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‘Sovereign Citizens’ indicted, arrested on fake liens

Thursday, officials with the TBI announced in Nashville that, following a year-long investigation conducted alongside the FBI, 11 people East Tennesseeans, including several from Anderson County have been named in a 320-count indictment charging them with filing fraudulent liens against government employees, law enforcement officers, members of the judiciary and elected officials.

The suspects were described by the TBI as adherents to the “sovereign citizen” philosophy, who reject all governmental authority. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a watchdog group that monitors extremism in the US and the Anderson County District Attorney General Dave Clark, 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. For instance, as an example, Lee Cromwell, who was convicted of vehicular homicide earlier this week in connection to the deadly 2015 4th of July parking lot crash. was driving on a suspended license, according to an arrest warrant. Cromwell was served with papers charging him with 14 counts each of drawing a lien without a legal basis and forgery of $250,000 or more immediately following his conviction on Wednesday. Our partners at Oak Ridge Today have reported that Cromwell has filed $137 million worth of liens against numerous officials, including Judge Don Elledge, who recused himself from presiding over Cromwell’s trial. That lien has since been terminated by the state.

“When arrested or challenged, [sovereign citizens] 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 wrote on a press release issued Thursday afternoon. “Sovereign citizens do not recognize the authority of law enforcement, and they have been associated with violence and have murdered police officers.”

It was Clark who requested that the TBI investigate these fraudulent liens in May of last year, around the time that Cromwell started filing liens against Anderson County and Oak Ridge officials, including Clark and his wife.

Following that request, the TBI began investigating reports that, over a period of several years, multiple individuals 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 individuals across the state, encumbering their property. The liens were filed in the amounts of $4-million to $12-million.

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 Office, Newport Police Department, Greene County Sheriff’s Department, Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department, Oak Ridge Police Department, and Oliver Springs Police Department, the TBI said. The Clinton Police Department also assisted with one apprehension in South Clinton.

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.

The individuals were transported to Davidson County and booked into the Davidson County Jail. Those arrested as a result of these indictments, their charges, and bond amounts are below. One individual named in the indictment has not yet been arrested.

*Michael Robert Birdsell, 54, Andersonville – 8 counts Draw a Lien without a Legal Basis, 8 counts Forgery $250,000 or more. Bond $150,000. 

Michael Birdsell (TBI)

*Austin Gary Cooper, 68, Clinton – 10 counts Draw a Lien without a Legal Basis, 10 counts Forgery $250,000 or more. Bond $150,000. 

Austin Gary Cooper (TBI)

*Lee Harold Cromwell, 68, Oak Ridge – 14 counts Draw a Lien without a Legal Basis, 14 counts Forgery $250,000 or more. Bond $150,000. 

Lee Cromwell (TBI)

*Victor Douglas Bunch, 72, Powell  – 17 counts Draw a Lien without a Legal Basis, 17 counts Forgery $250,000 or more. Bond $150,000. 

Victor Bunch (TBI)

*Christopher Alan Hauser, 51, Del Rio – 21 counts Draw a Lien without a Legal Basis, 21 counts Forgery $250,000 or more. Bond $150,000.

Christopher Hauser (TBI)

*Ronald James Lyons, 52, Newport – 30 counts Draw a Lien without a Legal Basis, 30 counts Forgery $250,000 or more. Bond $150,000.

Ronald Lyons (TB)

*James Michael Usinger, 64, Greeneville – 22 counts Draw a Lien without a Legal Basis, 22 counts Forgery $250,000 or more. Bond $150,000.

James Usinger (TBI)

*John Jeffrey Williams, 50, Powell – 3 counts Draw a Lien without a Legal Basis, 3 counts Forgery $250,000 or more. Bond $25,000.                *George Edward Williams, 76, Powell – 3 counts Draw a Lien without a Legal Basis, 3 counts Forgery $250,000 or more. Bond $25,000.

John Jeffrey Williams (TBI)

*Kenneth Ray Foust, 73, Clinton – 3 counts Draw a Lien without a Legal Basis, 3 counts Forgery $250,000 or more. Bond $25,000. (Currently in custody in the Anderson County Jail).

Kenneth Ray Foust (TBI/ACSD)

In his Thursday release, Clark stated “For some of the victims, these fraudulent liens may have caused a tremendous hardship. 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 was 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 concluded.

About Jim Harris

Jim Harris has been WYSH's News & Sports Director since 2000. In addition to reporting local news, he is the play-by-play voice for Clinton High School football, boys' and girls' basketball and baseball. Catch Jim live weekdays beginning at 6:20 am for live local news, sports, weather and traffic plus the Community Bulletin Board, shenanigans with Ron Meredith and more on the Country Club Morning Show on WYSH & WQLA. Jim lives in Clinton with his wife Kelly and daughter Carolina, his mother-in-law and cats Lucius and Oliver.

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