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Spencer Rendahl: Elaine Brown

When I first heard that Ed and Elaine Brown’s house in Plainfield, New Hampshire, would be auctioned off this summer, I had fleeting thoughts of trying to buy it to own a piece of history. In 2007 the Browns had a tense 9-month standoff with the federal government over their refusal to pay income taxes, which put my small Connecticut River valley town in the national news.

By then I had lived in Plainfield for almost a decade, but I hadn’t met the Browns or their Center of Town Road neighbors, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and his wife Joanna.

I lived – still do - on the East side of town, away from the SWAT team and federal agents that gathered near the Brown’s 100-acre property and the helicopter that circled overhead. I encountered strange looking anti-government disciples of the Browns who asked me for directions. I wasn’t one of the families who feared for their safety because they were living near the Browns, but even from a distance, I was still affected.

I resented paying town taxes for schools and roads when the Browns didn’t. I resented seeing so much of the towns’ limited resources spent on the siege instead of going to our elementary school and its shoestring budget. And after the Browns’ capture, I resented seeing my federal tax dollars spent to cover the couple’s incarceration.

I’m grateful that the 2007 standoff ended peacefully with the Browns’ arrest, instead of turning into a New England version of Ruby Ridge, the 1992 Idaho standoff that ended with tragedy and infamy. Ed and Elaine had claimed to have stockpiled ammunition and home-made bombs on their property, and authorities took them seriously. A volunteer fire department friend told me at the time that a state fire marshal advised that given the unknown number and location of explosives around the property, the department should just let the house burn if it caught fire.

The Browns house didn’t burn, and Ed and Elaine are now in their 70s. They’re serving prison sentences that will last into the 2040s for charges that include illegal possession of firearms and obstruction of justice. Proceeds from the auction will go towards the back town taxes totaling $150,000.

Last week Elaine made news again by expressing some regrets. She wrote a letter, hand-addressed from her Alabama federal prison to our community newsletter. In it, she apologized to Plainfield residents, police, and town administrators for the impact of her family’s siege on the town. She asked for forgiveness.

“Now, seven years later,” she wrote, “I realize the wrong I have done to you all.”

“One cannot do the wrong thing,” she concluded, “for the right reason.”

Elaine didn’t disavow the core beliefs that had led to the standoff. But in an age where so many people espouse things that cause harm and then double down defensively or trivialize their actions instead of offering remorse, I found Elaine’s letter heartening. It even gave me a little hope.