ATF goes fishing at religious community

In March 1997, ATF agents raided a small religious community near Melrose, Montana, for the second time in one year. As is typical for them, they treated their victims with contempt and disregard, left the place a mess, and found nothing but legal firearms.

ATF agents raided the Tehinnah Messainic Fellowship, but filed a search warrant return showing that nothing was confiscated. The Fellowship is a group of families who moved to Montana in 1990, work a farm where they raise sheep, cattle and chickens, and home-school their children.

Gary S. Marbut, President of the Montana Shooting Sports Association, e-mailed me the following description:

The principal at the Melrose ranch is Joseph Ramirez. Joseph is part Hispanic and part Apache, is a veteran of the U.S. Army. I phoned him and talked to him at length. He doesn't seem weird or radical. He was in Seattle for medical treatment when this last raid happened. His wife says the ATF said they were looking for evidence of explosives. They searched every crevice of his home. Joseph says he has been collecting guns since he was a teenager. He described his gun collection to me. He has several older firearms, such as a 45-70. His newer guns include a Mini-14 and an AR15. There is someone who lives at the ranch who has a Class-3 license, but about whom the ATF does not seem to be interested.

At this recent raid, Joseph's wife reports that the ATF took out all of his guns, laid them on the living room floor (not gently), unloaded all the magazines, and photographed everything. Needless to say, they didn't put anything away. There were between 15 and 25 persons in the raiding party. Some of the people in the raiding party were from the Butte/Silverbow Sheriff/Police department (Butte/Silverbow has a consolidated city/county government). The raiding personnel had a federal search warrant for Joseph's "blue, two-story house", but they also searched his motor home.

Joseph reports that he had previously responded to a polite invitation from the Sheriff's Department to come in to the office to visit. Joseph complied and was met by personnel from the Sheriff's Department, the ATF, the Silverbow County Attorney's Office, and the Department of Child and Family Services. At this meeting he was grilled thoroughly about allegations of child abuse at the ranch. He was asked repeatedly if he or his people spanked their children. He answered that they did not spank - that they believed in peaceful, Bible-oriented discipline that centered around explanations to children.

Joseph received a letter, dated prior to the raid, from his bank, Norwest Bank of Butte. The letter (I have a copy) demands that Joseph take all of his funds out of the bank, including funds in four different accounts. Further, the bank demands that he make an appointment in advance to claim the contents of his accounts. The bank's letter says, "If you come without an appointment, we will immediately notify law enforcement personnel."

Joseph reports that he and his family are living in constant fear of what the ATF may do next, with the example of Waco in mind. Joseph also mentioned that he was part of the military unit that provided the helicopters for the ATF in the Waco disaster. He says that his mother, still in Texas, has contact from other former members of this military unit wherein the members claim they are being watched.

In 2006, Marbut e-mailed me this follow-up:

No charges were ever filed by law enforcement. It appears the ATF had an "informant" trying to hide from them and working on the Ramirez ranch. Such informants are supposed to "turn" (give evidence against) somebody every so often to stay out of prison. This informant tried to slip the leash. The ATF caught up with the informant and, according to conjecture, promised prison for the informant if he didn't go back to work and turn somebody for the ATF immediately. So, the informant claimed that his employer (Ramirez) was hoarding illegal firearms and explosives. Thus the bust.

The attorney for the Ramirez family sued the ATF agent (Groh) civilly for violation of civil rights for the incredibly flaky warrant prepared and served (called a "shotgun warrant" in law enforcememt circles -- illegally non-specific, but intended to get them in the door to discover anything illegal, so they can scamper off and get a warrant for specific, named items observed using the illegal warrant). Groh claimed immunity because he was a federal officer just doing his job.

The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the Court held that the warrant in question was laughably insufficient, and that Groh was liable for civil damages.

By that time, the ranch had been sold, Ramirez was working as a sheepherder somewhere in eastern Montana, the attorney had quit law and was working as a fish biologist in another state, and Groh had been shuffled all over the U.S. by the ATF until he was lost.

Sources: March 7, 1997, Associated Press news story printed in the Missoula, Montana, Missoulian, and 1997 and 2006 personal e-mails from Gary S. Marbut, President of the Montana Shooting Sports Association.