Albion Monitor /Features
 Freemen: Santa Rosa Freemen

The Sonoma County Connection

by Jeff Elliott

Remedies are at hand -- that is, if you know the secret spells

The group of fifty gathered in this nondescript Santa Rosa banquet room chat quietly, waiting for the event to begin. It is an odd mix of people; sitting to one side, alone, is a farmer from the Central Valley. Behind him is a younger man, maybe a SSU graduate student, his long hair pulled in a neat ponytail. By the wall, a man in camouflage fatigues. Nearby are several couples in their fifties and sixties, their demeanor quiet. This mismatched crowd has gathered to hear a man from Kansas speak of remedies at hand -- that is, if you know the secret spells.

Tonight, the last day of June in 1995, is the orientation meeting before weekend "common-law" court session. According to John Patrick McGuire, the man who organized these meetings, the decisions of their court will be every bit as legitimate as the U.S. judicial system, with powers to indict criminals and convict the guilty.

Wth jaws set, they recite their painful tales of justice denied

But the discussion of that topic will have to wait; the speaker from Kansas is late. On the podium is Tom Cozio of Vacaville, a trim middle-aged man with an angry fire burning in his eyes.

Cozio sets the evening's tone by announcing that the day before, one of their own was killed. Michael Hill was shot by Ohio police, Cozio hints ominously, because he was Chief Justice of a common-law court. Heads nod in agreement; yes, of course, another example of murderous government persecution -- that explains it all.

Only later do I find news reports that Hill allegedly pulled a gun on police after being stopped for driving with a homemade license plate.

Like the Militia movement, the Freemen share a paranoia mythos. Government plots against them abound, with intricate conspiracies that sometimes reach back centuries. Portents are everywhere, if your eyes are open. On the California state seal, Cozio explains, is the image of a "horned angel." And that's not all: this part of the picture is not "legally described," he says. What does he mean? Is he implying that there's Satanic symbolism in the state logo? We don't know; he skates on to other topics -- but not before the audience again nods in acceptance.

But it's unfair to draw too many parallels betwen the Militia movement and the Freemen. Likely most here in this audience have come because of feelings that they've been personally screwed by the courts, and that there's gotta be a better way. One familar face in the group is Lou Beary, the former Rohnert Park mayor who has sought for a decade to have the investigation into his daughter's death reopened. Later, others tell me about IRS woes, police frame-ups, and foreclosures by crooked bankers. Are they telling the truth? Yes, as they see it; with jaws set, they recite their painful tales of justice denied.

"You're really being re-presented to their court."

And justice is available, Cozio reminds the group -- if you form a common-law court. "The Tenth Circuit Court [in Oklahoma] has admitted we have our own courts," Cozio insists.

This is the crux of their claims: there are really two judicial systems. Those courtrooms down at the county building are "Admiralty" courts -- or, as Cozio sneers, "monkey courts" presided over by "black-robed terrorists." On the other side are common-law courts, organized by everyday citizens.

Ask how they justify this and you'll enter a contorted world of logic, where a forceful argument counts for everything. The 14th Amendment created a second-class of citizenship, they say. A "sovereign" "state" citizens of the "united States of America" -- and the lowercase "u" is important -- is a state unto himself. This individual thus has the same status as the state of California, and they're off-limits to law enforcement and those damn Admiralty courts.

That's just the beginning of the twisted reasoning. During this balmy July evening, a member of the audience adds that the existence of their other form of court is acknowledged even in everyday terms: "When you're represented [by a lawyer] in their court," a man in the audience announces, "you're really being re-presented to their court." Yes, it all makes perfect sense, and even though it seems like splitting the most brittle hairs, the audience nods in accord.

All self-proclaimed sovereign citizens were found blameless

Finally, the main speaker has arrived. To the podium walks Dave Schechter of Sterling, Kansas, a place is so small, he quips, that you can "open the map and it's in the crack -- dead center." The group warms to him immediately; about 50, Schechter is every bit the sincere midwestern uncle. His manner is straightforward and honest; speaking simply, he's come to tell us what little he knows. "Nobody's claiming that they're so smart," he says humbly. "We just ran around and found stuff."

For the rest of the evening, Schechter unreels that found stuff, the audience rapt. More than a dozen tape recorders whirr, capturing his every word. "Common law is Biblical law," he points out. "These are rights granted from our creator. Once you establish the character of the party, then those rights exist."

Schechter pulls section after section from the Rules of Civil Procedure and U.S. Code: Rule 17, Rule 28, Rule 37, and Rule 60. The latter is the most important, he says; it shows the difference between a court -- meaning common-law courts -- and the court -- meaning the "Admiralty" court.

He continues: Rule 501, Rule 2, Rule 54, 28-609, 28-506, 28-1358, -1451, -1651, -1746, -1872. From his annotated pile of books he looks up, taking a breather. "It's pretty interesting doing this, I'll tell you."

Through this lacework of law, his picture emerges. This common-law court always has been available; we simply forgot about it, and it's about time that average citizens exercised these judicial muscles. "I believe our court always existed," he says. "We just didn't use it."

Their most common tactic, Schechter says, are liens against judges and others, often for huge sums. But, he cautions, "the procedure we most stick to is [serving] notice and grace -- and don't bite off more than we can chew... for notice, we give them 30 days, publishing it in the paper. Everything in the open."

Over the next two days, Sonoma County's first common-law court is held and 34 cases are heard, the complaints of the people who listened so closely to Schechter that night. All self-proclaimed sovereign citizens were found blameless, with millions and millions of dollars adjudged against the guilty. One of those guilty was a Highway Patrolman who recently had given Cozio a speeding ticket. The policeman did not appear in this banquet room court.

A footnote that the Freemen seized upon as "proof"

In the following weeks and months, Schechter's claims haunt me. Many of the claims are clearly absurd -- according to Schechter, our judicial system and federal government is literally a "foreign country operating within the United States." (Or maybe that should be, "united States.") It's hard to believe anyone swallows such guff.

Yet could some of what they say be right? With all those sections of law quoted by Schechter, it should be easy to either debunk or prove. But interviews with scholars and lawyers across the country are often futile. After explaining the fine mesh of their legal interpretations to a Berkeley professor emeritus and one of the most respected constitutional scholars, he becomes certain that I'm a prankster and hangs up.

The trail begins with claims by both Cozio and Schechter that the Oklahoma Tenth Circuit Court recognizes their court's existence.

"[The Freemen movement is] pretty large in Western Oklahoma," says Steven Mullins of the Oklahoma U.S. Attorney's office. "It began as a reaction to the farm crisis." Besides Willie Nelson benefit concerts, the sharp rise in foreclosures during the early 1980's led farmers to search for ways to keep bankers from padlocking their gates. Right-wing groups like Posse Comitatus offered a solution: opt out of the system by claiming the federal government holds no real authority.

Did this stop any foreclosures? "It's never helped anyone," Mullins says. "It's a bogus movement. They're real sincere people, just wrong. I feel sorry for anyone who loses their home or their farm because they believe this."

In particular, Schechter and others cited a decision last April in the case of Warren Ensminger, a member of the movement fighting a foreclosure. Ensminger filed a motion with the Court of Appeals, claiming (follow closely, now) that the property is in the "Oklahoma Territory state, of which the United States of America by contract, gave up all right...[and the banks holding his mortgage] are not of the United States of America."

Ensminger ended his motion with a flourish: "Then the facts of the courts original jurisdiction, exclusive to the people, did speak, and was placed into evidence."

The Court of Appeals responded with a terse judgement that "...Upon review of the records and arguments of the parties, the judgement of the district court is AFFIRMED." -- In other words, backing up the lower court's foreclosure order.

But in a footnote, the Appeals Court added a boilerplate disclaimer that this ruling was res judicata [literally: the judgement decided by the court].

It was this footnote that the Freemen seized upon as "proof" that the Oklahoma courts recognized their movement. Ignored was the more important point that the lower court's position was upheld. "The Appeals Court is saying that it was properly thrown out of court," explains Cliff Elliott, a lawyer for the bank forclosing on the property. "They never looked at the merits of his argument; they're saying he has no federal claim."

Elliott adds that the bank is no longer required by the court to present countermotions to Ensminger's filings, and that Ensminger has been cited for contempt of court.

But a bank lawyer is hardly an impartial source of information. I call Robert Dennis, Clerk of the Court of Appeals. Dennis -- who has had liens filed against him in Freemen courts -- confirms the bank lawyer's statements.

What about Schechter's and Cozio's claims that Oklahoma is preparing to recognize their courts? Says U.S. Attorney Mullins, "We have a special division working on this issue in the Attorney General's office." But that group isn't meeting to weigh the validity of Freemen claims -- they're preparing for multiple prosecutions.

"The government is afraid to serve arrest warrants"

Next stop is Montana, where the Freemen movements has deepest roots. Has that state ever recognized Freemen claims as valid? "They've allowed them to appear in court, even if they operate per se [as their own attorney]," says attorney Vicki Knudsen, a former county counsel. "Is that recognizing their organization?"

One reason Knudsen retired from public service was beause of the havoc Freemen cases have caused the local and state court system. "We wasted forty or fifty hours every month dealing with these cases, sometimes more. [One man] went before the Montana Supreme Court three times before we finally got the case dismissed." Was he fighting a criminal conviction? Nope -- a traffic ticket. "The point is to tie up local government," says Knudsen.

Knudsen says Montana has gone to great lengths to treat Freemen believers fairly. With 56 Freemen "Supreme Courts" in the state -- one for each county -- the state has given them special consideration when "mistakes" are made. Says Knudsen, "One of the defendants appealed to their own 'Supreme Court.' [The Montana Supreme Court] took the position that they made a mistake -- that they meant to appeal to us.

"We went through three years of this," says Knudsen. "They're getting publicity and thriving on it." Meanwhile, she says, "The government is afraid to serve arrest warrants on them because it will be unpopular."

And maybe dangerous as well. Knudsen says police officers have quit because they're scared of Freemen revenge. According to Knudsen, Montana is very much under a state of siege. "We have a Declaration of War posted in our local paper, and a notice that they're looking for infantrymen who know how to drive tanks. They're threatening to use force against anyone who goes against them."

Another tactic is to file liens, often for millions of dollars. Knudsen explains how it works: "All they have to do is file a lien and sign on your behalf, as if you owed them money and refused to pay them back. When you try to get a loan or sell your house, they find there's a lien against you, and you have to go to court to prove you didn't sign it. Every person that comes in contact with them--clerks, judges, members of a jury, anyone that bothers them -- all become targets."

Although Knudsen has had almost a billion dollars worth of liens filed against her, she is careful not to tar all in the movement with the same brush. "We have different factions up here. Just like you can't say everybody in the milita believes the same things, there are different philosophies in this movement."

United Sovereigns also sells a manual detailing the manufacture of poisons for guerilla warfare

Which brings us back to Dave Schechter, who seems one of the most decent and fair men I've ever met. Could he be part of a "new" generation of Freemen, without ties to the violent and white supremacist factions in the movement? In a conversation during a break in the Santa Rosa proceedings, Schechter concedes that there are "bad apples" in the movement, but he and his associates are "doing everything they can to set that right."

Unfortuantely, that's not quite true. Schechter is part of the United Sovereigns of America, an Oklahoma-based group that has been conducting common-law workshops around the country, just like this one in Santa Rosa. Through the "Guns & Gavels" report by the Coalition for Human Dignity -- by far the most comprehensive document to appear on the movement, and part of this Albion Monitor series -- it's revealed that the United Sovereigns are some of the baddest apples in the barrel.

Their post office box is even shared with the Militia of Oklahoma State, and distributes materials such as the "Militia Operation Plan American Viper," a how-to manual on conducting a prolonged guerilla war against the United States. Topics include explosives, chemical and biological agents, and assassinations.

According to "Guns & Gavels," United Sovereigns also sells the classic anti-Semitic tract, the "Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion," and "Silent Weapons for Quiet Wars," a manual detailing the manufacture of poisons for guerilla warfare.

So much for the reasonable Freemen voice.

Freemen reading of the law is selective

But one of their claims does have an interesting precedent. Puzzled by their frequent reference to "Admiralty" courts, I contact Sara Beale, professor of law at Duke University.

"The illegitimacy of the courts was as important to the American Revolution as taxation without representation," says Beale. "Their grievance was that cases were being judged by the British Admiralty -- that the colonists, being free-born Englishmen, were being denied their rights to trial by their peers, meaning other colonists."

So do the Freemen have a real historic precedent for setting up their own courts? "You have to look farther than that," Beale says. "At the time, it was Crown judges [deciding the cases] as opposed to lay people on the jury, and English law always guaranteed a jury of peers. So there was legitmacy in their claim that they were denied their rights. But no, there was never a precedent for setting up your own court. You can't just create a court of your own liking."

Beale dismantles their other arguments by showing that Freemen reading of the law is selective. Such as the claim that there's a difference between a court and the court, Beale points out that they've overlooked Rule 1, "which plainly says that these rules apply to U.S. District Courts."

Debunking another Freemen claim that they are de jure (by right) citizens as opposed to the rest of us de facto (by deed) rabble, Beale thinks they simply don't understand the terminology. "The term de facto simply means that there's no written law. Think of the 1950's, when many schools only accepted whites. There wasn't usually a law that established that; it was simply the policy at the time.

"By contrast, de jure means, 'by the rule of law.' It was federal law, for example, the brought about the desegregation of those all-white de facto schools."

There are myriad other cases that Freemen cite as "proof" of their right not to pay taxes, have a driver's license, or pay their mortgage. A Stanford law student has a web page with many of the cases used by Freemen to justify their actions. (Also available here is an amusing response to these illogical -- and illegal -- claims.)

In many ways, the movement reminds me of cargo cults

During that weekend last July, Sonoma became the third county in California to have a common-law court. There are now similar courts in Santa Clara, San Jose, Fremont, Santa Cruz, Palmdale, Lancaster, Burbank, Los Angeles, Foster City, San Luis Obispo, Chico, Oroville, and elsewhere. In San Francisco there is even "The House of Common Law School for Sovereign Citizens" teaching their offbeat canon of law. The movement spreads.

But what bothers most is thinking back to those attending the Santa Rosa orientation meeting that night. Of the 34 souls who had their cases heard that weekend, how many knew that they were aligning themselves with a group that advocates the violent overthrow of our government? How many knew of the shallow roots of white supremacy and lunatic conspiracy theories that feed the Freemen movement? Probably not many -- or so I hope.

I'm certain that those who attended sought mainly justice, and thought that the magic incantations taught by the Freemen would deliver that to them. Use the right words, they were told, and your documents are considered legal. Mix together one part Latin, one part reference to U.S. Code, one part catch-phrase, and bake 30 minutes. Thus justice is made.

In many ways, the movement reminds me of cargo cults, which flourished in the South Pacific earlier in this century. Deliverance is at hand, prophets told them, and the Gods will provide for all your needs. As a result, farmers abandoned their fields and livestock were destroyed or starved. Around WWII cargo airships, laden with supplies, began to appear in the area -- a close match to the prophecy. When the planes no longer came, the believers built mock aircraft hangers and ships from the wood and bamboo at hand. If their recreations looked enough like the cargo planes, they reasoned, then it will surely attract the real thing. Needless to say, it didn't work.

And neither will the pseudo-legalese nonsense of the Freemen.

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Albion Monitor April 15, 1996 (

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