Freemen Leaders Convicted

A federal jury on Thursday convicted top leaders of the anti-government Montana Freemen of various federal crimes, but acquitted them of staging a massive assault on the nation's banking system as prosecutors had charged.

The jury was unable to reach verdicts on 11 the 40 counts in the indictment, and found three of the 12 defendants innocent on two charges apiece.

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

LeRoy Schweitzer, the principal leader of the group, was convicted on 21 counts involving the bogus financial instruments he scattered around the country as valid documents.

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

Jurors found Daniel Petersen, the group's treasurer, guilty on five counts, Russell Landers on three, Dale Jacobi and Rodney Skurdal on two apiece and Richard Clark guilty on a single count.

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

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.

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.

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.

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