Scott Roeder, chief suspect in the assassination of abortion doctor George Tiller, is an active member of the Freemen. News of his ties to the anti-government group opened old wounds in Montana.
Rosie Clark just wants it to stop. Thirteen years ago this Saturday, the separatist anti-government sect known as the Montana Freemen surrendered to FBI agents after an 81-day armed standoff at their compound outside Jordan. Ever since that highly publicized event, the Freemen label has carried a radical stigma, one that Rosie and her husband Emmett have tried to divest.
“The worst part about it is it’s never over,” Rosie says. “It’s just going on and on, it’s never stopping. Those guys that are in jail are being tortured, and they just keep it up.”
Leaving the past in the past seems a common mindset for Montana’s resident Freemen. Under the leadership of LeRoy Schweitzer, the group crafted phony checks, money orders and liens and defrauded banks and credit card companies nationwide of an estimated $1.8 million. They leveled threats against state officials for years. It’s a dark past, and one recently resurrected in national headlines.
In the days following the shooting death of Kansas abortion doctor George Tiller, the FBI linked chief suspect Scott Roeder to a Kansas faction of the Freemen. Several news stories then connected Roeder to Montana based on a 1996 interview with Roeder’s father by the Topeka Capital-Journal. Roeder was not involved in the Jordan incident, but reportedly attended classes at the Montana Freemen’s Justus Township compound prior to the FBI’s intervention.
News of Roeder’s Freemen ties is a step backward for former members trying to move on. Upward of 20 Freemen went to trial in the years following the 1996 standoff. Schweitzer remains in federal custody in Florence, Colo., with a release date of February 11, 2019. His supposed right-hand man, Daniel Petersen, and a number of others are also in prison. The rest completed brief sentences before slipping into anonymity.
Rosie and Emmett Clark have since settled into retirement in central Montana’s Musselshell County. After speaking briefly with a reporter, Rosie refused to leave a message for her husband, voicing the couple’s shared wish to leave the Freemen standoff alone.
“He’s my husband,” Rosie said. “He don’t want to mess with it anymore.”
James Hance declined comment when reached at his East Helena home except to say he wants to move on. He arrived at Justus Township from North Carolina prior to the standoff with his brother, John, and father, Steven.
Lavon Hanson likewise shied away from speaking of his Freemen past. Hanson’s arrest alongside Schweitzer and Petersen by the FBI in March 1996 sparked the barricading of Justus Township. Hanson, now living in northeastern Montana, refers to the Freemen altercation as a “chapter of my life long over.”
But not all of the Freemen have severed ties with the group. Cherlyn Peterson, who says she was only present during the standoff to support her husband, Daniel Petersen, admits she’s spoken recently to other Freemen about the Roeder shooting. She questions whether Roeder ever visited Justus Township and says no one she’s spoken to recognizes him.
“He never set foot in Montana,” Petersen contends. “He had nothing to do with us. I don’t know where that ever came out, but I’ve talked to several people and nobody is aware of him.”
It’s a common problem, she adds. National rumors connect criminals and fugitives to the Montana Freemen, and “it’s garbage.”
“Every time somebody walks down the street and looks cross-eyed, they link him to a big story about the Freemen,” Petersen says. “It’s getting old. Not everybody in this whole wide world that does something wrong is linked to the Freemen.”
Dean Clark can empathize with knee jerk Freemen connections. He never saw eye-to-eye with his father, Freemen higher-up Richard Clark, or his grandfather, Emmett. The two once ran Dean off Freemen land with guns when Dean tried to access a neighboring field. He denounces any association with the group’s radical beliefs.
“I was not a member, okay,” Dean says. “And I’d just as soon not deal with it. I’ve dealt with it every day of my life since then.”
As for Roeder’s actions in Wichita, Dean says he doesn’t recall any Freemen expressing anti-abortion sentiments.
“The Freemen movement had absolutely nothing to do with abortion rights,” he says. “There’s no tie there at all.”
The new life some Freemen seek is evidenced by their avoidance of old haunts. Nick Murnion, Garfield County attorney and a former victim of Freemen harassment, says few returned to Jordan following the court proceedings. He believes most of them now live in Musselshell County or the Billings area.
If the Freemen philosophy is still strong around Jordan, Roeder’s arrest failed to raise it above a whisper. John Fitzgerald, Jordan’s pharmacist since 1969, says names associated with the Freemen persist in Garfield County, but they keep pretty much to themselves.
“The ones that they caught, they’re not around,” says Fitzgerald, who does believe he’s seen Roeder in Jordan before. “There’s a lot of periphery that’s still around, but their actions have all changed dramatically. If they’re still thinking that way and doing those things, they don’t say anything about it.”