Kooks. Zealots. Terrorists. Patriots. Sovereign Citizens. Defenders of the Faith.
They're out there.
Well, out there, anyway. Living on the dun landscapes of the plains states or Godforsaken places like eastern Montana, where people get suspicious if you're not carrying a gun. It was in Montana that the Feds had to wait around for 81 days a couple years ago because some self-styled "Freemen" refused to shut down their 960-acre anti-government fantasy camp.
Not here, though. Who would be that brazen? Who would have the brass balls to just walk into a car dealership, sign some worthless scrap of paper called a "sight draft" with his own name, and attempt to buy eight cars? Eight Cadillacs. And then say it was justified.
Not unless they truly believed what they were doing was right; that the real scam was the one being pulled on everybody else.
And what if they did believe they were right? What if they felt they had been sucked dry their entire lives, stripped of freedom, and sapped of liberty itself by a charade? What if they had paid good money, studied hard, and absorbed the lessons that led them to the truth? The truth that they weren't the ones committing the fraud.
Look, we've done the paperwork. It's all right here. Taxes, lawyers, banks -- all lies. We've done nothing wrong.
Then it wouldn't be so hard to understand what led Joan S. Bowman and Richard A. Lewis to DeLorean Cadillac in Lakewood in late August. That's when Bowman, 55, and Lewis, 53, told a salesman that they needed several vehicles for themselves and their "partners."
They took their time. They asked the right questions about options, rebates, and discounts. They were serious buyers. They wanted a good deal.
And it's not as if they were trying to be inconspicuous. Bowman in particular was hard to miss, with a full-blown mane of hair the color of Elmer's glue. She had lived in one of the high-rise apartment buildings on Edgewater Drive, not far from DeLorean Cadillac, for several years.
Besides, inconspicuousness isn't really possible when you're purchasing eight cars. Particularly when six of the vehicles are Cadillac Escalades: monster sport utility vehicles with standard features like heated seats, platinum-tipped spark plugs, and a stainless steel exhaust system. At $47,000 a pop, not a bad ride if you've got the means.
Bowman and Lewis had the means, of a sort. Three days after they first visited DeLorean and got a price on an eight-vehicle deal, they dropped off an envelope. Inside was a list of names they wanted on the vehicles' titles, along with several other documents, one of which read, in part:
The "Sight Draft" accompanying this "Letter of Instruction" is "NON-NEGOTIABLE" . . . The face value of the "Sight Draft" shall be posted to the "asset" side of the depository bank's Ledger; is proceeded by a "Firm Offer" with special instructions for "pre-payment at any time without penalty," in accord with Regulation Z (T.I.L.).
It was, to say the least, an unusual use of a sight draft. Such things exist, but they are normally used in business-to-business transactions, often when shipping goods from one country to another. A sight draft is like a form of COD, except the buyer's bank collects the money -- a way for a seller to retain control of its product until the buyer pays.
The finance department at DeLorean didn't know what to make of the thing. Sure, it looked liked a check. It even had an artificial watermark and a registration number. But the bank was skeptical. The insurance company wasn't sure about it, either. And a document made out for $373,725.62 is something you want to be pretty confident about.
There were other, um, irregularities. In the lower left-hand corner, where, on a personal check, one would normally find the name and address of the issuing bank, the draft read "United States Treasury." But the street address for the Treasury was listed as "15 & Pennsylavnia Ave."
Finally, the dealership owner, Mark DeLorean, called the Lakewood police.
Two weeks later, police searched Lewis's apartment off Pearl Road in Strongsville. Lewis wasn't home at the time, but the cops found plenty to keep them busy: 16 guns, more than 6,000 rounds of ammunition, a rifle bayonet, a black machete, daggers, a dart gun, two dummy hand grenades, and one "knife disguised in a pipe," among other things. They also searched Bowman's apartment, where they found more guns and more sight drafts, along with computers and programs to make the documents.
Less than a week later, DeLorean Cadillac received a large envelope with Lewis's return address on it. Knowing Lewis's proclivities toward things sharp and explosive, the cops didn't take any chances. The dealership was evacuated, the bomb squad called in, and West 117th Street was shut down for two and a half hours.
The package, as it turned out, was harmless. In it was nothing more than some papers spouting more legalistic nonsense, one of several missives Lewis and Bowman sent to various people connected to their case, including Lakewood Police Chief Dan Clark and Lakewood Municipal Clerk of Courts Richard L. Gray.
On November 4, a Cuyahoga County grand jury returned indictments against Lewis and Bowman, charging them each with one count of forgery and one count of uttering a forged document (for trying to use the bogus draft to buy vehicles). Lewis has also been charged with one count of unlawful possession of dangerous ordnance. Bowman faces an additional charge of possessing criminal tools -- namely the computers and programs used to make the drafts.
Common Pleas Court Judge Thomas Curran entered not guilty pleas for Bowman and Lewis after they were uncooperative at their November 23 arraignment.
It may be only the beginning. Lakewood police forwarded their information to the Secret Service, which, along with the FBI, is being very tight-lipped about the case. But the Feds tend not to look kindly on this sort of thing. In fact, federal law enforcement agencies have been keeping a close eye on the use of sight drafts all over the country since spring. In August, the Office of the Comptroller of Currency issued a warning to all national banks to be on the lookout for the documents. Not long after, the FDIC followed suit.
What nobody knows yet is why. Or at least why Bowman and Lewis thought they could get away with something almost comically audacious. After all the excitement -- guns! bombs! money! -- it's little wonder that there were rumblings about Lewis being connected to militia groups, particularly one known as the Cuyahoga County Unorganized Militia, even though other area militia members maintained (and continue to do so) they had never heard of either Lewis or Bowman prior to their shopping trip at DeLorean Cadillac. But it's still possible that Lewis is a current or former member of some militia group. There are plenty of active militia members who don't exactly crow about their involvement, since the Oklahoma City bombing put paramilitary organizations under the microscope.
Neither Lewis nor Bowman would comment on their case, though in a brief conversation, Lewis insisted they had done nothing wrong. In fact, Lewis says, he and Bowman are the ones who have been mistreated. It's the people pressing the case against them who have some explaining to do.
"There's some tremendous liability they're going to have to answer to," Lewis says. He declined to discuss the issue further, because "I don't want to jeopardize their situation."
Whether or not they're militia members, what's increasingly clear is that Bowman and Lewis are on the leading edge of a new philosophy taking hold among the ranks of anti-government groups across the country. Known as "Redemption," it's a way for true believers to break free of the tyranny of a government they believe has been hopelessly corrupted.
For everyone else, it's a clumsy, incomprehensible attempt to scam innocent people under the cloak of righteous ideology.
Either way, it's a surefire recipe for landing in jail.
Mark Pitcavage knows. Around the same time Bowman and Lewis walked into DeLorean Cadillac in Lakewood, he was beginning to piece some things together.
A transplant from Texas who now directs the U.S. Department of Justice's State/Local Anti-Terrorism Training Program out of his research center in Columbus, Pitcavage is one of the few experts on anti-government extremism in the country. As a student of the state militia movement of the 1800s, he was initially interested in challenging some of the bizarre interpretations of history and law spreading through the current neo-militia movement. But after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing heightened curiosity and fear about anti-government groups, Pitcavage realized that there were few resources for people searching for information about them.
That summer, he set up the Militia Watchdog website (www.militia-watchdog.org), a sort of clearinghouse for information on reactionary America. It's a job that has brought him no small amount of ire from the people he keeps tabs on, though he says the name-calling doesn't bother him much.
"Is an e-mail calling me a "dickhead' harassment?" he writes. "I don't feel particularly harassed by that."
Nonetheless, trying to track wildly disparate forms of radical discontent is no easy task. Encompassing everything from tax protesters to the Ku Klux Klan, the ranks of those under the extremism umbrella share a thin but virulent strand of dogma -- a deep philosophical distrust of government that goes way beyond the "he governs best who governs least" adage.
Distrust comes in many shades and shapes, but the 1990s have seen one particularly durable expression of it: the "sovereign citizen" movement. Though much of the movement's ideological ancestry goes back 30 years, to the formation of the group known as the Posse Comitatus, its modern incarnation has many names: the common law movement, Freemen, Patriots, Constitutionalists.
There are differences among the groups, but they all hold certain core beliefs, including the idea that there are two types of citizens in the United States. Those who are subject to the laws, taxes, and regulations of the federal and state governments are called "Fourteenth Amendment citizens." Those who consider themselves free from such burdens are known as "sovereign citizens" or "non-resident aliens" of the United States.
The only jurisdiction these "non-resident aliens" recognize is a "common law court," a self-styled pseudo-legal system in which adherents pass down their own brand of justice.
The most famous, or rather infamous, of the "sovereign citizens" are the Montana Freemen, the group that held an 81-day standoff with the FBI in the spring of 1996. The year before, near the windswept burg of Jordan, Montana, a group of families facing the failure of their wheat farms had formed a "common law" group in an attempt to gum up the foreclosure on their property. Not far south, near Roundup, Montana, another band was forming, a group of tax protesters who were keen on using false liens and bogus checks and money orders.
There are any number of uses for such documents. They snarl the system. They harass and intimidate local officials, who have to fight phony liens placed on their property. And they're very useful for generating cash. After liens are filed, fake money orders can often be written and drawn against the bank listing the lien. The Freemen reportedly used them to dupe everyone from the IRS and Fleet Bank to L.L. Bean.
After the two Montana groups joined forces in September 1995 at the ranch of Ralph and Emmett Clark -- rechristened "Justus Township" -- it wasn't long before they upped the ante, flooding the courts with bogus liens and trivial lawsuits, and issuing "arrest warrants" for public officials at their common law courts. During the standoff, one of the group's leaders told his flock that, if they encountered anyone obstructing justice, "the order is shoot to kill."
That never happened. But the township became a mecca for common law adherents all over the country, a one-stop shop where believers learned how to file phony liens and use bogus checks and money orders from Freemen leader Leroy Schweitzer.
In March of 1996 the Feds stepped in, and two and a half months later the standoff ended without violence. Last year, 22 members of the group were convicted on charges of threatening a federal judge, conspiracy to commit fraud, armed robbery, and bank, wire, and mail fraud.
In the wake of negative press about the standoff and the Oklahoma City bombing, common law activists adopted a much lower profile. Nevertheless, in the spring of 1999, Pitcavage began seeing more and more references to a new theory being promoted by the common law cognoscenti -- the same individuals and groups that had picked up and used the Freeman schemes of the mid-1990s.
It's called Redemption. And it's more bizarre than anything that's come before it.
Confusing as the most abstruse tax code, Redemption combines novel interpretations of history, the Constitution, federal laws, the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC), and U.S. banking regulations into a sort of grand unifying theory of sovereign citizen scholarship: the big bang of paper terrorism. Underlying it all is what Pitcavage calls the "oldest and most dearly held of all Patriot myths: the Federal Reserve Conspiracy."
According to Redemption theory, the United States essentially went bankrupt in 1929, which was the real cause of the Great Depression. Four years later, when President Franklin Roosevelt took the country off the gold standard, legitimate constitutional rule had ceased to exist. And since federal reserve notes were no longer backed by gold or silver, they weren't really legal anymore either, according to Redeemers, as Pitcavage calls Redemption followers.
In order for the government to remain solvent, it seized upon the energy -- that is, the future production -- of its citizens. When a person is born, the state decrees itself the recipient of that individual's future output, which it converts to a bond and sells on the open market.
Each person has a mirror entity -- a legal fiction -- that represents that energy. It's called the "straw man." The key to Redemption is to retake control, or "capture," the straw man from the government. Doing this is almost unfathomably complicated -- purposely so, to confuse authorities and provide Redemption teachers a handy explanation when their students end up in jail ("they didn't understand").
Central to capturing the straw man is an activity that is decidedly pedestrian for would-be revolutionaries: paperwork. Redemption theory posits that a birth certificate is essentially the certificate of title to your straw man. You're just the collateral. And even though the straw man is a legal fiction, you're the one liable for its obligations.
The Uniform Commercial Code fixes all that under Redemption. The UCC is exactly what it sounds like: a uniform set of provisions guiding state laws on business transactions. But Redeemers see it as much more. Since the commercial law is the "common law" of the planet, they argue, the normally lowly UCC is elevated to a rather lofty status: "The other codes and bodies of law are all subsets of, and subordinate to, the UCC," according to an explanation of the process by the Republic of Texas, another group that gained notoriety for its clashes with law enforcement. "All other law amounts to "following rabbit trails' and being endlessly misled."
Most important in the Redemption process, then, is filing a UCC-1 Financing Statement, which, to the rest of the world, is simply an agreement form to secure a loan under the law. Redemption followers, however, believe that, by filing a UCC-1 statement of a birth certificate -- the certificate of title for the straw man -- a person can "recapture" his straw man by becoming its first creditor.
"Once you have filed a UCC-1 Financing Statement establishing the real sovereign, you as the Secured Party have exclusive claim on your straw man," writes a Redemption theorist. "You are then "first in line and first in time.' You work in tandem with your straw man, and no one can get to either of you. This renders you legally sovereign, free, and immune from all claims and charges."
To an outsider, the theory is barely explainable, much less coherent. But in the world of sovereign citizens, if you can recapture the straw man, you've got very few worries.
How few? No more speeding tickets, court summonses, taxes. You simply "accept for value" any of the debts levied against you and, through a blizzard of paperwork, have the U.S. Treasury settle accounts accordingly.
"If you use the rules properly," states the Republic of Texas explanation, "you not only win, but place the entirety of the law enforcement machinery of the world on your side instead of against you."
"It's very much like if the governor co-signed on a loan for a car for you, and you stopped making the payments. The bank then looks to him for the payments," wrote Republic of Texas President Jesse Enloe, in a different document. "I don't know about you, but personally I LOVE THIS IDEA."
Pitcavage calls Redemption the "latest and greatest" scam among the anti-government set. Still, it didn't catch his attention at first. As one of the few experts in the country tracking anti-government extremism, he had plenty of other mischief to monitor.
"I get so much stuff," he says, "I gotta get hit in the face a couple of times with a cold fish before I really get it."
The wake-up call arrived when Pitcavage began to run across similar accounts of people being busted for trying to pass bogus financial documents. "When I first read "sight drafts,' that sent warning bells," he says. "That's when I put it into the "pending' file."
While they have never been as popular as bogus liens or other weapons in the common law "paper terrorism" arsenal, sight drafts have been used by far-right activists since at least the late 1980s, according to Pitcavage. A man named Roger Elvick, under the guise of a California-based business called Common Title Bond and Trust, sold sight drafts to down-and-out farmers who mistakenly believed they could be used to pay off debts.
Elvick has been in jail for nearly a decade, convicted in federal court in both Texas and North Dakota on charges stemming from tax fraud and passing bogus sight drafts. But his tactics have been rediscovered and reinterpreted by several common law groups and are now being taught in Redemption seminars across the country.
The connection between sight drafts and the Redemption movement didn't click for Pitcavage until late summer of this year, after he had gotten a number of e-mails from law enforcement personnel about run-ins -- or the lack thereof -- they'd had with right-wing extremists.
Traffic stops of common law adherents have long been a source of trepidation for cops. How to deal with people -- many armed -- who believe they aren't obligated to follow the same rules as the general population can be tricky. Such situations have led to several deaths over the past decade, including the shooting of Michael Hill, the "first chief justice" of a Columbus-area common law court, by a Frezeysburg police officer in the course of a routine traffic stop in June 1995.
Suddenly, run-ins between cops and extremists stopped being ideological confrontations. "Patriots were no longer giving police officers shit about traffic tickets," Pitcavage says. "They were accepting them."
And then fighting them with paper counterattacks. Like many details about the movement, the connection between traffic tickets and paper terrorism is confusing. But essentially, any government levy that can be avoided, debts that can be dodged, or goods that can be stolen can be justified under the pretense of having recaptured the straw man.
Despite its increasing popularity, not even all common law adherents believe the Redemption movement is legitimate. Gary Allen, who runs a Michigan-based common law website called The Lawful Path, wrote an article in September criticizing it.
"There is a lot of debate out there about it," he says. "There have been a lot of heated words over my article, but it hasn't been a personal thing. It's been much more constructive than that."
Allen doesn't argue with the goal of Redemption. He just thinks it's a futile way of trying to subvert the government. "When you're dealing with a bunch of crooks [like the federal government]," he says, "they're not suddenly going to say, "His paperwork is perfect. We're going to stop stealing now.'"
Redemption does, however, justify stealing of a different sort.
Revolutionary in High Heels
It's not hard to imagine why Redemption has become such a seductive philosophy. Many people come to the Patriot movement because they feel wronged, betrayed somewhere along the line by the government or the laws of the United States. For these people, Redemption is a way to opt out of a society that has gone astray, a way to reclaim their place in a system they feel was taken away from them by the government, lawyers, and bankers.
Bowman and Lewis certainly fit this profile. Over the past dozen years, Lewis repeatedly has been either unwilling or unable to pay both his state and federal taxes. According to court records, he failed to pay almost $20,000 in taxes due in 1987 and 1988. By 1995, he had another federal tax lien placed on him -- this one for $10,000. Two years later the State of Ohio filed a lien for more than $6,000. A month later the State came after him for another $2,700. In 1997, two more liens totaling more than $14,000 were placed on a business registered in his name for failing to report taxes.
Bowman apparently came to share Lewis's disdain for paying taxes. In recent years, she has been tagged with numerous liens. In 1996, she defaulted on her mortgage for a house and property in Westlake.
Bowman wasn't always that way, according to an acquaintance of nearly 20 years. In 1980 she started her own interior decorating and commercial furniture business, opening an office on Detroit Avenue. By 1985, her business was successful enough that she moved into a new, larger space on Crocker Road in Westlake, in a building that she owned.
Easily recognizable with her shock of white hair, she almost never wore anything but high heels. Bowman was a very gentle, caring woman, according to several people who knew her when she was starting her own business, sometimes giving personal gifts to people who had hired her for a decorating job.
During the late 1980s, according to one former friend, she became involved in several multilevel marketing businesses. One sold water filters, another sold executive-style office gifts, and still another sold health-related products. In the early 1990s, Bowman became increasingly vocal about her antagonism toward the government. She began to talk more and more about conspiracies, Russian troops occupying the country, and the illegitimacy of the banking system. Childless herself, she told friends that it wasn't for her own sake she was so concerned. It was for their children's sake.
By the time she lost her house in 1996, Bowman was in active defiance of the system. She refused to respond to legal notices and failed to show up for court hearings. When she did do or say something, it didn't help her cause.
At one point, she claimed the court's notices didn't have her proper name on them, because her name was Joan Susan, Bowman and not Joan Susan Bowman. "I Joan Susan, Bowman hereinafter the Aggrieved, Refuse for Cause and for Fraud a Notice of Show Cause Hearing . . . Aggrieved has reviewed the Notice and did not find the Aggrieved Party's name on said Notice," she wrote the court.
In another document she submitted, Bowman reminded the court that her "complete Christian name" had not appeared on a summons, and that she did not "have a contract with the Cuyahoga Court of Common Pleas."
Around the same time she lost her house, a former friend recalls, Bowman began commuting to Akron to work with a common law group she had joined. That group, Right Way L.A.W., is a Christian-based common law study group that has become one of the chief promoters of Redemption theory throughout the country.
According to its literature, Right Way L.A.W. offers its members an "opportunity to discover for themselves the law that governs in society today." The group hawks products like "Sign Here, It's the Law": a $35 package of two 60-minute audiotapes and spiral-bound written material that "shows conclusively that the UCC [Uniform Commercial Code] is the law all courts function under. Learn how to use your own statutes and state constitution to overcome traffic issues or any other issue."
On the recorded message at Rightway L.A.W.'s Uniontown, Ohio office, callers can leave a message for three people; one of them is Joan Bowman. According to the message, Bowman leads a study session every Thursday night on Cleveland's East Side. During a recent visit to the meeting place, however, neither the group nor Bowman was in evidence.
Right Way L.A.W. is very clear in warning members that it does not give legal advice, nor does it advocate breaking the law. Nevertheless, the line can be fuzzy for some members who take the group's advice. In January of last year, a Kasilof, Alaska man, Robert Lawrence Edmands, was sentenced to two years in prison and fined $6,000 for failing to pay federal income taxes from 1990 to 1992. He also failed to appear at court hearings. During his sentencing, Edmands argued that he ought to receive a lesser sentence, because he was a victim of Right Way L.A.W., whose advice he had followed in failing to file his tax returns and in his attempts to defend himself.
Whether they were tutored by Right Way L.A.W. or someone else, Lewis and Bowman seem to be diligent students of the Redemption process. One of the strangest aspects of the theory is its insistence on filing reams of documents with the UCC division of the Secretary of State to help recapture the straw man. It's a process that ultimately works against Redeemers, as it creates a road map to their own delinquency.
Redemption documents aren't difficult to spot. The creditor and debtor listed have the same name, often listed with the same address. The only difference is that the debtor -- the straw man -- is spelled in all capital letters. Another sure tip-off is that, under the properties listed in the filings, debtors are described as "transmitting utilities."
In a report on Redemption he issued last month, Pitcavage estimated that every state has seen some type of this activity, and that sight drafts have been passed in 26 states. Some of the filings may be repetitive, as Redeemers will often try to file in more than one state. Already, some states are refusing to take the documents.
Lewis tried to file documents several months ago with the Cuyahoga County Recorder's Office, which refused to take them. But he and Bowman had no such trouble when they submitted UCC filings to the Ohio and Texas Secretary of State's offices. The Ohio filing, for Lewis, his wife, and Bowman, was made on July 12 of this year. The Texas filing, for Lewis and Bowman, was made on August 30 -- the day they walked into DeLorean Cadillac.
Whether Lewis and Bowman are true believers or clumsy schemers will be resolved at their trials. Lewis, for one, is sure they'll be vindicated. "We've been studying this a long time," he says. "We're Christians. A lot of this is based on the Bible . . . We've done nothing wrong."
By his own standards, maybe not. But a recent case suggests otherwise.
In September, a man named Veral Smith went on trial in federal court in Idaho for using fictitious financial instruments. He had attempted to pass two separate sight drafts, one made out for $1.5 million to the Internal Revenue Service. He used the other, for more than $106,000, to try to purchase two cars.
As part of his defense, Smith introduced a tape that teaches the Redemption process. Under the influence of that philosophy, he argued, he couldn't appreciate the fact that he actually had to pay taxes or couldn't legally buy two cars with a sight draft.
He'll be sentenced in December.
Andrew Putz can be reached at email@example.com.