Garfield County Attorney Nickolas Murnion successfully prosecuted Montana's fiercely anti-government “Freemen” for advocating terrorism, and rallied his small community to stand up to the extremist hate group.
In March 1994, the Freemen posted a $1 million bounty for the arrest and conviction of Murnion and several others who were involved in the foreclosure of a Freeman’s property. Recognizing the growing movement as both a danger to public safety and a serious threat to the nation’s constitutional form of government, Mr. Murnion stood up to the Freemen, and using every legal option available to him, began prosecuting its members. In the three Freeman cases he prosecuted, Mr. Murnion obtained convictions. Several more of the defendants wanted on felony charges became fugitives, creating an armed camp, “Justus Township.”
In March 1996, more than a year after Mr. Murnion first asked for federal aid, the FBI began its 81-day siege of the Freemen’s armed camp - the longest FBI siege in history.
During the early part of 1996, the nation’s attention was riveted on “Justus Township,” a 960-acre ranch about 30 miles outside of Jordan, Montana where armed Freemen wanted on various state and federal felony charges had holed up for an 81-day standoff with the FBI, the longest siege in FBI history. The Freemen’s confrontation with the FBI became the most dramatic standoff story since the 1994 Branch Davidian disaster in Waco, Texas. For nearly three months, the world watched as less than two dozen armed fugitives held the United States government at bay.
Long before the Freemen landed on the front pages of newspapers around the world, and several years before federal authorities were prepared to come to the aid of this besieged community, a part-time county attorney was standing up to the group of outlaws, successfully prosecuting its members for advocating terrorism and rallying his small Montana community to be vigilant of the Freemen’s extremist agenda. It was this county official who would ultimately be responsible for bringing a stop to the rebellion against the government.
Nickolas C. Murnion, 44, has held the office of Garfield County Attorney, a part-time position, since 1979. He defeated his opponent in the 1978 Garfield County primary just days before his commencement from the University of Montana Law School and ran unopposed in the general election. He is currently running for his 6th term as county attorney, a one-person office with a staff of one secretary.
Murnion was raised on his family’s ranch located 20 miles northwest of Jordan (pop. 500), the only town in Garfield County, an area of approximately 5000 square miles with a population of about 1500 people. Its economy consists of cattle, sheep and wheat.
When not serving as county attorney, Murnion earns his living practicing law. He is married and lives in Jordan with his wife LeAnn and their two children, Erin, aged 11, and Trevor, aged 7.
Murnion’s experience with the Freemen began in January 1993, when members of the group demanded that he prosecute the Farmers Home Administration (FHA) for fraud. When he found no basis and refused, the Freemen filed a notice of a lien against him, demanding $500 million payable in minted silver as redress for his alleged failure to uphold the constitution.
The county attorney quickly learned more about the group that was to demand his full attention for the next three and one-half years.
The Freemen, a private militia-type movement, found many of its members among unsuccessful ranchers and farmers facing foreclosure. They readily blamed the federal government for their state of affairs and subscribed to the conspiracy theory that the Internal Revenue Service, the Farmers Home Administration, and other federal agencies were part of a plot leading to a one-world government under the United Nations.
Ideological allies of radical militia groups and white supremacists, the Freemen believe the United States is a Christian republic governed by Biblically derived common law, not statutory law, and that certain people, including Jews and blacks, are not eligible for citizenship. They reject the U.S. government and claim for themselves sovereign rights such as printing their own money orders and creating their own courts of law.
Their tactics include harassment and intimidation of those who obstruct their goals. The Freemen’s common law “court” tries public officials in absentia for treason, issuing felony notices, arrest warrants, death threats and multimillion-dollar common law liens threatening seizure of their property.
On January 27, 1994, some two dozen Freemen pushed past Murnion and temporarily seized the Garfield County Courthouse where they proceeded to establish the “Supreme Court of Garfield County/Comitatus,” issuing writs of attachment against the property of a judge, the sheriff and several lawyers who had enforced an adverse divorce settlement against one of the Freemen.
Two months later, in March 1994, the Freemen posted on the local post office bulletin board a $1 million bounty for the arrest and conviction of Murnion, Garfield County Sheriff Charles Phipps, the district judge, a lawyer and two bank officials who were involved in the foreclosure of a Freeman’s property. The Freemen threatened to hang those found guilty from the bridge outside Jordan.
Members of the Freemen began talking of pipe bombs and warned that a sharpshooter would come into Jordan and shoot any public official involved in an upcoming foreclosure sale of a Freeman’s property. The sheriff responded by forming an unarmed posse of 86 volunteers from the rural community to support his tiny department of three at hearings, sheriff sales and wherever strength in numbers might be needed.
Recognizing the growing movement as both a danger to public safety and as a serious threat to the nation’s constitutional form of government, Murnion stood up to the Freemen, and, using every legal option available to him, began prosecuting its members.
He charged them with a variety of felonies including impersonating public officials, solicitation of kidnaping and “criminal syndicalism,” a little-known state statute making it a felony to belong to a group that promotes violence or other methods of terrorism as a means of accomplishing political ends.
The arrest, trial, conviction and sentencing of members of the Freemen movement, however, were met with threats to kill county officials and to bomb the courthouse. On July 15, 1994, 45 jurors called for duty in a trial of five freemen charged with impersonating a public servant received mailed messages from the Freemen, threatening them and their property if they convicted any of the defendants being prosecuted.
Murnion was not deterred. The following winter, in February 1995, he successfully prosecuted the group’s “constable” on charges of “criminal syndicalism” obtaining the maximum ten-year sentence — and the state’s first conviction under the statute.
The day after the Freeman’s sentencing, police in neighboring Musselshell County arrested several Freemen and militia members, confiscating $80,000 in gold and cash, handcuffs, walkie-talkies, and a cache of assault weapons and pistols -- as well as a map with directions to Murnion’s house.
Earlier Murnion had received a tip that the group was plotting to kidnap a judge and prosecutor. He had also received documents from the groups “Supreme Court” charging him with treason. Yet despite rumors from the local townspeople that he was at the top of the Freemen’s hit list, Murnion refused to back down. He also refused to carry a gun for his own protection.
In the three Freemen cases he prosecuted, Murnion obtained convictions. But several of the defendants wanted on felony charges became fugitives. Despite repeated requests for federal assistance, Murnion and the three-man sheriff’s department were left on their own to handle what had become an insurrection against the United States government.
By the fall of 1995, ten armed fugitives wanted on various state and federal felony charges had taken up refuge at a 960-acre ranch about 30 miles outside of Jordan. They called their armed stronghold “Justus Township,” declaring it was beyond the reach of the U.S. government. They also made it clear to Murnion and Sheriff Phipps that any attempt to arrest them would result in violence.
The Freemen’s armed fortress soon began drawing ideological soulmates from other parts of the country. Far from keeping a low profile, armed members fired at journalists and robbed an ABC television crew of $66,000 worth of camera equipment. The Freemen also began conducting weekly classes teaching others how to set up their own governments in other states, file liens against public officials, and issue tens of millions of dollars worth of bogus money orders. Murnion described it as a terrorist camp. According to a federal indictment, up to 800 people from across the country came to the Freemen seminars at “Justus Township” before the siege began.
With Garfield County’s sheriff’s department out numbered five-to-one, Murnion continued to make appeals for federal assistance. Garfield County residents sent letters to Attorney General Janet Reno and both of Montana’s U.S. Senators, desperately seeking federal aid to arrest and prosecute the Freemen before violence erupted. But because of the harsh criticism the government received for its handling of similar events in Ruby Ridge, Idaho and Waco, Texas, the federal authorities were proceeding very cautiously. Too cautiously for Murnion.
In late 1995, Murnion flew to Washington, D.C. to testify before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Crime’s hearing, “The Nature and Threat of Violent Anti-Government Groups in America.”
Murnion pleaded for federal help in stopping the Freemen movement before it attracted a larger criminal element to his county and got out of hand. In his testimony, he stated:
We have to involve our communities in this fight. As I told my constituents at our first community meeting, this is not about my office or the sheriff being attacked. It is an attack on your form of government that was voted in back in 1919. We are merely your representatives (whom) you have voted to hold those offices in the government you choose.
We need as a nation to be more supportive of our law enforcement. They truly are the good guys in the fight against crime in this country. We don’t get paid extra to prosecute these type of cases which subject us to such personal attacks. We do so because we took an oath of office and because of the belief that right should and will triumph in America if each of us does our part. Let’s get beyond any mistakes that may have been made at Ruby Ridge or Waco. Let’s learn from our mistakes and go forward...
On March 25, 1996, more than a year after Murnion first asked for assistance, the FBI finally stepped in to help Garfield County officials maintain law and order, arresting two Freemen leaders. The other Freemen quickly holed up on “Justus Township” beginning an 81-day standoff with the FBI, the longest siege in FBI history. The Freemen standoff began to wind down on day 71 when the power to the compound was turned off and three armored vehicles and two helicopters moved in and began circling the area, a tactic Murnion had proposed a month earlier. On June 13, fourteen Freemen members surrendered peacefully.
During the arraignment of the Freemen, U.S. Assistant Attorney Jim Seykora read from wiretap transcripts in which two Freemen discussed the lynching of the Garfield County Attorney. Seykora later told a jury that “the evidence will make it clear that they were ready, willing and able to shoot FBI agents and other law enforcement officers to prevent them from arresting their friends.”
On March 31, 1998, five members of the Freemen were found guilty of various crimes linked to armed robbery and possession of firearms, and submitting false claims to the Internal Revenue Service. Thirteen more members are scheduled for trial starting May 26.
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This backgrounder was compiled from various reports and articles including: “Bringing the Militia to Justice,” The Prosecutor, January/February 1996; “A Rule of Their Own,” The American Lawyer, May 1996; “Crime and Punishment,” The Montana State Collegian, Fall 1996; “‘Freeman’ guilty in terrorism case,” Claire Johnson, Billings Gazette, February 11, 1995; “Prosecutor expects ‘final confrontation,’” Pat Bellinghausen, Billings Gazette, October 8, 1995; “Montana ‘Freemen’ Clog Court System,” National Law Journal, July 16, 1995; and several wire reports from the Associated Press, Reuters and CNN.
Tom McNaught (617) 514-1662