Hurt Fingers and Latin Phrases Foretell Rocky Freemen Trial

Unruly acts during pretrial motions leave officials wary

Seven months after surrendering to federal agents following the longest armed standoff in US history, the saga of the Montana freemen continues as one marked by defiance.

During pretrial motions, some of the anti-government renegades have been forcibly ejected from the courtroom after shouting unintelligible Latin phrases at judges, refusing to enter pleas, and generally challenging the authority of the US government to try them.

One defendant reportedly sprained his finger in a struggle to prevent deputy sheriffs from getting his fingerprint.

Officials are concerned that the same unpredictable atmosphere that characterized the 81-day freemen rebellion near Jordan, Mont., may lie ahead as the defendants, collectively known as "The Billings 24," are tried in federal court here in March.

"It is very difficult to predict whether these trials will go smoothly or be marked by disruptive behavior," says US Attorney Sherry Scheel Matteucci. "My hope is the defendants will perceive the seriousness of their situation and conduct themselves appropriately."

Ms. Matteucci says the federal government has "bent over backwards" to afford the accused their due process of law because it knows how closely the case is being watched by anti-government groups across the country. In light of the coming trials of alleged Oklahoma City bombers Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols in Denver, the freemen trials here hold symbolic ramifications.

She acknowledges, however, that the prosecution also is meant to inform other freemen and militia groups across the country that illegal expressions of antigovernment hostility will not be tolerated.

The Montana freemen face a range of charges that include bank fraud and threatening people with bodily harm. In June 1993, for example, LeRoy Schweitzer and Rodney Skurdal allegedly attempted to deposit a bogus check for $77 million. In January 1994, 36 freemen, including Mr. Skurdal, Daniel Petersen and Richard Clark allegedly occupied the Garfield County Courthouse in Jordan, Mont., at gunpoint. Two months later, the three men allegedly offered a $1 million bounty for the "arrest and conviction" of public officials in Garfield County.

Authorities say that hundreds of people from more than 30 states traveled to Montana and attended classes taught by Schweitzer and Skurdal on how to create fictitious financial documents. Bogus checks have turned up across the country, costing private citizens, banks and government agencies millions of dollars in losses.

This week in Raleigh, N.C., two men - including a Montana freemen leader - were expected to be tried on charges of conspiracy to commit bank fraud, intimidate IRS agents and transport stolen property across state lines. Late in 1996, 12 antigovernment activists with close ties to the freemen also were indicted in Colorado, and in Los Angeles, other defendants went on trial for allegedly issuing 8,000 counterfeit checks holding a face value of $800 million.

Because of concern that the trials in Billings could be targeted by antigovernment terrorists, security has been tight and will increase when the trials begin.

John Trochmann, co-founder of the Militia of Montana, which shares many of the views held by the freemen, doubts they will get fair trial. "A fair trial in whose eyes?" Mr. Trochmann asks. "The [US] judicial system will say 'yes.' But from the freemen's standpoint, I would say no."

While Matteucci is careful not to make statements that may prejudice perspective jurors, she condemns those who show disrespect for legal procedure. "It cannot be tolerated because that kind of behavior is damaging to the dignity of the justice system. Our civil and criminal justice system is what protects all of us from anarchy."

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