Of all the Freemen holed up on a foreclosed ranch near Jordan,
Mont., no one's name appears more frequently on their righteous,
densely worded legal and religious documents than that of Rodney
When the FBI arrested LeRoy M. Schweitzer and Daniel E. Petersen
Jr. near Jordan on march 25, by dint of experience Skurdal became
the senior Freemen of the 20 or so still on the ranch.
"With Schweitzer and Petersen out of the picture, he is very
likely the moral leader out there," said Christine Kaufmann,
research director for the Montana Human Rights Network, which
has been monitoring the group for several years.
Who is Ridney Skurdal, and how does he figure in the resolve of
the others at "Justus Township" in the 22-day standoff?
Such questions are confounded by lack of a formal Freemen hierarchy
and rumored bickering over leadership.
Skurdal, 43, Schweitzer, Peterson and Dale Jacobi moved to the
ranch in late September. They left behind "Redemption Township,"
Skurdal's two-story log cabin home on 20 acres near Roundup, Mont.,
where they had been holed up all of 1995. They issued a stream
of their common law court writs, warrants, affidavits, "true
bills" and, says the FBI, more than $1.8 million in worthless
"certified bankers checks" and money orders. And they
taught others how to do the same.
The log cabin home has since been auctioned off by the IRS - something
Skurdal swore to a neighbor would never happen.
"He believed beyond a shadow of a doubt that the IRS could
never sell his house for back taxes" totaling $29,312, said
Jane Bellows, who lived near Skurdal's cabin on Johnny's Coal
Ranch. "He said, 'I will beat them; I have no fear of that.'"
They were prepared for a confrontation. Matthew Sisler, a lawyer
who visited Skurdal and Schwietzer in the cabin early last fall
after a client received one of their worthless money orders, recalls
seeing guns such as AR-15s, shotguns and huntign rifles in every
corner and gas masks hanging from the doors.
Evidently, they were planning on being more prepared. Sisler's
client, Cajun James, an arms dealer in Eureka, Mont., had been
given a bad check for an order, undelivered, for 200 .50-caliber
rifles, which have an accurate range of 1,000 yards; and 200,000
rounds of ammunition.
Skurdal, said Sisler, seemed to be the spiritual leader, while
Schweitzer, 57, a tax delinquent crop-duster, was the financial
brain. Jacobi, who is a former Canadian police officer and propane
dealer who has been holding Bible classes.
In a 1994 Freemen "edict" signed by "the honorable
Justice Rodney O. Skurdal," he set out his religious beliefs,
which Schweitzer shared. They are decidedly those of Christian
Identity, with origins in the 19th Century that claims
white Anglo Saxons are the true Israelistes, that Jews are the
offspring of Eve, and Satan - Cain - and that people of color
were "beasts of the field" made by God before he perfected
man in Adam and Eve.
Freemen reason they do not have to pay taxes because they see
the U.S. government as a "corporate prostitute," and
America as the biblical land of milk and honey, the New Zion,
given to the white race by God, whose laws are the only ones they
"Their driving, life-shaping agenda is Christian Identity,"
said Rev. Jerry Walters of Zion Lutheran Church in Roundup. "Their
beliefs about taxes and government are because the lens they are
looking through is Christian Identity."
Skurdal, a stocky, red-haired man slightly under 6 feet tall,
has no known history of violence. During one of his two hitches
in the Marine Corps he served for 30 months at the marine Corps
Barracks in Washington, D.C., where he was in a presidential security
guard company. The unit provides the White House and Camp David
uniformed guards. HE finished his eight-year Marine career as
a recruiter in Trenton, Mich.
After his discharge he went to work in the Wyoming oil fields
near Gillette. In 1983, a derrick he was on tipped over, leaving
him with a concussion and several broken ribs. Skurdal received
workman's compensation, which he demanded - unsuccessfully - be
paid to him in gold and silver. According to the Casper Star-Tribune,
he later won an out-of-court settlement with the oil company,
Exeter Drilling Co., for an undisclosed amount.
By 1987, Skurdal was having brushes - peaceful ones - with the
law in Gillette for driving without license plates and issuing
his own checks.
Most of those who knew him in the Roundup area, where in 1992
he bought the log cabin, recall him as polite, quiet and reasonable.
"Rodney never yelled or got upset," said Matthew "Dutch"
VanSyckel, a Musselshell County sheriff's deputy. "I think
he could be reasoned with. But I don't know what's come over
him in the past year."
June Britt, Skurdal's girlfriend in Roundup, described him as
peaceful and religious, a man who "believes in the common
law, 'that no American should ever lose their home for taxes."
"Rod doesn't have a mean streak in his body. He is big and
could take care of himself. But he never had fights, doesn't
hold grudges and never pushed it or was a bully because of his
"He doesn't want to anyone hurt," said Britt, who says
she "loves Rod the man, not Rod the Freeman."
"But he does want their word out-unedited," she said.
Britt's perceptions are at odds with the image on officers of
the courts in which Skurdal fought his legal battles. In Musselshell
County, those battles had their origin in his failure - again
- to get a driver's license and license plates for his car.
"He was like an obnoxious kid doing whatever he can to get
his way," said one court officer. "The more times he
went to court, and the more people who came to watch, the more
aggressive and gruff he got." Skurdal, the officer said,
challenged the right of women to be on the jury that was to judge
By the mid-1990s, Skurdal, incensed that an electrical inspector
came on his property, posted a "Declaration of War"
against local officials.
Most of Skurdal's actions, like Schweitzer's, Petersen's and Jacobi's,
were paper terrorism, a flood of frivolous, computer produced
liens, including the governor of Montana, state supreme court
judges, and local sheriff and other officials.
The liens, sometimes for amounts in the millions, were deposited
in the Freemen's bank account, on which they wrote their worthless
Early last year, Skurdal, Schweitzer and Petersen published what
law enforcement officers in Roundup interpreted as a threat: "We
the Honorable justices, will not hesitate to use our Lawful force
by whatever means necessary to fully support, protect, guarantee
and defend our (common) Law
Right of self governing
as a free sovereign and independent state."
But by late September, it became obvious that the heavily posted
cabin near Roundup, with thick woods behind it and the road barely
50 feet from its front door, would be difficult to defend. They
moved to the ranch on the high treeless plains near Jordan, leaving
behind a horse trailer full of thousands of rounds of ammunition
and reloading equipment.
Lawyer Sisler visited the ranch March 10. He and two assistants
successfully served legal parpers on Schweitzer, who he said promplty
turned around and handed the lawyer a $1 billion lien on his property.
While Sisler saw armed men, he said they did not inspire fear.
"What we saw," Sisler said, "was a bunch of sad,
middle-aged men who had lost their homes, who had not paid loans
back or taxes and wanted someone to blame."