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Remembering the Freemen standoff in Montana, 25 years later

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Posted at 7:08 PM, Apr 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-23 14:43:43-04

They were known as the Montana Freemen, and 25 years ago, they would put the national spotlight on Montana for a long, bizarre armed standoff with FBI agents that would drag on for months.

For almost two years, the Freemen had refused to be evicted from the secluded 960-acre farm near Jordan. They called it Justus Township and had their own interpretation of the law—rejecting the authority of the federal government and using bogus checks and other fraudulent means to heavily arm themselves.

“It was just strange stuff. It was the first time I had brushed right up against that. I had no frame of reference on it,” said former MTN News Anchor Gus Koernig, who was working at Q2 in Billings at the time.

When the group’s leader, Leroy Schweitzer, and two others were arrested, it became the lead story on network newscasts, but the drama was far from over at that point. Back on the ranch in Garfield County, a dozen Freemen and their followers were holed up, refusing to surrender to authorities.

“Looking back on it, I wish I had a lot more sympathy for the people of Jordan area and what they had endured even before the national media spotlight started to shine on Jordan,” said Frank Field, a former Q2 reporter. “You know a couple of years of threats against a judge, of false liens being put on people’s properties. How much more of that did people have to take?”

Coming in the wake of the deadly sieges at Waco and Ruby Ridge, there was fear that the standoff could lead to another violent ending.

“There was a lot of concern for violence, a lot of concern of outsiders coming in. In talking with FBI agents, that was one of their biggest fears was outside instigators making the situation worse,” said current Q2 Chief Photographer Paul Humphrey, who covered the standoff.

While the FBI moved in, they were in no hurry-- willing to wait it out and avoid another violent confrontation. The days stretched into weeks with network trucks and crews crowding the town of Jordan.

“Everyone was not happy for the cameras for the influx of law enforcement as well. The FBI and ATF making a presence in Montana in the mid-90s wasn’t well-received by some,” said Humphrey.

Eighty-one days after it began, the standoff finally ended peacefully when the remaining Freemen surrendered.

“I have never covered anything remotely like that story. There were some similarities to now although not to the same degree, but there was a real anger,” said Koernig.

Field says that he and other reporters received some threats while chasing down interviews that he didn’t take as seriously then as he would now.

“I wish I had realized at the time just how pervasive some of this thought was and where it was going to go. Because even today we are dealing with people who really are kind of tied loosely or philosophically to some of the Freemen so we are still dealing with some of their philosophies today,” he says.

The trial for the Freemen was also a spectacle, bringing national news cameras back to Montana. The leader of the group, Leroy Schweitzer, was convicted on multiple federal charges and died in prison in 2011 at the age of 73. Seven others were also convicted and sentenced—ending an infamous chapter in Montana history.