Trial begins for leader of anti-government movement

For the moment, he is a defense witness with no identity in the federal money laundering trial of Shawn Rice, a leader in the anti-government “sovereign citizens” movement.

After prosecutors rested their case late Monday, Rice told U.S. District Judge James Mahan that he would not identify the surprise witness because of fear for his safety.

He said the witness, whom he described as a “paralegal” helping with his defense, was told there was a government hit on his life.

“Let’s call him John Doe for now for security reasons,” Rice said.

Mahan allowed the witness to remain anonymous until he takes the stand this morning. But the judge warned Rice that he would not let the witness testify if what he has to say isn’t relevant to the money laundering charges Rice is facing.

Rice, a 49-year-old self-proclaimed rabbi and lawyer, is representing himself in the case. He waived his right to be tried by a jury and instead will let Mahan decide his fate.

An undercover FBI agent who infiltrated the sovereign citizens in Las Vegas in 2006 spent much of the day on the witness stand as the government’s chief witness.

Rice was considered a fugitive for 18 months until he was arrested at his home in Seligman, Ariz., on Dec. 22 after a 10-hour armed standoff with FBI agents. He is still in federal custody.

Mahan previously sentenced Rice’s co-defendant, Samuel Davis of Idaho, another sovereign citizens leader, to 57 months in prison. Davis, 57, who had pleaded guilty, liked to call himself “I am: Sam” in court documents as a symbol of his refusal to recognize the establishment.

In court Monday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Damm told Mahan that Davis did not surrender to federal authorities to start his prison term as promised and is considered a fugitive.

The undercover agent, Mark Aysta, testified that he was assigned to the Southern Nevada Joint Terrorism Task Force at the time he infiltrated the group, which taught its anti-government leanings to a nationwide following out of a local print shop.

Tens of thousands of sovereign citizens in the movement have declared themselves outside the government’s jurisdiction and not obligated to pay taxes.

“The sovereign movement has an extreme anti-government ideology, embedded in conspiracy theories, inaccurate history and irrational interpretations of the law,” Damm wrote in a trial memorandum last week.

Both Davis and Rice were indicted in March 2009 after a three-year undercover FBI investigation into the local activities of the sovereign citizens. Other federal agencies, including the IRS, participated in the investigation, which wound up charging Davis and Rice with conspiring to launder $1.3 million in 2008 and 2009.

Davis took roughly $74,000 in fees, and Rice took $22,000, Damm said during his opening statement.

Rice contended in his opening statement that FBI agents had entrapped him and that he had no predisposition to launder money before he was ensnared in the investigation. He said that he suspected the agents were working under cover and that he was told the cash they wanted him to move was “clean” with no criminal origin.

Aysta described on the witness stand how he posed as a shady businessman to get close to Davis, who offered to help him and another undercover agent launder the money they claimed had come from the theft and forgery of official bank checks.

“He (Davis) said it was something he could do easily and that he had done it before,” Aysta testified.

During the agent’s testimony, prosecutors played secretly recorded videotapes of hotel meetings between Davis and Aysta and the other undercover agent, identified as “Omar.” In one meeting at Sunset Station on April 5, 2008, Davis told the FBI agents, “The more times you wash it, the better,” the tape showed.

Later, at a meeting at the MGM Grand on June 17, 2008, Davis described the money laundering venture as “too good a deal for me to screw up in any way, shape or form,” according to the tape.

Davis told the undercover agents that he wanted to get into a position to help them launder $800,000 to $1 million a month in wire transactions through his Wyoming shell company.

“We’re all co-conspirators,” he said. “We’re in this together.”

Henderson police Detective Denise Price, another member of the Joint Terrorism Task Force, testified how investigators kept Rice under surveillance several times as he was provided with hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash to be laundered through a bank account controlled by Rice.

The cash used in the undercover operation was obtained by FBI headquarters in Washington, Price testified.

Contact Jeff German at or 702-380-8135.

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