Note: This story was last updated at 8:30 a.m. May 4.
Five “sovereign citizens,” including Lee Cromwell of Oak Ridge, were convicted of more than 200 counts in Nashville this week in a case where the defendants had been accused of filing fraudulent liens against local and state officials in East Tennessee, including judges, prosecutors, and police officers in Anderson County, an official said Thursday.
Before the convictions, seven sovereign citizens from Anderson County had been charged in February 2017 with forgery and filing liens without a legal basis, Seventh Judicial District Attorney General Dave Clark said in a press release Thursday. Those charges came after an investigation that had been requested by Clark and was conducted by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Many of the cases were tried in Nashville, and a jury returned a verdict this week of guilty on all counts, Clark said. Clark and his wife were both victims of the fraudulent liens, so Clark had requested another district attorney general to prosecute the case.
“As the liens were filed electronically at the Secretary of State’s Office in Nashville, it made sense to have the defendants indicted and prosecuted in Davidson County,” Clark said.
A Davidson County jury deliberated a little more than two hours this week before returning guilty verdicts against five of the self-styled “sovereign citizens,” Clark said. The defendants were Austin Gary Cooper, Lee Harold Cromwell, Christopher Alan Hauser, Ronald James Lyons, and James Michael Usinger. They were convicted on a total of 204 counts, which included 102 counts of filing fraudulent liens and 102 counts of forgery over the value of $250,000.
The filing of the charges in February 2017 occurred at about the same time as Cromwell was convicted in Anderson County Criminal Court in Clinton of one count of vehicular homicide and eight counts of aggravated assault after he drove his pickup truck backward through a crowded parking lot at the Midtown Community Center after fireworks in Oak Ridge on July 4, 2015. The crash killed James Robinson of Knoxville, who was a husband and father of two young girls, and injured at least eight others. Cromwell was sentenced to 12 years in that case.
Oak Ridge Today has previously calculated that Cromwell had 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, according to state records.
Among local officials who had liens filed against them by Cromwell were Clark; Anderson County Criminal Court Judge Don Elledge, who had to recuse himself from the vehicular homicide case; Anderson County General Sessions Court Judge Roger Miller; Anderson County Circuit Court Clerk William Jones; prosecutor Vickie Bannach; Oak Ridge Police Chief Jim Akagi; and police officers Ben Higgins and Grant Gouldie.
The fraudulent liens first started becoming public when Elledge recused himself during an arraignment in June 2016 because of an $8 million lien filed against him by Cromwell. The office of the Seventh Judicial District Attorney General was also briefly recused from the case because of liens filed by Cromwell.
After the investigation into the fraudulent liens, one defendant died, and some entered guilty pleas before the trial and convictions in Nashville this week, Clark said Thursday.
Sentencing for the five defendants who were convicted this week is scheduled for June 27. Each defendant faces a minimum sentence of 15 years, and maximum possible sentences range from 378 to 810 years, Clark said.
“Sovereign citizens are associated with a philosophy that they do not have to abide by our laws because they have declared their personal independence from government and our country,” Clark said. “They are often associated with not paying taxes, refusing to register their vehicles or obtain driver’s licenses, and refusing to recognize government authority, including law enforcement. When challenged, they frequently retaliate personally against government employees by filing baseless liens or legal claims.”
Clark said sovereign citizens have done this for years, and they have sometimes gotten away with it across the country.
“When they brought this tactic to Anderson County recently and filed liens against local judges, police officers, police chiefs, court clerks, mayors and prosecutors, it was time to take action,” Clark said.
“I and public officials in East Tennessee are grateful for the work of District Attorney General Glenn Funk of Davidson County and his staff for the heavy lifting they took on with this case,” Clark said. “While the case was large and complex, we hope that this result will serve as a deterrent to other sovereign citizen attempts to intimidate or retaliate against public servants in Tennessee.”
The TBI announced in February 2017 that Cromwell was one of 11 people indicted, including the seven from Anderson County, in a 320-count indictment after the one-year investigation into fraudulent liens in East Tennessee.
Oak Ridge Today has previously calculated that 10 of the men arrested in the fraudulent liens case in February 2017 had filed about $2 billion worth of liens against local officials and law enforcement officers, as well as local, state, and federal agencies—and others, including corporations and law firms.
The liens filed by the 10 men had a range of collateral values, but many of them were for $4 million, $8 million, and $12 million. The liens were filed against county mayors and sheriffs, police chiefs and officers, and prosecutors and judges, among others.
A lien is a claim that one person owes something to another. Liens can be filed online in Tennessee, although filing a fraudulent lien is a criminal offense.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation has said that the actions of the 10 men are common within the sovereign citizen ideology.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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