By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
Mike McGrath's knuckles look as if they've been scrubbed with grit, sanded down, and then healed back over with machine grease under the scabs. When he waves them over a stack of documents on his desk, punctuating a discourse on the federal government's "program of fraud and deception" or what he considers to be the unconstitutional theft of property deeds by local tax officials here in Burnett County, Wisconsin, his hands seem to be weaving a web from thin air.
McGrath didn't want to talk about this at first. He didn't think any story could, as he put it, "be true to the truth about what those in charge are putting over on citizens today." It's hard to fathom the extent of it all, hard to uncover the salient facts. But working out of the back room of his unmarked small-engine repair shop just off Highway 70 outside Grantsburg, McGrath--like the rest of his local study group--has gotten "hooked in": to the short-wave broadcasts from Montana and Ohio and Nebraska regarding Fort Knox's empty vaults and the right way to put a lien on a district court judge; to the facts about the IRS's racket in Puerto Rican offshore accounts and the black helicopter surveillance and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearm's secret dossier on the Oklahoma City bombings; to the covert camera monitoring on American freeways and the secret agenda behind those fluorescent white Vs being painted on the backroads of Burnett County. They're hooked in by fax, and by phone, and by mail-order copies of a paper called Veritas, published out of Arizona by an ex-military man who, it is said, once held top-level security clearance in the upper echelons in D.C.
"But before we really get down to basics," McGrath says, gesturing to a chair near his paper-strewn desk in the corner, "I might ask you a question: Are you a governmental agent?"
I hand McGrath my card and he studies it a moment, then sets it aside in the meticulous file of assorted contacts he keeps. "We've learned to be careful with this, OK. There's government people coming around here, always trying to infiltrate these different issues. What they're doing is discovery work; they want to lock you up for speaking truth. If you're just one of the normal 'Sheople'"--the network's term for the herd of Americans still being corralled into voting booths and onto taxpayer rolls--"well, I guess you'll jump over the fence like you're supposed to. We don't follow that program, OK. That's why my good friend Paul Ekblad is a political prisoner behind bars today."
His good friend, a 67-year-old strawberry farmer and beekeeper with land in the Pine Barren area just south of Grantsburg, is two years into a 10-year prison sentence for filing "false and frivolous" personal property liens against 14 members of the Burnett County Board of Supervisors in 1994--the logical response, Ekblad believes, to county tax officials seizing all 200 acres of his "paid for, free and clear" land. The courthouse paper trail on him has grown into a waist-high stack of complaints and interrogatories and rulings over the past decade. Mention his name to anyone local--the guy at the Pheasant Inn Bar and Grill, the pharmacist on Main Street--and the response is typically a quick snort or a low, polite curse.
Popular opinion has it that Paul Ekblad and his likes have worn out their welcome in the county courts. Their highly publicized tactics (suing and countersuing public officials, arguing in favor of common and constitutional law against "extorted" property taxes, refusing to apply for irrigation and building permits on private land; the list is long) have cost local taxpayers thousands of dollars over several years--a result, in the scheme of things, pretty near the intended mark. Hit where it counts, McGrath says, in the pocketbook, and raise enough smoke to grab some attention for the larger agenda. The larger agenda is what he and Paul Ekblad and the other scattered members of a loose-knit group known as the Wild River Patriots are all about.
This handful of self-styled "constitutional fundamentalists" first came together in 1981 during a series of meetings at the Rainbow Cafe in Grantsburg, aided by the promptings of recruiters and "researchers" dispatched by the Patriot Network, which claims over 3,000 registered members across the upper Midwest and into Montana. Since then, the Wild River association has been the regular target of county prosecutors and tax collectors, beginning with one of the Patriots' main figures, Ken Edaburn, who was charged with tax evasion in the 1980s. Several have been arrested repeatedly on contempt of court charges after refusing to appear at or cooperate with legal proceedings. Several (including Larry Zschokke, former owner of the Rainbow Cafe) have been evicted from their land, with the tax deeds to their farms and businesses auctioned off at public sales and the profits deposited in the county's accounts. In the past decade, the original Wild River members have scattered, gone underground, or taken their argument into the courts, starting with a refusal to pay property taxes on the grounds that government has no legitimate jurisdiction over "allodial lands," and lately with a multimillion-dollar spate of personal liens filed against public officials and other "Oath People" who have failed in their sworn pledges to uphold the spirit and letter of the U.S. Constitution.
Burnett County, Wisconsin follows the crooked bends in the St. Croix river along its western border for 40 miles, and spreads out to the east in an alluvial fan of wildlife preserves, an ailing resort area around the northern cluster of lakes, a sprinkle of small towns, and family farms pocked with run-down outbuildings and machinery left long ago to rust in the back acres. Nailed to mailboxes and trees at the end of nearly every rural driveway are handpainted signs advertising quilts, Amway products, woodcrafts, feeder pigs for cheap--any combination of salable merchandise to supplement family incomes that have, since 1980, fallen drastically. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, nearly 20 percent of the county's farm families now live at or below the poverty level. In this county of 13,000 residents, well over 1,000 properties have been listed on the delinquent tax register since 1990, including Paul Ekblad's farm, the Rainbow Cafe, and several other properties owned--and forfeited--by original Wild River members.
It's been a rough winter, judging from the abundance of roadkill deer along the pothole-ridden roads that lace together the county's scatter of incorporated settlements--towns with unlikely names like Siren, home to the new government center, and Luck, just past the county line, with its handful of roadhouse taverns and one of the few antique shops still in business after the boom promised by the tourism office in the mid-1970s quickly came and went. That elusive boom was to have been a kind of salvation here: Burnett County is among the most depressed in the state, with an agricultural economy dominated more and more by large-scale corporate operations and an unemployment rate hovering at just under 10 percent. Summer tourism, a handful of parts and plastics manufacturers, and the small reservation casino in Danbury account for most of the jobs in the area; many residents have taken to driving the nearly two-hour commute across the river and south to the Twin Cities for work.
A couple decades ago, when county officials geared up to remake Burnett in the image of Door County or the Dells--a second-home-in-the-woods destination for folks from Madison and Chicago and Minneapolis--their master plan was not unlike those drawn up in economy-boosting blueprints around other upper-Midwest counties. Voyager Village, the resort on which so many hopes were pinned, is in large part empty now. In the wake of the boom that never was, a hardscrabble mix of struggling dairy farms and rural trailers house the third- and fourth-generation heirs of acreages their families homesteaded a hundred years ago. Under the added burden of volatile farm markets and deep cuts in social support programs, Burnett County has accrued one of the highest rates of property seizure for delinquent taxes in the state.
"We'll get to the issue of allodial landholdings and Paul Ekblad's case, OK. But let's deal first with the big territory." Mike McGrath has come from the back room with a stack of files and notes, and settled into his chair for my instruction session. The dialogue, as it unfolds, borders on the Socratic, with McGrath playing both roles--interrogator and respondent--as he chisels away at evasions to expose the "Comprehensive Bureaucratic Program." Start with taxes.
"What are taxes?" McGrath asks. "Who owes taxes? Where did the tax structure start? Who really is the IRS?" Answer: "Taxes were, and still are, a voluntary system first required during the time of war. Congress declared it, but only for the very rich. What they won't tell you at the IRS is this: Taxes are voluntary. That is our true heritage as free Americans."
"Why has this program of taxes been implemented on the populace?" Answer: "In 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt declared emergency powers--it was called the Trading with the Enemy Act--and since that time the U.S. government has declared its citizens to be the enemy. Burnett County, right here, gave up its sovereignty with the Geneva Convention, and as a result is now beholden to the international bankers, OK. They're the ones, if you follow the money trail, running everything. What ends up, through a whole tangle of scam and bureaucracy, is that if you don't volunteer to pay taxes, they can come in and seize your property and put you in shackles. I guarantee if you do research, you'll find out that there's not one statute requiring you to pay property taxes on land you own free and clear, and not one mention in the Constitution."
"What happens to all the tax money?" Answer: "It is being deposited into a covert fund called Trust Number 63, held in the District of Columbia and in offshore accounts in Puerto Rico, which are the only places the fed has any true jurisdiction. The IRS and the BATF are one and the same. It charges a false debt on citizens, then moves in the SWAT troops to blast all the nonvolunteers. We saw it on Ruby Ridge. We saw it at Waco. We saw it in Oklahoma City, where, if you're paying attention, you'll notice that the BATF offices were empty that day. All employees had the day off, for no apparent reason. That whole program's been shut up and silenced. And we are seeing it in Montana and will in other places closer to home soon, very soon."
The dialogue continues in this vein for another hour. During the occasional, pointed silences, one of McGrath's assistants ("you'd better just call me by the initial 'P'") hovers near the doorjamb, half in the shadows, nodding and inserting references to paramilitary agents in ski masks and jackboots, and secondhand news about Vicki Weaver's autopsy, conducted under wraps in a remote morgue. Before heading back out to the yard, he turns to McGrath and says, "Don't forget the part about martial rule."
"What is martial rule?" Answer: "We are living under it now. The best word would be that we're under Admiralty Maritime Jurisdictional Law. The president runs the ship. Under martial rule, you have no rights. They won't blatantly tell you that, but what's taking place is a New World Order, run by a group of individuals and a secret bureaucracy called the Unity Pack. It's just a matter of time until martial law ensues and there are standing armies in the streets, rounding up noncompliant protesters."
Why are police departments getting all these machine guns? What are these surveillance cameras being installed? What about weather control? What is AIDS? Who really is the Pope? Why isn't the BATF listed in any phone book? Why is all this helicopter traffic taking place? Are they dropping people in? Are they doing maneuvers? Is it real? Answer: "Take time to get yourself a set of binoculars and look--see if there's any markings. Five miles south of here, they've started to paint large white Vs on the pavement. There are satellites. If you're sitting outside with a newspaper, they can read the fine print. These Vs are not to survey the movement of land, they are to monitor the movement of citizens in preparation for troop invasion."
Why is America crumbling? Why do kids kill their parents? Why is the divorce industry making $60 billion every year in the United States? What is Prozac? Why are there more psychiatrists now than ever? Why are there so many alcoholics and drug addicts today? What is NAFTA? Why is it that a family can't make it in this economy anymore? Why is it that here in Burnett County, kids are forced to park trailer houses on their parents' back lots instead of affording their own homes? Why are we being squeezed? Why are people I know dying from anxiety and stress? Where do all these heart attacks come from? Why is an old man, who would sooner give you a helping hand than speak a harsh word, in prison for his beliefs? Is this the American way we once had a revolution for? How is it possible to live under these conditions?
The answer, according to P., who has come back into the room with a stack of Veritas newspapers in hand, is that we are not supposed to live under these conditions. We are supposed to comply, give up, become deadened, and remain in debt, working our heads off in a cloud of worry and dread until the inevitable collapse of America. The time is coming when millions of Americans will wake up and understand themselves to be the express enemies of their own government.
Driving up to Burnett County for a second visit, I flipped on the radio to news of separatist "freemen" in a standoff with federal agents at a self-styled sovereign commune in eastern Montana. The talk sounded at once strangely archaic and familiar, shot through with the same buzzwords--Apocalyptic Diagnosis, Allodial Landholding, Oath People, Sham Jurisdiction, Sheople--that had cropped up over and again in conversations with Mike McGrath, Paul Ekblad's wife, Jean, and other remnants of the Wild River Patriots whom the county DA has come to call "our local collection of way-off-the-grid, fringe folks."
It has taken a long time--"for me, a decade of pure confusion about why our lives felt burnt-down and under attack by the authorities," one Patriot told me--to piece together a theoretical vessel capable of containing the seeming randomness of their lives: a volatile international agricultural market that rapidly undercut their land values in the 1980s, local factory layoffs, hiked property and income taxes, pension cancellations, white Vs on the highway. When I asked one man, who gave his name only as John Doe, about the siege situation in Montana, he had this to say: "They're talking about the same issues we are: government deception, a bankrupt money system, a New World Order program designed to enslave citizens, the wholesale evisceration of individual rights. Study what we're saying and you'll come to find this is not just some incoherent movement, like they want you to believe. It's big, and it's fed up. Eventually people like us who stand on truth will be put in those decommissioned military installations, which are being turned into gulags."
At this, John Doe's wife, who'd been peeling potatoes without a word, turned from the sink and said, "You must understand, the wheels are already in motion. It's about to storm."
Sonny Lundeen--a local dairy farmer who in 1983 sued all 21 members of the Burnett County Board of Supervisors for conducting business without taking written oaths of office--got a letter from his old friend Paul Ekblad just yesterday. It's somewhere here on his kitchen table, under the mess of tax bills, spiral-bound dairy pricing manuals, and the snapshot of an American flag plastered with a slogan that reads, "Family farms are not lost--they are stolen."
"We've been harassing the government around here for about 15 years," he says, and shoots a mischievous grin at his wife, Margaret, who's busy frying bacon at the stove. "Isn't that right, ma? And they've been busy harassing us."
Lundeen's great-grandfather, a Swedish immigrant, homesteaded this farm after paying $10 for a permit in the 1870s. A copy of the land patent, issued by the federal government in 1877, declared his 160-acre freehold to be "secured for him and his heirs forever"--a promise Lundeen intends to hold county tax officials to.
When Sonny Lundeen dropped out of high school, got married, and bought the farm from his own father in 1961, making a living was easy enough if a man didn't plan on getting rich. "Trying to keep feet in your own soil now," he says, "after that Reagan bunch broke our backs, regulated and taxed farmers to hell, and assigned a bureaucrat for every acre, well, I don't know whether to laugh or cry myself to death." A study completed in 1991 by the family-farm advocacy organization Farms First estimated that small-scale dairy farmers must increase and expand an average of 60 percent every decade just to maintain a consistent rate of income. Plummeting market values over the past two decades, along with tax-forfeited land grabs by encroaching corporate farm operations, have put nearly a quarter of Burnett County family farms out of commission.
Fifteen years ago, Sonny Lundeen started having trouble with the inspections department. Two agents came out one morning on a routine tour of his facilities and grounds, and spent an hour crawling around on hands and knees with their checklists and regulations, "in every little crevice and crack they could think of." A week later, Lundeen was informed by mail that his Grade A milk license had been reduced to Grade B on a series of violations including a crack in the floor, illegal dogfood containers in the milkhouse, and a dirty water hose. The downgrading meant not only a loss of 35 cents per 100 gallons of shipped milk, but, even more disturbing to Lundeen, another reminder that "the government decides when to plant, when to plow, how to harvest, what to milk, how to ship, what the standards are, and how much income it can afford for individual farmers like me to make."
In the ensuing court battles over his licensing, which lasted nearly a decade before his Grade A permit was reinstated, Lundeen fired off a series of letters to the DA's office, claiming, among other things, that "you heap more injustice on my back and the yoke is indeed heavy: Proverbs 29, Verse 2." In fact, Lundeen filed so many appeals, demands for jury hearings, and photocopied pages from Black's Law Dictionary that, as one clerk at the government center in Siren remembers, "we had to basically create a whole new archive with his name on it. The weird thing is, we'd never even heard of half the document forms he mailed over here."
Some of those forms were handwritten, with the aid of fellow Wild River Patriots like Paul Ekblad. Some were produced on the manual typewriter in Lundeen's kitchen. Some were supplied by network affiliates around the country. In them, defendants charged with tax evasion, illegal money-order production, frivolous lien filings, operating without proper licensing, and a host of same-vein allegations, rely on a body of arguments and tactics that have put rural militia and protest groups on the political map.
Their arguments are culled from a random tangle of state and federal statutes (often out of date or irrelevant), case law (often dating back to the 1800s), and obscure legal manuals (often based on Revolution-era English feudal-tenant principals). They contest the charges, citing Article 2, Section 5 or 442 U.S. 228--any of the thousands of precedent cases that might bear quoting. They contest the jurisdiction of any of the "legislative bureaucracies that have nullified the Constitution." Most of all they contest the "whole oversophisticated U.S. legal procedure, which is a sham," as one of Lundeen's missives to a circuit court judge in 1983 put it.
The hopes pinned to these flurries of paper are, one, that courts will become so overburdened by the whole business that pending cases will be dismissed; two, that the intricately crafted arguments might suddenly move the American legal and political system to recognize the error of its ways; and three, that the patience of law-enforcement authorities will wear thin enough to cause them to leave protesters alone to conduct their sovereign business as they please. It is on this last hope that the Patriots and company fasten their movement.
The legal ground on which the Patriots and like-minded groups seek to stand is summed up in a single entry in a Black's Law Dictionary that Lundeen produces from his stack. Allodial. He reads the definition, which is highlighted in yellow marker, aloud: "What this says is 'Free; not holden of any lord or superior; owned without obligation of vassalage or fealty; the opposite of feudal.' This was the principal behind my suing the board, who are all thieves-by-taxation. This is what got Paul Ekblad into jail. This is the whole notion behind what you're seeing across the country right now."
What this means, Lundeen says, launching into an almost verbatim rendition of a speech Mike McGrath had given earlier that day, is this: Once a man's property's been paid for, free and clear, he's done paying. That property is sovereign, and he is the ruler of that freehold estate. It's under his absolute control and ownership, and no government bureaucrat can come on and tell him what you can and cannot do with it. No levies. No feudal tenureships. No taxes. It's right there, in the Constitution. It's what the founders of this great country fought against England and died for. They said what we're saying now, that neither the state nor the king has jurisdiction once a man outright owns his place on this earth.
With this doctrine as a basis, it's not surprising that the militant-constitutionalist movement has taken strongest hold among farmers, ranchers, and others with their livelihood staked in the land. They don't carry briefcases. They don't own stock portfolios. They home-school their children. They're hooked up by short-wave. They have given up voting and registering their vehicles and guns. There is a distinct line they cross--sometimes when the next delinquent tax bill arrives in the mail, sometimes when the sheriff knocks on the door with an eviction notice--and it is a line that most will never see again. Out there over the line, there are those like Sonny Lundeen and Paul Ekblad who've gone down fighting without violence. And then there are those who Mike McGrath calls "the green beret military people here in Burnett County," folks who send $163 to Annie in Show Low, Arizona, for the Emergency Unit supply kit listed in the October 1995 issue of Veritas. Or the Security Unit. Or the Family Unit, a package that includes 1,115 pounds of sugar, flour, lentils and other staples--enough to feed a family of four for a year should it become impossible to leave your property.
You'll want to wear boots, Jean Ekblad said on the phone after giving me directions to their place a couple of miles outside the town of Anderson. The farmhouse sits at the end of a long, muddy driveway, on a low rise behind an old pine windbreak. It is surrounded by a dilapidated milkhouse, a vacant barn, and a field littered with toppled beehives that haven't been stocked or kept up since her husband was transported to the Oregon Correctional Institution just south of Madison in July last year. Most early evenings, one of their daughters comes by to have supper with Jean in the kitchen and keep her company, clipping coupons and compiling legal documents for mailing down to the prison.
Her husband is like a phantom presence around the county, Jean says. When she drives the county backroads, coming home from the elementary school in Frederic where she teaches kindergarten or heading to church up the road, she can see the basis of her husband's "philosophical doctrine" in every boarded-up farmhouse and land-for-sale posting. "Paul's absence is like a good wind gone out of these fields," she says by way of analogy. "I'm not a dramatic person, I'm not a poet, but what this time feels like is good preparation for widowhood."
Mike McGrath describes Paul Ekblad as "the kindest, the gentlest, one of the most intelligent beings walking the planet. I guarantee you that if our forefathers were alive, he would be a hero. He'd be the guy who rode the horse--the Paul Revere--warning all the people of the coming attack." If you could see the man, he went on, you'd notice first thing his hands: frail, callused from years in the strawberry fields, but feisty when he gets talking. Jean describes him as "a man who'd give the shirt off his back to help, even to those authorities he's quarreling with now." Even Ken Kutz, the district attorney whose office brought the final charges against him, characterized Ekblad as "a very resourceful individual. Even after we gave him two kicks at the cat to stay out of jail, he stuck to his principles and went down like some kind of modern-day martyr."
In a biographical sketch on file at the Grantsburg town library, Paul's sister gives an account of the family history, beginning with their father, Hjalmer Ekblad, who travelled to the high grassland area of inner Mongolia as a missionary in 1914. Out of seven children, she writes, "only my brother and I survived. The rest are buried in the missionary cemetery up there. Dad also buried both his first wife and my Mom. Seven graves from our family... in just 13 months!" In 1936, Hjalmer Ekblad took his two children, ages 6 and 7, to the last boat stop in Japan, where they were boarded for a six-week transpacific trip to the United States. Two years later, the family reunited and settled on the farm just south of Grantsburg. By the time her husband finished eighth grade at the schoolhouse that still stands a mile up the road, Jean says, he'd read the entire set of encyclopedias. The Grantsburg librarian, to whom Wild River Patriot antics just aren't funny anymore, remembers her classmate Paul as "the brightest young man you'd ever want to meet. Intelligent, well-mannered--what a shame he couldn't stay inside the law with it."
Paul Ekblad owned this land free and clear in the late 1970s when he started studying land-trust laws and the U.S. Constitution. Between 1980 and 1983, he quit-claimed his "allodial freehold" to two protectorates called Hillside Trust and Blessing Farm Trust, whose trustees are scattered throughout Wisconsin and Minnesota. Then he stopped paying property taxes, standing on the belief that his land was "constitutionally free from any feudal arrangements." In 1988, during one of the most severe droughts on record, the first of his legal disputes with county officials began when Ekblad diverted irrigation water to his strawberry crop from the Trade River, a small creek running through Hillside acreage. Burnett County charged him with diversion of public water without a valid DNR permit and fined Ekblad $696, to be paid within 90 days. Ten months later, a circuit court judge found him in contempt of court for failure to pay the fine, and sentenced Ekblad to a month in the Siren jail, which he served. In 1991, Ekblad attempted without success to sue several DNR officials "who have acted without constitutional jurisdiction in this matter" and government agents "caught prowling around my buildings when the land was lawfully posted."
It was during this time, Jean Ekblad remembers, that the Board of Supervisors began to "get aggressively serious" about the hundreds of delinquent property tax cases on the books in Burnett County. A majority of these were levied on lots up at Voyager Village, against tax deed holders from out of state who'd watched membership fees go up and land values go down until they simply vacated the area. These properties were seized and auctioned off by the dozen at public sales over several years. The district attorney claims to have no exact figures as to the total amount garnered from these sales, but calls the level of delinquent back taxes at the time "astronomical, somewhere near the million-dollar mark." Burnett County was falling so far in the hole, he says, the county board was informed that public schools in Grantsburg and Frederic were in jeopardy of going bankrupt.
The county board also discovered a number of properties, including the Ekblad's Blessing Hill and Hillside Trusts, occupied by a network of Wild River Patriots who had intentionally refused to pay overdue taxes, sometimes for up to 11 years. "At that point, we determined this Patriot group to be comparable, in philosophy and certain tactics, to the Posse Comitatus over in Tigerton Dells," Ken Kutz recalls. "We identified Ken Edaburn and Sonny Lundeen and Paul Ekblad, especially Ekblad, as being the minds behind a whole rash of cases showing up in court. They were, I'd guess, about 10 years behind the Posse, and not as militant, but it was prevalent over a four-county area and based in Burnett. We started getting calls from the Wisconsin Department of Revenue, who saw this stuff blossoming and maybe getting out of hand. A lot of the paperwork we were forced to deal with had been generated by Ekblad--I'd say it was more than any other case we've handled, with the possible exception of a first-degree homicide."
That paperwork--a bail of documents pocked with handwritten marginalia and correction fluid--was, says Jean Ekblad, an attempt to stop the county from proceeding to seize deeds to their 200-acre trusts on delinquent property tax charges dating back to 1980. That year, the amount owed was listed with the county treasurer as $800. By 1992, after the Hillside and Blessing Farm titles were finally transferred to Burnett County, the debt was calculated, by a low estimate, at nearly 10 times that amount. By 1993, Ekblad had appeared before at least three different judges a dozen times, refusing the assistance of any court-appointed lawyer "as they do not comprehend the intricacies of my constitutional stance." He cited Article I, Section 14 of the state constitution, the Organic Wisconsin Constitution of 1848, Fourth Amendment guarantees against illegal property seizures--clear and simple bans, in his view, on the county's practice of evicting residents from their farms and profiting off subsequent sales. The judge, once again, ruled against Ekblad.
What happened next is still a topic of coffee-break talk around the government center on a slow day. After serving another 30 days on contempt of court charges, Paul Ekblad and his family were forcefully evicted from their farmhouse and escorted off the property with, as his wife recalls, " a few belongings--boxes of photos, some clothes, a few utensils--that we might be needing." But, she adds, they left most of their possessions inside, planning, as they did, to return once a higher court ruled in their favor.
In January 1994, Burnett County accepted sealed bids on three 40-acre parcels of Hillside Trust land, and awarded the deeds to buyers from St. Croix Falls and Luck for a total of $39,100; soon after the sale, Henry Forsyth, a friend of the family's from Clear Lake, bought the Blessing Farm property on which the farmhouse is located for $40,000 and turned the place back over to the Ekblads. While the actual amount of taxes owed is still in dispute ($7,000 by the Ekblad's count, $23,000 by the clerk of court's), it is a matter of record that the county is set to pocket between $56,000 and $72,000 by the time all contracts are paid. Two months after the sales, in March 1994, Ekblad filed an official protest in the form of liens totaling $12,209,500 against the personal properties of the Burnett County Board of Supervisors "for violating their oaths of office in the stealing of my land and my sovereign... dignity."
"And that, in the end, is why Paul is behind bars today," Jean Ekblad says, pushing across the kitchen table a folder containing a December 13, 1994 jury verdict against her husband, who refused to move from the spectator section during his trial, and asked that he be known as "John Doe I" during opening arguments. In all, Paul Ekblad was convicted on 15 Class E felony counts of "submitting for recording liens relating to title, in real property, knowing the contents to be false, sham, or frivolous."
"This is Wild River territory, and what that comes down to is a few citizens willing to stand up and say no to our rights being washed away. It is Sonny Lundeen who understands all the sophisticated laws that allow this county to steal free land. It is Mike McGrath with knowledge of the secret bureaucracies behind so much of the chaos making our lives unrecognizable even to us living them. And it is my husband who stood up and put his body on the line for our constitutional rights. Someone must do this. Someone must fight it."
Turning away from the table for a moment to steady her composure, Jean Ekblad says: "I suspect, after all I've seen said and done, that we may be fools to believe in a just government. I wonder if it isn't time for some kind of revolution. I'm hoping it turns out to be a peaceful one."
In July of last year, Paul Ekblad was transported from the jail in Siren to a prison cell three hours from home, where he is scheduled to stay until 2005, when he would be 76 years old. In recent letters to Mike McGrath and Sonny Lundeen, Ekblad reports that his work assignment in the greenhouses is going well. He worries that the so-called owners of Hillside Trust's back 40 have been clearing timber without permission. He sends his regards to his wife and children. He mentions an article he's just read about paramilitary agents performing covert exercises near the U.S.-Mexico border, and another about promising arguments that have stood up on appeal in a Nevada courtroom. Thank you for the stamps, he writes, which have been put to good use in pursuing my post-conviction relief; we must continue down this road, for it is my sense that there is shame only in living a life of quiet desperation. CP