COLUMBIA, SC — Three men with alleged ties to an anti-government extremist group who eschew the authority of the U.S. government are on trial this week in federal court in a fraud case that has people talking.
One feature in the case, which has nothing to do with the criminal charges, is the ashy blue color of one defendant’s face, a permanent discoloration caused by drinking a chemical.
Authorities say the three men consider themselves “sovereign citizens,” a movement followed by thousands of people who believe they are not subject to the authority of the U.S. government. The three are accused of using their ties to the movement to bilk people out of money.
The FBI considers sovereign citizens domestic terrorists, and the case was investigated by the Columbia FBI office’s joint terrorism task force.
“I’ve never conducted an investigation like this in my life,” said FBI Special Agent Carl Cuneo as he testified earlier this week.
The three men, Jerry Elmo Hartsoe of Lexington, Mark Shannon Manuel of Franklin, Tenn., and James Chappell Dew of Myrtle Beach, are charged with eight counts of mail fraud. A fourth person, Ronald Kevin Hayes, pleaded guilty in January to failing to report a felony to authorities for his role in the scheme. Jury deliberations began Wednesday and resume Thursday morning.
The FBI launched its investigation into the three men and their business, Eden Gifted Properties, in 2011 after receiving reports from multiple banks about packets of fictitious documents being mailed to their executives, according to court documents. They also used the business name “Hakanumatata For All.”
The packets would contain more than 50 documents, some printed on high-quality paper, and many bearing elaborate titles such as “Pre-offset Notice for Balanced Book Adjustment” or “Notice of Default in Dishonor.” But the documents amounted to little more than legal gibberish, and the customers who had come to them seeking debt relief rarely had their debt settled. The three men used clients’ payments to buy gold and silver and pay their own bills, according to a legal brief in the case.
The three men allegedly defrauded 260 people, some of whom were recruited at home foreclosure seminars and meetings of the Republic of the United States of America, a national sovereign citizens group that held gatherings in the Columbia area.
Sovereign citizens have unusual practices, the FBI has reported. They sometimes speak their own languages, sign documents with personal seals or thumbprints and use out of place language and capitalization in documents.
The three defendants follow those practices, court exhibits show.
In one court filing, the three submitted a “notice of voluntatem et testamentum,” or their wills as official exhibits. In those wills, the defendants stated they use English and Latin for communication purposes but their original wills were written in the “Aniyvwiya tongue and script.” Each man stamped a thumbprint next to his signature, and Dew’s document includes a seal.
But it is the defendants’ alleged belief in something called the “redemption theory” that caused them to run afoul of the law, prosecutors said.
In his testimony, Cuneo told the jury, “It’s very important for everybody to understand no FBI investigation is ever opened on what a person believes.”
The redemption theory is a complicated belief that people can tap secret accounts in the U.S. Treasury to pay off their debts, including mortgages and credit cards.
The FBI report has warned that the theory leads sovereign citizens to commit white collar crimes such as fraud, money laundering and tax violations. They also clog courts and other government agencies with paperwork.
The government has laid out a case to prove that Hartsoe, Manuel and Dew pitched this theory to prospective customers, accepted payments but only mailed bogus documents to banks rather than actually helping anyone solve their financial problems. During the investigation, Dew showed an undercover agent a phony $100 billion bond, according to documents.
“There was testimony in this trial that there are no secret accounts,” Cuneo said.
The defense introduced two witnesses, a Spartanburg woman who owns a print shop and a Marion County farmer, who said the three helped them.
“They know a lot about legal issues that I don’t know,” said William Strickland, the farmer.
Strickland said the men spent hours helping him, and he saw stacks of paperwork.
“They asked me if I would donate any money toward expenses that they had,” said Strickland, who told the jury he gave the men $3,000 toward their supplies.
Strickland eventually lost his property but said he believes the men worked on his behalf.
Besides the unusual beliefs of the defendants, it is Hartsoe’s appearance that has turned heads at the courthouse.
His face has a steely blue tint because he drank a mixture of colloidal silver and zinc, said James Craig, his attorney. The concoction was recommended as a cure for an illness by a chemist, he said.
“It’s permanent,” Craig said.
Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.