By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
In TV soundbites, he is taut-faced and frenetic as he sputters and raves about the evils of the U.S. government. But late last week, from a cubicle at the Dallas County jail, Richard McLaren, the self-proclaimed leader of the Republic of Texas separatist movement, seemed surprisingly docile, relaxed, even convivial.
"He's a nice man, Mr. McLaren," said Lt. Shirley Natt, the deputy sheriff who led him to the barred cubicle for an interview. "He hasn't given us any trouble."
Perhaps all the fight and hubris were taken out of the 44-year-old McLaren last November after he received a 99-year sentence for his role in a conspiracy to kidnap two of his Fort Davis neighbors and hold them hostage until the release of two jailed Republic of Texas members. Perhaps it's the realization that his cause is lost, or the knowledge that no matter what the outcome of his federal bank-fraud trial in Dallas, which is entering its fourth week, he may very well die in prison.
Seeming anything but his crazed public persona, McLaren showed his ability to dazzle a listener. His gray eyes danced when he talked, and his raspy voice was easy on the ears. He waxed philosophical about his predicament--as if he were Nelson Mandela in his martyr phase, still cruelly confined as a political prisoner.
"I don't like being in jail. But that's just part of what I have to do," McLaren said. "I think of everything I left behind. I lived in the most beautiful place in the world. But it's part of what I was meant to do."
Only once during the 90-minute interview did McLaren grow agitated. All of a sudden, he cut off his words, a blank expression veiling his otherwise obliging demeanor for nearly a minute. Then he nervously rubbed his hands on his bright orange jumpsuit, seemingly wanting to speak. Only he couldn't--not yet, anyway--deeply disturbed by the question that he believed may hold the key to his defense: Who really is Arthur Griesacker?
A self-proclaimed legal expert who has traveled around the country offering his expertise on banking law, Griesacker could play a critical role as a witness in McLaren's case. The Texas separatist's lawyer, Tom Mills, has alleged in court that Griesacker is a government informant who possibly entrapped McLaren; his wife, Evelyn; and their seven co-defendants in the bank-fraud trial. Mills told the court he "has reason to believe that Griesacker was and is an individual cooperating with federal law enforcement...although he might not have been signed up as an official 'confidential informant,' he is acting as one de facto."
Mills' theory might just be a desperate ploy to distract the jury from a particularly strong government case. But if Mills is right, the hypocrisy seems particularly brazen: a government informant inciting anti-government activity. And what better fuel for the militia movement's conspiratorial fires?
Back in the county jail, Griesacker's name finally provoked a measured response from McLaren. "I've met sane people. I've met crazy people. But there is something unearthly about Arthur Griesacker," he said. "That's my only word for it. Unearthly. To this day, I haven't figured him out. I don't know where his basis for reality is."
McLaren isn't the only one who gets nervous when Griesacker's name comes up. Organizations as diverse as the Anti-Defamation League, the criminal investigation bureau of the New York State Banking Department, and the Republic of Texas have issued warnings about Griesacker. In April 1996, the ADL put him on its list of anti-government activists. Later that year, the New York banking agency sent out a notice instructing banks to contact law-enforcement authorities if Griesacker "attempts to issue or present any negotiable instruments." The ROT crowd posted a "wanted" poster for Griesacker on the Internet and announced they'd revoked his credentials as an ambassador.
To the ROT members, Griesacker is a traitor, a coward, a snitch. To others, such as the District Attorney's Office in Shawnee, Kansas, Griesacker prompts concern because he's surfaced among far-right-wing groups in Kansas, Montana, Missouri, Louisiana, and Texas--anti-government hot spots where activists have hatched plots to gum up the local banking and legal systems with various forms of funny money. These schemes have already cost businesses and financial institutions hundreds of thousands of dollars. But Griesacker--whom no one seems to know much about--has always managed to escape prosecution.
A mystery man, Griesacker has fueled some wild conspiracy theories. Mills, in his opening statements in the trial, even mentioned Griesacker as a possible John Doe #3 in the Oklahoma City bombing.
Commenting on Griesacker's alleged involvement in various misdeeds, Mike Uhl, the assistant U.S. attorney leading the prosecution of McLaren and his co-defendants, says, "I expect Mills to allege at some point that Griesacker was at the Grassy Knoll and in the Oval Office with Clinton and Monica Lewinsky."
Even so, Griesacker could pose some problems for prosecutors during the bank-fraud trial. For four months ending in January 1997, Griesacker, his wife, and their five children lived in a trailer on the campground at Fort Davis, Texas, where the ROT maintained its "embassy." During this time, the government alleges, McLaren and eight other ROT followers hatched a plot to distribute phony financial instruments that defrauded credit card companies and businesses of some $350,000. Prosecutors have alleged that McLaren and his co-defendants conspired to distribute some $1.8 billion in "warrants"--worthless paper documents that resembled cashier's checks.