Note: This story was last updated at 12:15 p.m. Feb. 17.
Seven “sovereign citizens” from Anderson County, including Lee Harold Cromwell, have been indicted and arrested on charges related to filing fraudulent liens against local officials, law enforcement officers, and public employees, authorities said Thursday.
The sovereign citizens were arrested Wednesday by teams that included agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, according to a press release from Seventh Judicial District Attorney General Dave Clark in Anderson County.
The TBI said a year-long investigation with the Federal Bureau of Investigation resulted in a 320-count indictment, and 10 people were arrested on charges of unlawfully filing liens and making false entries into records. Multiple other state, county, and local law enforcement agencies also participated in the arrests.
TBI special agents began their investigation at the request of Clark in May 2016. That was about the time that Anderson County Circuit and Criminal Court Judge Don Elledge learned that Cromwell had filed a lien against the judge, causing Elledge to recuse himself from a vehicular homicide and aggravated assault case filed against Cromwell. The judge vowed to do everything he could legally, morally, and ethically—both criminally and civilly—to prosecute Cromwell to the full extent of the law.
Elledge said he discussed the liens filed against him by Cromwell with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, a federal task force, the Seventh District Attorney General’s Office (the Anderson County DA), and local legislators.
The TBI said the report it received was that, over a period of several years, multiple people from East Tennessee had filed Uniform Commercial Code liens and financing statements with the Tennessee Secretary of State’s office in Nashville. The liens were filed against dozens of different people across the state, encumbering their property, the TBI said. The liens were filed in the amounts of $4 million to $12 million. The victims who had these liens filed against them include citizens employed by government entities, police officers and attorneys, and elected and appointed officials, including city and county mayors, sheriffs, and members of the judiciary.
The case was ultimately assigned to a special prosecutor with the Davidson County District Attorney General’s Office. On January 24, the Davidson County Grand Jury returned indictments charging multiple people with a combined total of 320 counts of two charges: draw a lien without a legal basis, which is a Class E felony, and forgery of $250,000 or more, a Class A felony, the TBI said.
On Wednesday, simultaneous arrests of these people in Anderson, Cocke, Greene, and Knox counties were conducted by law enforcement officers with TBI, FBI, Tennessee Highway Patrol, Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security, Homeland Security Investigations, Knoxville Police Department, Knox County Sheriff’s Office, Morristown Police Department, Anderson County Sheriff’s Department, Cocke County Sheriff’s Department, Newport Police Department, Greene County Sheriff’s Office, Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, Oak Ridge Police Department, and Oliver Springs Police Department, the TBI said.
“Yesterday, seven sovereign citizens from Anderson County and a handful from surrounding areas were arrested on criminal charges after having been indicted by a Davidson County Grand Jury related to the filing of fraudulent liens against law enforcement officers and other public servants,” Clark said Thursday. The liens were filed with the Tennessee Secretary of State in Nashville, so the district attorney for the 20th Judicial District took over the case.
Those arrested were taken to Davidson County and booked into the Davidson County Jail. The 10 people arrested as a result of the indictments, their charges, and bond amounts are below. One individual named in the indictment has not yet been arrested, the TBI said.
- Michael Robert Birdsell, 54, Andersonville—10 counts of draw a lien without a legal basis, and 8 counts of forgery of $250,000 or more. His bond has been set at $150,000.
- Austin Gary Cooper, 68, Clinton—10 counts of draw a lien without a legal basis, and 10 counts of forgery of $250,000 or more. His bond has been set at $150,000.
- Lee Harold Cromwell, 67, Oak Ridge—14 counts of draw a lien without a legal basis, and 14 counts of forgery of $250,000 or more. His bond has been set at $150,000.
- Victor Douglas Bunch, 72, Powell—17 counts of draw a lien without a legal basis, and 17 counts of forgery of $250,000 or more. His bond has been set at $150,000.
- Christopher Alan Hauser, 51, Del Rio—21 counts of draw a lien without a legal basis, and 21 counts of forgery of $250,000 or more. His bond has been set at $150,000.
- Ronald James Lyons, 52, Newport—30 counts of draw a lien without a legal basis, and 30 counts of forgery of $250,000 or more. His bond has been set at $150,000.
- James Michael Usinger, 64, Greeneville—22 counts of draw a lien without a legal basis, and 22 counts of forgery of $250,000 or more. His bond has been set at $150,000.
- John Jeffrey Williams, 50, Powell—3 counts of draw a lien without a legal basis, and 3 counts of forgery of $250,000 or more. His bond has been set at $25,000.
- George Edward Williams, 76, Powell—3 counts of draw a lien without a legal basis, and 3 counts of forgery of $250,000 or more. His bond has been set at $25,000.
- Kenneth Ray Foust, 73, Clinton—3 counts of draw a lien without a legal basis, and 3 counts of forgery of $250,000 or more. His bond has been set at $25,000. (Currently in custody in the Anderson County Jail).
“Perhaps they thought they were going to intimidate law enforcement, judges, and other government officials and employees,” Clark said. “Whether they sought to intimidate or retaliate, a group identified as sovereign citizens in Anderson County began filing liens against Anderson County police officers, prosecutors, judges, court clerks, and other officials and employees who had any involvement in giving them a ticket, collecting their court costs, prosecuting their crimes, judging their case, etc. This sovereign citizen group included Lee Harold Cromwell, who was convicted yesterday (Wednesday, March 15) of vehicular homicide and multiple counts of aggravated assault for driving his truck through a group of citizens gathered for a Fourth of July fireworks show.”
Oak Ridge Today has reported that Cromwell has filed $137 million in liens against local law enforcement officials and agencies, as well as against the Internal Revenue Service and a Social Security service center. Among the liens are several filed against Clark, as well as his office and at least one other prosecutor. Most of the liens filed by Cromwell were for either $4 million or $8 million.
Clark said sovereign citizens typically do not believe that they have to abide by the rules everyone else follows because they have declared their personal independence from government. They might not pay taxes, not register their vehicles, or not carry driver’s licenses, among other things. At the time of his fatal parking lot crash at Midtown Community Center on July 4, 2015, Cromwell was driving on a suspended license, according to an arrest warrant.
“When arrested or challenged, they typically try to bog down the criminal justice system with nonsensical court filings or to intimidate or complicate their legal cases by filing baseless liens against everyone involved,” Clark said. “Sovereign citizens do not recognize the authority of law enforcement, and they have been associated with violence and have murdered police officers.”
Clark said the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force helped the TBI with the investigation.
Clark and his wife both had liens filed against them and were victims, so he asked another district attorney general in Tennessee to take over the investigation.
Cromwell was taken into custody immediately after he was convicted in Anderson County Criminal Court in Clinton on Wednesday, at least in part because of the Davidson County indictments.
“For some of the victims, these fraudulent liens may have caused a tremendous hardship,” Clark said. “Borrowing to buy a home or even selling a home, as well as other financial transactions, could be prevented by an outstanding lien against a person or their property.”
Clark said his office is grateful for the help of the TBI, FBI, and the 20th Judicial District Attorney General’s Office.
“Hopefully, our local public servants will now be free from intimidation or harassment for simply doing their jobs,” Clark said.
Cromwell’s filings of liens stopped about the time Elledge recused himself from the vehicular homicide case and after Senior Judge Paul Summers of Nashville was appointed. Summers warned Cromwell last summer of the consequences of filing fraudulent liens.
During one motion hearing in September, James Scott, Cromwell’s defense attorney in the vehicular homicide and aggravated assault case, said he was not aware of the liens that had been filed by Cromwell, they weren’t wise, and they were not relevant to the automobile accident.
During another hearing, a July 25 arraignment, Scott said the liens were part of a misguided effort by Cromwell to advocate for his innocence, the liens were ineffective, and he regrets them.
After a lien against Elledge was publicized in May, one other official told Oak Ridge Today that Cromwell had filed a lien against him, and additional liens were disclosed during the July 25 arraignment. Those additional liens had been filed against the Anderson County District Attorney General’s Office and members of the DA’s staff, including Clark and prosecutor Vickie Bannach. They led to a temporary recusal of Clark’s office.
But the DA was later put back on the case. Tony Craighead, the deputy district attorney general who prosecuted the vehicular homicide and aggravated assault charges against Cromwell this week, had not had a lien filed against him by Cromwell.
Asked last summer if he had advised Cromwell not to file any more liens, Scott said he couldn’t discuss that due to attorney-client privilege. But it seems safe to assume that he did not recommend them.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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