The Malheur Wildlife Refuge occupation finally came to an end just over a week ago, when the remaining holdouts of Ammon Bundy’s armed gang turned themselves in to law enforcement. But the occupation was not the first instance of a sovereign citizen takeover, according to an annual report released by the Southern Poverty Law Center. In the same remote corner of the American West, the town of St. Marie, Montana was taken over by sovereign citizens in 2013 using state tax laws to buy up abandoned properties.
These sovereign citizens are led by Terry Lee Brauner, according to a feature written as part of the non-profit legal advocacy group’s report, who accused the government of letting the land around St. Marie go to waste. Just like the Oregon occupiers, Brauner was upset that he cannot use public land, located near North Dakota’s Bakken shale oil field, for his own private gain.
“They don’t want to see any development,” he said. “They have cost the county and state of Montana over $10 million in lost property tax revenues because they stop every movement of guys like me coming in here to develop the place.”
He arrived to the community of 264 — located 20 miles from the nearest sizable inhabitation — with a pair of accomplices in 2012, claiming to represent Washington-based DTM Enterprises and looking to buy up property. After several aborted attempts to rehabilitate St. Marie, which was built in the ’60s as a base for Strategic Air Command bombers, Brauner bought up abandoned properties all over town, using a state tax law that prevented the sale of abandoned homes until the last legal owners paid the taxes they owed, or found someone who was willing to.
With the shale oil boom in neighboring North Dakota, Brauner predicted that the boom was heading in St. Marie’s direction. “We come in there as businessmen, just regular, ordinary businessmen, with a million dollars in our pocket,” he said. “We assumed that the oil boom was going to come all the way over.”
While he awaited for the arrival of a black gold rush, signs with abrasive legalese began popping across town:
“NO TRESPASS,” the posters warned. “YOU ARE HEREBY NOTIFIED, THAT THE OWNER OR TENANT OF THIS PROPERTY REQUIRES ALL PUBLIC OFFICIALS, AGENTS, OR PERSON(S) TO ABIDE BY ‘THE SUPREME LAW OF THE LAND,’ THE CONSTITUTION FOR THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, AND THE RATIFIED AMENDMENTS THERETO. … ALLEGED ZONING OR CODE NON- COMPLIANCES DO NOT ESTABLISH CONSTITUTIONAL REASONS FOR ENTERING THIS PROPERTY. VIOLATORS WILL BE TREATED AS INTRUDERS.”
The sovereign citizen movement is an odd one in the American political scene. In an short but exhaustive explanation of the movement, the Southern Poverty Law Center states that their ideology stems from a conspiratorial theory that the common law legal system established just after independence was secretly replaced by an admiralty law.
They believe that admiralty law condemns them to being slaves, while under common law they are freemen. They also believe that, as a result of the 14th Amendment, black Americans are not freemen, as their citizenship was given to them via constitutional amendment. But even within the movement, adherents aren’t sure when or which nefarious, unidentified forces replaced common law with admiralty law. Some say it occurred during the Civil War, others say it took place when the United States moved off the Gold Standard in 1933 — when, presumably, American citizens began to be used as collateral, rather than gold.
Brauner has had numerous run-ins with the government that reveal his sovereign ideology. In 1991, he battled with the IRS over the $1 million in owed taxes. More recently, he spent a couple weeks in jail and had to pay an $800 fine for driving without a license, because the application form required that he affirmatively answer whether or not he was a U.S. citizen. In 2013, he sent a rambling 25 page explanation to local law enforcement officials explaining why he was opposed to having to get a license.
Local residents were worried about the presence of Brauner and his sovereign citizen comrades. “Researching them,” said Pat Kelly, a former Air Force officer, “you find that they’re big in the [sovereign] movement.” Kelly attempted to build a retirement community for military veterans during the 80s by buying up hundreds of homes, but the effort failed. And with the arrival of Brauner and his millions, Kelly lost 371 of the homes he owned to Brauner, who paid nearly $200,00 in back taxes.
But in 2015, the Bakken field’s expansion was halted by the collapse of oil prices. “It got within 50 miles of [St. Marie] and stopped,” Brauner said. With the contraction of the oil industry in the Bakken field, it was unclear what the sovereign citizen was going to do with the town he bought at the height of the shale oil boom.
Meanwhile, Kelly sounded the alarm in an opinion piece in the Glasgow Courier. “I [heard] that a member of DTM said he plans on teaching the sovereign citizen theory at St. Marie,” he said. “I believe everyone needs to be aware of what I have written and submit here for publication.”