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Leroy Schweitzer; separatist led Montana Freemen; at 73

Associated Press / September 23, 2011

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FLORENCE, Colo. - The former head of the Montana Freemen, an antigovernment separatist group that held the FBI at bay for 81 days in 1996, has been found dead in his cell at the federal Supermax prison in southern Colorado.

LeRoy Schweitzer, 73, was found unresponsive in his cell Tuesday and appears to have died of natural causes, The Denver Post reported.

A Federal Correctional Complex advisory announcing the death says an autopsy will be performed.

Mr. Schweitzer was a founder and leader of the small, heavily armed Freemen group. His arrest in 1996 prompted 16 group members to barricade themselves inside a 960-acre ranch compound in Jordan, Mont., for 81 days.

The standoff with the FBI ended without a shot fired.

Mr. Schweitzer was a former owner of a crop-dusting business and was a partner in a real estate company when he organized the militia group.

The Freemen did not recognize the federal government, and they attempted to curdle the nation’s banking industry by writing billions of dollars’ worth of bad checks that came to be known as “Schweitzer checks.’’

Mr. Schweitzer was later convicted on 25 counts, including conspiracy, bank fraud, threatening a federal judge, illegal possession of firearms, and participating in the armed robbery of an ABC-TV crew covering the Freemen.

At his sentencing in 1997, Mr. Schweitzer stood gagged, chained, and handcuffed. When US marshals lowered his gag, Mr. Schweitzer contended that he was a citizen of “the country of Montana,’’ not the United States.

“I will not willingly participate in this fraud,’’ he said.

Mr. Schweitzer had been serving his sentence in Colorado since 2006. Colorado’s Supermax prison, short for “super-maximum security,’’ holds some of the country’s most notorious criminals. They include Unabomber Theodore “Ted’’ Kaczynski and Eric Robert Rudolph, who bombed a park during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

Mr. Schweitzer was a cousin of Montana’s current governor, Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat. But in a biography about the governor written by Greg Lemon and published in 2008, Brian Schweitzer shrugged off their connection.

“I’ve got about 2,000 relatives in Montana,’’ the governor said. “I think I have 50 first cousins or more.’’