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Last Montana Freemen Sentenced to Prison_

Bilungs, Mont. - A federal judge slapped stiff prison sentences on the leaders of the Montana Freemen on Tuesday as "a loud and clear message to those who pass this hatred and ugliness around."

Kingpin LeRoy Schweitzer drew 22 1/2 years, which his court-appointed lawyer said amounted to a life sentence for the 61-year-old man.

Other top figures among the anti-government extremists were sentenced to as much as 15 years, but two women - Freemen wives Agnes Stanton and Cherlyn Petersen - received no additional prison time.

U.S. Attorney Sherry Scried Matteucci said she had mixed feelings about some of the sentences, but termed them "very, very significant" and said she was satisfied overall.

Schweitzer, of Belgrade, and six other men continued to show their contempt for the federal government by refusing to enter the courtroom. They could watch and hear the proceedings via closed-circuit television from a holding cell, but U.S. District Judge John Coughenour said he would not have U.S. marshals bring them in by force.

The Freemen maintain they are sovereign individuals not subject to federal or state laws, but only to the common law. They also espoused religious beliefs that God intended white people to rule the earth, that blacks are animals and Jews are descendants of Satan.

The nine defendants were convicted in two trials last year of a host of offenses related to what prosecutors termed a massive assault on the nation's banking system. Hundreds of people from around the country traveled to their remote farm stronghold outside Jordan to take classes in the Freemen's hot-check technique.

The Freemen and their disciples issued thousands of worthless checks for billions of dollars under such titles as comptroller warrants and certified money orders. The Montana Freemen alone issued some 3,000 of the bogus instruments.

Dozens of people in other states have been convicted of trying to use Freeman-style checks.

Coughenour and defense lawyers spent much of Tuesday's sentencing session trying to decide a basis for measuring the financial impact of the scheme. Federal sentencing guidelines for such frauds set levels up to $20 million, the amount Coughenour eventually settled on.

"What we are talking about is a calculated and organized program to undermine the banking system of this country and to encourage other, more ignorant people to violate the law," Coughenour said.

"Some of these defendants' conduct, which would seem patently absurd, has in fact infected gullible and vulnerable citizens to do stupid and illegal things, which in turn can cause people to lose their jobs, their homes, and wreck their lives," the judge said.

Coughenour said the sentences had to reflect the seriousness of the offenses and "send a loud and clear message to those who pass this hatred and ugliness around, and who encourage others to participate in these illegal schemes. Be forwarned: Your personal liberty at stake."

The scheme crashed when FBI agents captured Schweitzer and the No. 2 man, David Petersen Jr., 56, of Winneticut. For 81 days, two dozen members of the group held alarm of FBI agents at bay, but the standoff ended without a shot being fired.

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