LIVINGSTON -- When members of a newly formed church threatened to bring nooses to Love Thomas Wright Cooper's court hearing here on March 15, Park County authorities erected a rarely used metal detector at the courthouse door.
Cooper, leader of the Sovereign Church of Christ, appeared in front of District Court Judge Nels Swandal that day to answer to charges of felony theft, drug possession, carrying a concealed weapon, obstructing police, speeding and a litany of other misdemeanor traffic charges.
The day before the hearing, Cooper's wife and SCC pastor, Charisse Randolph, had posted this note on her Internet blog: "Sovereign Church of Christ is asking anyone coming into court tomorrow March 15, 2010, to bring a rope tied in the formation of a noose, as a public show of demanded accountability, and warning for their treasonous behavior!"
At least one person showed up at the courthouse with a noose that day, Park County Sheriff Allan Lutes said. That individual was not allowed in the courtroom.
"They were using it as an implied threat," Lutes said.
That behavior, combined with SCC's assertion on its Web site that "lost [sic] of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness will follow all those who trespass upon Sovereign Church of Christ citizens['] unalienable rights,"doesn't sit well with those charged with keeping the peace in Park County.
The heightened security in court was in reaction to "information of possible threats," Lutes said, though he would not elaborate.
"We can't cherry-pick which threats are plausible," he said. "This is the people's house, and I'm going to keep it safe."
The events of March 15, combined with circumstances surrounding the arrests and legal proceedings of two other men in Park County in recent months, have raised all sorts of questions about Cooper and the "sovereign-citizen" movement he claims to espouse.
According to its Web site, the Sovereign Church of Christ is "planting roots in Montana at the Wellspring Institute," in Emigrant. Using Biblical teachings and "other ancient texts and historical writings," the leaders aim to provide church members with a source of fellowship, a "loving family of sovereigns" and "patriotic education."
But it is the SCC's assertion, as stated on its Web site, that its members "stand above the United States Government and ... its constitutions declarations, orders, rules, regulations and statutes," that is drawing comparisons to the Montana Freemen and other elements of the antigovernment, movement.
In the past 18 months, the country's economic collapse, bank bailouts and dissatisfaction with President Barack Obama have prompted a resurgence of such "common-law groups,"said Travis McAdam, executive director of the Montana Human Rights Network.
And the SCC's verbiage taps right into a lot of the fear and anger in the United States today.
"It is our aim to assist those people who choose not to partake in tyranny levied by out of control governments," according to the SCC Web site, www.sovereignchurchofchrist.webnode.com. For SCC members, "we offer identification, license plates and aid in extricating you from all the contracts that the US gov't has tricked you into by deception."
Yet by rejecting the law of the land, SCC followers have pitted themselves against the judicial system they so vehemently reject.
Cooper, 32, who also goes by the monikers Pontiff or Loooooong, founded the SCC in New York City in June, Randolph told the Chronicle during a recent telephone interview. She was one of its first members.
The two moved to Emigrant from Las Vegas in October when they were asked to come here, she said. She declined to say who had invited them.
It's difficult to enumerate SCC's followers, Randolph said. Because membership is "not a formal thing," the SCC does not hold regular services or gatherings and a lot of the church's work is done over the Internet, she couldn't provide a membership figure.
The group defines itself as "a theocratic church state,"on its Web site, "a governing body"that operates "as a church fellowship too!"
On the religious side of the equation, the SCC does not ascribe to a traditional belief system, Randolph said. "We know we have a creator and we know it loves us and we have a relationship with him."
Though they follow the teachings of the Bible, SCC members reject its traditional interpretations, she said.
On the governing side of the equation, "The SCC operates as a theocratic Royal Family to guard the ‘People'that willfully contract as citizens of the SCC and ...provides lawful competent courts, militia, lawyers, ministers, negotiators and many more services,"according to its Web site.
In other words, said Randolph, who also goes by the name Ressie the Realest, the SCC is a legal- and patriot-education resource that "helps people with their problems and they donate resources."
"A big part of our ministry is the law work," she said. "The Bible tells us to handle the law first."
In the SCC interpretation, that means rejecting "government tyranny here in America," she said.
"A lot of people don't want to deal with the reality that we live in a violent society where our government has become violent against us," she said. "We're supposed to dismantle tyrannical government. Government is trying to provoke us to violence, but nobody wants violence on face value. We just want the right to protect ourselves and be left alone."
But the group's desire to "be left alone"rings hollow to county officials charged with enforcing the law.
"The SCC mentality seems to be that they acknowledge the laws that they like, but repudiate responsibilities and obligations from laws they don't like," Park County Attorney Brett Linneweber said. "They promulgate their own religious and governmental standards that are clearly at odds with mainstream society."
These divergent interpretations of right and wrong came to a head in March.
According to court documents, a Park County sheriff's deputy pulled Cooper over on March 6 for speeding on U.S. Highway 89 in Paradise Valley. As the deputy approached the vehicle, he saw a fabricated license plate that read "Pontiff."
Instead of a state-issued driver's license, Cooper gave the officer a SCC-issued identification card. He also said he had no registration or proof of insurance, since he was a member of the SCC and "wasn't required to have any of those items,"the document states.
Cooper maintains he is sovereign, not a U.S. citizen and not subject to civil law.
He also told the officer he did not have any firearms, yet the deputy discovered a loaded semi-automatic handgun under Cooper's jacket and about 10 grams of marijuana in his pocket.
Cooper is prohibited from owning firearms because of a 2000 felony conviction for assault in Virginia. He was also previously convicted for marijuana possession, the affidavit says.
The court document also alleges Cooper was driving a stolen vehicle, but Randolph says it was church property for which they have a bill of sale.
In an "affidavit of facts"posted online, Cooper claims his arrest was an "illegal kidnapping and unlawful arrest, search and seizure"and armed robbery of the SCC.
Cooper had two hearings on March 15 in Judge Swandal's court. Afterwards, he was transferred to the Yellowstone County jail because he was being disruptive in Livingston's small, overcrowded facility, Linneweber said.
He was making a lot of calls and inciting violence, Linneweber said, pointing to a stack of recordings of Cooper's calls from jail, more than 20 hours worth, he said.
Cooper is being held on $75,000 bond and facing possible federal charges, Linneweber said. A two-day trial for the March 6 felonies has been set for Nov. 30.
'He didn't shoot anyone'
Randolph, who tried to serve as Cooper's attorney in Park County, said her husband did nothing wrong.
She believes that as long as they are not harming anyone, they are not breaking any laws.
Cooper "had a gun and he didn't shoot anyone with it,"she said. "What stopped him other than his own conscience and morality from shooting somebody -- even though he was being illegally transgressed against?"
As for the nooses, she said she asked followers to bring them to court as a "gentle reminder."
"In a peaceful assembly to the de facto court there are penalties for treasonous behavior. (The nooses were) symbolic, to remind you that you are under rules of law, which clearly state that the penalty for treason is hung by the neck until dead," she said.
Randolph, who says she's now in hiding -- scared for her life and her freedom -- claimed in a fax sent to the Chronicle Thursday that Park County "defacto authorities" are attempting to cook up false charges against her.
However, Lutes and Linneweber both said there were no pending charges against Randolph.
Misdemeanors to felonies
Park County justice officials also allege two other cases making their way through court here are linked to the SCC.
Eric Thomas Newhouse, 43, and John Fanuzzi, 59, were charged in March with tampering with public records after they tried to make payments to Park County "with a document purporting to be a money order printed over the top of the court order,"charging documents state.
Other antigovernment groups have tried to use their own "currency"when battling charges, a tactic that usually lands them in more legal trouble.
Newhouse was trying to pay a $285 fine for a January driving-without-insurance conviction. Fanuzzi was attempting to post a $135 bond for a misdemeanor.
At Newhouse's January hearing in Park County Justice Court, Cooper had attempted to act as Newhouse's attorney. A video of the proceedings posted on YouTube shows Cooper waving a piece of paper at Judge Linda Budeski, asking her if the document was her signed oath of office.
As law-enforcement officers attempted to restore order in the court, Cooper explained to them that the people needed to verify Budeski's legal role as judge.
Eventually officers herded the group out of the courtroom.
Budeski said last week that that incident scared her. She's worried that SCC members might seek retribution against her for banning them from her courtroom.
"That seems to be their goal -- to disrupt the normal proceedings to avoid prosecution," Budeski said. "I am a little concerned personally and for my employees -- that we could be subject to attack."
Not a good old-fashioned Western
Despite SCC members' claims they have become targets, county officials say they have no particular beef with the group.
"As long as people behave, I don't care what they believe,"Sheriff Lutes said. "But I don't have to agree with it."
McAdams, although he is concerned about the rise of these types of groups, says believers aren't necessarily all scofflaws.
"I think everyone wishes that life plays out like a good old-fashioned Western, where the good guys are inherently good and the bad guys are inherently bad and you can tell them apart by the color of their cowboy hats," he said. "The reality is this is about ideas.
"People are promoting the idea that government is out of control and the only option is insurrection. That doesn't mean that the people promoting that idea are inherently bad people. But in this case, it's not just about ideas; it's about violating the law."