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Lessons of Waco, Ruby Ridge applied at Plainfield

New Hampshire Union Leader | June 10, 2007
KATHRYN MARCHOCKI

Comment: Still no media coverage of the true story that Danny Riley later told, risking his life in doing so, that the FBI were commanding the operation and ordered Riley to lie to the media in selling the cover-story that they were serving a warrant after the planned siege was aborted.

Despite the massive show of force authorities displayed last week when they seized the West Lebanon property of convicted tax evaders Edward and Elaine Brown, the avoidance of confrontation with the couple at their Plainfield home suggests law enforcement agencies have learned from mistakes made during earlier federal standoffs at Waco and Ruby Ridge, an expert who tracks militia and radical right-wing movements said.

U.S. marshals in New Hampshire appear to be pursuing tactics similar to those used in Montana in 1996, when federal agents successfully negotiated the peaceful surrender of the Montana Freeman after an 81-day standoff, said Mark Potok, director of the intelligence project at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

"This was the lesson of Ruby Ridge and Waco. Those two standoffs not only left a great many dead people in their wake, but also helped create the militia movement," Potok said.

The 51-day standoff in 1993 between federal agents and the Branch Davidians at their compound near Waco, Texas, ended in a fire that left 74 people dead. Four federal agents were killed in an earlier shootout with the Davidians.

In 1992, a confrontation between federal agents and white separatist Randy Weaver in northern Idaho's Ruby Ridge resulted in the deaths of one federal agent and two members of Weaver's family.

"It's very easy to see one of these situations escalate into mass killings, and that, in turn, can set off very large and dangerous political movements," said Potok, who reported on the Waco siege for USA Today and now tracks radical right and militia groups for the law center based in Montgomery, Ala.

Potok said Stephen Monier, the U.S. marshal in New Hampshire, has carefully avoided creating a standoff with the Browns while attempting to convince the couple to surrender.

"That seems like a good tactic," he said.

Potok said the dozens of armed federal and state officials who rolled into Lebanon Thursday and set up surveillance at the end of the long driveway leading to the Browns' rural home in nearby Plainfield was not an overreaction, given Edward Brown's repeated threats to use force against authorities attempting to serve the couple with arrest warrants issued at their sentencing in April.

"If you were law enforcement and you were going to approach the Browns' house, you are completely within your right to be ready for anything," Potok said. "The man has repeatedly threatened violence and he has some friends who apparently agree with him."

Monier said he had to take into account the history of the Browns' case when he executed a federal court order to enter the West Lebanon property where Elaine Brown ran her dental practice.

Ed Brown has threatened violence against law enforcement, owns weapons, and said he would die defending himself and his property, Monier said. Brown also has had a number of supporters -- some armed -- at his home.

"We needed to have some real-time information about what was going on there and who might be leaving there when we were also in Lebanon," Monier said of the surveillance teams set up at the driveway of the Browns' house Thursday morning. "We had no intention of storming the house."

Monier refused to discuss tactical details but said the overwhelming presence of state and federal officers -- which included SWAT teams, and military and explosives vehicles -- was necessary to ensure the safety of the officers and the public.

A federal jury convicted the Browns in January of plotting to hide their income and avoid federal income taxes on Elaine Brown's income of $1.9 million between 1996 and 2003. The jury found they used $215,890 in postal money orders in amounts just below the tax-reporting threshhold to pay for their residence and Elaine Brown's Lebanon dental office.

A judge sentenced the couple in abstentia to 63 months in federal prison and ordered them to forfeit the $215,890 to the federal government.

The court issued a preliminary order of forfeiture on both properties in February. This week the court issued a writ of entry on the Lebanon property only, a high-ranking official with the U.S. Attorney's office said. The official would not comment on whether an order is forthcoming to enter the Plainfield property.

The Lebanon property was secured and posted Thursday.

"It was rendered safe and there were no hazardous materials," Monier said, adding that reports of the dental office at Half Hollow Courtyard holding a network of underground tunnels and a bunker are unfounded.

"That's another of those Internet legends," Monier said, referring to the Browns' heavy reliance on the Web to get their message out.

Federal authorities now would need to obtain a final order of forfeiture from the court to take ownership of the Lebanon property and use it to satisfy the forfeiture order, the federal source said. He said he did not know if the property is sufficient to meet the $215,890 judgment.

Monier still has to serve the Browns with arrest warrants that would immediately send them to prison to begin serving their 63-month sentences.

"We've said all along that we're going to be deliberate, patient and calm in our approach to this," Monier said of his efforts to persuade the Browns to surrender peacefully.

"We have no desire to see any harm come to the Browns," he added.

Potok said this is a reasonable approach and one that has proven successful in other standoffs that lasted months and, in some cases, years. He pointed to an ongoing standoff between a Texas man and sheriff's deputies that has gone on five years.

"If this is what this means, that the Browns will be locked up inside their house for the next three years or five years . . . that's punishment all by itself," Potok said.

"The problem is that that is expensive" for law enforcement charged with monitoring these situations and executing court orders as they did Thursday, he said.

 

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