FBI: ‘Sovereign citizen’ cases on the rise

US Federal authorities are seeing an increase in the number of  foreclosed and unoccupied homes in metro Atlanta, Georgia being seized by members of a sect known as ‘Sovereign Citizens’ — a movement of right-wing anarchists who reject all government power.

Members of the Sovereign movement are found across the USA.

The Southern Poverty Law Center — a human rights organization that tracks hate groups and their activities — describes the movement as follows:

hundreds of thousands of far-right extremists who believe that they — not judges, juries, law enforcement or elected officials — get to decide which laws to obey and which to ignore, and who don’t think they should have to pay taxes.

According to the ADL:

The “sovereign citizen” movement is a loosely organized collection of groups and individuals who have adopted a right-wing anarchist ideology originating in the theories of a group called the Posse Comitatus in the 1970s. Its adherents believe that virtually all existing government in the United States is illegitimate and they seek to “restore” an idealized, minimalist government that never actually existed. To this end, sovereign citizens wage war against the government and other forms of authority using “paper terrorism” harassment and intimidation tactics, and occasionally resorting to violence.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution says:

The group believes banks can’t own land or property and that any home owned by a bank — including the thousands of foreclosed properties throughout Georgia — are theirs for the taking. […]

Sovereign citizens don’t believe courts have jurisdiction over them. They don’t believe in paying taxes or acquiring driver’s licenses or car tags.

They do, however, believe abandoned properties are ripe for the taking. They often use quit-claim deeds to take over properties and as soon as they move in post trespassing signs warning people to stay off the property.

The group uses YouTube to educate the public about their philosophy and recruit new members.

The FBI lists Sovereign Citizens as a domestic terrorist organization. The fact that Sovereign Citizens’ believe they are separate or “sovereign” from the United States causes all kind of problems — and crimes, the FBI says:

For example, many sovereign citizens don’t pay their taxes. They hold illegal courts that issue warrants for judges and police officers. They clog up the court system with frivolous lawsuits and liens against public officials to harass them. And they use fake money orders, personal checks, and the like at government agencies, banks, and businesses.

That’s just the beginning. Not every action taken in the name of the sovereign citizen ideology is a crime, but the list of illegal actions committed by these groups, cells, and individuals is extensive (and puts them squarely on our radar). In addition to the above, sovereign citizens:

• Commit murder and physical assault;
• Threaten judges, law enforcement professionals, and government personnel;
• Impersonate police officers and diplomats;
• Use fake currency, passports, license plates, and driver’s licenses; and
• Engineer various white-collar scams, including mortgage fraud and so-called “redemption” schemes.

Sovereign citizens are often confused with extremists from the militia movement. But while sovereign citizens sometimes use or buy illegal weapons, guns are secondary to their anti-government, anti-tax beliefs. On the other hand, guns and paramilitary training are paramount to militia groups.

The Nevada Observer writes:

The sovereign citizen movement is believed to be an off shoot or continuation of the Posse Comitatus of the 1960s.  Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City federal court building bomber is believed to be associated with sovereign citizen as is his partner, Terry Nichols.  […]

Besides McVeigh and Nichols, the man accused of killing George Tiller, the abortion doctor, is alleged to belong to more than one militia group and sovereign citizen organizations.  […]

James Wenneker von Brunn, an Annapolis, Maryland man, walked into the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. recently, armed with a rifle and began shooting.  One guard was killed, and von Brunn was seriously wounded.  On von Brunn’s web site he claims membership in the sovereign citizen movement, and once tried to arrest the board of governors of the Federal Reserve in their building in Washington.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) estimates the sect numbers more than 300,000 nationwide.

It also says:

The sovereign movement is growing fast, and its partisans are clogging up the courts with their indecipherable filings. When cornered, many of them lash out in rage, frustration and, in the most extreme cases, acts of deadly violence.

It is difficult to say precisely how many sovereigns there are in the United States today, in part because there is no central leadership and no organized group that members can join — instead, there are a variety of local leaders with individualized takes on sovereign citizen ideology and techniques. Those who are attracted to this bizarre subculture typically attend a seminar or two, or visit one of the thousands of websites and online videos on the subject, and then simply choose how to act on what they’ve learned. Some start by testing sovereign ideology with small offenses such as driving without a license, while others proceed directly to taking on the IRS as tax protesters. […]

Not all tax protesters are sovereign citizens, and many newer recruits to the sovereign life did not start out as tax protesters. But based on the available evidence, a reasonable estimate of hard-core sovereign believers today would be 100,000, with another 200,000 just starting out by testing sovereign techniques for resisting everything from speeding tickets to drug charges, for a total of 300,000. As sovereign theories go viral throughout the nation’s prison systems and among people who are unemployed and desperate in a punishing recession, this number is likely to grow.

The SPLC has created a video to help law enforcement agencies better prepare for encounters with “sovereign citizens.”

The Sovereigns: Tips for Law Enforcement (SPLC)
The Sovereigns: Leaders of the Movement (SPLC)
The Sovereigns: A Dictionary of the Peculiar (SPLC)
Domestic Terrorism: The Sovereign Citizen Movement (FBI)
Sovereign Citizen Movement (ADL)

Search for sons drags on as in-laws stay holed up in compound

A world apart
Dad’s 4-year search for sons drags on as in-laws stay holed up in compound

TRINIDAD — For both families, the clock has ticked slowly as the weeks turn into months and then into years.

On the outside is Keith Tarkington, whose kids are school-age now — but he hasn’t seen them since they were infants.

On the inside are John Joe Gray and most of his family, who have sealed themselves in an armed homestead and haven’t seen the outside world since Bill Clinton was president.

“Nothing has changed,” says Henderson County Sheriff Ronnie Brownlow, who was a chief deputy in December 1998, when a chain of events robbed Tarkington of his children and sent the Gray clan behind the fence of their wooded, 47-acre compound on the banks of the Trinity River.

For 3 1/2 years, Gray, a fugitive from a third-degree felony warrant stemming from a scuffle with state troopers, has vowed to live out his life and die behind the fence if necessary.

For more than four years, Tarkington, Gray’s former son-in-law, has been demanding justice — enforcement of a court order granting him custody of the two sons he had with his wife, Lisa.

“Nothing has changed,” Tarkington agrees. “It’s the same as it was. I’ve been to the sheriff, the FBI, the Texas Rangers and CPS (Child Protective Services). Nobody wants to do nothin’ … just let sleeping dogs lie.”

From his side of the fence, Gray, a Bible-reading militiaman, doesn’t see the impasse as simple issues of warrants defied and court orders ignored, but as a kind of life-and-death struggle between God and the devil government.

“This is a spiritual battle,” says Gray, who is around 54 years old. “We don’t fear death.”

For most of his years in this small community on Cedar Creek Lake 65 miles southeast of Dallas, Gray lived in the obscurity of the daily grind. He built houses for a living and built his own nest in the woods beside an unpaved road and a pasture where cattle grazed without fences or supervision.

It was here that the mingling of fundamentalist religion and militia foreboding (he was a leader in the Texas Constitutional Militia and often held training on his property) spun into a dark world view and outright rejection of civil authority.

“We are remnants of God … people who trust in the Lord,” he says.

He and his family began refusing to register their cars, opting instead for plates issued by the Embassy of Heaven, an Oregon-based sect that also rejects government authority. They refused to obtain driver’s licenses or to recognize the authority of courts.

Inevitably, that brought them to the attention of the local cops. In November 1998, Gray’s 24-year-old daughter, Racheal Dempsey, was jailed on charges of driving without a license and having “fictitious” tags on her car. She refused to appear in court and warrants were issued for her arrest.

Two weeks later, Gray was stopped and cited for driving without a license. He failed to show for a court appearance and no further action was taken.

Meanwhile, according to Tarkington, his marriage to Lisa, Gray’s daughter, was suffering. He resisted Gray’s pressure to join the militia and accept the family’s religious views. Tarkington is a Catholic; the entrance to Gray’s property is posted with hand-painted anti-Catholic signs.

In April 1999, Tarkington says, his wife left him and moved into her family’s compound, taking her children with her.

She did not respond to his divorce petition, except in a handwritten letter to the judge in which she proclaimed that “it is pathetic to be Catholic.” Tarkington, therefore, was granted custody of the children.

The Grays had not yet sealed themselves into the compound, but a writ of attachment, authorizing sheriff’s deputies to remove the boys from their mother’s custody, was never served and never enforced.

On Christmas Eve 1999, state troopers in Anderson County stopped a car for speeding near Palestine. Inside were the driver, a passenger, high-caliber pistols and assault rifles.

The passenger, John Joe Gray, was wearing a gun in a shoulder holster. He refused to get out of the car and, when the troopers forcibly removed him, he bit one on the hand and tried to take the trooper’s weapon.

He was charged with two felonies, released on bond and failed to appear in court. Instead, he fortified his fenced property with bunkers and, in case lawmen planned to root him out, he sent them a warning: “Bring body bags.”

The cops never went after him.

“There are seven adults and three children in there,” says Brownlow. “Somebody would be killed. We’re not willing at this point to take that chance over a third-degree felony warrant. He hasn’t been convicted. He’s not a threat to anybody. But he knows if he comes out of there he’s going to jail.”

As for the Tarkington kids, Brownlow says, “We’re convinced they’re not in there.”

Over the years, there have been rumors that Lisa Tarkington and the children, who are now 6 and 7 years old, went to live with relatives out of state.

Tarkington doesn’t know and the uncertainty gnaws at him.

“I can’t keep a job,” he says. “I can’t concentrate on my work. I’ve had good jobs and lost them. I can’t keep my mind on work.”

He still calls regularly on local officials and nags them for action against Gray.

“I’ve been kicked out of the DA’s office, kicked out of a deputy’s office, the FBI office,” he says. “They just say, `There’s nothing we can do.’ “

Two children have been born behind the fence in the past three years, but otherwise, life in self-imposed exile has become rote but tolerable, family members say.

“There’s always work to be done,” says 31-year-old Jonathan, who is building a log cabin for his wife and children on the property. There are goats to milk, chickens to feed, wood to chop, a garden to cultivate. They work with pistols on their hips and rifles resting nearby.

Electricity is provided by generators, fueled with petroleum brought by sympathizers, who also bring food, clothing, and other items, including an occasional newspaper. With no television, they are tethered to world events by AM, FM and shortwave radio. Three times a week, two of Gray’s sons broadcast their own shortwave program called Radio Free Texas.

In the beginning, Gray never came to the gate to talk to reporters and other curiosity seekers. Now he occasionally makes an appearance to share, in disarmingly laconic terms, his Bible passages and apocalyptic vision of a world menaced by Masons, terrorists, the United Nations, politicians, judges and Satan worshipers.

“We would like to come out,” he says, “but we feel like God put us here to teach us things. As long as God wants us here, we’ll be here.”