Twenty-five years ago this week, the tiny town of Jordan, Montana, was overrun.
For more than a month it played host to hordes of FBI agents, newspaper and television crews, and the negotiators brought in to help find an end to what would be an 81-day standoff with an anti-government group known as the Freemen.
Every spare bedroom in town was rented out and cooks at the Hell Creek Bar were working overtime to feed the crowds.
The new owners of the local motel ended up canceling plans to apply for a bank loan. There was simply no need after the crush of demand that spring.
Coming in the years after deadly law enforcement standoffs with fringe individuals in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas, avoiding bloodshed was paramount — so the situation dragged on.
The Freemen refused to recognize the authority of the courts, prosecutors or law enforcement. Many first got involved with the group after going through foreclosure or bankruptcy that brought them face to face with powerful institutions like the federal government or the banks, and left them on the losing end.
They preached a school of thought rooted partly in white supremacy and abolishing the 14th Amendment, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The Freemen ideology had gained traction for a couple of years in Eastern Montana counties, and by late 1995, people were driving in from across the country to take classes on how to write fake checks and liens under the purported authority of the common law courts the group was setting up. The Freemen then filed those fake liens against local judges, clerks of court and prosecutors.
What started as harassment of local elected officials, including the sheriff — whom they had threatened to hang from Big Dry Creek Bridge — expanded into a mess of legal woes, as people wanted on charges of bank fraud, armed robbery and threats to federal officials holed up on a ranch that had been foreclosed on.
The standoff began when an FBI agent who had been undercover for months with the Freemen tricked LeRoy Schweitzer, Daniel Petersen and Lavon Hanson into leaving the compound and arrested them. More than 100 FBI agents then swarmed the property where roughly 20 Freemen remained.
It all made for a time like no other in sleepy Jordan.
Every morning, reporters and photographers from around the world would gather at “the grassy knoll” to cover the latest in negotiations, or to puzzle over the 13-page press release and accompanying video tape the Freemen issued one day as talks with the FBI broke down.
The hill was far enough away from the armed Freemen compound that as the weather heated up, photographers could only shoot in the mornings or evenings due to heat waves.
At night, everyone would descend on the Hell Creek Bar. Former Gazette photographer David Grubbs said the place became an equalizer, a de facto headquarters where militia members would drink alongside law enforcement and reporters.
One day Grubbs was stopped at a checkpoint on his way to the ranch, which the Freemen called “Justus Township.”
“And this FBI guy, he was pointing this M16 at me,” Grubbs said. “And I had my hands up. I said, ‘Calm down, I’m with the media.’”
The moment was tense but eventually the agent accepted Grubbs’ media credentials and waved him through.
That night they saw each other at the bar.
“And he walked up to me and he goes, ‘Hey man, I’m really sorry about the gun. We were a little excited.’”
Members of The Gazette staff were living out of a rented trailer on a ranch property between Jordan and the Freemen compound 30 miles outside of town. The shower didn’t work, the water wasn’t drinkable and a hole in the ceiling let in snow and rain.
In April, news broke that Ted Kaczynski had been arrested at his cabin in Lincoln. Before then, no one knew the Unabomber’s identity and media in Jordan scrambled to try to cover both. One out-of-state reporter approached convenience store owner Jeannie Fellman, asking how far out of town Lincoln was located.
“About 450 miles,” she remembered saying. (The most direct route is closer to 325 miles.)
Fellman’s daughter and son-in-law, Lori and Clyde, had bought Fellman’s Motel and taken over management one week into the standoff. They had a 9-month-old baby at the time, and Lori was waking up at 4 a.m. to operate the switchboard so one of the FBI agents staying with them could do his daily call with his boss back in Washington, D.C.
With no vacancies for months, Lori and Clyde didn’t have to take out the bank loan they’d planned on to remodel.
Fellman recalled a culture shock for many of the FBI agents, some of whom were renting out extra bedrooms in her house. They couldn’t believe people in Jordan didn’t lock their doors and sometimes left their cars running while inside the bar drinking. They’d be seen jogging around town to stay in shape, which was a rare sight, Fellman said.
But for all the intrigue, it was a tough time for the locals. Longtime friends, neighbors and even relatives found themselves on opposite sides of the spectacle that drew international attention. It sowed divisions in an incredibly close-knit community.
One old-timer, who was dissuaded by friends from giving an interview for this article, teared up while explaining: “It ruined our community.”
Fellman said she wasn’t alone in feeling resentful about some of the media portrayals of Jordan residents. She said some reporters spoke to locals “like we were stupid.” Being a resident of the community gave her a different perspective.
“The Freemen we knew were not dangerous in any way,” she said. “They were your next-door neighbor.”
Former Gazette reporter Clair Johnson said she was certain the locals got tired of being interviewed, but that she was always treated courteously.
Johnson began covering the Freemen movement in Eastern Montana a full two years before the standoff took place, tracing the group’s activities as they escalated, and continuing with the story as it moved from the prairie to the courts for trials against various members of the Freemen.
She understood that to the townfolk, many of the Freemen were people they’d known all their lives.
“And then they’re in the national spotlight — international spotlight,” Johnson said. “It was a lot.”
It was a lot for everyone, it turns out. Grubbs, the photographer, said he remembers putting in 10-hour days covering the compound and then returning to the rented trailer, where they used the bathroom as a makeshift darkroom and then labored over the slow, unreliable technology transmitting photos back to the newsroom.
“It was 81 days, huh?” Grubbs said in a recent interview. “Seemed like a year.”