By SCOTT NORTH and WARREN CORNWALL
Thom Satterlee spent nearly two hours last week standing in the back room of a smoky Granite Falls watering hole talking about the cost of freedom.
For a $5 donation, he told a crowd of about 20 people, they could get a bumper sticker for their car declaring support for a new "Freedom County." A little bit more cash will buy a "No trespassing" sign declaring your land off-limits to Snohomish County code enforcement officials.
Never mind the repeated rulings in local, state and federal courts that Freedom County doesn’t exist, said Satterlee, who claims to be a commissioner in the breakaway government. Freedom County is open for business in what most people mistakenly believe is Snohomish County’s rural north end, he said.
"What Snohomish County wants to do is, it wants to pretend Freedom County away," Satterlee said.
But Snohomish County officials say it is Freedom County backers who are engaged in fantasy. And a recent upsurge in activity has them worried that somebody could get hurt.
"I am concerned that people might be fooled, misguided and otherwise injured," Snohomish County Executive Bob Drewel said. "They are advising people to break the law, and assuring them if they do break the law there will be no consequences if they give them $5."
It has been a month since Freedom County backers made headlines around the state by publicly swearing in a "sheriff" and others to help the secessionist government take control in the nearly 1,100 square miles it claims as territory. Backers assert the new county was carved from Snohomish County in 1995, when more than 12,000 signatures were presented to state lawmakers calling for Freedom County’s creation.
So far, it appears Freedom County’s dealings with Snohomish County have been confined largely to writing letters making demands.
The breakaway group has ordered the Snohomish County treasurer to create an account for taxes and other money paid to Freedom County. It also has claimed jurisdiction over land-use regulation, and peppered agencies with requests for volumes of government records, including building permit information and voter registration and tax records.
Snohomish County officials have ignored or rejected the requests.
Snohomish County Treasurer Bob Dantini has received two packets of $5 checks made out to Freedom County "care of" Snohomish County. One was accompanied by a letter ordering Dantini to deposit the checks, and warning he was breaking the law if he failed to comply.
Dantini, however, said since Freedom County isn’t a legal government, he can’t create an account or accept checks for it.
"To me this is just totally frivolous BS, and I don’t have much patience for this," he said.
Meanwhile, the man who claims to be Freedom County’s sheriff has spent much of the past month working with a few people who believe the Washington State Constitution is a 110-year-old fraud.
Robert Victor Bender, who identifies himself as Fnu Lnu (a law enforcement acronym for first name unknown, last name unknown), said he believes state government as most Washingtonians know it no longer exists. That notion has been advanced by a Tacoma man who is now serving jail time for filing liens against judges in Kitsap and Thurston counties. Bender sent out a press release early this month saying he’d ordered Snohomish County Sheriff Rick Bart, whom he considers his "special deputy," to investigate the man’s allegations.
Bart said he hasn’t heard from Bender since he booted the man out of his office with a stern warning that he would arrest him if he attempted to act as a law officer. Bart said he has no intention of probing claims that Washington’s constitution is a fraud.
"I will not waste the taxpayers’ money on a frivolous investigation," he said.
Bart has been paying close attention to Bender’s activities. Documents show two detectives investigated when Bender showed up at Snohomish County car dealership Nov. 8 asking that he be loaned two Jeep Cherokees for use on Freedom County business. The request was denied, and a police report on the incident makes it clear that no laws appear to have been broken.
Bender said he also has ordered Bart to no longer allow federal agents to seize property within Freedom County’s boundaries. Through the years, Bart has repeatedly received similar demands from people who are about to lose their homes in disputes with the Internal Revenue Service.
Bart said he believes a tax protest is the true agenda behind Freedom County these days, and any other talk is "a big smoke screen."
Bender has said he does not pay income taxes. The IRS recently slapped a $17,675 tax lien on Satterlee’s Darrington-area home, documents show. Bob Westphal, a Stanwood man who claims he is Freedom County’s auditor, had his home sold at auction four years ago in a tax dispute with the IRS, records show.
Westphal said Bart is mistaken in linking tax protest and Freedom County.
"I can only say that he can believe what he wants. I will say that he is dead wrong," Westphal said. "What was behind the formation of Freedom County is the same thing that was behind the formation of the United States of America — the freedom of the people to actually control their government themselves."
Satterlee readily acknowledged his own tax troubles. He said they began in 1997 when he filed a tax return showing receipt of "public wealth rebate notes" — documents that supposedly derived their value from millions of dollars in liens filed by anti-government activists. They filed the liens over the federal prosecution of members of a Bellingham-based militia group trafficking in pipe bombs and machine guns.
Satterlee said he reported the notes as income and also tried to pay his taxes with them. The IRS rejected that idea, but he maintains they are still trying to tax him for their value. He also got a visit from Secret Service agents after he tried to deposit the notes at area banks, in part to fund efforts to form Freedom County, records show.
"It probably wasn’t wise to stick myself out on the line and try to liquidate the notes that way," Satterlee said.
But his own financial troubles haven’t dissuaded Satterlee from putting himself between debt collectors and others who risk losing their homes.
Early last month, he issued a Freedom County warning on behalf of a family whose sprawling Lake Goodwin home was to be auctioned to pay a legal debt. The site last summer was used as a gathering place for Freedom County organizational meetings.
Satterlee and his supporters also have taken aim at county code enforcement officials, claiming they have no authority in the area, and warning they will bring in a "special prosecutor" if the county tries to enforce land-use
regulations. He has also said people in the area no longer need building permits.
Satterlee has ordered Snohomish County to stop its case against a man for running a trucking business on residential land along Highway 530 between Arlington and Darrington. Neighbors complained, and the county and the man have been dickering for two years. Then, in August, county officials got a letter from Satterlee warning them away.
The case has since been referred to county civil prosecutors, a routine step for code violations that can’t be resolved. But Satterlee’s letter provoked some concern among county officials.
In an e-mail, Steve Holt, director of the county’s Planning and Development Services, told county employees that if code enforcement officials visit the property again, "then we would take special precautions with the help of
the sheriff to ensure that no extraordinary risk or confrontation occurs."
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