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POLSON – Insurance executive Christina Suggett had just purchased an $800,000 home in Chula Vista, Calif., back in 2008, but when she arrived she found the locks changed and a deed posted in the window claiming the house now belonged to Maurice Simmons and Terry Lee Herron.

Herron, who has a felony conviction for auto theft, had signed his name on the deed as “King Solomon II.”

There was also a “no trespassing” sign, as well as another that read “Spiritual Sanctuary.”

The men claimed they were immune from arrest and prosecution because they were “sovereign citizens” who answer to “common law,” not judicial law.

The case bears some resemblance to two recent ones in western Montana. Last summer, Polson Realtor Ed McCurdy found “for sale” signs removed from a vacant house he was marketing, the locks changed on the $300,000 home, and curious paperwork posted in a window.

Further investigation by McCurdy turned up much stranger paperwork filed with the Lake County clerk and recorder, transferring the title on that property, as well as others, to a drifter. The paperwork said the properties were located “on the third planet from the sun” and were being turned over to the new “owner” by “the Creator, Yaweh.”

Last month in Lolo, Bob Paffhausen showed a home he had built, and was selling, to a woman who then moved in, changed the locks and filed a fraudulent lawsuit against Paffhausen – which she offered to drop if Paffhausen paid her $900,000 in silver and gold.

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What’s occurred in Montana is evidently more prevalent elsewhere. In California, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “sovereign squatters” are filing bogus deeds on luxury homes from San Diego to Sacramento.

They’ve even got a name for it – “home adoptions.”

Simmons and Herron filed deeds on six separate homes themselves, authorities say.

“Sovereign squatters” justify their actions, according to the SPLC’s quarterly Intelligence Report, “with a mix of ‘common law’ theory, so-called sovereign immunity and references to the Old Testament.”

The most brazen attempt at a property takeover by the sovereign citizen movement may have occurred last year in a Miami suburb.

There, one Angel Cruz showed up with 20 black-clad followers and 10 hired – and armed – security guards, to take over a strip mall branch of the Bank of America.

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Wearing counterfeit U.S. Treasury badges, according to a story by Casey Sanchez in the SPLC’s Intelligence Report, the 30 blocked the bank’s entrance, parking lot and drive-through lanes.

Cruz apparently believed what he was doing was legitimate. A week earlier, Sanchez reported, the 49-year-old had stopped by the Palmetto Bay Police Department and asked that officers back him up during his “eviction” of the Bank of America.

“To an incredulous police officer,” SPLC’s Intelligence Report said, “Cruz handed over a ‘court order’ signed and sealed by a ‘judge’ from ‘The United Cities Private Court’ ” – United Cities being a company Cruz started.

The 20 followers who joined him were employees of United Cities. For turning over their personal assets, including cash, they had been promised new cars, 30 years of job security and that their mortgages and credit card bills would be paid off by their new employer. SPLC says Cruz intended to accomplish this using “fake bank drafts and fistfuls of ‘United States Private Dollars,’ a counterfeit currency he churned out in his Orlando, Fla., home.”

The so-called court order he handed over to police “referenced a pending $15.25 billion lawsuit against Bank of America filed by Cruz the previous month in Miami-Dade County Court,” Sanchez wrote. “Cruz claimed the bank had wronged him because an Orlando branch refused to cash $14.3 million in phony United Cities bank drafts.

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“Taking his beef public, Cruz also had posted a YouTube video announcing his upcoming ‘foreclosure’ of two Miami-area Bank of America branches, while ranting about the Federal Reserve as ‘Satan’s banking system.’ ”

What’s going on?

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks the activities of hate groups and domestic terrorists, among other things, says there has been a resurgence of a movement that began with the Posse Comitatus of the 1970s.

Like the cases of alleged home thefts in Polson and Lolo, results of the Posse Comitatus movement were felt in Montana when the Montana Freemen – who also espoused individual sovereignty – were engaged in an 81-day standoff with authorities in 1996.

The Posse Comitatus members who got it all started filed millions of dollars worth of fake liens against public officials while maintaining the federal government and taxes were illegitimate.

The ideology spread to other anti-government groups, such as militias and white supremacy organizations, which also adopted other strategies. One, the “redemption theory,” holds that the federal government has enslaved its citizens by using them as collateral against foreign debt.

By claiming oneself as a “sovereign citizen,” one can not only escape the “slavery,” some people insist.

There are also fortunes to be made if one knows the “correct” documents to file.

“Originally taught in seminars at remote extremist compounds,” the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report says, “sovereign-citizen and redemptionist doctrine and tactics are now spread in online forums.” (See related story.)

The notion that anyone who announces himself or herself as a “sovereign citizen” has the right to break into homes, change the locks and claim ownership of the property appears to be relatively new to the movement. The odd details behind the arrests of Brent Arthur Wilson in Lake County, and Jackiya Dionea Ford in Missoula County, have brought reactions ranging from puzzlement to amusement.

But it’s no laughing matter for people like McCurdy and Paffhausen, who have to deal with the ensuing mess.

Syracuse University professor Michael Barkun, who studies right-wing extremism, told the Intelligence Report that, while there is no way to track how many people subscribe to the ideology of sovereign citizenship, anecdotal evidence suggest tens of thousands of followers.

Likewise, there is no way to distinguish how many are true believers and how many are scam artists.

The Southern Poverty Law Center says prisons have become a ripe recruiting ground for the sovereign-citizen movement.

“The result,” Mark Pitcavage, research director for the Anti-Defamation League, told the Intelligence Report, “has been a flood of traditional criminals, ranging from embezzlers to drug dealers, employing sovereign-citizen theories in fruitless attempts to get themselves out of prison or, more dangerously, in attempts to retaliate against the public officials and law enforcement officers who put them there in the first place.”

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But it’s by no means limited to convicts and ex-cons.

Robert Beale is a millionaire, an MIT graduate who earned $700,000 a year as CEO of a computer firm, and served as Minnesota campaign manager for televangelist Pat Robertson’s 1988 presidential bid.

He’s also imprisoned on seven counts of evading $1.6 million in back taxes, and from his jailhouse phone convened a “common-law jury” to issue bogus property liens and arrest warrants against U.S. District Judge Ann Montgomery.

The Intelligence Report says Beale’s “court” was “based on often absurd interpretations of Old Testament lore.”

The Old Testament? Are we getting too far afield?

Not necessarily.

In Lolo, Ford posted notices in the home she is alleged to have illegally moved into that warned no one to enter without consent of the “authority of our Lord and Savior Yahushua.”

Paperwork filed by Wilson in Lake County said properties were being conveyed to him “for a valuable consideration paid by the Trustee to the Creator, Yahweh.”

The paperwork included seals with Hebrew wording and picturing Jewish menorahs, and were dated for the year 6012.

That, as a Missoulian reader pointed out in an

e-mail, corresponds to a calendar beginning in 4004 B.C., which Bishop Ussher calculated as the beginning of time in the Book of Genesis.

“It’s the sort of thing you’d expect for a cult that’s based on the Bible,” the reader wrote, “minus those couple of inconvenient sections about not stealing, not coveting your neighbor’s house, etc.”

For all the claims of the many sovereign-citizen websites that you can make yourself off-limits to the American justice system, the converts have met with mixed success.

Ford and Wilson remain in custody in Montana, charged with various felonies.

In California, Maurice Simmons was convicted of 15 counts related to filing and possessing false documents, and was sentenced to 32 months in prison. His attorney said Simmons had spent $5,000 learning how to create the bogus paperwork related to the six house thefts.

His partner, also known as King Solomon II, Terry Lee Herron, is scheduled to be re-tried after a jury deadlocked at his first trial.

Initially arrested for trespassing, Angel Cruz was eventually charged with bank fraud in Florida. He is on the run, and considered a fugitive from justice.

Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or vdevlin@missoulian.com.

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