Plainfield -- It wasn't long after a federal jury found Ed and Elaine Brown guilty of tax evasion that a campfire got going beneath the “Don't Tread on Me” flags draped at the entrance to the couple's wooded, 110-acre property.
“You have to wonder how many eyes are out there in the woods watching us,” said Dave Ridley, a libertarian activist who had just finished nailing a sign -- “Taxes support torture. I support Browns.” -- to a maple tree next to the ice-glazed driveway.
Ridley was referring to fears -- trumpeted in media coverage of the Browns' case this week -- that Ed Brown's decision to stop attending his own trial and hunker down with a handgun at his house could lead to a Ruby Ridge-style shootout with federal agents. Ed Brown warned Wednesday of a “mini-Waco” if U.S. marshals seek to arrest him on his land.
But authorities say they have no such plans. And on the third day of Ed Brown's self-imposed state of siege at his palatial Plainfield home, the atmosphere was reminiscent less of the Branch Davidian compound than of a college sit-in. There were the signs, the banners, the impromptu fire, the excited riffing on Big Government's myriad crimes.
Ridley said he sometimes wears a gun on his hip, to demonstrate his Second Amendment rights. But when he came to the Browns' place, he left the piece behind.
“I'm not going to hurt them (federal agents), I don't think hardly anybody here is, this bunch, anyway,” Ridley said, waving his arm to indicate the three people, all fellow members of the libertarian Free State Project, who were gathered watching a white plume of smoke from their fire rise into the trees. “But I'm sure not going to help them.”
The Browns have refused since 1996 to pay income tax to the United States government, decrying that tax as an illicit extension of federal power. But the jury didn't buy their arguments and yesterday convicted the couple on all counts, including conspiracy to defraud the federal government and conspiracy to disguise large financial transactions and disguising large financial transactions.
The jury decided the Browns plotted to hide their income and avoid taxes on Elaine Brown's income of $1.9 million between 1996 and 2003. Over 10 years, they also used $215,890 of postal money orders broken into increments just below the reporting threshold to pay for their hilltop compound and for Elaine Brown's dental offices.
The jury also found she didn't pay adequate taxes for her practice's employees, leading to a total of 17 felony convictions. The jury found the Browns must forfeit $215,000, at least part of which must be satisfied by giving up their home or the dental practice's offices.
The Browns' sentences are to be announced April 24.
“I just hope this (verdict) sends a message to those who would rely on frivolous tax theories,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Bill Morse said afterward.
The Browns' quarrel with the U.S. government is shared by a group sometimes known as “tax protesters” -- some object to the label, saying they object only to illegal taxes, not taxation in general -- who say there is no law on the books justifying a federal income tax. They support their views with a dizzying array of arguments: that the 16th Amendment, which instituted the income tax, was never properly ratified; that it is illegal for the federal government to levy a tax on labor; that Federal Reserve notes are not a lawful currency and thus cannot be taxed.
Judges, including Judge Steven McAuliffe, who presided over the Browns' trial in Concord, have not to looked kindly on these arguments when they have come up in court, and case law tends to run against the tax protest movement, according to The Tax Protester FAQ, a document published on the Internet by Daniel Evans, a Philadelphia estate lawyer who follows the cases.
“The jury's across-the-board rejection of the defendants' frivolous tax arguments sends a clear message to others who might be tempted to defy tax laws on similar grounds,” U.S. Attorney Tom Colantuono said of the Browns' verdict in a statement released by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Only Elaine Brown was in the courthouse for the news. Ed Brown stopped going to court halfway through the trial, asserting that the U.S. District Court in Concord occupies land that was never ceded by the state of New Hampshire to the U.S. government -- and is thus a “kangaroo court.” Elaine Brown has continued to attend the trial, but the judge has ordered her to stay with her son in Worcester, Mass., and not to return to the house in Plainfield.
Ed Brown, speaking to the Valley News yesterday in his garage while a public access TV crew rolled documentary footage, said he had expected the verdict, and that he would not appeal it, since he wasn't actually “guilty” of any crime.
Has Brown left his house at all this week?
“I don't have to,” he said. “People bring down the mail. They bring me my milk, my butter and my schnapps.”
Brown, a former hairdresser and exterminator, is a member of the United States Constitution Rangers, a militia. He has made some defiant pronouncements over the past three days. “You attack my property, it's going to get real violent, I don't care who it is,” he said Tuesday during an interview in his kitchen. But he has not always stayed on message.
“There's only five things in the world that cover your entire life: shelter, plants, containers, tools and transportation,” he said, shortly thereafter.
Yesterday, New Hampshire-based U.S. Marshal Stephen Monier said it is all but certain that a warrant for Brown's arrest will be issued. But he said he would have discretion to serve that warrant as he wishes and is determined to avoid a fight.
“We're not going to go in there and create any kind of armed standoff,” Monier said. “That's not on the table. It's not going to happen.”
He added, “We're keeping this in perspective. It's a tax case. It’s not a violent felony.”
Nevertheless, rumors of a standoff have persisted, fueled in part by comments from anti-government Web sites. At least one of those sites, run by Mark Yannone, a member of the Libertarian Party and former congressional candidate from Arizona, seemed to foretell the hard-to-define ambience at the Brown homestead in a post dated Monday evening: “The nationwide call has gone out on Rick Stanley's Standing Up for America Radio Show for Americans to peacefully assemble at Ed and Elaine Brown's property line -- armed with weapons and cameras -- to protect them with a virtual ‘wall of Americans.’ ”
“Publicity is the balm of safety on something like this,” Ridley said, noting his appreciation for visits from at least a half-dozen newspapers, as well as several television stations, including the local Fox News affiliate, over the past few days.
Bernie Bastian, a carpenter from the Concord area who is staying with Ed Brown, said he thought the presence of peaceful supporters “keeps them (authorities) from doing what they might be directed to do. It wouldn't be good public relations to come in here with storm troopers and be shooting innocent people, unarmed people.”
Bastian, 50, stood in Brown's garage in a flannel shirt, blue jeans and moccasin slippers. He said he'd brought no weapons.
Brown is armed, always: he carries a handgun tucked into his pants. It is unclear whether he has any other guns in the house, or whether his supporters have brought any. Brown, in his cryptic manner, responded to questions by saying that he had no guns other than those that were not taken in May, when investigators removed 35 firearms from the house. Brown said they didn't get all the guns.
“How stupid would I be not to protect myself with this madness going on?” he said.
John Miller, 23, and his mother, Marie Miller, are also staying with Brown. “If we were to have weapons, they would just come in and wipe us out,” John Miller said. “We don't want to get slaughtered like at Waco.” He also said the failure of promised supporters to materialize in Plainfield has been “very disappointing. I'm on the camera, Channel 9, begging people to come out here. We’re here ready to go to the death for this nation that’s not helping us.”
As of yesterday afternoon, reporters and newscasters outnumbered Brown's visible supporters at his property.
“We'll see,” Brown said. “Maybe nobody will show up. Who knows.”
Among the mixed coterie that has gravitated to Brown's home is John Stoddard Klar, a former tax lawyer -- the irony was not lost on him, he said -- who became devoutly religious after a serious illness.
Klar, from Irasburg, Vt., is 43 and has dark, wavy hair. He recently wrote and published a book that uses scripture to criticize the Bush administration. In marked contrast to those around him, he actually believes in a “progressive” tax structure that redistributes wealth. Klar said he initially got in touch with Brown hoping to mediate between him and the federal government, but chose instead to come and film a documentary about him for Northeast Kingdom TV, a public-access station.
Klar doesn't share Brown's views about the legality of the income tax -- he has other concerns about what he says is the swelling power and oppressiveness of the U.S. government -- but hoped to shed light on his views.
“He's made his decision,” Klar said. “I think others are wondering.”
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS contributed to this report.