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4 Montana Freemen Found Guilty

A federal court jury convicted the four top leaders of the Montana Freemen of a gigantic banking conspiracy and other counts Wednesday, but declared itself hopelessly deadlocked on remaining defendants and counts in the indictment.

LeRoy Schweitzer, Daniel Petersen, Dale Jacobi and Russell Landers were convicted of a conspiracy to defraud four banks in what prosecutors said was a massive assault on the nation's banking system.

All four had been convicted on several other charges in the indictment last week.

No additional defendants among the 12 anti-government Freemen on trial were convicted in Wednesday's verdicts. Jury foreman James Coates Jr. gave a firm ``no, your honor,'' when U.S. District Judge John Coughenour asked if further deliberations were warranted.

The judge declared a mistrial on all counts still unresolved, and gave prosecutors 10 days to decide whether they will retry the six defendants not convicted of any crimes.

U.S. Attorney Sherry Scheel Matteucci said she did not know immediately what the government would decide.

The jury had been unable to return any verdicts last week on the conspiracy charge, which was the heart of the prosecutions' case. The Freemen issued 3,432 bogus checks totaling $15.5 billion to followers nationwide.

Schweitzer, the mastermind of the scheme, and Landers also were convicted Wednesday of an additional count, of defrauding Norwest Bank of Butte-Anaconda, which was the main bank that the bogus checks targeted.

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.

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

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

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