'Paper terrorism' gaining adherents
Anti-government tactics scare targets, frustrate authorities
By PETER MALLER and LAURIA LYNCH-GERMAN
of the Journal Sentinel staff
Last Updated: Sept. 3, 2002
When Steven Allen Magritz refused to pay $30,000 owed in property taxes on his 62-acre estate in the Town of Fredonia, the land was seized by Ozaukee County for use as a park.
David Wynn Miller of Milwaukee is widely known in anti-government circles. He runs seminars around the nation teaching people how to defend themselves in court using a legal language he invented.
In and of itself, paper terrorism doesn't involve bombs or guns or weapons - but it does seem to be an attack on government and government officials.
- Mark Potok,
editor of Intelligence Report, a magazine published by the Southern Poverty Law Center
Rhetoric: Anti-government offenders
Magritz, a Milwaukee-based accountant, got even.
Authorities say he used a tactic known to law enforcement officials as "paper terrorism," filing thousands of bogus legal documents to harass government officials he blamed for his loss.
In May, Magritz, 57, struck his final blow, authorities say, filing bankruptcy petitions against 37 of his perceived adversaries, ruining their credit ratings and triggering events that frightened his targets.
Rose Hass Leider, an Ozaukee County supervisor, was at a grocery when her credit card was rejected. Another government official was stunned when his bank suddenly wanted to cancel a deal involving the sale of his home.
Sheriff Maury Straub got a letter from a credit card company that his card was unusable.
"Magritz discontinued paying taxes five or six years ago with this day in mind," Straub said. "He did so to make himself a martyr for the cause."
"It is the law of Stephen Magritz, not the law of the United States," Straub said.
Yet Magritz's version of law is invading suburban Milwaukee. No longer hunkered down just in rural places such as Tigerton - where the Posse Comitatus operated from a makeshift compound filled with mobile homes in the 1980s - anti-government activists are now causing problems in the Milwaukee area. As for Magritz, he is jailed and awaiting a court appearance in Dane County.
These activists - who call themselves "sovereign citizens" because they reject all laws - are spreading their message via the Internet, shortwave radio and other means of mass communication, according to Mark Pitcavage, who monitors extremist movements for the Anti-Defamation League.
"In the 1980s (paper terrorism) was much more of a rural phenomenon, but since the 1990s, it has become more suburban and urban," Pitcavage said.
The Posse Comitatus eventually was disbanded, but the group's ideology and tactics - when confronted, it retaliated by filing bogus legal claims for millions of dollars against local and state officials - lives on, according to experts who study extremism.
After Sept. 11, any act of terrorism that threatens government is being taken more seriously by law enforcement officials, said Randy Romanski, spokesman for state Attorney General Jim Doyle.
Doyle's Domestic Security Unit, formed after the attacks on the nation, was assigned the task of prosecuting Magritz and investigating other anti-government activists, who filed false documents to intimidate police, government officials and private citizens.
"In and of itself, paper terrorism doesn't involve bombs or guns or weapons - but it does seem to be an attack on government and government officials," said Roy Korte, an assistant state attorney general.
Virtually no extremist group in the history of America - including the Ku Klux Klan - has expressed such strong anti-government beliefs, nor challenged the authority of government as aggressively as sovereign citizens, Pitcavage said.
A movement's linguist
David Wynn Miller, a former tool and die maker from Milwaukee, tours the nation, presenting seminars on how to win court cases using a legal language he invented.
Miller tells seminar participants - for a $200 fee - that judges have no authority over Americans because courts are bogus institutions "run under maritime law."
"Judges, they take a human being apart, his thinking apart - and turn him into a slave in their courtrooms," Miller said in an interview at a Milwaukee restaurant.
Miller, who now calls himself "a judge who judges judges," teaches seminar participants how to defend themselves using a language that some Canadian judges have called "gibberish."
Miller tells those in his seminars that all sentences need to start with the word "for," and contain at least 13 words, mostly nouns. He also advises against using most verbs. Only nouns have legal authority, he says.
The U.S. Constitution is really "a bankruptcy petition for collecting taxes," he says. People don't need to pay taxes if they can "prove that money is a verb," he says.
He claims those who follow his method have never lost a case.
When asked for proof, Miller says the government conspired to destroy all the court documents.
A nephew of Miller's, 22-year-old Jason Zellmer of Oconomowoc, attempted to use Miller's methods when he was tried in Dane County and convicted of resisting an officer. Zellmer was freed from jail July 30 on that conviction. He now stands accused of simulating the legal process for filing the bogus legal papers.
Canadian judges have shown little patience with those who use Miller's tactics. According to news reports, some have been cited for contempt of court, and others have been ordered to undergo psychiatric tests.
Committed to a cause
While the movement's logic and theories may seem absurd to the average citizens, adherents are so committed that they'll go to prison to exercise their perceived freedoms, officials said.
As Washington County's attorneyin the late 1990s, Patrick Faragher had extensive dealings with government protesters. Speaking from that experience - and not from his current position as a Circuit Court judge - Faragher said he became convinced then that they are true believers.
"The key to this is that they believe in what they are doing and they firmly believe it is something they are permitted to do under the law," he said. "There is not one doubt in their minds that the government is corrupt and they are acting appropriately, in accordance with the law."
Faragher said the hardest thing for him as county attorneywas to watch the panic of county employees when they were served with papers demanding millions in damages.
"There was a real fear factor for those who were less legally sophisticated," said Faragher, who has been a target of one bogus IRS filing to the tune of $23 million. "To get these very realistic documents and for at least a few minutes not know how real they were, there was for many people a real sense of fear."
Blending religion, politics
Blending religion with politics, sovereign citizens have invented a story of a lost utopia in which Americans governed themselves using English common law, the Anti-Defamation League's Pitcavage said. According to this fabricated history, there were no oppressive laws, taxes or court orders, he said.
But robbed of freedoms by power-hungry government officials, the old system gave way to a monstrous bureaucracy that deprives people of their rights, according to sovereign citizens.
They believe that several amendments to the U.S. Constitution provide keys to their mythical version of history, Pitcavage said. The movement is particularly focused on the 14th Amendment, which gave citizenship to former slaves.
According to the movement's leaders, this amendment, ratified in 1868, made citizenship optional for everyone.
But nobody, of course, would voluntarily choose to be part of this tyrannical system they believe exists, Pitcavage said. Therefore, sovereign citizens think that the government tricks people into becoming citizens.
Sovereign citizens often mix the ideology with a theological underpinning that places their view of God's laws ahead of man's.
Members of the movement believe that each time people sign such routine government documents as driver's licenses, hunting and fishing permits and marriage certificates, they fall into the trap. Sovereign citizens think the documents serve as contracts that permit the government to invade ordinary Americans' lives.
Korte, the assistant attorney general, regularly gets mail from Wisconsin residents renouncing their ties to government, but nobody knows exactly how many people calling themselves sovereign citizens are Wisconsin residents, he said.
"They come with notes saying, 'I no longer want to be a citizen, and I am returning my driver's license or my marriage license.' " Korte said. "I get documents every day or every week - licenses and permits - that some people consider to be contracts with the state."
Wisconsin's a hotbed
While this loosely structured movement seems to have a particularly strong following in Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida and Texas, like-minded believers can be found across the nation, according to Mark Potok, editor of Intelligence Report, a magazine published by the Southern Poverty Law Center, another watchdog group that tracks radicals.
In Wisconsin, the trend toward hating government was seeded in the 1970s by displaced farmers and factory workers, blaming their problems on elected officials and bureaucrats, Potok said.
"It's kind of contagious to some degree," he said. "Anti-government ideology has spread more than it ever has before in the history of the nation."
That hatred sometimes turns violent.
Wilfred Benzing, self-proclaimed minister of an anti-government church near Slinger that is now defunct, is in prison for attacking a Washington County sheriff's deputy.
Benzing swung a golf club at an officer after an incident in which his daughter refused to stop when police tried to pull her over for speeding.
After being extradited from Alaska, where he fled after being charged, he refused to acknowledge the authority of the Wisconsin courts.
Benzing believes he is a bond servant of Jesus Christ who cannot be a U.S. citizen because allegiance to America would violate his contract with God.
In Ozaukee County, 37 current and former county officials await the prosecution of Magritz in the alleged act of paper terrorism against them. The attorney general's office filed the charges of criminal slander against him in Dane County, where he has been jailed awaiting a court appearance this month.
He is accused of filling out forms in U.S. District Court in Milwaukee that, though eventually invalidated, were able to damage the credit ratings of the 37 officials.
Gus "Sandy" Wirth, chairman of the Ozaukee County Board, was one of the people Magritz is accused of targeting.
What troubles Wirth is that such actions might deter people from ever running for office.
"If even one person doesn't run because of it, the loss is ours and the gain is his. I don't like that. That is my biggest fear."
for David Wynn Miller huckster whackjob
subversive idiot institution for insane
Really?! No shit, McFly! I wonder why that is?
Personally, I'm suspicious of pretty much anything the SPLC and/or Pitcavage have to say about anything.