"Real patriots don't hide behind children"

Colorado legislator Charles Duke entered the heavily armed Freemen compound as a militia sympathizer. After his efforts to negotiate a peaceful settlement were sabotaged by the Freemen's three leaders, he left with very different feelings.

Published May 30, 1996 7:52PM (EDT)

Day 67, and the Freemen vs. FBI standoff, which began March 25 at a remote Montana ranch, appears no closer to a peaceful resolution. Several members of the self-styled militia group face federal and state charges including the threatening of public officials and writing $1.8 million worth of bad checks. In a move suggesting that the FBI may be running out of patience, authorities Wednesday installed a generator that would serve surrounding farms in the event that power to the Freemen's ranch is cut off.
We talked by telephone with Colorado State Senator Charles Duke, who was invited by the Freemen to enter the compound and negotiate an end to the standoff. An acknowledged militia movement sympathizer, Duke spent eight days with the Freemen before giving up. We asked Duke, currently campaigning for a U.S. Senate seat, about his experiences with the Freemen and how the standoff might end.

How much longer do you think the standoff will continue?

I'm estimating another couple of weeks, although I could be very wrong. These people are prepared to hold out for a long time. I don't think they should be allowed to do that.

How will it end?

I think they may be forcibly arrested.

How will the FBI manage that?

You'll have to ask the FBI. I think they will go out of their way to avoid hurting anyone. If they were able to isolate the leaders -- Russ Landers, Dale Jacobi and Rod Skurdal -- and get them arrested, then I think the others will capitulate.

How well-armed are they?

I didn't get a full estimate of their arms. Most of what I saw were AR-15 style weapons and small arms -- shotguns, rifles, pistols. I'm sure they had plenty of ammunition, too. They could certainly hurt somebody if they wished.

Which raises the possibility of a violent end to all of this. Did you get any sense that leaders would be willing to go down in flames?

Sure, Landers, Jacobi and Skurdal are prepared to try and martyrize themselves. Unfortunately, the knowledge about what they're doing -- which is simply to avoid arrest on outstanding warrants -- is getting out. So their martyr status is very much in jeopardy.

Rather than true believers, they are essentially scam artists?

Yes. They're simply trying to avoid arrest. Landers had outstanding warrants in Colorado and New York. I expect he's been leaving a trail of fraud behind him for a long time. I suspect that as many as eight people in the compound are using the Freemen facade to avoid arrest and prosecution.

You didn't feel that way when you first went to the Clark ranch.

I was inclined to sympathize with the Freemen, and they had mentioned my name as someone they would trust to mediate the dispute. They knew I had been on radio and television programs talking about the 10th Amendment movement. And they knew I had been critical of the FBI in the past.

And you got along well with them for a while at the ranch.

Yes. The first four days, we had free and open communications between the FBI and the Freemen. They wanted a way to get their message out. We managed to arrange for that, to tell their story just as they wanted to tell it, no FBI, no police, nothing but the video camera to talk to. They were happy about that; we were, too. But they broke their part of the bargain.

How so?

They were supposed to turn over the two Ward children in accordance with a Utah court order, which had declared Gloria Ward, the mother, unfit. And from what I could tell, the court was right. They were supposed to turn the children over to us, and we were to take them immediately to Salt Lake City.

Before things went wrong, you were spending up to 18 hours a day there. What was life in the compound like?

They seemed to be living a normal, if communal, life. Families seemed to be getting along just swell, nobody looked undernourished or unwashed. They wore clean clothes. It seemed as though everything was OK -- other than the fact that, as I realized, they could not really leave the ranch.

What was stopping them?

I had heard that some people wanted to leave and weren't allowed to. So I helped negotiate an agreement whereby we -- myself and the FBI -- could interview all of the occupants of the ranch. But they suddenly broke that agreement. Of the 21 people who were there, we were unable to talk to 10 of them. The leaders told us the 10 had no desire to talk to us. It's my suspicion that these people may not be there under their own free will.

Why did the leaders suddenly break their word?

They saw us getting very close to an overall agreement to end the standoff. That would mean they would have to come out and face the music, and they didn't want to do that.
You finally gave up and left last Wednesday morning. How did you feel?

I felt betrayed. They said they were willing to negotiate; they clearly were not. I put my life in danger on their behalf, and they rewarded me by essentially rejecting every suggestion and every attempt I made to get a peaceful solution. So here they were treating me as though I was just some sort of pawn to be played at the appropriate time. I also realized they were willing to use the three children there as a human shield. That's when I considered them to be without honor.

Have your views of the FBI changed?

I would say my opinion of the FBI is on the upswing. I still have a hard time forgiving them for Waco and Ruby Ridge, but they have handled this case in a very different way, and that's to their credit.

And the militia movement?

Not at all. I think this has been a great learning experience. We have known the upper bound of patriotism -- a belief in the Constitution, a stand on principle. Now, with the Freemen, we know what the lower bound of patriotism is. A real patriot doesn't go around willy-nilly breaking the law, and they don't hide behind children.

Quote of the day

Leaving the promised land

"All I can do is look at where I keep my suitcases and feel like packing them and disappearing from here very quickly."

-- Leah Rabin, wife of assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, on the apparent victory of right-wing Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu in the Israeli election.

By Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross is Salon's executive vice president.

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