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Destry James Marcotte had months to prepare himself for a stint behind bars, and leading up to his sentencing on Thursday, he talked as if he was ready.

“If my desire for truth lands me in prison, so be it,” he said.

Marcotte, 48, of Belleville, faced up to 20 years in prison on tax charges related to his beliefs associated with the “sovereign citizen” movement.

It’s a group bound by a denial of the government’s legitimacy, and includes people who challenge everything from municipal traffic laws to federal tax regulations.

And experts say the movement is growing.

Fueled by distrust, sovereign beliefs have lured people from all walks of life — farmers, doctors, chiropractors, blue-collar workers and, for some unknown reason, a disproportionate number of dentists, said JJ MacNab, who has researched the movement for more than a decade, testified before Congress and is working on a book about sovereigns.

The St. Louis region has seen a handful of cases recently involving individuals described as sovereigns, including a woman from Kirkwood and two brothers from Lake Saint Louis.

The term “sovereign citizen” is somewhat of a misnomer, employed by law enforcement and the media.

Most individuals described as “sovereign citizens,” such as Marcotte, deny the designation, calling it an oxymoron.

“The label makes no sense,” Marcotte said. “I’m not going to call myself anything. I’m just going to stand for the truth.”

But his “truth” consisted of “redemption theory,” a classic doctrine attributed to sovereigns. Adherents believe the government uses citizens as collateral and establishes secret accounts that can be accessed through obscure legal claims.

According to his indictment, Marcotte filed tax returns claiming the IRS owed him more than $600,000.

At his trial last year, Marcotte represented himself, and a jury convicted him on four counts of making a false claim for a federal tax refund.

For months, Marcotte remained free on bail as he awaited sentencing in federal court in East St. Louis.

In interviews during the past two weeks, his moods appeared to shift from acceptance to obstinacy.

“I sleep well every night,” he said. “I can handle adversity very well.”

But, in a last-ditch attempt to keep himself out of prison, Marcotte filed a lawsuit in state court against the federal judge and prosecutor in his case.

Early last week, the suit was dismissed. Marcotte’s sentencing awaited.

GROWING NUMBERS

Most experts trace the roots of modern day sovereigns to the white supremacist Posse Comitatus movement of the 1970s, which recognized no government higher than the county and believed that the county sheriff had ultimate authority.

But today, the sovereign movement even includes an African-American variant dubbed the Moorish Nation, most of whose members are unaware of its racist roots, MacNab said.

It’s difficult to say how many sovereigns exist in the United States, but most estimates, based in part on frivolous tax returns, put the number between 100,000 and 300,000.

MacNab said the movement was growing internationally as well.

In addition to tax schemes, sovereigns have also become known for “paper terrorism.” Some tactics have included filing liens against the personal property of judges, prosecutors or any other person who poses a threat.

In 2010, a group calling itself the Guardians of the Free Republics sent letters to more than 30 state governors giving them three days to resign or face removal.

The letters were accompanied by 26 signatures on a “grand jury” indictment.

James Cowhey, 67, of St. Louis County, who signed the indictment against Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, said it was not intended as a threat of “force or violence.”

“It was about trying to reclaim our rights as Americans,” Cowhey said.

Cowhey believes that the United States abandoned its republic form of government in the late 1800s in favor of a corporate system.

“The purpose of the grand jury indictment is to have a republic in this country,” he said.

In a 2011 bulletin, the FBI labeled sovereigns a “domestic terrorist movement,” which may explain why so many adherents are now quick to disparage the term “sovereign citizen.”

“You’re going to find that (the sovereign designation) is going away,” said Lee Bishop of Eureka. “Nobody wants to be labeled a domestic terrorist.”

Bishop describes himself as a constitutionalist and prefers to think of the movement as an “awakening of people.”

“I don’t know what it is,” Bishop said. “I think people are just getting fed up.”

Bishop has always been careful about how far he takes sovereign doctrine.

“The one thing I’ve never messed with was the IRS,” Bishop said. “They are just way too big.”

But that hasn’t stopped him from taking on a host of municipal courts.

He said he used to violate traffic laws on purpose just to get pulled over. When officers questioned him, he claimed that he wasn’t in fact driving, but traveling. According to Bishop’s reading of the law, driving applies only to people who operate motor vehicles for commercial purposes.

His arguments often got him arrested, but in some cases, he succeeded in having tickets dismissed.

A few years ago, Bishop appealed a red light camera ticket in the Village of Calverton Park to circuit court. A village official eventually agreed to dismiss the ticket — not because Bishop’s legal arguments were compelling, but because the long running battle was too time consuming and costly.

MacNab said such dismissals were troubling. Sovereigns often file a barrage of paperwork, and it’s easier for judges to let them go, which only serves to embolden them, she said.

FIGHTING THE IRS

MacNab said that although sovereigns believe in a “thousand different myths,” the circumstances that push them into the movement are very real.

“The more you look at individual people that have gotten involved in this movement, you’ll find that there’s some big event that kind of turned off a common sense switch,” she said.

It’s tough to say when or if that occurred for Marcotte. He declined to pinpoint a moment when sovereign ideology drew him in, but his history includes several events that may have been traumatic — lost jobs, a divorce, foreclosure.

Public records show that Marcotte had problems with the IRS dating back to 1994 when the agency placed a tax lien on a home he owned in St. Charles, where he grew up.

He worked delivering appliances for Sears out of high school. He was eventually fired and wound up working for a flooring distributor.

Marcotte said he was laid off about 2007, about the same time he stopped making payments on his home in Belleville.

The next year, he filed three amended tax returns for the years 2005, 2006 and 2007 requesting that the IRS pay him a total of $474,753, according to his indictment. He followed that up a year later with another return requesting an additional $153,989. He said he never received any of the money. But his returns were shuttled to the IRS’ Frivolous Return Unit in Odgen, Utah, and a few years later, criminal investigators from the IRS knocked on his door.

Marcotte refused to speak to the agents.

In an interview with a reporter before his sentencing, he said he regretted filing the amended returns and wished he would have simply talked to the IRS.

“I wouldn’t do it again,” he said. “I would have said, ‘What do you want me to change? I’ll do whatever I have to do to come into compliance.’ ”

Last year, Marcotte was working for Charter Communications, installing cable. He loved the job, but he lost it because of the conviction.

Agency officials declined to comment on Marcotte’s case but pointed to a handful of pamphlets it has published debunking various tax protestor schemes including redemption theory.

Marcotte isn’t the only adherent of the theory recently sentenced to prison in the St. Louis area.

Last year, Nancy Cicero, 71, of Kirkwood, received a 33-month prison sentence after claiming $3 million in federal tax refunds.

Deborah Martin, Marcotte’s girlfriend, said she believes Marcotte may have learned how to file the amended tax returns through an online seminar, but later discovered that many of the people who followed the advice had landed in prison.

“This was something he was taught to do,” she said.

Before his sentencing, Marcotte said he had spent a lot of time considering what he would say to the judge. He mapped out a route to the courthouse. And he even found a place to store his pickup while he was in prison.

On Wednesday, Marcotte left Martin a note saying he had gone to store some of his things in a camper, she said.

When the moment of his sentencing arrived Thursday, prosecutors, IRS agents and the judge were nervously glancing at their watches.

Marcotte didn’t show.

His girlfriend said Marcotte is stubborn, but she was as surprised as anyone that he had vanished.

“Knowing what he’s up against, I would run, too,” she said. “But he’s not the running kind.”

Authorities are now trying to find him.

Stephen Deere is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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