Death and Taxes

In the murky underground of patriots, tax resisters, and cash-strapped working stiffs, Karl Granse's basement is Law Central. Now he's about to watch his most famous

The window in Karl Granse's basement office is open and fall's first frigid breeze fills the room. A slender, energetic figure whose thick silver hair curls below the collar of his sport coat, Granse scarcely notices. He's pacing the arms-length space between two walls, one lined with hundreds of in-boxes dripping with legal documents, the other covered with bookshelves groaning under the weight of faded gray law books. His arms flail at the frosty air as he outlines government injustice, intricate taxation theories, and the raw power of the Constitution.

Over in one corner, behind the photocopier, there's a plaque congratulating withstanding the "lies" and "misinformation" a Donahue audience heaped on him and his disciple James Nichols two years ago. They were there to talk about the Oklahoma City bombing and Nichols's brother Terry, another Granse follower and one of two men awaiting trial for the conflagration.

The days and months following Oklahoma City might well have been Karl Granse's finest hour. A self-styled legal expert who'd spent years preaching anti-tax rhetoric to angry farmers, desperate working stiffs, and a variety of alienated souls in the murky patriot underground, the Lakeville man was finally perched on the fringe of a big case.

On April 21, 1995, a set of cassette tapes containing Granse's lectures on how to drop out of the "corrupt" American legal and political system had turned up under the front seat of a truck belonging to James Nichols, whom the FBI suspected of having ties to the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. Suddenly, Granse was headline material by association, the anti-government mentor of one of the suspected conspirators. At the time, you couldn't turn on a TV anywhere in America without encountering features on the patriot movement. The honchos in the Michigan Militia, whose meetings McVeigh and the Nichols brothers reportedly attended, made Nightline several times.

This moment had been a long time coming. For more than a decade, Granse had been advising people who attended the anti-tax seminars he held throughout the country. He'd travel frequently to work on their trials, invoking his belief that nothing in U.S. law compels private individuals to pay income taxes. He'd also been fighting his own tax battles in Minnesota, often representing himself. But never before had the stakes been as high as with the Decker, Michigan, farmer he'd met just six months before.

Granse, who's not a lawyer, says he researched the case from his subterranean office and cranked out a writ of habeas corpus that finally freed James Nichols from a Detroit jail. (The government says Nichols's release came simply because federal officials failed to find any evidence linking him to the bomb plot.) Then he turned his attention to the other alleged bombers: Tim McVeigh, who earlier this year was convicted of driving the explosive-laden truck and sentenced to death; and James Nichols's brother Terry, who this week goes on trial on charges he conspired with McVeigh.

Granse spent a day with McVeigh's defender, who Granse says closed down his participation by declaring that Granse was asking to have the government put on trial. Indeed, Granse argues that the government itself carried out the terrorist attack, and McVeigh was nothing more than the misunderstood patriot Clinton & Co. hoped to use to malign the movement.

In June 1995, Granse finally got Terry Nichols on the phone from his jail cell for about 20 minutes. A tape recording of the conversation reveals that the self-styled legal adviser did most of the talking. Granse advised Nichols not to "stand mute before the court" because it would "only make the judge angry." He also asked Nichols to send him copies of all the charges against him along with some other court papers. Nichols, who according to his brother is very happy with his attorneys, never sent the documents.

James Nichols still calls Granse frequently in search of advice, as does Nichols's mother, Joyce Wilt. Granse also has a starring role in a low-budget video titled "Anguish in Oklahoma City" that's being distributed by associates with Web pages. But now his audience is once again mostly confined to the fluid world of anti-government tax protesters. He continues to travel and lecture others about how to stop paying income taxes and live without driver's licenses and other "illegal" constrictions imposed on people by government. A recent three-day workshop at the downtown Anchorage Holiday Inn set attendees back $150 each. The in-boxes lining his walls contain briefs he's preparing for hundreds of people--workshop attendees and other folks whose tax protests have landed them in legal trouble.

The documents usually get blown to shreds by the courts, but that only proves Granse's point. "You try to get a fair trial when you come to the federal government, or you're dealing with the IRS," he ventures. "That's like committing suicide."

Granse swears he can trace his lineage all the way back to Francis Bacon, the British tax protester who died in 1652. His ancestors settled in Minnesota in the 1800s; he was raised in White Bear Lake by parents he will describe only as businesspeople. They struggled frequently with the IRS, he says, and it's their last audit he blames for his mother's fatal heart attack.

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