July 1, 2010— -- A routine traffic stop in Arkansas turned into an extraordinarily violent shooting between police and a father-son pair of so-called "sovereign citizens" six weeks ago, shedding light on a secretive and dangerous subculture which believes American laws don't apply to them.
When police stopped a white minivan in West Memphis, Ark., on May 20, they had no idea that it would set off a chain of events that would result in the deaths of two officers as well as Jerry Kane and his 16-year-old son Joseph.
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Both Kanes were deeply immersed in the the anti-government movement known as "sovereign citizens," estimated to number in the hundreds of thousands across the country. Sovereigns frequently have run-ins with the law, and this time the confrontation proved deadly.
Video released by West Memphis authorities shows the graphic detail. As the officers questioned Jerry Kane, his son Joe suddenly leaped out of the minivan and opened fire on the officers with an AK-47 assault rifle.
Moments later, the father and son got back into the vehicle and drove off, with Joe still firing his rifle.
When first responders arrived, they found the two officers dead -- one in the street and the other in a ditch by the side of the road, shot in the head.
"Oh my f***ing God," said one officer on radio chatter as he drove up to the scene.
The word quickly went out on the radio to look for a white minivan, and more than an hour later, the Kanes' vehicle was spotted and surrounded in a Wal-Mart parking lot.
As the Kanes tried to escape, a fish and wildlife officer rammed his truck into their vehicle.
The Kanes began shooting at authorities again, firing at the wildlife officer's cab at close range. Incredibly, he was unharmed, but both Jerry and Joe Kane died in the ensuing gun battle.
"Officers did what they could to save the lives of their fellow officers and themselves, and you know, it has not been a difficult call for this office to say that this was a justified shoot," said Mike Walden, the prosecuting attorney for the second judicial district in Arkansas.
Shooters Were Allegedly Part of Sovereign Citizen Movement
According to organizations that monitor hate groups, the Arkansas incident is a rare window into the world of sovereign citizens.
The movement has been around for decades and has included some notable cases of violence in the past. Terry Nichols of the Oklahoma City bombing was a sovereign citizen, and Joe Stack, who flew his small plane into the IRS building in Austin, Texas. in February, was also affiliated with the movement.
J.J. MacNab, a financial consultant who has been investigating sovereign citizens for years by creating fake online identities, is writing a book on their insular underworld.
"It's like a cult. These people truly believe they are right," she said.
MacNab said it's a loose, unstructured movement of mostly white, middle-aged men. Their philosophy is based on cobbled-together pieces of information from the Constitution, the Bible, commercial law and even admiralty law.
"They put them together and they form a vast concept that they don't have to pay taxes or pay debt," added MacNab.
The FBI lists sovereign citizens as a domestic terror threat, saying they've been responsible for such crimes as murder, threatening judges, using fake currency and engaging in scams to convince people that they don't have to pay taxes or mortgages.
Both Jerry Kane and his son Joseph were involved in such schemes, peddling their message in seminars across the country. Videos of Kane posted on YouTube show him dressed in a white suit jacket with a closely-cropped, military-style haircut, instructing a group of people in ways to fight off banks and lawyers.
"I look at the legal term not the slang," Kane says on one video, urging his audience to look at the roots of legal language to reveal hidden meaning.
Inside the World of Sovereign Citizens
In recent weeks, ABC News has called dozens of sovereign citizens to ask for interviews and repeatedly been told no. But Brent Johnson, a sovereign citizen who hosts a radio show on the subject, agreed to answer questions and explain the group's ideas.
"I call myself a modern day freedom fighter," said Johnson. "You're the ruler, the master in your life."
Johnson said that people don't need Social Security numbers, driver's licenses, hunting licenses or wedding licenses, but that doesn't make sovereigns dangerous.
"You can find any organization, any group, any movement and there are dangerous people in that movement," said Johnson. "But I'm not one of them. I'm not a danger to anyone, except those who don't wish to have the truth exposed."
Observers say that the group is now growing, fueled by the Internet, the recession and anger at the current administration. There is also growing fear that the potential for violence is on the rise. Already, some sovereigns are calling Jerry and Joe Kane "heroes."