Out of joint

Bill McMaster is not the kind of guy you’d expect to be raising hell over a pair of gay hippies killed by police.

The 63-year-old public relations man and anti-tax activist is about as far from patchouli oil and tie-dyed T-shirts as a person can get. Short and stout, with a ruddy complexion and comb-over hairdo, McMaster is strictly a suit-and-tie kind of guy, with the tie always held neatly in place by a clip featuring a 1913 gold piece. His clients include chemical, automotive and logging companies. He lives in a spacious, light-filled home tucked away on 4 1/2 acres in Birmingham. And it’s a good bet there’s not a single Grateful Dead or Phish album in his record collection.

But when McMaster heard on the radio last year that authorities had surrounded an “alternative” campground called Rainbow Farms in southwest Michigan, and that tax issues played into the confrontation, the head of a grassroots group called Taxpayers United didn’t hesitate.

“I jumped in my car and went straight there,” recalls McMaster. He drove the three-and-a-half hours from Birmingham to Vandalia on Labor Day, four days into a siege involving a small army of FBI agents, Michigan State Police and Cass County sheriff’s deputies.

Since the late 1970s, when he played a key role in the successful campaign to gain voter approval of the Headlee tax-limitation measure, McMaster has had a high profile in many tax policy debates. In the past few years, he teamed up with environmentalists to help defeat a controversial revision to the state’s drain code; critics said it would have given drain commissioners more power to authorize projects and extract fees while decreasing their accountability. Then he helped defeat an assessment to support the arts in southeast Michigan.

Nothing he’s been involved with, however, is quite like Rainbow Farms. The campground gained notoriety during the 1990s as a haven for pot smokers. Its owner, Grover “Tom” Crosslin, and his longtime companion Roland Rohm staged several pro-marijuana music festivals there each year, including one called Hemp Aid to support pot legalization efforts. Not surprisingly, police had been investigating the place for years.

But the siege that began Friday, Aug. 31, had its roots in the tax code, not drug laws.

In the spring of 2000 authorities raided the campground looking for evidence that Crosslin was failing to withhold taxes from employee wages. Instead they found about 300 small marijuana plants growing in Crosslin’s basement. Crosslin, who was on probation stemming from a 1995 bar fight, and Rohm were arrested on drug and weapon charges. Civil proceedings were then begun to seize the property using asset-forfeiture laws.

The Labor Day confrontation began when Crosslin and Rohm, who were out on bond, allegedly began torching buildings on the property. The speculation is that they would rather have seen the place burn than let the government officials get their hands on it.

In a 1999 letter to County Prosecutor Scott Teter, who was already warning that the property could be seized, Crosslin declared: “I have discussed this with my family, and we are all prepared to die on this land before we allow it to be stolen from us. How should we be prepared to die? Are you planning to burn us out like they did in Waco, or will you have snipers shoot us through our windows like the Weavers at Ruby Ridge?”

Hours after McMaster arrived at Rainbow Farms on Labor Day, Crosslin was shot in the head after he allegedly pointed a loaded Ruger mini-14 assault rifle at an FBI agent.

McMaster spent that night sleeping in his car, encamped with “all these hippies” who’d gathered to show their support for Crosslin and Rohm. The next day, state police snipers shot and killed Rohm after he allegedly took aim at officers with his assault rifle.

Within weeks of the shootings, McMaster was helping certain relatives of Crosslin and Rohm find out more about the slayings. “My heart went out to those people,” he explains.

McMaster was particularly interested in obtaining autopsy reports, and began filing Freedom of Information Act requests to get them in mid-September.

“From the start, I thought there was a crisis in truth brewing,” says McMaster. Family members were telling him that Crosslin had multiple bullet wounds, while the press was reporting official accounts that he’d been shot just once. The death certificates of both men indicated each had been killed by one bullet. The family, however, contended that they saw multiple wounds on Crosslin’s body before it was cremated.

According to a report released Jan. 7 by Teter, Crosslin was indeed shot more than once. The report states that a bullet fired by a second sniper fragmented, hitting Crosslin in the hand and side.

As for Rohm, his family paid for a second autopsy performed by the Oakland County Coroner’s Office. That autopsy found that he’d been shot twice. The bullet that killed him pierced his chest. Another bullet entered his thigh and came out his stomach, indicating that Rohm was on the ground when hit with that shot, according to Janet Frederick Wilson, one of several lawyers representing various family members. Teter’s January report, which included excerpts from the official autopsy, confirmed Rohm was shot twice, and a diagram shows a bullet entering his thigh and exiting his stomach.

Cass County officials offered a changing litany to explain why the complete, official autopsies were not available. Finally, in November, Teter announced that releasing them would “interfere” with an ongoing investigation. That reason became moot Jan. 7, when Teeter held a press conference to announce that he found the shootings to be justifiable homicides and that police had acted properly. The Michigan Attorney General’s Office concurred.

McMaster filed his 10th request to obtain the full autopsy files following Teter’s press conference, which family members were not allowed to attend. When there was no response within the five days proscribed by law, he filed a lawsuit in the Michigan Court of Claims.

Cass County Administrator Terry Proctor said last week that he believed the autopsy reports had been sent to McMaster. A woman who answered the phone at the office of Cass County Medical Examiner Dr. Robert Knox said that if McMaster “wasn’t such a jackass” he would have been given the reports last week when he came to the office to serve notice of the legal action.

County officials aren’t the only ones taking a dim view of McMaster’s involvement in the case, which draws in multiple players and competing agendas. Dan Wilson, a spokesperson for the firm representing several members of Crosslin’s family, says McMaster is only complicating matters.

The aftermath of the killings is nearly as chaotic as the event itself. For starters, the families are considering filing wrongful death lawsuits that challenge Teter’s account. For example, his official report mentions no attempts to flush Rohm out; he allegedly set fire to the building he was holed up in and stayed inside for nearly half an hour before rushing out to confront police. But lawyer Janet Frederick Wilson told Metro Times that an object labeled “barricade penetrating projectile” — a canister typically containing tear gas or other substances and issued to law enforcement or military personnel — was found by a private investigator at the site.

There are other issues to be resolved as well.

In the days before he was killed, Crosslin wrote out a will leaving all his property to Rohm. Rohm’s will leaves all he owned to his 13-year-old son, Robert. As a result, the 37-acre campground, Crosslin’s former home, and 20 acres belonging to Rohm, should go to the boy; he was made a ward of the state last summer and is currently the subject of a custody battle putting his mother against Rohm’s parents.

Prosecutor Teter, meanwhile, is proceeding with plans to seize the property through a civil drug-forfeiture action. That, too, rankles McMaster. “It seems like the punishment should have died when they died,” he says. Also, if back taxes aren’t paid on the property by March, the threat of foreclosure by the state looms.

At this point, even if the promised autopsy reports are made available, Bill McMaster doesn’t plan on going away.

“We’re not going to let go of this,” he vows. “The truth will eventually come out.”

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]
Scroll to read more Metro Detroit News articles


Join Detroit Metro Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.