“This article originally appeared in the July 1997
issue of Consensus, a newspaper published jointly by
the Consensus Building Institute and the MIT-Harvard
Public Disputes Program.
Helena, Montana — When the self-proclaimed Freemen holed up
on the Clark ranch 30 miles north of Jordan, Montana, on March 25, 1996, news media across
the country warned that this would be another Waco, a replay of Ruby Ridge
— sites in Texas and Idaho of now-notorious confrontations between federal
law-enforcers and defiant alleged extremists, which ended in violence and bloodshed after
captivating headline writers and nightly-news anchors for weeks on end.
The Freemen, it was reported, claimed they communicated directly with God. They
allegedly filed false liens and bizarre home-grown indictments against anyone who crossed
them, including county and state officials and law-enforcement officers. The Garfield
County attorney, who had long been at loggerheads with the Freemen over their alleged
attempts to set themselves above the law, reportedly characterized them as “absurd,
ludicrous, and hate-filled.” Warrants had been issued for several Freemen accused of
writing bogus checks totalling $1.8 million to buy land and weapons.
“Members of the group,” warned an Associated Press news story on May 2, 1996,
“are wanted on state and federal charges ranging from writing bad checks to
threatening to kidnap and kill a U.S. judge.”
Federal Bureau of Investigation agents set up a wide perimeter around the 960-acre
ranch, where some 26 people had garrisoned themselves. Agents used telescopes to watch
rifle-carrying Freemen patrol the grounds.
Into a delicate situation
On the fifth day of the standoff, the FBI sent four Montana state legislators into the
ranch to initiate negotiations. Among them was Karl Ohs, a rancher and state
representative from Harrison, a small ranching and farming community in southwestern
Montana. Ohs had seen the news reports; he knew the precariousness of the situation. But
he also realized that there were real people behind the headlines. Though he had no
training or experience as a mediator, he was willing to help when the FBI called (his name
was on a list of legislators whom the Freemen thought they could trust).
During the following 76 days, a parade of other mediators came and went at the ranch,
including assistant state attorney general John Connor, Jr., Colorado state senator
Charles Duke, defense attorney Gerry Spence (who won Ruby Ridge defendant Randy
Weaver’s acquittal on a murder charge), and former Green Beret “Bo” Gritz,
leader of the self-styled patriot movement and participant in the successful negotiations
to end the stalemate at Ruby Ridge in 1992.
Gritz gave up after five meetings with the Freemen, and the others fared no better. But
Ohs returned to the Clark ranch a total of 19 times, and kept the talks going for the
duration of the longest armed siege in modern U.S. history. Recently, at the request of
the Montana Consensus Council, Ohs agreed to share his insights from this ordeal. What
emerges is a lesson in perseverance under conditions most mediators hope never to
That the standoff ended without blood shed is remarkable. Both sides were heavily armed
and on edge. The FBI proceeded cautiously, but the Freemen were prone to what was
described as unreasonable, even irrational behavior and demands. This stymied all attempts
to move forward or follow a logical mediation process.
“Most of the time I was listening to people vent,” says Ohs. “And the
venting usually lasted three times as long as the useful discussion.”
‘Things would blow up’
In short, a true mediation process never fully developed. Even “dialogue” may be
too generous term for the confusion and rhetoric that boiled over at the Freemen camp.
“It was a difficult situation,” explains Ohs. “It was unclear who the
leader [of the Freemen] was. We would make some progress, then the next day things would
blow up. We’d make one step forward and take two steps back. When you had a good day,
you’d feel bad afterwards because you knew the next day everything would fall apart.
It got to be routine that way.” (To this day, many of the Freemen allegedly continue
to disrupt court, reportedly shouting at judges, tearing up their name cards, and refusing
to enter pleas.)
With no formal process in place to guide mediation, Ohs intuitively relied on basic
conflict resolution strategies: be patient, build trust, and remind all parties of their
best alternative to negotiated agreement (BATNA). His eventual success at ending the
face-off (if not resolving the underlying issues) underscores the importance of these
fundamental concepts. They work, even when the parties are uncooperative and combative,
even when the process itself stalls or repeatedly falls apart.
Contrary to popular wisdom, desperate times are not always ameliorated by desperate
measures. Ohs was unflappable and almost painfully patient. He kept the talks going even
when they weren’t going anywhere in particular. Freemen rhetoric, what Ohs calls
“venting,” took up a lot of time and did little to move the discussion forward,
but at least they were still talking. As long as someone was listening, the risk of
violence was reduced.
When Ohs did not go to the ranch for several days, emotions there would flare up again.
“Just about always,” Ohs says, “the longer I’d be gone, the more
venting had to take place before we could talk about finding a way out.” Being
physically present — whether or not progress was made — was crucial to keeping
the lines of communication open.
Before Ohs’ first visit to the Clark ranch, the FBI established groundrules
stipulating that Ohs would act in good faith and wasn’t to take sides. “It was
always very clear,” says Ohs, “that my role was simply to keep the dialogue
going . . . to just sit in the middle.” Remaining impartial was essential if Ohs was
to gain each side’s trust.
Ohs was also careful to leave any preconceptions at the ranch gate. Entering the Clark
ranch was, he says, “not much different than going to anybody’s ranch house
— who had guests [that is, the other Freemen]. We’d start off talking about the
weather, cattle, hay prices — the things ranchers talk about.”
This was precisely the calming, trust-building tone needed during the stand-off, and
Ohs delivered it quite naturally. “I was able to remove myself enough to forget
politics and deal with things on a very personal level,” he says. “I went in one
time with a family member and he saw the guns and these wary-looking men and he said,
’Geez, did you see the guns?’ But I didn’t let that bother me. I just
focused on the personal and didn’t pay much attention to the guns or any of
Building trust by working face-to-face was also an important factor in Ohs’
relationships with the FBI and the news media. The FBI had more than 600 agents working on
the case, with about 150 in the Jordan area at any one time. As the standoff dragged on,
agents were rotated in and out of the area to give them a break from the stress. This
created problems for Ohs. “I’d get used to working with someone . . . and
they’d be shipped out,” he explains. “Then we changed the rotation so there
would always be some overlap. One person would leave but someone else would stay who had
been there for the week beforehand. That helped.”
At first, Ohs avoided the news media because the Freemen were following the reports on
television and radio. But he eventually developed a bond of trust with several reporters.
“Sometimes I’d talk to the reporters off-the-record, and they were very good
about honoring that,” Ohs says. “…They knew they had a source they could trust
and none of them wanted to risk losing him.” Again, Ohs’ composure helped create
an atmosphere of trust and patience on both sides of the fence at the Clark ranch.
As the standoff wore on, the FBI was running out of inducements to offer the Freemen in
exchange for surrender. The Bureau switched to a strategy of repeatedly asking the Freemen
to simply give up. As Ohs says, “It became a process of family members and myself
going in and talking and listening, just asking them to end it.” A few individuals
did choose to leave the ranch, but the core group remained resolute.
Going into the eleventh week, the FBI stepped up the pressure, cutting off electricity
to the ranch and bringing in armored vehicles. “It became clear to the Freemen that
force would be used if necessary,” Ohs says. A shoot-out was the “best” and
only alternative available to the Freemen. “Thankfully,” says Ohs, “clear
On June 13, 1996, the 16 remaining Freemen agreed to walk out peacefully. Ohs was
there, helping them stay on track and dealing with the logistics of the surrender. The
Freemen were loaded into FBI vans and driven to Billings for arraignment and custody,
where they remain awaiting trial.
In the end, no accord of any kind had been reached, and the mediation process had
stalled miserably. Nevertheless, Ohs was able to help contain the threat of violence and
prevent bloodshed — no small accomplishment under such dire circumstances. His
experience reveals that, even when the work plan is in tatters, we should continue to
trust and use our fundamental tools.
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