MINNEAPOLIS One of the first inklings Sheriff Richard Stanek had that something was wrong came with a call from the mortgage company handling his refinancing.
It must be a mistake, he said, when the loan officer told him that someone had placed liens totaling more than $25 million on his house and on other properties he owned.
But as Stanek soon learned, the liens, legal claims on property to secure the payment of a debt, were just the earliest salvos in a war of paper, waged by a couple who had lost their home to foreclosure in 2009 a tactic that, with the spread of an anti-government ideology known as the Sovereign Citizen movement, is being employed more frequently as a way to retaliate against perceived injustices.
Over the next three years, the couple, Thomas and Lisa Eilertson, filed more than $250 billion in liens, demands for compensatory damages and other claims against more than a dozen people, including the sheriff, county attorneys, the Hennepin County registrar of titles and other court officials.
It affects your credit rating, it affected my wife, it affected my children, Stanek said of the liens. We spent countless hours trying to undo it.
Cases involving Sovereign Citizens are surfacing increasingly in Minnesota and in other states, posing a challenge to law enforcement officers and court officials, who often become aware of the movement a loose network of groups and individuals who do not recognize the authority of federal, state or municipal governments only when they become targets.
Although the filing of liens for outrageous sums or other seemingly frivolous claims might appear laughable, dealing with them can be nightmarish, so much so that the FBI labeled the strategy paper terrorism. A lien can be filed by anyone under the Uniform Commercial Code.
Occasionally, people who identify with the movement have erupted into violence. In Las Vegas this week, the police said an undercover sting operation stopped a plot to torture and kill police officers in order to bring attention to the movement. Two people were arrested. In 2010, two police officers in Arkansas were killed while conducting a traffic stop with a father and son involved in the movement.
Mostly, though, Sovereign Citizens choose paper as their weapon. In Gadsden, Ala., three people were arrested in July for filing liens against victims including the local district attorney and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew. In Illinois this month, a woman with the movement who chose to represent herself confounded a federal judge by asking him to rule on a flurry of unintelligible motions.
I hesitate to rank your statements in order of just how bizarre they are, the judge told the woman, who was facing charges of filing billions in false liens.
The convergence of the evidence strongly suggests a movement that is flourishing, said Mark Pitcavage, the director of investigative research for the Anti-Defamation League. It is present in every single state in the country.
The Eilertsons, who were charged with 47 counts of fraudulent filing and sentenced in June to 23 months in prison, were prosecuted under a Minnesota law that makes it a felony to file fraudulent documents to retaliate against officials. John Ristad, an assistant Ramsey County attorney who handled the case, said he believed the Eilertsons were the first offenders to be prosecuted under the law.
It got me angry, he said, because at the end of the day, these two are bullies who think they can get their way by filing paper.
Eilertson, interviewed at the state prison in Bayport, Minn., denied being anti-government or belonging to any movement. But he was familiar with the names of some figures associated with Sovereign Citizen teachings, including an activist named David Wynn Miller, who Eilertson said was ahead of his time.
Eilertson said his actions were an effort to fight back against corrupt banks that had handed off the couples mortgage time after time.
It seemed like we were being attacked every day, he said. We needed some way to stop the foreclosure.