Ever heard of the Federal Protective Service? Like the commercial says—you will. I was taking a photo of the federal courthouse in Billings, Montana, when the police pulled up and stopped me. They asked me for my I.D. When I looked more closely at the cop’s badge, I realized it wasn’t the Billings Police. It wasn’t the Montana State Police. It wasn’t the Montana Highway Patrol. It wasn’t the FBI or the United States Marshals. It was—surprise!—the Federal Protective Service. The cop’s badge read “GSA.”

The General Services Administration has a police force that stops people on American city streets? You could just say, “Bad Cop—No Donut,” and let it go at that. But I was bold. I called Bill Bearden, media spokesman for the GSA. He defended the FPS: “The Federal Protective Service provides physical security, law enforcement and other services in federal buildings, U.S. courthouses, and GSA-controlled leased space. They are the federal police force. If they didn’t know you were a reporter and they just saw you taking pictures of a federal building, it would send a flag to them to be security conscious enough to at least check out who you were.” For “if they didn’t do things like that, you could have the recurrence of the Oklahoma City bombing. It sounds like they were simply doing their job.”

“You know what the spin on this story is?” I asked him. “It’s kinder, gentler Nazis in Billings, Montana.” “Ha, ha, ha,” Bill laughed. “You laugh there in Washington D.C.,” I said, “but this is absolutely outrageous.”

Just like back in the U.S.S.R., boy. Under the Soviet dictatorship, people were forbidden to photograph certain public buildings. I shouldn’t complain. though. Unlike the KGB, the GSA cops did not confiscate my camera or club me with nightsticks.

Living in a police state can make you paranoid. There’s no doubt about it—the federal government does target groups like the Republic of Texas and the so-called Montana Freemen, who are on trial here in Billings. The Montana Freemen are a mixed bag of individuals who can best be characterized by being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong “friends.” Edwin Clark was a rancher and farmer in northeastern Montana. Elwin Ward happened to arrive just as the feds decided to create a “standoff.” Jon Barry Nelson and Stewart Waterhouse were apparently “idealistic members of the militia who snuck onto the Clark ranch in order to help prevent the FBI from creating another Waco-type massacre,” according to legal investigator Phillip Hoag. Steven, John, and James Hance were not “Montana Freemen” either, but evidently fugitives from criminal charges in North Carolina.

The Freemen were each charged with seven counts, ranging from accessory after the fact, bank fraud, and false claim to the IRS to illegal possession of firearms. There were seven defendants: Steven Charles Hance, John Richard Hance, James Edward Hance, Jon Barry Nelson, Elwin Ward, Stewart Waterhouse, and Edwin Clark. And this is just the first trial; the defendants were accused of being “accessories after the fact” because they didn’t roll over and testify against the “big fish,” Leroy Schweitzer.

Like the proverbial revolution, the Montana Freemen Trial will not be televised. You can’t get it on Court TV. You can’t get it on C-SPAN. You have to go there in person, or read the AP—Associated Propaganda—to get the story.

The scene is Billings, a squalid grease-spot of a town in eastern Montana. Earlier in the century, it had a reputation as the place where mobsters would lay low when things got too hot in Chicago. Today if s a haggard-looking burg. Pedestrians look like they’re waiting to get their next dose of crystal meth. Ifs a sleazy town with undercurrents of crime and corruption. The feds in their cheap blue suits somehow fit in perfectly.

It was a long, strange trip to Billings. Coming into town, you see billboards for “K-BULL Non Stop Country” and “Ostrich Farm Investors Welcome,” then at least four used car lots for mobile homes. It’s an overcast winter sky—and a bleak forecast for freedom in America.

Inside the courthouse, you sit on hard wooden benches like church pews. Watching the spectacle of justice requires penitence, patience, and a hard rear end. U.S. District Judge John C. Coughenour from Seattle is presiding. The chief prosecutor is Assistant U.S. Attorney Jim Seykora, an overbearing, arrogant, middle-aged white man who acts as if he has all the power and resources of the federal government behind him. Don’t kid yourself—he does.

Five of the defendants are not in the courthouse. The trial itself is staged like performance art or maybe a scene out of Kafka. Men are carried out of the courtroom for swearing. Someone else yells that the judge is under arrest. Like the Marx Brothers in A Day at the Courthouse, the Freemen claim they are beyond the prosecutors’ jurisdiction. Only two of the defendants remain—Edwin Clark, 47, and Elwin Ward, 57. From the timely and speedy trial department—they had been in prison for more than 600 days for refusing to recognize the jurisdiction of the court.

“For Elwin Ward, this case is about his family,” says attorney David A. Duke in his opening statement. He shows the jury photos of Ward’s wife and children as well as a map of the United States which marks Ward’s cross-country journey to retrieve his children, kidnapped by his wife’s disgruntled ex-husband.

And how did the Wards get involved with Leroy Schweitzer, the kingpin Freeman? “They were seeking a legal way to get Steve Magnum [the ex] out of their lives,” continues Duke. “They took the class [which Schweitzer offered on common law practices] and the proof packet, proof and evidence from Schweitzer that things were working. They were not motivated by money, but resolving their custody problem.”

“They showed up in Justus Township in the 17th month of the 15-month investigation by the government, on March 25, 1996, starting the 81-day stand-off,” says Duke. “The U.S. Government promised the Wards that he wouldn’t be arrested and charged.” So much for promises.

You’ve probably heard of Catch 22. How about Rule 35, the federal prosecutors’ win-at-all-cost tactics? “When a person agrees to plead guilty to the charges, you can throw in what’s called Rule 35,” Duke explains later in a brief interview. “The judge can give the defendant a break on the sentence, if he cooperates or gives substantial assistance to the government. It’s from the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.”

According to Duke, this rule is often used by the feds to coerce small fish into testifying against the big fish. “In the federal system there’s no parole, as opposed to the state system, when you can get out early if you appear before a parole board. Whatever sentence you get, that’s the sentence you have to serve. The only relief available to you is what’s called Rule 35. It’s very common,” continues Duke. “Anybody who doesn’t want to go to trial and plead guilty instead has the option to enter into a Rule 35 with the government.”

Sentencing in the federal system could accurately be called draconian—and don’t forget the mandatory sentencing guidelines. In this case, the usual intimidation tactics didn’t work. These are not the big fish the feds desperately wanted.

Then there is defendant Edwin Clark’s testimony. He was credited with resolving the so-called standoff so it didn’t end up like Ruby Ridge or Waco, in which the FBI killed first and asked questions later. A lifelong resident of Montana and a Vietnam veteran, Clark looks like actor Wilford Brimley of the Quaker Oats commercials. According to his testimony, he had been married for 25 years to Jan Clark and has two children. Dawn, 21, and Casey, 23. His occupation, he says, was rancher-farmer. “My grand-dads on both sides of my family homesteaded in the area [Garfield County, Montana] in 1913,” he says.

When his attorney, Steve Hudspeth, asks him about his farm, Clark replies, “I don’t own nothing now. It’s all been taken from me.” Why? He failed to make a land payment, and the property reverted to his uncle under a contract-for-deed deal he had made. “It was a very long complicated dragged-out affair,” he says. “We’d been fighting this foreclosure for 18 years. We said it was an unlawful foreclosure.”

So how do you get recourse when corrupt government practices have a stranglehold on your life? People look for alternatives to a legal system dominated by lawyers and federal agencies. Hence the popularity of classes in common law and other exotic tactics.

Fighting against intimidation and corruption, Clark’s father was charged with 48 counts of fraud by the government, but they were later dropped. Then, according to Clark, “the government said, ‘we’ll give you a new security agreement.’ Then the FmHA [Farmers Home Administration] filed for foreclosure. I was aggravated.”

And what about the FmHA? According to Brian Kelly, author of Adventures in Parkland: How Washington Wastes Your Money and Why They Won’t Stop, the Farmers Home Administration

is widely believed to be one of the worst managed government giveaways ever. Whatever you think of the philosophical arguments of saving farms or not saving farms, the way the government goes about it is a disaster for everyone concerned. As James Bovard wrote in The Farm Fiasco, “The FmHA is a welfare agency that routinely destroys its clients lives.” In repeated studies the General Accounting Office had found FmHA an incomprehensible mess.

It sounds like a case for Willie Nelson and Farm Aid.

Clark continues, “I didn’t know Rodney Skurdal [one of the Freeman defendants] or any of them. I didn’t trust legal counsel. I couldn’t afford it, so I was forced to learn as much as I could. My dad took me to see Schweitzer.”

Was it your intent to learn anything illegal from Schweitzer, asks the attorney. “Oh, absolutely not,” replied Clark. Criminal intent is indeed sorely lacking in the prosecution’s case. In Clark’s case, frustration at government corruption is running high. “Our county government totally shut us out —commissioners, clerks and recorder,” says Clark. “They were so much against us. We had no redress.” Concerning his involvement with Leroy Schweitzer’s “system,” Hudspeth asks Clark, “You wouldn’t consider yourself gullible, would you?”

Clark replies, “I’m starting to find out I am.

On March 31, Edwin Clark was found not guilty of all charges. Elwin Ward was released with time served. The rest who had not “cooperated” await sentencing.

It was a major setback for the federales. Clark, after all, had been accused of depositing a Freemen check based on perfected liens for $100 million. The AP had been calling it a “hot check operation,” referring to “worthless comptroller warrants,” “phony checks,” and the “Freemen’s bogus warrants.”

The AP headline read—”Freeman Trial: Five guilty, one released.” Like fishing, catch and release justice is alive and well in America.