Ten so-called “sovereign citizens” in East Tennessee face 320 felonies for filing a series of bogus liens against government officials over the last several years.
The ten men were indicted in February on charges of filing fraudulent liens and forgery, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel. The group filed more than $2 billion worth of claims against mayors, police officers, deputies, state troopers and other officials — a tactic sovereign citizens have used in the past.
Members of the group believe the U.S. government was replaced by an illegitimate government in the 1800’s. They believe they get to pick and choose which laws to abide by, and they often create their own forms of identification which they’ll offer to police as valid forms of ID. On several occasions, members of the group have had deadly run-ins with law enforcement, most recently in Baton Rouge in July 2016 when three officers were killed by a sovereign citizen. In 2011, the FBI issued a bulletin calling the group a domestic terrorist movement.
The arrests in Tennessee all started when one of the defendants, Lee Harold Cromwell, 67, was arrested for recklessly driving his pickup truck into a group of people in Oak Ridge, Tennessee on July 4, 2015. His car hit several people, killing one of them. Cromwell filed liens against prosecutors, the Oak Ridge police chief, the judge — and several others involved in the case — filing a total of $137.5 million in bogus liens. He was served with an indictment related to the fraudulent liens just before he was found guilty of vehicular homicide earlier this year.
“Public officials as well as state and local government employees shouldn’t be harassed with fraudulent liens just for doing their jobs,” said Secretary of State Tre Hargett.
Cromwell’s case helped kick off a crackdown of such tactics, with the nine other men facing similar charges. They include Michael Robert Birdsell, 45, who filed liens totaling $44 million; Victor Douglas Bunch, 72, who filed liens totaling $252.9 million; Austin Gary Cooper, 68, who filed liens totaling $332.8 million; Kenneth Ray Foust, 73, who filed liens totaling $144 million; Christopher Alan Hauser, 51, who filed liens totaling $188 million; Michael Using, 64, who filed liens totaling $266.1 million, George Edward Williams, 76, who filed liens totaling $144 million, John Jeffrey Williams, 50, who filed liens totaling $144 million.
Court dates are set for later this month in Nashville.