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“I am the living man.”

The short phrase in a lengthy speech given by Ernie terTelgte while in a Three Forks courtroom in November has sparked a whirlwind of attention for the Manhattan man.

TerTelgte's courtroom saga began last year when he was cited for fishing without a license and other misdemeanor charges for resisting arrest. A recording of his appearance on the charges before Three Forks Judge Wanda Drusch went viral.

“I live in myself in this body. I am the living man,” terTelgte said in response to Drusch when she asked him to verify his Manhattan address.

When he was cited for fishing without a license, terTelgte said he was foraging for food.

“I was searching for something to put in my stomach as I am recognized to be allowed to do by universal law,” he said. “I am the living man and I have the right to forage for food when I am hungry.”

Drusch eventually left the courtroom after terTelgte refused to answer her questions.

TerTelgte has a strong legion of supporters who have attended his court hearings while he continues to fight the charges.

The hearings have also been heavily attended by law enforcement. The Belgrade News reported that at a November trial, 32 law enforcement officers from 10 agencies were on hand.

TerTelgte's actions highlight an anti-government, anti-establishment movement in the county to form citizen grand juries and, in their eyes, expose corruption by public officials.

“For there to be a reckoning, for a lack of a better word, there has to be a beginning. There has to be a grass root,” said Michael Wilson, a friend and supporter of terTelgte. “He's the grass root in this.… He has a voice and his voice should be allowed to be heard.”

Multiple groups working to create citizen grand juries have caught the attention of law enforcement, causing serious concern and drawing comparisons to the Montana Freeman of the 1990s.

“This has so many similarities to that,” said Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin. “Even though there are folks in this movement that say it's totally different, I'm sorry.… It is very, very similar.

“There's the normal citizen that is upset with the government and they have concerns. Everyone has every right in the world to have their beliefs and their feelings,” Gootkin said.

But when people begin talking about bypassing the criminal justice system with citizen grand juries and arresting public officials?

“Then they are crossing a line they can't cross,” Gootkin said.

Montana and federal law allow judges to call grand juries, groups of citizens called together to decide if there is enough evidence to bring forward a criminal charge.

William Wolf, who lives east of Bozeman, said a group he is involved with hopes to create an advisory grand jury. Wolf cites the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which says “no person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury,” as authority to create the advisory grand jury.

Wolf said people can bring complaints and evidence against a government agency or agent to the 24-person advisory grand jury, which will review the information.

Once reviewed, the advisory grand jury will present that information to the appropriate authority, whether it be the county attorney, county commission, sheriff's office or the Montana Attorney General's Office, Wolf said.

The advisory grand jury will also publish the information to the public, Wolf said.

“We are not vigilantes,” Wolf said. “We are here to expose criminals that we elect.… Sheriff Gootkin is afraid that a common law grand jury is going to turn into a lynch mob. We have no desire to do that.”

A second group is also proposing a common law grand jury. However, organizer Averil Heath said her group's effort is different.

“There's no connection,” said Heath, of Belgrade. “I didn't even know about that group.”

Heath said the aim of her group is to establish a statewide common law grand jury. Heath also cited the Fifth Amendment, which she said gives citizens authority to create such a group.

“It's established in the Constitution,” Heath said. “It gives power to the people.”

When a complaint is brought forth, a hired administrator would convene the grand jury, Heath said, and look into the complaint. The group would not be advisory, she said.

“Justice is not being served,” Heath said.

Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert continues to question the legality of common law grand juries.

Lambert said there is no distinction between the common law grand jury, proposed by Heath's group, and the advisory grand jury, proposed by Wolf's group.

“The distinction is meaningless,” Lambert said.

Montana laws govern the process for how a grand jury convenes and how it does its business. None of what these groups are proposing are in state statutes, Lambert said.

In Montana, only a district court judge can call a grand jury. The proposed citizen grand juries don't follow that process, Lambert said.

Jim Taylor, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana, said that citizen grand juries are not legal.

“You can't just make up law. Law is what it is,” Taylor said. “You can't just say, ‘And we're going to have a grand jury on my block.’ It doesn't work that way.”

Gootkin and Lambert also draw comparisons between the Gallatin County groups and the Montana Freeman, an anti-government group that had an 81-day standoff with federal law enforcement outside of Jordan in 1996.

At the time, the Freemen were offering $1 million bounties for anyone — including the sheriff, the county attorney and a U.S. District Court judge — thought to be involved in the foreclosure of Ralph Clark's property, a 940-acre farm.

Lambert said the sentiments he's hearing and reading from the Gallatin County groups “are very consistent with the Freemen ideology.”

But both Wolf and Wilson adamantly deny that they are similar to the Freemen.

“For (Gootkin) to compare us to the Freemen is gross misinformation,” Wolf said. “I take offense to that.”

Wilson echoed those sentiments.

“He called everybody that understands those sacred documents to this country ilk,” Wilson said. “Sheriff Gootkin does not want to see (the movement) for what it is.”

Wilson said his group stresses at its meetings that members can't be tied to or be considered Freemen. Their movement is peaceful, Wilson said.

“They are mad as heck, but they know that getting mad and using that emotion leads to bad things,” Wilson said. “We're trying to present ourselves (as peaceful). And when people jump to conclusions and make statements that (we're Freemen) and we're ilk, the only way to combat that is to prove (Gootkin) wrong by not being what he says we are.”

Wolf raised eyebrows in February when he said he planned on making a citizen's arrest of Gallatin County Justice Court Judge Rick West for what Wolf alleged to be numerous violations, a plan he said he still intends to carry out.

“This is not a threat. This is a right that every citizen has to protect themselves from abuse,” Wolf said. “They want to paint it that we've got bandanas and guns and we're going to put a noose on him. No, no. We're lawful citizens.”

Gootkin said the threat has put law enforcement on high alert.

“That obviously is a huge concern of ours,” Gootkin said. “Even when people are talking about that, that's unacceptable.”

Gootkin confirmed that no one has yet to attempt a citizen's arrest of West, but he said his office is still investigating the threats.

Moving forward, Gootkin said he hopes to have healthy communication with these groups.

“We want an open dialogue. We don't want anybody getting hurt. We don't want anyone to do anything unlawful, like kidnapping an elected official,” Gootkin said. “We're trying to at least reach out to them before it boils over.”

Whitney Bermes can be reached at or 582-2648. Follow her on Twitter at @wabermes.

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