FALL CITY — As King County sheriff’s deputies set up roadblocks, turning around logging trucks, semis and cars, the agency’s Guardian One helicopter circled a farmhouse from the air.
“We have an order signed by a judge,” one of the pilots
said over a loudspeaker, ordering those inside to come out with their hands
up. “You are now surrounded by the King County Sheriff’s Office. You have
nowhere to go.”
Crisis negotiators tried to make contact by phone, but their calls were
disconnected. A tactical team swept through outbuildings and an RV, finding no one. One man ran from the farmhouse, and deputies quickly arrested him.
But a woman remained inside.
An explosive charge boomed, reducing the back door to wood splinters and
glass shards. Then the tactical team fired tear gas rounds through a front window, the chemical irritant finally forcing the woman outside.
The hourlong standoff this month marked Teri Sahm’s second eviction from her foreclosed 4-acre property, which was sold at auction in January.
Sheriff’s officials learned of her involvement in the sovereign citizen movement and found an untraceable ghost gun the first time around. So they weren’t taking any chances when they returned to remove her from the white, wood-sided house on Southeast Fall City-Snoqualmie Road.
Although Sahm disavows the term “sovereign citizen” as an oxymoron, her ideology clearly aligns with the extremist anti-government movement that has been deeply rooted in Washington since its beginnings in the 1970s, said Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow with the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.
“The movement is alive and well in Washington. … There’s a rich history
there,” he said in a phone interview from Ohio.
It’s unknown how many of the roughly 300,000 adherents across the country live in Washington. But whether they now call themselves “American state nationals” or “American citizens,” they share the same core belief that local, state and federal governments have no authority over their lives — and they use the same tactics to intimidate, harass or retaliate against those who cross them.
With a history of instigating violent confrontations with law enforcement, members of the sovereign citizen movement — no matter how they identify — are still considered a threat to officer safety, Pitcavage said.
As Sahm sat handcuffed in the back seat of a sheriff’s SUV, she vowed to return to the land she believes she has the right to occupy.
“Do you actually think it’s justice taking place here today? I’m a 65-year-old woman who’s told them the truth over and over again. They don’t listen,” she told The Seattle Times, referring to sheriff’s deputies and court officials. “What people think of as their government is not their government — it’s an illegal corporation, and they steal from you every single day.”
Sovereign citizen roots and beliefs
Sahm is a follower of Anna Maria Riezinger, a self-proclaimed judge from Big Lake, Alaska, who goes by Anna von Reitz. She’s posted hundreds of articles and videos that purport to educate people about their stolen freedoms and the paperwork they need to file to protect themselves from supposed government criminals.
Less than a week after Sahm was arrested June 2 for criminal trespass and obstructing law enforcement, the two women recorded a split-screen video discussion about Sahm’s eviction and her plan to fight it in court. The same washed-out facsimile of an American flag, with blue stars and red stripes on a white background, hung behind them.
“Deep in their hearts, they know what they’re doing is wrong, deluded,” von Reitz said of the sheriff’s armed response to Sahm’s refusal to leave her former home. “… They are going to pay and pay dearly before this is done.”
The sovereign citizen movement began as an offshoot of the 1950s tax protests, and many early adopters were also white supremacists, said Pitcavage, who since the 1990s has taught police agencies across the country about sovereign citizens.
“Sovereign citizens believe that in times of yore, there were not all these laws, rules, regulations, court orders, taxes and everything else dangling over people’s head like a sword of Damocles. People followed God’s law and common law,” he said.
Members of the movement believe a conspiracy began to infiltrate and subvert the U.S. government in the 1800s, replacing it over time with an illegitimate, tyrannical government that took hold so slowly most people didn’t notice, Pitcavage said.
Sovereign citizens believe they can take certain legal actions to essentially divorce themselves from the government, spurning modern courts, laws and taxes to return “to God and the common law,” he said.
To sovereign citizens, everything from a birth certificate to a ZIP code represents a fraudulent contract with an illegitimate government. Many create their own driver’s licenses and license plates. They also don’t believe in paper money or paying back credit card debt or loans, as banks and credit card companies are “just pushing paper around,” Pitcavage said.
Financially desperate people make up the bulk of sovereign citizens, and the movement’s ranks tend to grow during hard economic times, as was the case during the Great Recession.
Though the sovereign citizen movement was born in the U.S., it spread to
Canada in the mid-1990s, then Australia, New Zealand and the U.K. before cropping up in recent years in other European countries. And while the movement may have first appealed to white supremacists, sovereign citizens now come from all backgrounds.
“It has this appeal to people [who want] to get out from underneath the government, to get something for nothing, to get out of debt. Whatever you want personally, it offers you that,” Pitcavage said.
Tactics include “paper terrorism”
While Sahm and von Reitz characterized the sheriff’s response as an overreaction, Pitcavage said sheriff’s officials were right to take every precaution, as confrontations with sovereign citizens often result in “spontaneous violence.”
He said a police officer is killed during an encounter with a sovereign citizen almost every year. In a notorious 2010 incident, a father and son from Ohio killed two Arkansas police officers during a traffic stop over what appeared to be homemade license plates, according to news reports.
“A routine traffic stop or a routine residence visit can suddenly turn into an armed standoff or shootout,” Pitcavage said.
Sovereign citizens’ favorite weapon, however, is what Pitcavage refers to as “paper terrorism.” He said sovereign citizens use fake legal documents — or misuse real ones — to target perceived enemies.
Bogus liens against the property of individual targets like public officials and law enforcement officers are the most common example.
“To get rid of a lien and clear the title, you do have to hire an attorney and
go to court and do a quiet title action, and it’ll cost you thousands of dollars
— versus the $50 filing fee the sovereign had to pay to file it,” Pitcavage said.
Two evictions in three months
One of Sahm’s Fall City neighbors said Sahm removed her mailbox several years ago, began spouting far-right rhetoric, put a fake license plate on her car and bragged about the lawsuits she’d filed — which were all dismissed for lack of evidence.
As a result, neighbors stopped inviting her to gatherings.
“Then, all of a sudden, she started hosting these meetings with these militia
types,” said the neighbor, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he fears becoming a target of retaliation. “It was a scary group … and you’d see 20 or 30 cars parked out there every Saturday or Sunday.”
Sahm, who purchased the three-bedroom farmhouse in 2004, stopped paying her mortgage in 2017, and the bank foreclosed on the property last October, according to court and property records. The property was sold at auction in January for $699,000, and the new owner discovered Sahm and several other people were still living there.
The owner obtained a civil court order known as an unlawful detainer, and members of the sheriff’s civil unit went to the property in April to evict Sahm, according to an incident report. She refused to come outside, and deputies forced entry and told her she had 24 hours to leave with her belongings, the report states.
Deputies found an unregistered, untraceable ghost gun, which they disabled and returned, according to the report.
While detectives were waiting for movers to arrive that same day, “multiple people showed up claiming to be sovereign citizens, there to protect Teri’s rights and defend her freedoms,” the report states. “According to civil detectives, these individuals were even more confrontational … and seemed versed in the sovereign citizen movement.”
Sahm broke back into the house two days later and resumed living there, forcing the owner to return to court to obtain a second eviction order, a sheriff’s detective said.
Concerned that evicting Sahm a second time could turn violent, the Sheriff’s Office formed a tactical plan to safely remove her from the farmhouse and ensure her cohorts couldn’t reach the property to provide reinforcements.
“My biggest fear going into this was that a person or persons, given their
political ideology, would force an armed confrontation — that they’d begin
shooting at us or destroying property,” said one of the tactical team sergeants, who, like others who participated in the eviction, asked not to be named to protect themselves and their families from becoming “paper terrorism” targets.
“I’m still trying to wrap my head around it,” the sergeant said. “Maybe she fell on financial hardship and this ideology gave her hope.”
From the time the sheriff’s Guardian One helicopter was airborne over the scene, it took about an hour before Sahm was handcuffed and put in the back of the patrol SUV.
The property owner had hired a crew of workers and wasted no time clearing out the house. As he dumped wine and liquor down the sink and loaded empty bottles, tea towels and kitchen utensils into garbage bags, the owner said he had arranged to board up the house and have someone stay there around the clock to ensure Sahm can’t get back in.
The 42-year-old Lake Stevens man, who also asked not to be named because of concerns about retaliation, said Sahm refused his $10,000 offer to leave after her first eviction and was “absolute” in her beliefs.
“This whole anti-government thing doesn’t sit well with me,” he said. “I think we all have our part to play in society, love it or hate it. I feel bad for her because she’s confused and she’s lost — and now she’s homeless.”