A homeowner who wanted to sell his house in north Casper this year ran into a paper wall because of a family dispute fought with a document called a land patent.
A land patent is a title to land which was originally acquired by a treaty. It is usually granted by the federal or state government to an individual or private company.
The federal government used land patents to transfer its property to individuals mostly in the 19th century, and their use faded over time as properties were sold.
But they've resurfaced as a way for people calling themselves sovereign citizens to evade the law or cause grief for others, said Mark Pitcavage, director of investigative research for the Anti-Defamation League.
"The weapon of choice is paper," Pitcavage said in an interview from his office in Columbus, Ohio.
The sovereign citizens claim a conspiracy infiltrated the original government, with the usurping illegitimate government abolishing Americans' rights, he wrote in "The Lawless Ones: The Resurgence of the Sovereign Citizen Movement" in August.
They sometimes fight the illegitimate government through "paper terrorism," he wrote. "Paper terrorism involves the use of bogus legal documents and filings, or the misuse of legitimate ones, to intimidate, harass, threaten, or retaliate against public officials, law enforcement officers, or private citizens."
Contrary to Pitcavage's view, those who advocate and file land patents say these documents are legally unassailable and cite certain court rulings to underscore their point.
But Pitcavage responded these citations often are taken out of context, and numerous courts have ruled about their illegitimacy.
This debate caught former Casper resident Dennis Thome in a legal crossfire in Natrona County District Court.
In 1974, he and his wife, Gloria, bought a house at 1004 Saint John St. for $9,400.
They moved to West Virginia three years later, and gave Gloria's brother, Ed Corrigan, the opportunity to rent out the house, pay the mortgage and taxes, provide maintenance, and pocket any profits.
A year ago, Gloria Thome died, and her husband found a prospective buyer for the house
But in September, a title company put the brakes on the deal when it found Corrigan had filed a "declaration of land patents" lien in the Natrona County Clerk's Office in May 2006, which meant Thome's house did not have a clear title.
Liens -- claims on properties for a debt -- often are filed to recover back taxes or payment for contracting work before a sale.
But this "declaration of land patent" lien stunned Thome and his attorney, Marvin Bishop III.
"I've practiced law for 50 years and never heard of a patent lien," Bishop said.
Corrigan filed it because he believed he owned the house.
Thome then sued Corrigan, claiming the land patent lien was frivolous.
This lawsuit added to Corrigan's reputation for being the most visible face of the local sovereignty movement after his years-long dispute with Natrona County over health and safety code violations on his property east of Casper. He was found guilty in district court in March, sentenced with a $143,840 fine and a clean-up order in May, and found in contempt of court in October.
With the support of like-minded people claiming their sovereignty, Corrigan has consistently denounced the county officials and Judge Scott Skavdahl, saying they represent corporations and not legitimate government.
They trace their understanding of property rights, including the absolute superiority of land patents over warranty and other deeds, to when the federal government began transferring the land it had acquired to citizens.
The concept came from England where the king owned all the land, and even if he gave someone land he still owned it, Corrigan said. Land patents came about so people could claim absolute ownership, and the English imported the concept to America, he said.
All land in America is patented, but people need to reaffirm those patents to claim title to their land, he said. "Warranty deeds, quit claim deeds -- that's just the color of the title, there's nothing legal about it."
"Even many attorneys do not even know about them," Corrigan said.
Then and now
In Natrona County, that began in the early 1890s with the help of the Oil Belt Real Estate Improvement Company and a group of men who received patents for land from the federal government.
Among them was 1888 emigrant John Arnold: pioneer, railroad worker, store proprietor, and quixotic Casper Mountain gold prospector, according to his obituary in the Nov. 18, 1935, Casper Tribune-Herald.
Four years before he died at 82, Arnold signed paperwork with the Natrona County clerk on July, 28, 1931, that referred to the land patent he received from the United States 40 years earlier.
He wrote that he had sold land to an E.H. French, but French never owned or claimed any homestead exemption rights or lived on the property. So Arnold reclaimed his rightful ownership by reasserting his land patents for scores of lots in north Casper.
Including several lots occupied by Thome and Corrigan.
To stop the sale of Thome's house, Corrigan cited the federal government granting the land patent to Arnold and then conveying that patent on the land -- with Thome's house on it -- to himself. "I, Edward Marvin Corrigan, hereby declare to all people that this afore described parcel of land is held by me in true FEE SIMPLE ABSOLUTE by land Patent ownership without recognition or obligation to any superior, or subject to any duty, tax, or other disability of any nature whatsoever."
That argument didn't fly in court.
On Dec. 9, Skavdahl agreed the lien was frivolous and should be dismissed. Thome had made no written agreements indicating he'd conveyed the property to Corrigan, Thome had a bank's release of the mortgage proving clear title, Corrigan had no paperwork to show any ownership interest, and Wyoming law did not recognize such liens, Skavdahl said.
Corrigan responded the state court had no authority to hear the case about the land patent.
On Friday, several Corrigan supporters filed a "Presentment from the Wyoming Grand Jury" in the Natrona County District Court Clerk's Office restating the role of the federal government and the state court's illegitimacy, and the superiority of a land patent. "The Land Patent is not a lien it is a title. A warranty deed is a color of title."
Be wary, don't worry
Pitcavage said he has seen this kind of wording elsewhere.
Websites abound with discussions about land patents and somewhat related "allodial titles" -- documents stating land is held absolutely in one's own right -- and advice to write and file them, Pitcavage said.
The worst abuses have occurred when scammers tell homeowners they can avoid foreclosure by paying thousands of dollars for land patents to be filed in county offices. The homes still go into foreclosure and the people are that much poorer, he said.
"Somehow, you believe this [land patent] will protect your property from the government," he said. "It's like a magic totem."
But Thome's case had its own twist, Pitcavage said. "This is so unusual because [Corrigan] filed on a property that he didn't own," Pitcavage said.
Bishop, Thome's attorney, still shakes his head over Corrigan's land patent lien.
Besides his legal background, Bishop is the son of a local attorney, and the grandson of a homesteader in Natrona County.
Generations later, probably no one has the land patent showing the direct conveyance of property from the federal government, Bishop said.
A homeowner should not worry if someone has filed a patent lien on his property, because the courts would rule it frivolous and illegal, he said.
Property owners have extensive paper trails through abstracts, warranty deeds, quit claim deeds, mortgages, taxes and other legal transactions that go back to the first person with the land patent, Bishop said. "You have all these ways to show ownership."
Reach Tom Morton at (307) 266-0592, or at email@example.com.
For more information about the sovereign citizens movement and the legal issues of land patents:
Pro sovereignty, land patents
-- "Land Patents: Understanding how they work." Website: teamlaw.org
-- "The Final Solution to Property Tax." Website: freedom-school.com
Anti sovereignty, land patents
-- "The Lawless Ones: The resurgence of the Sovereign Citizen Movement," from the Anti-Defamation League. Website: www.adl.org/main_Extremism/default.htm
-- "Idiot Legal Arguments: A Casebook for Dealing with Extremist Legal Arguments." Website: www.adl.org/mwd/suss1.asp
-- "The FBI discusses the Sovereign Citizen Movement." Website: homelandecuritynewswire.com/fbi-discusses-sovereign-citizens-movement