The man who knew too much
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.
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"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.
But Griesacker, who was captured on videotape instructing a packed room of ROT members how to create a financial "clearinghouse" with bank-like functions in order to "monetize" the Republic's assets--i.e., create fake money--is not a defendant in McLaren's case. Indeed, until just two weeks ago, Griesacker had never been arrested on any charges related to bank fraud or anti-government activity, even though dozens of his former associates are facing charges for these offenses. According to an investigator for the Shawnee County district attorney who has tracked Griesacker for three years now, the enigmatic Griesacker, on several occasions, disappeared weeks--sometimes just days--before the federal government swooped down on militant anti-government groups.
In his opening statements on March 5, prosecutor Uhl told the jury that he didn't even know the whereabouts of Griesacker. He'd already told Mills that Griesacker was not, to his knowledge, a government informant. But at the same time, he objected to giving Mills access to the entire FBI file on Griesacker. The prosecutor offered large parts of the file in camera--for the judge's eyes only--arguing that "further disclosure would interfere with enforcement proceedings and disclose investigative techniques," according to a court document.
A little more than a week after Uhl's opening statements in Dallas, a federal grand jury in Wichita, Kansas, issued an indictment of Griesacker, alleging that he'd presented worthless paper to a bank in January 1996 to cover a debt owed by another man. Then on March 20, Secret Service agents, who have jurisdiction in matters related to possible counterfeiting, arrested Griesacker in a small rural community about 30 miles from Medford, Oregon.
Federal marshals delivered Griesacker to Dallas last weekend. He appeared in a hearing Wednesday and delivered a blast of legal doublespeak, referring to the courtroom as an "alleged courtroom" and the ROT members as "alleged defendants." When U.S. District Judge Joe Fish asked if he would testify, Griesacker said he'd do so only if his "sovereign judicial diplomatic immunity" were granted, and if forced by "threat, duress, and coercion."
"I would very seriously doubt that the court wants to hear my testimony anyway or wants the jury to hear it," Griesacker said. "Because if it does, the case is dead."
Griesacker was expected to testify later in the week.
Even if Griesacker claims he's a government informant, Mills concedes he probably won't be able to persuade the judge to instruct jury members to consider the possibility of entrapment when they deliberate. But the defense attorney does believe he will leave the jury with the impression that the government has selectively chosen to prosecute some people--such as McLaren--while leaving others on the street. (When the jury was left with a similar impression at Terry Nichols' trial, it helped his defense.)
But no matter what the jury decides in McLaren's trial, Griesacker's alleged role in the Republic of Texas' funny-money schemes raises puzzling questions. Though Griesacker clearly has criminal exposure in the ROT case--according to a federal source involved in the investigation--how has he managed to stay on the street so long? Has the federal government simply failed to gather enough evidence to prosecute him? Or is there another explanation, as Mills suggests--one that raises suspicions about why the federal government might give Griesacker free rein to spread his anti-government gospel and enable him to defraud banks and businesses without much fear of prosecution?
A court document confirms that, two years ago, some agency issued a warrant for Griesacker's arrest, although a copy of that warrant is no longer part of the public record. It is under seal, according to the U.S. attorney in Wichita, Kansas. Why wasn't Griesacker picked up on that charge? What happened to that investigation?
"After a while coincidence becomes suspect," says Mike Tharp, a West Coast correspondent for U.S. News & World Report, who has covered anti-government groups extensively and met with Griesacker.
Suzanne James, the director of victim services for the District Attorney's Office in Shawnee County, Kansas, has been following Griesacker for three years and believes the U.S. attorney in Wichita has blown earlier opportunities to prosecute him. "The feds have gotten into this mess by being extremely timid in their prosecution," James says. (Jackie Williams, the U.S. attorney in Wichita, responds to such criticism by pointing to the federal indictment handed down on March 11. "That speaks for itself," his spokeswoman told the Dallas Observer.)
Joel Dyer, author of Harvest of Rage, a recently published book about anti-government groups, has also met Griesacker, but says he is a legitimate activist--a true believer.
"Usually the agents are not as smart as Griesacker, and they have polished shoes," Dyer says. "He was too odd to be an agent. He'd go in and out of rages. It would have to have been a really good act."
But Dyer does believe Griesacker still might serve some sort of government purpose. "Griesacker has shown up in a lot of places where others have gone down," Dyer says. "Is it a sting operation if the government leaves someone on the street?"
A look into Griesacker's past turns up some contradictory information. (Prison officials and federal marshals would not allow the Observer to interview Griesacker in Dallas.) Over the years, legal documents have referred to him as Ronald Griesacker, Arthur Laycock, Robert Patrick, Arthur Alexander Augustus, and even just Arthur.
A birth certificate that Griesacker sent to Shawnee County investigator Jake Mauck shows he was born in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, on June 14, 1956. A 34-year-old named Ronald Emmet Laycock is listed as his father; Laycock describes his occupation as "minister-teacher."
But Rick McLaren says Griesacker related an entirely different story about his beginnings. "What he told me was his real father's name was Ronald Hawkins, and he was an individual who worked for the Pentagon" and got involved in the "black budget"--a secret budget used during the Cold War to conceal spending on classified military programs.
Griesacker acquired his current surname in 1992. At the time, he was living in St. Mary's, Kansas, the stronghold of a Kansas freemen's movement centered at a formerly Catholic academy and college whose priests had been ex-communicated by the Vatican for espousing such beliefs as the existence of a Jewish world conspiracy and the fabrication of the Holocaust. A court record that Griesacker sent to Mauck shows he was adopted that year by Ignatius Mitchell Cartwright Griesacker--a man in his 60s who supposedly picked up Griesacker while he was hitchhiking. After that encounter, Griesacker changed his name to Ronald Alexander Augustus Griesacker.
According to the version of his life that Griesacker told McLaren and the journalists Dyer and Tharp, he once worked as a corrections officer in the Kansas prison system. He got fired--Griesacker recounted with pride--when he objected to his employer's unacceptable tactics. "He said he got kicked out for standing up for someone [a prisoner]," McLaren says.
Shawnee county investigator Mauck confirms that Griesacker did work as a corrections officer. "But he never got fired," Mauck says. "He got hurt and took some kind of disability."
In his photographs, Griesacker is a dour-faced, unpleasant-looking man. He has a thick neck, bad teeth, and a receding hairline. His highly arched eyebrows are his most prominent feature, giving his face a look of perpetual consternation and intensity.
In person, Griesacker apparently registers a threatening presence. Dyer says that when he first met Griesacker, the activist pulled a gun from a shoulder holster and plopped it on the table between himself and the author. For some five hours, Griesacker's hand rested on the weapon as it pointed ever so slightly to the left of Dyer.
McLaren says Griesacker always carried a gun, toting his AK-47 even when visiting the Texas separatist leader's home. "Mr. Griesacker had a different attitude toward guns," McLaren says. "For me, they were a negative, something we had to have under siege. For him, they were a positive."
McLaren seems fearful of Griesacker. "I never knew what was going to make him come unhinged," he says. "He was not a person you wanted to get drunk around. After a while, I wouldn't have him up to the house anymore."
Although he tells people he only graduated from the eighth grade, Griesacker strikes many as an eccentric genius. "He probably has some super-high intelligence," Dyer says. "He has a photographic memory."
U.S. News & World Report correspondent Tharp recalls that Griesacker lorded his erudition over others. "He gave a long, convoluted dialogue in which he repeatedly referred to books and documents in common law and invoked the Magna Carta," he says. "He just kept piling books and papers on the desk where I was sitting and said they proved his points."
Griesacker's first recorded involvement in anti-government groups is in 1995, when police records show he was active in the freemen movement in Kansas. He was arrested that year when he failed to produce a driver's license; many people in anti-government circles refuse to carry licenses. "He told me he wouldn't submit to that jurisdiction," Tharp recalls.
From August 1995 through June 1996, Griesacker placed long treatises advocating common-law courts--where laymen, rather than judges and lawyers, make the rules--in a local legal bulletin, the Topeka Metro News. "They were long, rambling proclamations," says Mauck, who began investigating Griesacker around then. "They were threatening to any law-enforcement official who would arrest them. They used Christian Identity terms." (The Christian Identity movement believes that Jews descended from Satan and non-whites represent a separate species.)
Griesacker advertised his supposed banking and legal expertise in other forums. In the December 1995 issue of The American's Bulletin, a Medford, Oregon-based far-right-wing tabloid, he published an essay titled "A Voice of Opposition to Tyranny." In the piece, Griesacker and the others in his group identified themselves as the "Peace officers of the country of Kansas" and announced the establishment of 18 common-law courts in that state. Griesacker, who wrote the essay, stated that he and others, including Robert Riccomini, had attended the school of LeRoy M. Schweitzer. "We have found answers," Griesacker wrote.
LeRoy Schweitzer is a notorious figure in anti-government circles. Until his arrest in March 1996, Schweitzer conducted a school in Jordan, Montana, that as many as 800 people attended, according to press reports. The lessons included such exhortations as "We are to kill all the inhabitants of other races," according to an Anti-Defamation League report. At his school, Schweitzer also offered basic instructions for funny-money schemes, including how to create "certified banker's checks" for fraudulent use.
The story of Griesacker's departure from the Montana freemen's community has become a legend--possibly an apocryphal one--in anti-government circles because his timing was so fortuitous. Without any prior warning, Griesacker supposedly packed up his large family one morning in March 1996 and simply drove away. He told the author Dyer he left because Schweitzer had put a woman in charge. Women holding leadership positions violated Griesacker's so-called "fundamentalist" beliefs, McLaren says.
It just so happens that later the very same day, federal agents moved in and nabbed Schweitzer--prompting an 81-day standoff between law-enforcement officials and the freemen. It ended peacefully, and Schweitzer was later convicted for failing to pay income taxes and answer a summons. Other felony charges are pending against him, including bank fraud.
Back in Kansas, Griesacker appears to have started practicing some of the tactics he learned from Schweitzer. Shawnee County's Suzanne James says she began hearing about Griesacker's involvement in several schemes to send bogus checks to businesses, followed by efforts to get sheriff's departments to prosecute banks for not recognizing them. Others in Griesacker's Kansas group have been prosecuted, including Riccomini, who has been charged with bank fraud. Riccomini's lawyer, Jonathan Phelps, claims Griesacker taught his client everything he knows about financial documents, and he doesn't understand why he wasn't prosecuted as well.
James says her office was preparing to prosecute Griesacker and others when the U.S. attorney in Wichita assumed control of the investigation. When the feds took over, she says, they simply sat on many of the cases. Finally, the U.S. attorney returned the files to her office--with the investigative folders nearly empty--just days before the applicable state statute of limitations had expired. "Griesacker figures in a lot of those cases," investigator Mauck says. (Federal laws applied in the recent indictment of Griesacker.)
In the months following his departure from Montana, Mauck says, Griesacker traveled to Missouri to advise a militia group in that state.
McLaren says that in October 1996, he learned from ROT members in Dallas about Griesacker's expertise in banking laws and his desire to come to Texas. McLaren doesn't recall exactly who called whom, but within 24 hours of hearing about Griesacker, McLaren says he'd struck a deal with the man. He agreed to send Griesacker airline tickets for his family if, in exchange, Griesacker would supply his knowledge and documentation on banking and legal systems. Griesacker immediately drove to Dallas with all his belongings, arriving a day after his wife and kids. "He drove a truck down with three computers and lots of law books and legal documents," McLaren recalls.
Within months of Griesacker's departure from Missouri, members of that group were arrested, Mauck says. "The Missouri state police crunched them," he adds. "I often wondered if Griesacker had a part in that."
The terms of Griesacker's deal with the Texas separatists were kept vague. McLaren says he paid all of the Griesacker family's bills--roughly $1,500 a month. The Griesackers lived in a trailer, and one of their biggest expenses was Arthur Griesacker's phone bill. "He liked to talk," McLaren says. "I started saving $500 a month on the phone bill alone when he left."
Griesacker promised the Texas separatists that he had the documentation--specifically copies of the seals of the United States Supreme Court--to style himself a U.S. ambassador to the Republic of Texas. In the separatists' convoluted reasoning, the ROT could issue all sorts of official "agreements" with the United States if Griesacker could establish that he was its representative.
But it didn't take long for Griesacker's relationship with the ROT to become strained. When Griesacker was videotaped at a 1996 Republic of Texas gathering at a Holiday Inn in Temple, Texas, he was caught bragging about how "I know admiralty law, common law, ecclesiastical law, and the law of necessity." Sitting behind a desk, Griesacker instructs a roomful of Texas separatists on how to establish a financial "clearinghouse" for their independent state.
Griesacker appears intensely focused--all business and no fun. He doesn't even crack a smile as McLaren makes a stab at humor. "The chair recognizes Arthur," McLaren tells the crowd. Then he pauses, smiles, and says, "Gosh, I have so much trouble with your last name."
Griesacker doesn't miss a beat. "The history of banking, I do believe, is quite well known to everyone in this room, and the susceptible [sic] to evils it brings upon a nation. I've studied U.S. history," he adds. "I've studied the banking system. I know what they have done to us."
Then, as he flips proficiently through what he claims are historical documents, Griesacker describes the specific course he believes the separatists should take. He wants the group to set up what he calls a "clearinghouse," rather than a central banking system, for the independent state. But the crowd has trouble grasping the distinction. When, for the third time, a listener asks if he's telling them not to establish a bank, Griesacker grows visibly irritated. He rubs his temples, clasps his hands, and sighs loudly before answering. "Yes, sir," he says. "Table the idea."
McLaren says he grew suspicious of Griesacker shortly after he arrived. It wasn't Griesacker's banking jargon that threw the Texas separatist leader, since McLaren doesn't believe they were doing anything illegal. Instead, Griesacker's religious beliefs--and how fervently he preached them--scared McLaren. "Arthur let his personal prejudices and maybe ego override his common sense," he says. Griesacker didn't approve of the African-American ROT members, he adds. But he wouldn't acknowledge that up front.
"Arthur wouldn't engage truthfully," McLaren says. He adds that "Arthur was fairly fanatical" about the separation of the races.
The Republic of Texas members' suspicions heightened when Griesacker failed to deliver the documents he told them he carried. He never produced the U.S. Supreme Court seal, McLaren says. "We started putting requirements that he had to get the credentials. We were basically saying, 'Shit or get off the brick.'"
When ROT president Archie Lowe suggested demoting Griesacker to legal expert--instead of U.S. ambassador--Griesacker started withholding information from the group, McLaren says.
In January 1997, the rift had widened so far that McLaren believed he needed to cut off Griesacker. He shut off his phone, and shortly afterward, Griesacker left the compound, McLaren says.
After leaving Texas, Griesacker hung out for a while in Towanda, Kansas, with Brad Glover, head of the loosely organized Kansas militia, according to investigator Mauck. "Those guys were as thick as thieves, meeting every day," he says.
Shortly after Griesacker left Towanda, Mauck says, Glover was arrested on charges related to arms possession.
When McLaren began testifying in his bank-fraud trial on March 25, he launched into a long discourse on Texas history. By 2 p.m., he'd only reached 1845, the year the original Republic of Texas approved a treaty with the United States. But the jury panel seemed surprisingly engaged in the lesson.
At the prosecutor's table, however, boredom prevailed. Thomas Hamilton, an assistant U.S. attorney, appeared to be snoozing with his eyes shut. J.D. Butler, a postal inspector who helped prepare the prosecution's case, was doodling on paper. Steve Scheets, an IRS agent, peered at Butler's scribbles and smiled.
On the stand earlier that day, the IRS agent had poked fun at the separatists. He told McLaren's wife, Evelyn, when she attempted to document the legitimacy of the ROT government, "I could call myself the grand poobah of the Wizard of Oz, but it doesn't make it a fact."
When Butler testified, Mills, laying the groundwork for his snitch-theory defense, inquired about Griesacker. "Mr. Griesacker was always looked upon as a possible target of this investigation. The evidence at this time wasn't there," Butler told Mills. "All we had was the videotape that he wasn't on very much. He was under investigation for a variety of charges, and at this time we felt like unless we had sufficient evidence, that he would not be included in the indictment."
But for McLaren, his last talk with Griesacker, shortly before he left the Republic of Texas compound, was enough to cement his suspicions about why the government wouldn't prosecute the mystery man. When he told Griesacker it was time to split, McLaren recalls, the itinerant legal expert answered sourly: "That's all right. I've already taken care of it."
McLaren suspects Griesacker was already ratting to the feds about the Republic of Texas. "Whatever it was," McLaren says, "I could tell by the way he said it, he'd done it before.
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