going to walk out."

The sole remaining teenager in the compound, Ashley Taylor, has been filmed riding a red bicycle around the ranch. In North Carolina, Ashley seemed like any other high school girl. She dated a local carpenter and told people that her parents "taught people about the government". In fact, say authorities, her mother Dana Dudley and companion Russell Landers were members of a militia group in North Carolina that tried to set up its own court system. One member attempted to make a citizens arrest of a local judge. They are wanted on a list of charges that run from fraud to cocaine trafficking, and have allegedly taken a hard line against concessions. When Gloria Ward's sister came to try to win her niece's departure, Ms Dudley called her a "prostitute of the state".

The Freemen are charged only with making threats and financial fraud and most have no history of violence. Their ranch is not a particularly defensive position. Tear gas could probably force them out, says Cliff van Vandt, a former chief negotiator for the FBI. But as ever, it is the arsenal of assault weapons and armour-piercing bullets they have acquired under unenforced US gun laws that expose them as dangerous paranoids. So far they have thrown sand in the face of a giant with absolute impunity.

"What we have is people charged with white collar crime, not charged with capital crimes," Mr van Vandt says. "They have made threats but not carried them out. The problem is they are sitting in there with guns and very blatantly waving them around."

From the Alamo to Jordan, Montana

The Alamo, 1836

Davy Crockett and James Bowie were among the 200 defenders who perished during a 12-day siege of the San Antonio mission by 4,000 Mexican soldiers. The Lone Star State went on to win its independence, and the cry "Remember the Alamo" has roused Texans ever since.

Wounded Knee, 1973

Two members of the American Indian Movement were killed and one federal marshal wounded during a 69-day siege of the occupied village of Wounded Knee, South Dakota.

Ruby Ridge, 1992

Three died at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, during a 11 day siege, which began when federal marshals attempted to arrest white-supremacist Randy Weaver on a weapons charge. Snipers shot Weaver's wife dead; his 14-year-old son and a marshal were killed in a shoot-out.

Waco, 1993

The 51-day siege of David Koresh's Branch Davidian Sect at Waco, Texas, began with an attempt by government officials to search the compound for weapons in the course of which four agents and six cult members died. The siege ended in an inferno in which 72 cult members died.