10 arrested in East Tenn. fraudulent lien scheme

TBI says scheme targeted law enforcement, government officials

TBI Director Mark Gwyn announces a 320-count indictment against 11 defendants accused of filing false liens.

NASHVILLE (WATE) – Ten people who are considered sovereign citizens have been arrested in four East Tennessee counties and charged with more than 300 counts in what the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation calls a fraudulent lien scheme.

TBI says city and county mayors, sheriffs, judges, attorneys, police officers and other government and law enforcement officials were the targets of the scheme and appear to have been targeted solely because of their positions. The liens were filed in amounts from $4 million to $12 million against dozens of people, encumbering their property.

The 320 count indictment, which names 11 people, includes multiple counts of drawing a lien without a legal basis, and forgery by making false entries into records.

TBI Director Mark Gwyn says the yearlong investigation began in May 2016 at the request of 7th District Attorney General Dave Clark. The fraudulent liens were filed on the state level, so the case was sent on to the Davidson County district attorney and charges were filed. The 10 suspects were arrested Wednesday in Anderson, Knox, Cocke and Greene counties and taken to Davidson County Jail.

TBI says fraudulent lien schemes such as these are typical of the sovereign citizen ideology.

“The sovereign citizen ideology is one where individuals share a belief system that rejects the concept of US citizenship and governmental authority. Their ideology often based on their own interpretation of historical documents fundamental to American history and common law,” said TBI Deputy Director Jason Locke.

These sovereign citizens often use liens as a type of revenge or punishment for government officials.

“When a fraudulent lien is placed, then the secretary of state files it and by law has to. Once those liens are in place, you have trouble establishing credit, you have trouble if you’re going to refinance your house, get a car loan. It impacts every bit of your financial life,” said Locke.

This includes the filing of false liens and other government documents, threatening correspondence, suing government employees for millions and cyberstalking.

Those impacted by the scheme will still have to go through the proper channels to have the liens removed, but officials hope the prosecution of the suspects will expedite the process. The liens can still show up on the victims’ credit reports for up to seven years.

There is pending legislation that would allow the secretary of state to decline obviously fraudulent liens.

The following 10 people have been arrested. An 11th person named in the indictment has not yet been taken into custody:

  • Michael Robert Birdsell, 54, Andersonville – 8 counts Draw a Lien without a Legal Basis, 8 counts Forgery $250,000 or more. Bond $150,000.
  • Austin Gary Cooper, 68, Clinton – 10 counts Draw a Lien without a Legal Basis, 10 counts Forgery $250,000 or more. Bond $150,000.
  • Lee Harold Cromwell, 67, Oak Ridge – 14 counts Draw a Lien without a Legal Basis, 14 counts Forgery $250,000 or more. Bond $150,000.
  • Victor Douglas Bunch, 72, Powell  – 17 counts Draw a Lien without a Legal Basis, 17 counts Forgery $250,000 or more. Bond $150,000.
  • Christopher Alan Hauser, 51, Del Rio – 21 counts Draw a Lien without a Legal Basis, 21 counts Forgery $250,000 or more. Bond $150,000.
  • Ronald James Lyons, 52, Newport – 30 counts Draw a Lien without a Legal Basis, 30 counts Forgery $250,000 or more. Bond $150,000.
  • James Michael Usinger, 64, Greeneville – 22 counts Draw a Lien without a Legal Basis, 22 counts Forgery $250,000 or more. Bond $150,000.
  • John Jeffrey Williams, 50, Powell – 3 counts Draw a Lien without a Legal Basis, 3 counts Forgery $250,000 or more. Bond $25,000.
  • George Edward Williams, 76, Powell – 3 counts Draw a Lien without a Legal Basis, 3 counts Forgery $250,000 or more. Bond $25,000.
  • Kenneth Ray Foust, 73, Clinton – 3 counts Draw a Lien without a Legal Basis, 3 counts Forgery $250,000 or more. Bond $25,000. (Currently in custody in the Anderson County Jail).

Lee Cromwell is the same man convicted Wednesday of driving into a crowd at a fireworks show in Oak Ridge, killing one person and injuring several others.

Oak Ridge Police Chief James Akagi says Cromwell electronically filed a lien against him in the amount of $12 million. Akagi says liens were also filed against the district attorney, prosecutor, a judge, clerk of the court, sheriff, and others.

“Our agency was responsible for investigating a crime that [Cromwell] committed and was found guilty of yesterday. We had no personal connection with him whatsoever, no business dealings, no commercial dealings,” said Akagi. “I’ve never met the man.”

District Attorney General Dave Clark says he and his wife were also targeted in the scheme.

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