THE DANGER OF BEING FRANK
It's easy to dislike Frank Ellena.
He is loud and argumentative, with a boorish and aggressive manner that is instantly alienating. A large, hulking figure, he has a plump, oval face surrounding two eyes that bulge and burn with righteous anger whenever his views or logic are even gingerly questioned.
The faint aroma of perspiration wafts around him. When he is discoursing on a topic with particular passion--and he rarely speaks any other way--a fine mist of saliva often spurts from his lips.
An unforgiving Christian fundamentalist, he is prone to rage about the decadence of the world at exasperating length.
He is equally zealous about preaching political doomsday dogma; he predicts that government storm troopers will soon impose martial law on society and snuff out our rights and liberties.
Ellena believes that the Internal Revenue Service is made up of foreign agents aligned with the forces of tyranny that operate the United Nations, which is secretly planning to institute a freedom-quashing global government.
Therefore, he believes Americans are under no obligation to pay income taxes.
He believes that AIDS is a virus created by the CIA to control the population.
He believes his wife is a piece of chattel, owned and controlled solely by him and having no rights of her own.
These are odd things to believe.
But neither believing them nor being an obnoxious lout is illegal in America, where people are constitutionally protected from being punished for their beliefs or personalities alone.
At least that's the way it's supposed to be.
Ellena, however, is being persecuted not for what he has done, but for who he is--an abrasive man with some unconventional beliefs about his nation and his God.
Because Ellena is different from most members of society, federal prosecutors and agents of the Internal Revenue Service are trying to put him in jail.
Jail, in fact, is where he spent most of the last six months--held for a "crime" he probably did not commit and for which he will most likely never be convicted.
He has lost his family, his belongings and any prospects of employment in his chosen field: school administration.
He is, in his own words, a man undone.
The odyssey of this ruined radical began when Ellena, 44, first burst onto the public stage in 1990--as an unsuccessful candidate for superintendent of schools in Lake County, Montana. Because of his outspoken positions on the importance of religion in the classroom and warnings about the dangers of the oncoming New World Order, Ellena was labeled, in a lurid newspaper story, as a white supremacist.
The tag stuck, and followed him to his next job as a school administrator in Young, Arizona. There, a labor dispute and another newspaper story, borrowing liberally from the first, set into motion a series of events that led to Ellena's departure--and his immersion in the labyrinthine subculture of the Arizona "Constitutionalist" movement, a loose-knit group that favors a dramatically reduced role for the federal government.
That connection, in turn, quickly led him to a brief argument over a $600 pickup truck with Phoenix IRS agents--who, taking the word of the newspaper accounts and of a shadowy "informant" with an alcohol problem and a reputation as a compulsive liar, branded Ellena an "armed and dangerous" member of the white-supremacist Aryan Nation.
Before he knew it, the rural school administrator had become a federal fugitive--the object of a chase across North America that climaxed in a dramatic capture in Alaska. He now faces a May 25 trial on charges that he "intimidated" federal officers with a piece of paper.
"We're reaching a time in our country's history," Ellena says, "when anybody who believes in God and country is a white supremacist, an outlaw.
"I might have made a few mistakes along the way," he admits, shaking his head with the realization that he often can be his own worst enemy.
"How I ended up in jail, though . . . it just doesn't make sense."
But in a way, it does. In America, it is becoming increasingly dangerous to be different, to hold views that run counter to the mainstream, to be decidedly politically incorrect.
It is becoming dangerous to be a man like Frank Ellena.
@body:Ellena wasn't born a religious or political radical. His blend of extremism, in which God and state are intertwined, is of his own making.
A Kansas native whose family operated a ranch and farm in northern California, he was brought up in a clan that was religious but, at the same time, antireligion.
"My father was poor, and the Baptist church where he was going put a list up on the church wall of those who hadn't been tithing," Ellena remembers. "He couldn't afford it, and so he decided he had enough of organized religion."
Ellena remained outside any kind of formal church hierarchy, as he does today. There are few churches worth joining, he says, because there are so few that preach the true word of God. The Bible, he insists, teaches disciples of God to fight--not to bow in obeisance to pacifism, which he says is a "false doctrine."
By reading the Bible on his own, he learned that a life of righteousness meant more than acceptance of the pasteurized tenets of most churches, which call for little more than passive adherence to the golden rule. It meant a life of battle against the forces of evil.
"I think of myself," he says, "as a member of what King George, during the Revolutionary War, called the Black Robe Regiment--American men of God, with a Bible in one hand and a musket in the other."
Turning the other cheek is for wimps. But Ellena, cognizant of how such militant rhetoric has contributed to his troubles, is quick to stress that his war is a peaceful one.
"I believe in changing this country back to what it once was," he says, "but only by fighting through the courts, through all legal remedies.
"I've never advocated armed revolution. I've merely advocated putting shackles and chains on an alien government that has invaded this country, and restoring the rights of the people. You can fight that battle whatever your job is, wherever you are."
Ellena chose to make his fight in the schools. But after losing two education jobs in rapid succession, he decided in mid-1992 to embark on a more direct assault on his preeminent enemy--big federal government--which he believes is the cause of social deterioration in schools and American society.
"Government has infiltrated every area of our lives. It tells us what to do, when to do it," Ellena complains. "And it specifies that Christianity cannot have anything to do with society. It says we can't have Christ in our schools; it, in effect, is at war with Christianity. And that is simply wrong."
The federal government, in essence, is the enemy of God.
What is required to defeat this enemy is a sweeping return to states' rights, local governance and individual decision making. People must take back their lives and reinject the Lord into public life.
On its face, such a philosophy isn't far removed from a Pat Buchanan stump speech--except that it calls for an active step on the part of the believer that goes beyond a trip to the ballot box. As Ellena would say, quoting the good book, "faith without works is dead."
The "works" necessary? A refusal to pay income taxes, the filthy lucre that supports the rogue, godless federal colossus.
@body:The IRS estimates there are more than 60,000 tax protesters in the United States, and it's a good bet that a fair number of them live in the pines in and around Payson.
It's an area known for its large population of longhaired wild men, dropouts from mainstream society--a haven for survivalists, loners and individualists.
It is also the center of the Arizona contingent of the Constitutionalist movement.
There is no Constitutionalist club to join; it is more an attitude and a way of life. No one even knows who came up with the name "Constitutionalist," but there are those who claim the title in all 50 states.
Constitutionalists are a nebulous group of tax evaders, conspiracy theorists and prophets of Armageddon who ardently believe that the federal government and America's "monied interests" are out to destroy the rights of the common man. They are linked by a national network of pulp-paper newsletters and gossip, computer bulletin boards and E mail.
Their numbers and influence in the Payson area are reflected by a huge billboard on the main tourist artery into town, posing the question: "Will America Survive?"
The answer, according to the fellows at the Houston Mesa General Store, the command post of the local Constitutionalist corps, is equivocal, at best.
The store, located in the tiny town site of Houston Mesa, just north of Payson, is run by Steve Gehring, a reluctant shopkeeper whose true calling is being a paralegal, advising fellow Constitutionalists when they run into legal problems. Which, since they don't like to pay taxes, they often do.
At Houston Mesa, Payson's Constitutionalists can pick up a gallon of milk and a loaf of bread for the stomach, along with a little revolutionary propaganda for the mind. And they can speak to Frank Ellena, who is preparing for his upcoming trial by utilizing Gehring's "law office"--a ramshackle structure adjacent to the store.
It is a decrepit building with a sagging, watermarked ceiling and a lone, yellow light bulb illuminating the dim interior. Inside are stacks of law tomes and thick, three-ring binders; chairs with the stuffing bursting from the seams and battered old desks are covered with mounds of crumpled paper. Bits of half-eaten food sit atop the paper mountains, and a thick, musty smell pervades all.
On this day, a young man with long, blond, greasy hair--who says he stops by Houston Mesa "now and then to learn more about how the world works"--sits listening attentively as Gehring tries to explain the Constitutionalist creed. According to Gehring, here's why paying federal income taxes is not only unnecessary, but downright evil:
"Interpol, you see," Gehring begins, his eyes glistening through the murk of the law office, "is a direct descendant of Hitler's secret police. It is headquartered in Lyon, France. The Internal Revenue Service has an overseas headquarters in Lyon, too.
"See? It all fits together."
The young man grins, nodding enthusiastically. "Yeah, man. Right on. Those bastards!"
An uninitiated reporter, however, isn't such a quick study. So Ellena expands on the definition:
Over time, a group of international businessmen and politicians, represented by the United Nations, the Trilateral Commission, and the Council on Foreign Relations, has hatched a plan to institute a global government--one that will deprive Americans of rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
To finance this global tyranny, these clandestine imperialists have introduced the income tax.
But what most Americans don't know is that the 16th Amendment, on which the income tax is based, was never really ratified by the states.
Nor do they know that paying income tax is voluntary, and that they should have the option of declining to pay. Of course, the government does not respect that constitutionally granted option, so other avenues to avoid taxes must be found.
And it is imperative that they be found soon, because the insidious foreign plotters are even now planning--through their agents in the IRS, Interpol, the Federal Reserve Bank and the UN--to send foreign troops into the United States to establish martial law, end all private property ownership and confiscate all guns.
A repressive New World Order will result, with mankind at large descending into a state of wretched poverty while the lucky few live as kings on the fruits of our tax dollars.
That, of course, is only the main trunk of the Constitutionalist tree--there are countless gnarled branches dealing with the roles played in the international conspiracy by communism, AIDS, the pope, Freemasonry and even the Beatles.
It is, in its own way, an ingenious, complete world view, one not done justice by a brief synopsis. It comes complete with charts and graphs and its own lexicon, "documented" in several of the voluminous notebooks that line the law-office shelves. Chock-full of disparate fragments of legal arcana and pseudohistory, it contains just enough truth to make it plausible to the gullible and the dispossessed.
But unfortunately for men like Gehring and Ellena, there's not enough truth to get it through the door between fantasy and reality.
The IRS, for one, isn't buying it--any of it.
Bill Brunson, an IRS spokesman, says the Constitutionalist creed is known around the office as the "standard tax-protester line."
"We've heard all this stuff a million times," he says.
For instance, the claim that the 16th Amendment was never ratified stems from the fact that some states approved copies of the amendment that contained slightly different wording--such as misplaced articles; a "the" where there should have been an "a." But the states did, in fact, vote to approve the amendment.
The Constitutionalist insistence that income tax is voluntary, and that one can simply opt out of paying, comes from a reference in the tax code to "voluntary compliance"--which simply means that taxpayers file returns without the need for regular enforcement by the IRS. The tax laws are voluntary only in the sense that traffic laws are. No one rides in the passenger seat of your car forcing you to stop at red lights--but if you're caught running one, you still get a ticket.
The revenue folks are also familiar with the favorite Constitutionalist scam aimed at getting around the government's unwillingness to recognize the alleged "option."
It's called the "offshore trust," and here's how it is supposed to work: By renouncing American citizenship and moving all assets into accounts based in foreign countries, a person can avoid paying taxes on his income and property.
The only problem is that, according to the IRS and tax experts, only the wealthy and the elite--who are willing to move out of the country for good and stay out--can do it. In addition, the shelters only work if you put assets in them that have been earned overseas. All income made in the U.S. is still subject to income tax.
William Raby, a retired Arizona State University business professor and publisher of the Raby Report, a tax-advice newsletter, notes that the trusts are of no use to the average American.
"You can't just put your local salary, or your house or VCR, into one of the trusts," Raby says.
But Ellena, playing the semantic game that is at the core of the Constitutionalist ethos, insists that you can. Any argument to the contrary, put forth by the IRS or an establishmentarian tax expert, is merely part of the "cognitive dissonance" of the "conspiracy."
Which is why, when he was looking for noneducational work in the summer of 1992, Ellena eagerly took a job with a Tempe company that specialized in moving assets into trusts located in the Caribbean.
@body:That July, Ellena began working as a "recovery agent" for a Tempe insurance broker and fellow Constitutionalist named Doug Carpa. A mysterious character who is now in federal prison in California on unrelated tax-fraud and conspiracy convictions, Carpa had set up a Phoenix resident named Brett Harris with an offshore account named "LAJ Trust"--with headquarters in the Grand Turk Islands, part of the British West Indies.
The IRS, however, was not willing to accept the trust, since Harris' meager assets were all earned within the U.S. So it set out to seize and sell some of his property--including a 1967 Ford pickup truck--to cover the tax bill.
The truck was scheduled to be sold July 21 as part of a Phoenix auction of other seized vehicles. Carpa dispatched Ellena to the auction bearing a homemade "seizure order" which had been generated on Carpa's home computer.
The order, which accused the IRS of "deceptive use of color of office, fractious and unlawful conduct contrary to the protection of the public good," demanded that the truck be returned. Ellena also carried the truck's title, which showed that it was registered to LAJ Trust.
"It was a legal challenge," Ellena explains, "putting them on notice that we were contesting the sale."
When he got to the auction, Ellena presented the order to IRS agent Raymond Banks, who informed Ellena that he would not return the truck.
According to court records, the short-tempered Ellena erupted, yelling at Banks for 15 minutes, insisting that the seizure of the vehicle was illegal and that the IRS was a "Gestapo-type" organization that would be destroyed as soon as the American people awoke to its fraud.
Ellena then announced that he wanted to sit in the vehicle, like other people who were milling about the auction lot inspecting vehicles.
"I had keys," Ellena admits, "and I could have easily driven it away if I had wanted to. But I didn't."
The reports of the IRS agents on the scene confirm that Ellena made no effort to take the truck from the lot. He merely sat in the cab for a minute, inspecting the condition of the truck.
But suddenly, perhaps annoyed that Ellena was blocking potential buyers from inspecting it, Banks and IRS Special Agent John Nielsen moved into the cab and grabbed Ellena.
"They wanted me out of the truck, and they began pulling on my legs, wrenching my back," Ellena says. "At which point I yelled that I was being assaulted."
The agents, noting the crowd that was gathering, no doubt attracted by Ellena's bellowing, retreated and radioed the Phoenix police.
The officers who responded to the call asked to see Ellena's ID and ordered him out of the truck. He complied, and was arrested for failure to pay an outstanding traffic ticket.
At the police station, the officers quickly discovered that the traffic citation was an error and released Ellena.
Had he gone home peaceably at this point, that might have been that--just another meaningless skirmish in the Constitutionalist war on the system.
But Ellena raised the stakes, filing assault charges against the two IRS agents with Phoenix police.
"They had roughed me up," Ellena says, "and I hadn't done anything that I did not have a legal right to do."
The IRS knew Ellena had not broken any laws by sitting in the truck; nor had he physically tried to seize it. He had not initiated any physical contact with agents, and he had not stopped the auction--the truck was sold for $600 the same day.
He wasn't a tax evader himself--Ellena hadn't made enough money that year to owe any federal income tax.
In short, he hadn't done anything wrong. If he had, federal officers had an easy opportunity to arrest him at the scene. Yet according to reports filed by the IRS' own agents, they had no reason to do so.
Ellena's only sin, apparently, was the obnoxious manner in which he had delivered the "seizure order."
But a few weeks after Ellena filed his complaint, the IRS suddenly decided that the decision not to arrest him had been a mistake, and a warrant was issued.
The stated reason? The IRS said that the pathetic, home-computer-generated "seizure order" constituted a "threat" and an "assault" on agents Banks and Nielsen.
In addition, it announced that an investigation of Ellena had turned up some very important information about the blustery man who had caused such a scene at the car auction.
In an all points bulletin issued to U.S. marshals, the FBI and police forces throughout the West, Ellena was described as "armed and dangerous," a man with potential ties "to the Aryan Nation."
How could agents of the federal government believe that this hapless former school principal and tax heretic was a cross-burning, gun-toting menace to society?
Easy. They read it in the newspaper.
@body:Ellena wasn't always a professional antitax activist. He started out teaching America's youth.
After attending classes at Cal State-Sacramento and the University of Montana, Ellena got his degree in school administration in 1974. In the mid-1980s, after teaching for 11 years in California, Ellena settled in Ronan, Montana, where he taught and served as assistant principal at two different Indian reservation schools.
It was in Ronan, he says, that he became increasingly enraged at the course of American education.
"I began to have a real conflict in education, because I began to see what was going on and I didn't like it," Ellena says. "We're teaching students a secular-humanist doctrine and revised history, destroying the relationship between parents and students."
Helping to reinforce his concerns about education were the like-minded people he met in Ronan. Among them was the Reverend Keith Roberts, another fundamentalist whose church became a meeting place for about 40 members of the town's far right. Roberts befriended Ellena, and together they led spirited political discussions every Thursday night on topics ranging from the Nicaraguan contras (for them) to Ronald Reagan (for him) to abortion (against it).
Ellena remembers a particularly enjoyable evening when the group, which called itself the Freedom Fellowship Forum, watched a video made by conservative fringe leader and sometime presidential candidate Bo Gritz. The video detailed "proof" that George Bush was receiving a cut from illegal heroin sales in America's cities.
For Ellena, such nights were an inspiring mix of politics and religion that he found to be as essential as food and drink. Especially satisfying was the Forum's willingness to "carry both the Bible and the musket"--by backing candidates for office.
In 1990, Roberts and Ellena were asked by Forum members to run for the Ronan school board and Lake County superintendent of schools, respectively. Ellena, running on a platform that strongly advocated the voucher system for public schools, soon found he enjoyed politics--it provided a kind of secular pulpit from which his proclivity for harangues could be put to good use.
The voters of Lake County evidently enjoyed him, as well. In early 1990, Ellena was considered a favorite to win.
In March of that year, Ellena and Roberts agreed to be interviewed by a freelance writer for the Missoulian, a daily newspaper in Missoula, about 50 miles south of Ronan. The reporter, Ron Selden, wrote a story detailing their conservative bent--but added the spectacular charge that they were racist and anti-Semitic, as well.
Selden wrote that Ellena had given him several pamphlets written by Pete Peters, a Colorado extremist linked to groups "said to be embraced by the Aryan Nation organization and several other nationally recognized hate groups."
Selden's story also quoted Ellena as saying that the Holocaust never occurred and that Abraham Lincoln wanted to "send all blacks back to Africa." Ellena claims the reporter fabricated those quotes.
To those who knew Ellena well, the racism angle lacked the ring of truth. One-quarter Cherokee, Ellena had spent much of his professional life teaching in schools on Indian reservations and arguing for the cause of minorities--who, he insists, suffer the most at the hands of big government.
One of the Forum's meetings had even been devoted to discussing ways to free local tribes from "dependency" on the government by helping them become economically self-sufficient.
Ellena and other Forum members may have nursed the nutty idea that the nation's vice president was a smack dealer, but they showed no overt signs of the kind of ugly bigotry suggested by Selden--if they did, the reporter was unable to find even one member of the Ronan community who could testify to it.
Rich Stripp, editor of the Lake County Leader, says he interviewed Ellena on several occasions and that "he never said anything racist to me."
"Frank is very concerned about the nation moving away from its people," Stripp says, "and he's got some different ideas. But I never heard him talk anti-Semitic."
When contacted by New Times, Selden was hesitant to discuss the story on Ellena, but admitted that he never went to a Forum gathering or talked to other members before writing his piece.
"I just knew Ellena was involved in the racist stuff," Selden tells New Times. "But please don't quote me . . . Ellena is a dangerous, paranoid man. He definitely would kill me if he knew I was talking to you."
Editors at the Missoulian did not return calls from New Times about the Selden story.
The story was a bombshell. Although Ellena steadfastly maintains he never passed racist literature to Selden or uttered racist comments, he lost the election handily.
Worse, he says, his personal life suffered a devastating hit.
"That story was the beginning of my undoing," Ellena says. "The pressure became incredible, because a lot of people believed that crap.
"I was newly married, and the stress of the situation was just too much for us to take. My wife left me. I lost my farm, and I knew my chances for working in education again in the area were pretty low."
Ellena, smarting from the blows to his personal and public aspirations, packed his bags and moved to Arizona--where his wife had fled. He hoped "to get somewhere far enough away so that I could patch up my marriage, find work, put the accusations behind me and get my life back on track."
Arizona, it turned out, wasn't far enough.
@body:Ellena quickly found new employment as a combination principal and superintendent of schools in the tiny burg of Young, near Payson, where he supervised about 70 students.
He set to work establishing a sports program, improving the school building and grounds and, in his spare time, attending counseling sessions with his wife in Flagstaff.
A predominantly conservative, Christian community, Young was especially receptive to Ellena's education "reforms." He quickly pulled several books out of the school library--one on Satanism and another on divorce and alternative sexual lifestyles.
"I didn't think we should have books on the devil for students, nor did I think that we should have a health book that taught easy ways to get a divorce or about alternate sexual lifestyles," he says.
Ellena, who still wears a gold wedding band despite his divorce, believes that "when you get married, under God's law, the woman becomes femme covert. In other words, she becomes basically her husband's property and has no right to sue for divorce. The femi-Nazis out there might object to that, but that's the way it is.
"So why should we be teaching children something they have no right to do?"
Ellena freely admits that his personal beliefs weighed heavily on administrative decisions at the school--especially his encouragement to teachers to apply "Christian principles" in the classroom. But he says he was merely acting in accordance with the wishes of the school board, which sanctioned his decisions on the books.
"All was well," Ellena says. "The school was doing good, the school board was happy. I thought I had found a home."
But soon Ellena began quarreling with several teachers over work hours. The school was on a four-day schedule, but the teachers, he says, were not working 40-hour weeks. The teachers were also annoyed because Ellena required women to wear dresses and men jackets and ties.
The school board continued to support Ellena. But the teachers remained unhappy--and a few months into Ellena's tenure, they went on the offensive.
Ellena arrived at school one day in late November 1991 to find his office filled with reporters and television cameras. Many of the reporters were clutching copies of Selden's Missoulian story, which had been distributed by two teachers.
Ellena's brief, happy idyll in Young was over.
After Ellena threw him out of his office and refused to grant an interview, the Arizona Republic's Rich Robertson produced a long, critical story on Ellena in early December 1991. Robertson alluded to the charges of racism contained in Selden's piece and introduced an array of new allegations about his behavior in Young--almost all from anonymous sources.
Robertson cited Ellena's efforts to "disband the school's fledgling wrestling team because of his fears that AIDS could be transmitted through sweat"--a homophobic theory, the story pointed out, that has been widely discredited by medical experts.
Minutes of the school board meetings indicate that Ellena merely alerted the board that he had concerns about AIDS transmissions, and made no effort to disband the wrestling program--which he, himself, had started a few months before. He only informed the board that he planned to keep a bottle of disinfectant near the wrestling mat in case blood was spilled.
Laura Faye Cline, then president of the Young School Board, says, "Ellena was simply making parents aware of that fact that wrestling is a contact sport. He was pointing out a risk factor, that blood, snot, slobber and all the rest could be involved. Parents could then make their own decision about the safety of the activity.
"He wasn't saying anything weird or radical."
Cline adds that although Ellena "sometimes may have gotten a little carried away, and he did invoke religion quite a bit, he was an excellent administrator. We had no student-discipline problems, and there was no evidence that he was a racist or anti-Semite.
"Nobody on the board ever heard anything like that from Frank."
Cline says that the Republic story was "a bunch of exaggeration and lies," and that she never spoke to the reporter--but was quoted as saying that the school was "a mess" because of Ellena.
"Why do you reporters make things up?" Cline asked New Times. "Everything was fine with Frank until that story appeared."
Robertson sticks by his story.
"I did, in fact, talk to Miss Cline, and I read the minutes of the school board meetings," he says. "The story was accurate."
The controversy took an immediate toll. Ellena and the school board agreed he should not return the following year, and he bitterly moved on once again--promptly falling in with the Payson Constitutionalists and Doug Carpa.
@body:It was late August 1992 before Ellena knew there was a warrant for his arrest stemming from the altercation with IRS agents. He was weekending in a cabin in Payson, he says, when a call came from a close Constitutionalist friend warning that federal authorities were closing in and wanted him--dead or alive.
"The friend told me," Ellena says, "that federal marshals, heeding the warning that I was armed and dangerous, had set up a crossfire ambush for me.
"I knew that if law enforcement officials believed I had actually assaulted one of their brother officers, they wouldn't think twice about killing me during the arrest."
Neither the IRS nor assistant U.S. attorney Charles Steele, who is prosecuting Ellena, returned calls from New Times, so there is no way to know if federal authorities had plans to arrest him that weekend--or if they planned an "ambush" of any kind.
But while documentary evidence remains incomplete, it is easy to understand how someone immersed in the conspiracy-laden, glass-onion world of Frank Ellena could think the government meant to do him ill.
Records that the IRS have released to the court show that the agency compiled a superficial and misleading dossier on Ellena before branding him as an armed-and-dangerous racist.
Not only did it evidently accept as gospel the two newspaper articles written about Ellena--using the stories, without apparent corroboration, to link him to the Aryan Nation--but it also took the word of a dubious informant that Ellena was a violence-prone gun nut.
During his brief tenure in Young, Ellena was befriended by the local newspaper publisher, Larry Monahan, who shares many of Ellena's political and religious beliefs. As a favor to the newspaperman, Ellena agreed to counsel Monahan's son, Sean--a troubled young man who, his father says, had been discharged from the Army because of mental problems.
"I tried to help the kid," Ellena remembers. "But he was doing things like shaving his head, drinking, behaving strangely. I finally had to give up on him, forget him."
But Sean Monahan didn't forget Ellena. Larry Monahan, now a car salesman in Washington state, says his son contacted IRS agents in the summer of 1992, sometime after their investigation into Ellena began.
"[Sean] didn't like Frank much, because he was an authority figure over him," the elder Monahan says. "In retaliation, he told the IRS some pretty strange things."
Saying his son is a "pathological liar" with a severe alcohol problem who is being pursued by the law for failing to support his children, Larry Monahan admits Sean told the IRS that Ellena was "heavily armed with big guns, and was willing to use them to help bring about the victory of the white race.
"He told them he was a neo-Nazi who would rather die than surrender."
Whether the IRS questioned the veracity of its informant before branding Ellena armed and dangerous--a label that would prompt officers to approach him with guns drawn--isn't known. Nor does anyone seem to know where Sean Monahan now resides--not even the IRS, which, in court records, lists his address as "variable."
But it wasn't just the haphazard way in which the IRS branded him a dangerous criminal that frightened Ellena.
This, after all, was the summer of 1992, when white supremacist and tax dodger Randy Weaver was blockaded inside his Idaho cabin, surrounded by federal agents and sniper teams who killed both his pregnant wife and son. The Constitutionalist cadre nationwide was on full alert, certain that this tragedy marked the beginning of martial law.
It didn't take much for a man like Ellena to imagine that federal agents would target him in much the same way.
So he made a decision that he admits, in retrospect, was a horrendous mistake.
Ellena packed up a few belongings, abandoning the rest, and fled his Payson cabin to become a federal fugitive.
For more than a year, he was on the lam, living a hand-to-mouth existence as "Samuel Jeremiah Johnson," a heavily bearded itinerant worker. Ellena shoveled snow, picked crops and labored on a ranch, hiding from a system that he was certain had marked him for death.
He wandered aimlessly from Washington state to Alaska, where he finally got steady work in construction and lived on an old boat in Wrangell, a small town about 160 miles south of Juneau.
That's where authorities, tipped off by a citizen who recognized Ellena's face on a wanted poster, found him in November 1993. A frightened, shaking Ellena was rousted one morning by five local police officers, an army of state troopers and U.S. marshals, a Coast Guard cutter carrying a sniper team and a Blackhawk helicopter bearing more sharpshooters.
"It was like I was John Dillinger," Ellena remembers, grinning.
This public enemy was found with a shotgun and an old rifle given to him by his late father--hardly an impressive armory to hold in the wilds of Alaska. He was clapped in irons and brought to Arizona to stand trial.
@body:When Ellena arrived in Phoenix, prosecutors seemed almost embarrassed. They did not seem to know what to do with his case, which one U.S. Attorney's Office insider says "had clearly gotten out of hand."
The ludicrous assault charge had been watered down to three lesser counts of intimidating a federal official, obstructing and impeding the administration of revenue laws and attempted recovery of seized property. But the evidence for even these accusations seemed thin.
So prosecutors did what prosecutors unsure of their cases often do--bluster and fight on all the harder.
Although the government's designation of Ellena as armed and dangerous had been rebuffed, federal lawyers ardently resisted his request to be released to the custody of friends while awaiting trial, saying that since his comrades "shared his beliefs and ideology," they could not guarantee that Ellena would not flee.
Then, after months of delay, when it appeared that U.S. District Court Judge Robert Broomfield would reject the feds' argument on the grounds that it discriminated on the basis of thought and speech, prosecutors tried a new tactic.
In an extremely unusual move, they requested that Broomfield order a psychiatric examination of Ellena, saying they believed he was too "zealous" to stand trial. It was a polite way of suggesting that Ellena was insane.
Peter Morgan--a Constitutionalist who petitioned the court to release Ellena into his custody--notes that it is the defense that is supposed to invoke the insanity plea, and says that prosecutors were trying to "brand Frank as crazy because they didn't have a case against him."
"That way, they could get out of trying a case for which they had no evidence, but still discredit him as nuts," Morgan says.
If that was the aim, prosecutors were sorely disappointed. The psychiatric report noted that while Ellena's beliefs were "on the fringe of mainstream society," he was unquestionably sane. The examining doctor even went beyond normal protocol to lodge an impassioned plea with the judge for Ellena's immediate release.
While the wheels of justice slowly turned, Ellena languished in a Phoenix jail for five months, even though federal sentencing guidelines call for a sentence of only six months for a conviction on all the charges against him.
To be sure, he contributed to the delays. Tapping his wellspring of conspiracy theories, Ellena alienated Broomfield and consumed hours of court time claiming that the judge was under the authority of those ubiquitous foreign agents, and that the court was actually a "military tribunal" with no jurisdiction over his actions.
Finally, in March, Broomfield released Ellena to Morgan's custody. Ellena retreated to the Houston Mesa law office, where he works daily preparing a defense for his May 25 trial, and where, at night, he sleeps on a cot in the corner.
In a way, he seems exhilarated. He views his trial as a bully pulpit from which to expound upon "the truth." The court documents he has filed in preparation compose his personal manifesto, riddled with references to Interpol, the UN and foreign plots.
His battle is also gaining fame in the Constitutionalist community, and if his case does, in fact, go to trial, he hopes to join the ranks of Randy Weaver and David Koresh--as a patriot who fought the fine fight against government totalitarianism.
"We are going to take this nation back under lawful means by educating the public," he says. "That's what my case is all about: educating.
"We're going to win, and we're going to set a major precedent."
He will also get a satisfying chance to confront his accusers. The IRS agents, as well as reporters like the Republic's Robertson, are expected to get subpoenas.
But the price of his proverbial 15 minutes of fame has been high. He has lost custody of his daughters. Unable to pay storage fees on his furniture and clothes, he has been stripped of most material possessions. He will most likely never work in education again.
Nevertheless, he remains defiant, seemingly oblivious to the ultimate fate of his quixotic quest. While Ellena is probably correct that he will never be convicted of a crime, does he actually believe that his case will succeed in exposing the IRS and peacefully overthrowing the whole of the federal government?
Ellena shrugs. "If Christian men 200 years ago had decided it was impractical or impossible, that you couldn't buck the system," he says, "where would we be today? Still under the king of England, that's where.
"I'm fighting for my daughters. I don't want them to live in a nation where they are told how to live, what to do, what to think."
Proudly, Ellena says his fears of the big-government bogeyman have been unquestionably justified. Whether the IRS struck out at him in retaliation or simply out of an institutional need to quash all dissent, the result is the same--destruction of the individual at the hands of the state.
That, he says, should worry us all.
"People need to wake up to the threat," he says, "even if others think you're strange or paranoid for worrying about it."
And always remember, Ellena points out: You aren't paranoid if someone really is out to get you.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.