Aug. 23, 2010 -- Authorities in Georgia are joining forces to hunt down a burgeoning group of squatters who use anti-government ideology to commandeer bank-owned upscale homes with phony deeds and bogus paperwork.
Many are operating as so-called sovereign citizens -- radical-right conservatives who believe that they are exempt from government requirement such as taxes and driver's licenses.
Officials in DeKalb County have arrested five people they described as sovereign citizens, alleging they moved into foreclosed homes and filed phony quit-claim deeds in court, then posted them in the properties' windows as "proof" of their ownership. They are on the hunt for two more.
DeKalb Deputy Chief Assistant District Attorney John Melvin said he believes the seven they've identified are connected with 17 seized properties across the state that were worth about $10 million. One property, he said, was a strip mall where the suspects charged rent.
"It's amazing that these groups of citizens who like to proclaim they're Robin Hood only choose million-dollar homes," he said. "Shocking."
They have been charged with a variety of RICO crimes as well as theft and mortgage fraud.
Last week, sheriff's deputies in nearby Rockdale County busted a husband and wife team who were allegedly pulling the scam in a house they once used to own, ABC's Atlanta affiliate WSB reported.
Melvin couldn't comment on whether those two are connected to the group he's got behind bars, citing the ongoing investigation. He also couldn't confirm whether more suspects would be identified and arrested, but said "it would not surprise me."
The squatters operate either as full-fledged members of the sovereign citizens movement or they are part of a growing number of people who use the movement's ideology to worm their way out of a bad financial situation.
Mark Potok, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project, said the last few years have seen a rise in what he called "dabblers" in the sovereign citizens movement, people he said who would "never hurt a fly" but who are looking for a way out of their economic desperation.
"It's a new trend that we've seen in just the last couple of years. It seems to be catching on, more or less like wildfire," he said. "The economy, I think, is very clearly driving a large number of people who are desperate into this movement who are looking for answers."
Others, he said, are just greedy opportunists who don't want to pay their taxes or child support.
But even just the association with the sovereign citizen movement is enough to put law enforcement officials on edge.
Sovereign Citizens From True Believers to Economic Opportunists
Atlanta FBI Special Agent Stephen Emmett, whose office has been aiding local authorities in tracking such crimes, said there is a very real threat to law enforcement officers who approach these residents because they often have a deep-seated hatred for anything government.
Though the FBI's domestic terrorism squad is the branch designed to keep tabs on the sovereign citizens, they really are considered anti-government, Emmett said. But, he quickly noted, Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph were considered simply anti-government before they set off deadly explosives.
Officers kept that in mind, he said, when conducting raids on home in the Atlanta area. Visits that would normally require a few officers instead involve many more to protect against any retaliation.
"We want to ensure that that propensity for violence doesn't take them to the next level," Emmett said. "These raids on these homes where they've trespassed at, large amounts of law enforcement have to deal with that because they have to be prepared for a potential struggle with these individuals."
It's not over once the handcuffs go on. Melvin called the followers "paper terrorists" for their propensity to follow up arrests with lawsuits and fake property liens.
"They'll try to intimidate you with bogus paperwork," he said. "It's kind of creepy when these people make you a target and try to get your Social Security number."
Movement Once Rooted in Racism Now Attracting Black Americans, Expert Says
Potok said he believes the majority of sovereign citizens are non-violent, but said there is a "substantial" subgroup who will do anything, even kill, to protect what they consider to be their freedoms.
"People come into this movement for very different reasons," he said. "Many are real true believers. And in many ways those are the scariest of all, because they end up murdering cops."
As the last few years have given rise to a new crop of sovereign citizens -- the movement started in earnest in the 1970s -- so have the number of black Americans claiming they are exempt from government confines.
It's an interesting trend, Potok said, because the sovereign citizens have their roots in white supremacy. Melvin noted that all seven sovereign citizens his county is after are black and identify with the Moorish Nation, which Potok described as a black nationalist group "with very strong streak of sovereign beliefs."
"What was attractive, I think, to black groups I think was the idea of completely sovereignty: 'the white man can't mess with us,'" he said.
But Shaykh Ra Saadi El, chief minister with the Atlanta-based Moorish Science Temple of America, denies the men and women caught up with area's sovereign citizen movement have anything to with his temple.
"They're not Moorish Americans. Moorish Americans do not claim to be sovereign citizens," he said.
While the Moorish believe they are "a nation within a nation," Ra Saadi El said members know they need to obey the law of the land.
"There's no such thing as being free from paying taxes," he said. "These people do not have a concept of law."