06/15/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT
As Dale and Connie Jakes pulled up to the Freemen's compound near Roundup, Mont., in July 1995, a member of the rabidly anti-government militia group marched over to their pickup, told Connie to stay put and ordered dale into the house. "I'd done so much under-cover work with drugs and weapons and all," says Dale, now 46, who had infiltrated the Freemen for the FBI, "that my first thought was, 'Uh-oh, the jig is up.' " Dale feared he might be shot. Instead the Freemen elected him a justice of their common-law court. "I was in," he says, "solidly."
Now, nearly three years later, Freemen leader LeRoy Schweitzer and 11 disciples, who made headlines in the spring of '96 by occupying a Montana ranch and holding off federal agents for 81 days, are being tried on bank fraud, robbery and weapons charges. Prosecutors say the group illegally possessed weapons, generated billions in worthless checks, money orders and bogus liens against property owned by local officials, and refused to pay debts because they did not recognize the government. Some of the feds' best information about the inner workings of the Freemen came from Jakes, an outdoorsman and self-described "adrenaline junkie" who over the years has hired himself out to local and federal agencies to infiltrate drug and weapons rings. Jakes risks his safety for the money (he and Connie say they made $42,000 for their work on the Freemen) but also for the sake of society itself. "There's so much hatred in this country," explains Connie, 40, "and it's growing."
Rich Jennings, a retired undercover cop from Spokane, Wash., who worked with him in the late '70s, says Jakes, who lost an arm in a 1970 motorcycle accident, thrives on "the thrill of the chase"—and has the perfect cover for diverting suspicion. "Even the dumbest, brain-dead doper," he says, "knows a cop can't be missing an arm."
Jakes grew up in a remote region of Oregon's Cascade Mountains with his father, a mechanic, his mother, a department store manager, and two sisters. "By the time I was 11, I was at home in the wilderness," Dale says. By 18, he had quit school and signed up for the Marines (but then lost his right arm). He had already made his first undercover drug buy when, at 15, he helped police arrest a dealer responsible for selling LSD to a friend who killed herself when she jumped from a roof while on the drug.
Jakes himself had early drug problems, coping, he says, with phantom pain from his lost arm. At 20, he served three months in jail on minor drug charges. Living in Portland after his release, he met a dealer who was moving cocaine from Florida to the West Coast. Declaring a personal war on drugs, he phoned the DEA, thus beginning a career as an infiltrator that would peak, prior to his involvement in the Freemen case, with the bust of a methamphetamine ring in San Diego County in 1987.
Both he and Connie were in failing marriages when they met in Oregon in '76, while Jakes was painting trim on a friend's house. Smitten, he says, "I fell and spilled a big bucket of paint." Connie was unimpressed, but they had one thing in common: she had also been an informant. Fearing that her brother was becoming friends with a local dealer in her hometown of Billings, Mont., she turned the man in. Seven years after they met, by then divorced and sharing their interest in undercover work, Dale and Connie tied the knot.
After their two children were born, Jakes gave up the undercover life, moving to Montana and cutting timber with a chain saw rigged to compensate for his handicap. But strapped for cash and outraged that the Freemen were putting illegitimate liens on local homes, Jakes let investigators know he was willing to help. Accepted by the Freemen because he could handle explosives (a skill learned as a youth clearing land), Dale was able to penetrate the group. For more than a year, he and Connie provided the FBI with names, license plate numbers and diagrams of a Freemen compound.
Living so dangerously can be thrilling, says Dale, who recounts his experience with the Freemen in the just-published book False Prophets. But he and his family have paid a price. Fearful of reprisals from the Freemen and other groups, he, Connie and their two home-schooled teenagers (whose names they protect) move frequently and now live in a house on 40 acres in the Southwest, where their privacy is carefully guarded. "I've never had a mailbox," Connie says wistfully. "That's been our dream for so many years."
Lyndon Stambler in the Southwest