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FBI: ‘Sovereign citizen’ cases on the rise

March 16, 2011

Atlantic Journal Constitution, 7 March 2011: Federal authorities are seeing an increase in the number of  foreclosed and unoccupied homes in metro Atlanta being seized by members of an anti-government group.

“I’m not sure I can connect it with the economy, but we’ve seen a surge of these in the last year, in particular,” Stephen Emmett, special agent in the Atlanta field office of the FBI, said Saturday. Emmet said federal and local authorities increasingly are running into confrontations with members of a sect known as “sovereign citizens.”

The group believes banks can’t own land or property and that any home owned by a bank — including the thousands of foreclosed properties throughout Georgia — are theirs for the taking.

“They’re expanding throughout the Metro Atlanta area,” Emmett said. “DeKalb has had (its) fair share of problems with them and now Clayton.”

On Friday, Clayton County SWAT was called to a foreclosed home near Riverdale where a couple had been living illegally. SWAT members surrounded the house after getting reports the people inside had threatened violence against anyone who approached the house. Gideon Israel and his wife, Deborah, had been living illegally in the bank-owned, gray stucco house on Stimson way near Riverdale in the northwest part of Clayton County and had submitted reams of fraudulent paperwork to county officials to try to block the eviction, according to Major Jeff Mitchell, who heads the enforcement division for the Clayton County Sheriff’s Office.

The Israels were not charged and left without incident. Shortly after, cleanup crews for the bank put furniture and other belongings on the lawn and boarded up the house.

Mitchell said the Riverdale couple is thought to be part of  the sovereign citizen sect.

“We’re trying to identify other sovereign citizen cases in the county,” Mitchell said, noting local law enforcement is working with the FBI to target group members.

Sovereign citizens don’t believe courts have jurisdiction over them. They don’t believe in paying taxes or acquiring driver’s licenses or car tags.

They do, however, believe abandoned properties are ripe for the taking. They often use quit-claim deeds to take over properties and as soon as they move in post trespassing signs warning people to stay off the property.

The group uses YouTube to educate the public about their philosophy and recruit new members.

The Riverdale incident is among at least two dozen Atlanta-area incidents of  home takeovers by the sovereign citizens, including a $1 million home in south DeKalb County seized by the sect last year. Authorities say the sect has taken over 20 metro Atlanta properties, including a shopping center.

The FBI has listed Sovereign Citizens as a domestic terrorist organization. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which also tracks the group,  estimates the sect numbers more than 300,000 nationwide.

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