Domestic Terrorism

Sovereign citizens seek to undermine government, sometimes with violence

Ken Auman has lost track of how many times he’s been stopped for driving without a license plate. He’s filed dozens of motions in lawsuits around the metro area, accusing city and county officials of corruption, harassment and violating his rights.

He’s sued a mortgage company for “stealing” his house in a foreclosure and is the target of multiple cases filed in Johnson County District Court, including one filed by the city of Mission — which he refers to as “an artificial entity with no inalienable rights.”

Auman, 56, is a sovereign citizen.

Sometimes referred to as freemen, sovereign citizens believe the government is corrupt and out of control; therefore, they do not recognize local, state or federal authority.

And authorities say the loosely organized movement, which has been around in various forms for decades, is in the midst of a major growth spurt and a surge in violence.

A recent Department of Homeland Security assessment says there have been 24 violent incidents associated with sovereign citizens since 2010.

Indeed, the FBI now considers sovereign citizen extremists “as comprising a domestic terrorist movement.”

Auman doesn’t see himself that way.

“Of course we’re not dangerous,” he said. “The only dangerous people are the moles that the government sends in.”

Auman said he has been involved in sovereign issues since a lending company foreclosed on his Overland Park house in 2003. Through research and meetings, he decided that the government was corrupt at all levels.

“We probably had 20 to 40 core people that knew each other, emailed each other every day, asked each other for support, went to court to be witnesses,” he said. “Half the people in our group are in jail now.”

Auman said the country “is functioning under a dictatorship right now.”

A good example, he said, is requiring drivers to have licenses. Driving is a right, he said — it can’t be regulated. That’s why many sovereign citizens carry what they call “traveling cards” instead of licenses.

Auman said he has tried using a form of ID called a “declaration of status” instead of a driver’s license.

“I tried this one time when I got pulled over in Overland Park,” Auman said. “He asked for my ID. He looked at it and I got arrested, so I stopped doing it.”

He’s also tried going without a license plate.

“Vehicles are private property; the government can’t force you to register private property,” he said. “So yeah, I didn’t do the tag for gosh, 10 years.”

How many times did he get pulled over? “Oh, constantly,” he said. “But I think I beat somewhere between 50 and 75 tickets for the first eight years.”

Sovereign tactics

Some tactics are designed to harass and intimidate the courts, law enforcement, government officials and even employees of financial institutions, the FBI says. Sovereigns do that by refusing to cooperate, forging documents such as fake money orders or personal checks, and filing frivolous lawsuits or fraudulent property liens against those they consider their enemies. It’s called “paper terrorism.”

While not violent, such acts create huge expenses and time-consuming paperwork nightmares for both the courts and the victims.

Other actions have sometimes resulted in prison sentences.

One is called “redemption,” a concept that authorities say is a cross between sovereign citizen ideology and downright scam. According to the theory, when the U.S. went off the gold standard in 1933, it began pledging its citizens as collateral for the nation’s debts, selling birth certificates and Social Security numbers as a government security on the stock exchange.

So each U.S. citizen, the theory goes, has a net worth of between $630,000 and many millions that’s kept in a secret Treasury account. Some sovereigns believe that people can draw from their “straw man” accounts by filing certain documents.

That’s what federal prosecutors in Kansas City say Joshua and Kristen Simonson, both 35 at the time, tried to do.

The Oak Grove couple was convicted in 2012 of an $800,000 tax fraud scheme and charges of mail fraud, money laundering and using fictitious financial instruments.

Prosecutors said the couple filed for refunds for taxes they said were withheld on interest income they’d earned. They received refund checks for more than $810,000 even though they hadn’t earned or paid taxes on any interest income. When the IRS eventually ordered them to pay the money back, prosecutors said, they wrote two fictitious checks for nearly $1.4 million allegedly drawn on an account at the Federal Reserve Bank in Atlanta in an attempt to draw out of their “straw man” accounts.

The jury took less than two hours to find them guilty on all counts. Joshua Simonson was sentenced to nearly 13 years in prison; Kristen Simonson got six.

Posse ideology

The sovereign citizens have their roots in the Posse Comitatus, an anti-government movement that gained momentum in the 1970s and ’80s by spreading its ideology throughout the farm belt amid an agricultural crisis in rural America. In the 1990s, the movement became known as the freemen and made national headlines when a group in Montana engaged in an 81-day standoff with the FBI.

Modern-day sovereign citizens have evolved, said Bob Harris, a former Federal Bureau of Prisons case manager who now teaches law enforcement officers how to identify and handle domestic extremists.

“The whole demographics of the movement have changed,” he said. “It used to be when you closed your eyes and said, ‘Give me a mental picture of a sovereign citizen,’ it was an old, fat white guy in his 40s and 50s.”

Now, he said, those practicing sovereign citizen ideology are from all age groups and ethnic backgrounds.

“It’s becoming more mainstream, acceptable,” he said. “You’re finding younger, more educated Americans getting involved — architects, dentists, physicians, business owners.”

He said the movement also has shifted from one with a racist component to one with a more political aspect.

“In fact, you can find almost as many African-Americans in the movement as you can Caucasians,” Harris said.

Bob Paudert, the former police chief of West Memphis, Ark., said portions of the sovereign citizens’ message are attractive to many people.

“I agree with a lot of what the sovereign citizens say — taxes are too high, the federal government is too powerful, politicians only care about themselves,” said Paudert, whose son and another police officer were gunned down by sovereign citizens during a traffic stop in 2010. “But even though we might believe some of those things, they still hate us.”

Examples of violence have been piling up in recent years.

In August 2012, a group with ties to the sovereign citizen movement was charged in connection with the ambush and murder of two St. John the Baptist Parish sheriff’s deputies who had tracked the group to a trailer park in LaPlace, La.

The rampage began when their vehicle was leaving at the end of a graveyard shift for a refinery contractor. An off-duty deputy working as a security guard pulled them over and asked the driver for his license. But the driver, who refused to carry a license, sped off and his son allegedly fired an AK-47 at the deputy’s car, striking him four times, according to authorities.

The group then drove to a trailer park where they’d been staying. Four deputies quickly arrived, and two were killed in the ensuing shootout.

The two men accused of firing the deadly shots are charged with capital murder and awaiting trial. One, Kyle Joekel, had evaded authorities in Marshall County, Kan., a year earlier.

Joekel was living in Nebraska at the time, said Marshall County Sheriff Dan Hargrave, whose county extends north to the Nebraska line.

Joekel went into a Nebraska bar and said he was going to Kansas to kill a cop, Hargrave told The Star.

“We intercepted him right at Marysville, then he led my officers back north toward Nebraska,” he said.

Joekel crashed his pickup in the tiny town of Oketo, Kan., then escaped.

“Then we heard about the officers being shot down in Louisiana,” Hargrave said. “It was terrible. I just wish we’d have gotten him that night.”

Scott Roeder, who shot Wichita abortion doctor George Tiller in a church in 2009, was associated with the sovereign citizen movement. In 1996, he was pulled over while driving a car with a license plate that read “Sovereign private property. Immunity declared by law. Non-commercial American.” File photo by Mike Hutmacher The Wichita Eagle

The Kansas City area man who killed Wichita abortion doctor George Tiller in 2009 also was involved in the movement.

Scott Roeder was arrested in Topeka in 1996 when Shawnee County sheriff’s deputies stopped him for not having a proper license plate. Roeder, who then lived in Silver Lake, Kan., had a license plate that read “Sovereign private property. Immunity declared by law. Non-commercial American.”

In Roeder’s car, officers said they found ammunition, a blasting cap, a fuse cord, a 1-pound can of gunpowder and two 9-volt batteries, with one connected to a switch that could have been used to trigger a bomb.

Harris and others who have tracked the movement for years say they doubt the threat of violence will decrease anytime soon.

“It doesn’t matter who is in the White House,” Harris said. “To them, the government has become an illegal oppressor. And police officers have become the symbol of the government’s authority to oppress them.”

To reach Judy L. Thomas, call 816-234-4334 or send email to