In June, it was talked about like one of the most unusual trials in Chicago history.
It was a remarkable event not only for the bizarre crime that was alleged, but for its victims, who were some of the biggest names in Chicago legal circles.
A woman named Cherron Phillips, 44, was accused of filing maritime liens, each for up to $100 billion, against the property of a who's who of the Chicago court system. There was the former US Attorney, Patrick Fitzgerald, who had brought down Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich and had also investigated the Valerie Plame affair. There were judges and prosecutors and clerks -- and all of them had discovered that Phillips had filed liens against them, claiming that they owed staggering sums of money.
The press was fascinated by the odd behavior of Phillips, who in court spoke a strange legalistic code, refused help from an attorney, and filed incomprehensible court documents that one judge complained was "clotted nonsense."
Phillips was identified as a member of the "sovereign citizen" movement, people who believe that U.S. laws don't apply to them and who clog up court dockets with homespun pleadings that can be impossible to decipher. Though small, the movement has been around a long time; it's generally acknowledged that it grew from a loose 1970s collection of antigovernment tax protesters with a heavy dose of white supremacy.
And that was another reason why Phillips was so fascinating. She was part of one of the newer segments of the antigovernment movement -- African-Americans who call themselves "Moorish" and who also object to the federal government and its laws.
The closely watched trial lasted two days, after which Phillips was convicted of ten counts of retaliating against a federal official by filing false claims. She will be sentenced in October and could spend up to ten years in prison. Or, it's possible she'll only get probation. It's hard to know at this point if Judge Michael J. Reagan will make an example of Phillips and give a "paper terrorist" a lengthy prison stay. The Chicago press will no doubt watch that sentencing just as closely as it watched the trial.
But in all that media attention, there's one thing about Phillips that none of the coverage revealed.
Before she was a Moorish sovereign citizen facing prison time, Cherron Phillips was the companion of one of the NBA's most well-known players.
Phillips is the mother of Joshua Jamal Anderson, a former college player whose father was one of the most recognizable NBA figures of the 1990s.
Nick Anderson was an original member of the Orlando Magic, and played on a team with Shaquille O'Neal and Penny Hardaway that made the NBA finals in 1995. Anderson was a member of the Magic for a total of ten seasons and works for the team as an ambassador today.
In 1989, when he was the team's first ever draft pick, Anderson came to Florida from Chicago with amazing basketball skills and a high school sweetheart.
And how Cherron Phillips went from Anderson's partner to a convicted domestic terrorist facing serious prison time is still something of a mystery.
She's the attorney who has been appointed by the court to assist Cherron Phillips -- though Phillips has made that a very difficult prospect.
After Phillips was indicted in November 2012, she insisted on representing herself in court, which seems to be a cherished sovereign citizen rite of passage.
Judge Milton Shadur, who presided over the case at that time, granted Phillips the right to represent herself, but after Cherron tried to derail the proceedings with bizarre pleadings, Shadur appointed Solomon to be her stand-by attorney to help her understand what was going on.
Phillips wanted nothing to do with Solomon, and during hearings would sit across the defendant's table from her and ignore her.
"She never agreed to my representation. She puts that on the record at every opportunity," Solomon says. But even without the cooperation of her client, Solomon has been piecing together her story in order to present a case at her sentencing.
Solomon confirmed for us that the Cherron Phillips facing ten years in prison is the same Cherron Phillips who had a child with Nick Anderson, a fact we had also confirmed with a law enforcement source.
"Cherron and Nick were high school sweethearts," Solomon says. But she found that out only after the trial, and not from Cherron but from another member of the media.
"When I've presented that to any of the family members, they were really unhappy that I knew that," Solomon adds. "They're a very private family."
She says that her client's extended family only began to "come out of the woodwork" during the last day of the June trial, even though the time from indictment to trial had taken more than a year. "I didn't meet with them until after the verdict."
Solomon says that Phillips has a young child, and a sister "who needs help with care." She says the media portrayal of Phillips is somewhat misleading. Phillips was a very successful woman, and has an extended family that "does not believe in this stuff."
But it was Cherron's immediate family that has tangled with the court system, revealing their involvement in the sovereign citizen movement.
Despite Cherron's association with a wealthy basketball star, her supportive extended family, and her business success (in local real estate), she "went in a very different direction," Solomon says. "And I couldn't tell you why."
That school was Simeon Career Academy, a perennial Chicago basketball powerhouse that won its first state championship when Anderson was a junior in 1984. Later that year, in November, the team's star and Anderson's good friend Benji Wilson got into an altercation at a diner with a student from another high school, who shot him twice at close range. Wilson's death shocked the city and affected Anderson deeply. He wore Wilson's number, 25, for the rest of his career.
After his senior year at Simeon, when the Wolverines lost only a single game, in the quarterfinals of the state tournament, Anderson then became a part of a team at the University of Illinois that featured such future NBA players as Kendall Gill and Kenny Battle. Anderson played two seasons with the Fighting Illini, getting to the Final Four in 1989 before losing to Michigan in the tournament semifinal.
Coming out for the 1989 NBA draft after his sophomore year, Anderson was chosen as the 11th overall pick by the expansion Magic, which then began to build a team around him. The Magic added Shaquille O'Neal in 1992 and the next year picked up Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway, and in the 1994-1995 season made its run for the NBA Finals. That was the season of Michael Jordan's return to basketball after his experiment with baseball, and the Magic faced Jordan's Bulls in the Eastern Conference finals. Nick Anderson's brightest moment as a player is usually considered his steal of the ball from Jordan in the final minute of Game 1 of the series, which led to the Magic's win. (In the Finals, however, the Magic were swept by the Houston Rockets.)
Anderson continued to be one of the league's most effective three-point shooters, but he struggled at the free-throw line as the Magic continued to have strong seasons. After a decade with the team, he spent two years in Sacramento and finished his career with a season in Memphis.
Solomon has learned little about Anderson's relationship with Cherron Phillips. She met once with their son, Joshua, who told Solomon that her parents were friendly and regularly communicated with each other.
Joshua was born in 1990, but by 1994 his parents were apparently already split up. That year, Anderson was sued by model Tamiko Glass, who'd had a child with him.
In 2007, Anderson married Kenyarda Higgins, and today they have three young children. The family lives in Orlando, and the team lists Anderson as a studio analyst and community ambassador. We made multiple attempts to reach Anderson through his agent, but didn't receive a response.
And it was also very white. In our companion piece, Travis Gettys explains the origins of the movement and how it was heavy on antisemitic and anti-Black rhetoric. Sovereigns, for example, believed that when former slaves were made citizens by the 14th Amendment, it made them subservient to the federal government in a way that white's weren't. Sovereigns pore over moments in American history -- such as the enacting of an income tax and going off the gold standard -- looking for language in case law or obscure treaties or the Uniform Commercial Code that they can seize on to make themselves exempt from U.S. law.
Experts point to a down economy and home foreclosures in the 1970s as the fuel for the early movement, just as the foreclosure crisis of the current recession has fueled another upswing in activity. Only this time, there's a surprising new interest among African-Americans, some of whom call themselves Moors or Moorish.
The Moorish Science Temple of America was founded in the early 20th Century by a man named Timothy Drew who called himself Noble Drew Ali. His followers claim that they are descended from the Moors of Morocco, and refer to themselves as "Asiatics" as well as "Moorish Scientists." They tend to give themselves new names with suffixes like El, Bey, Dey, or Ali, which are said to be ancient Moroccan titles.
More recently, Moorish Science has begun to merge with sovereign citizen ideas. The Southern Poverty Law Center lists two Asbury Park, New Jersey men as leaders of the Moorish branch of the sovereign citizen movement. Nature El Bey was formerly known as Lee S. Crudup, but even the SPLC doesn't know the original identity of Taj Tarik Bey, who calls himself a divine minister of the Moorish Science Temple.
Known for his long, rambling video lectures, Taj Tarik Bey instructs his Moorish followers how to create the kind of confounding court documents that Cherron Phillips was filing in Chicago courtrooms. In this 10-minute video (part of a much longer lecture), Taj Tarik Bey explains how accepting a drivers license makes one a slave of the state.
Tarik Bey here asserts the essential sovereign citizen theory, that for each person there is a fictional, corporate version of the self and there is a natural, sovereign version that is your true identity. In this theory, which has never been endorsed by an American court, the country's laws only apply to your corporate self, and your natural incarnation cannot be held to pay taxes or obey statutes. Some sovereigns contend that the way you write your name down on a document -- including which letters you capitalize -- can determine whether you've allowed yourself to be subject to this country's laws.
Not everyone involved in Moorish Science, however, is enamored with Tarik Bey or the sovereign movement's odd ideas. Here's what Governor Mahdi Nasir Shabazz El-Sheik, a prominent member of the Moorish Science Temple, said about him in 2005...
This Brother Taj Tarik has caused much confusion in the way of what is truly Moorish and what isn't. With his blend of Pseudo history and law he has taken a conglomeration of misinformation and transformed it into his own brand of confusion. His case has no legal merit because the said Government that he speaks of doesn't recognize him as a citizen, and since he isn't by law or by his own bad actions a citizen of the Moorish Divine National Movement then he's not a citizen anywhere and is at best a fugitive and vagabond, and at worst he is a 14th amendment anarchist.
Did Cherron Phillips learn from Tarik Bey? Lauren Solomon says she doesn't know the name of any one guru Phillips might have been learning from, and she thought there might be someone in California that Cherron was communicating with.
She says Phillips researched sovereign citizen ideas on the Internet, and researched law at the Cook County Law Library at Daley Center. Her convoluted court filings suggest that she'd drunk deeply of the sovereign ideology.
She's also not the only sovereign citizen with a connection to the sports world. In May, TMZ reported that Pilar Sanders, the ex-wife of former NFL player Deion Sanders, appealed a ruling in their divorce claiming that she was a "Moorish National Aboriginal" and not subject to U.S. law. The appeal was dismissed.
A recent study found that law enforcement agencies consider sovereign citizens more of a threat than Islamic terrorists or the KKK or other dangerous groups, a significant change from just a few years ago. Although sovereigns are known mostly for clogging courts with nuisance filings, there's a concern in law enforcement that segments of the movement could turn violent.
In 2010, a father and son duo who made a living teaching sovereign citizen ideas in hotel seminars opened fire on a couple of Arkansas state troopers, killing both of them. The two were later killed in a shootout with other police.
Last year, a sovereign citizen couple was arrested in Las Vegas after allegedly plotting to kidnap a police officer, take him to an empty house that had been prepared for binding the officer, then try him on camera in a "citizen's court" and execute him on video. They were taken into custody before they could carry out the plot.
Other sovereign citizens have made the news for fraudulent schemes, including filing quitclaim deeds on unoccupied homes in order to claim ownership, or filing liens against people as a form of retaliation.
Stories about sovereign citizens advancing fraudulent schemes or clogging courts with their antics have become almost commonplace in some parts of the country, particularly the midwest and west.
But even longtime observers were stunned by what was happening in Chicago.
Court documents say that Devon Phillips sold cocaine or crack to undercover officers on three separate occasions -- and the third time, he was caught trying to sell three kilos of powder.
In 2008 he pled guilty to three counts of possession with the intent to sell. And based on the nature of the offense and his criminal history, he was facing a minimum of 10 years in prison.
But he was sentenced to 6.5 years.
Against the advice of his attorney, Devon then appealed his relatively light sentence, asking the appeals court to review various filings he had made which he said the trial court ignored.
Those filings discussed "his Moorish faith, real property law, and the Uniform Commercial Code, as well as a motion to stay sentencing so that the government could respond to new discovery requests. The court denied some of them as nonsensical or frivolous." The appeals court admitted that "we cannot make any more sense of the motions than the district court could" and denied Devon's appeal on May 23, 2012.
"Who was filing that appeal?" Lauren Solomon asks. "Because Devon was obviously no attorney. Who prepared that, and who thought it was a good idea to do? It wasn't Devon. He was in prison. He was taken into custody prior to sentencing, so someone filed that on his behalf."
Was she suggesting that Cherron was behind her brother's appeal and the nonsensical filings on his behalf?
"Either Cherron or someone else in the movement. Or her parents," Solomon says. "It's not Devon who is pushing anything."
During the numerous hearings in Devon's case, his sister Cherron disrupted proceedings repeatedly, trying to interrupt hearings in order to give speeches or submit improper filings. Devon's prosecutor later testified that Cherron would bring a crowd of people with her to court, instructed her brother on what to answer during questioning, and filed papers saying he wasn't subject to U.S. laws. Cherron was barred from the courtroom in February 2011. A few months later, in June, she sent the judge a package which included a "common law bill of indictment," calling for him to be arrested. It was about that time that she began filing the liens against the people involved in her brother's case.
Meanwhile, a year after Devon made his guilty plea, his parents had begun their own path of self-destruction.
In March 2009, Wayne and Betty Phillips submitted a year 2008 tax return for the Betty Jean Phillips Trust, claiming that the trust had received income of $47,997.
A month later, they filed another return, this time for the Wayne Phillips Trust, which they said received income of $1,057,585.
Both trusts, they claimed, had spent all of that 2008 income on various management fees, and so they had no taxable income to report. As a result, they said, they were entitled to refunds of all the federal taxes they had paid during the year, which came to $352,528 for Wayne's trust, and $15,999 for Betty's.
The IRS didn't send a check for Betty's trust, but it did send a refund check of $352,528 to Wayne. The couple endorsed the check and put the money into a joint bank account.
By December, however, the IRS figured out that it had been scammed. There was no record that either of the trusts had paid any taxes, and they weren't entitled to a refund. The IRS notified the couple, who were summonsed to explain themselves.
Records showed that when they received the summons, the couple still had $244,137 of the money remaining in the bank, and now they rapidly withdrew it, but in smaller portions from thirteen different locations.
Then, a year later, they did it again.
In 2010, the Wayne Phillips Trust reported income of $1,056,000 and once again the couple claimed that the revenue had all been spent on fees, entitling Wayne to a refund of $352,000. Betty, meanwhile, had changed her name to Samara Beth El Bey, and she submitted a return for the Samara Beth El Bey Trust. She claimed income of $441,000 and asked for a return of $147,000.
This time, the IRS didn't pay anything and instead took legal action. In early 2011, Betty and Wayne were indicted, and decided to represent themselves at trial. They were convicted in a jury trial of conspiracy to defraud the government and were ordered to return the payment of $352,528. On June 8, 2012, they were each sentenced to 41 months in prison.
And by then, their daughter Cherron was already well into her own legal quagmire.
It was sovereign citizen nonsense, and the press ate it up.
The charges against Phillips were certainly newsworthy. She had filed maritime liens -- as if she were securing debts against commercial ships -- against the former Chicago US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, as well as the chief judge of the district court in northern Illinois, James Holderman.
She had also targeted Joan Lefkow, a judge whose mother and husband were killed in 2005, possibly by a man whose medical malpractice lawsuit Lefkow had dismissed earlier, leading to greater attention to court security. Lefkow had also played a small part in the prosecution of Devon Phillips.
Victimizing Lefkow with a retaliatory lien seemed particularly cruel, or clueless, on Cherron's part.
She also filed liens against prosecutors and police and clerks -- in total, twelve people who had had some involvement in her brother's drug prosecution.
Phillips was being charged under a relatively new law, 18 U.S. Code § 1521, whose full title is "Retaliating against a Federal judge or Federal law enforcement officer by false claim or slander of title." It refers specifically to filing liens as retaliation against a federal officer, and carries a penalty of 10 years in prison.
The law was passed in 2008 as a reaction to the sovereign citizen movement. The first person charged under it, in 2009, was Daniel E. Petersen, one of the original members of the Montana Freemen.
Petersen had targeted federal judges who had overseen prosecutions of Montana Freemen members in the 1990s. Petersen himself had been sentenced to 15 years for bank fraud and armed robbery.
While in prison, he targeted three judges with liens on their properties, and offered to pay a bounty for their arrest.
Petersen was found guilty under the new law and had seven and a half years added to his previous sentence, which was about to run out.
Unlike Petersen, however, Cherron Phillips isn't a militia member, she hasn't used sovereign citizen ideology to defraud other people or the government, and there's no indication that she's violent.
But she was an endless source of fascination in court.
Many of her utterances and her documents were bizarre. Repeatedly, she used language that suggested she wanted it understood that she was a representative for her other self, River-Tali Bey, or vice versa. Numerous times, she filed documents asking for the case against her alter ego to be dismissed, and spoke of it as a civil matter.
She claimed that the federal government was suing a fiction named Cherron, and River-Tali wanted the judge arrested.
Judge Shadur wasn't amused.
He was especially unimpressed when she seemed to outwit herself. For example, she signed bond documents for her release while she awaited trial. The bond would allow her to live at home, with some restrictions, while the pre-trial hearings grinded on over more than a year. But soon after she signed that document, she then announced that she was revoking her signature.
Judge Shadur pointed out that if he allowed her to do that, he'd have to put her in jail. He convinced her to rescind her retraction, and then asked her to get a psychiatric examination.
"Someone must have told her you can't sign that, that it legitimates it," Lauren Solomon says, explaining why Cherron did something so unintentionally comical.
Cherron's court antics and her indecipherable documents had already attracted considerable press attention when, in February 2013, she suddenly experienced what appears to be a rather stunning moment of clarity.
She sent the following note to several of the people she had victimized.
I am writing this request to forgive me because I have come to learn of my tremendous mistake. I fully understand that listening to patriot people in the public on how to obtain remedy was a huge mistake. Forgive me for my failure to do the proper study on learning how to come to my brother and properly resolve matters instead of filing liens on persons.
I understand this was a serious mistake. I had no intentions on causing harm and thought I was following the law. I simply thought at that time I was doing the right thing. I make no excuse for taking bad advise.
It was a tremendous mistake and ill advised and completely out of line. Please be advised I would never do such a thing again. I understand that public servants must have a difficult job in dealing with people who don't understand law and don't understand how to come to harmony. I now re-iterate, I fully understand my mistake and how I must have offended and or inconvenienced you. I have but two words "FORGIVE ME".
Just a month later, however, Cherron was back to her old tricks, sending to the judge by registered mail a copy of her indictment with the words "Accept for value, Return for setoff settlement and closure."
It was more "clotted nonsense," the judge said, with "no substantive significance."
Then, in May, she tried another gambit, this time with an "affidavit of discharge," asking that she be removed from the criminal case and supplanted with the "real defendant," who was the "readily marketable asset" version of herself.
"In an unusual hearing Friday, Phillips filed several unintelligible motions, questioned a federal judge on his loyalty to the Constitution and insisted that U.S. citizens would not comprise a jury of her peers," the Chicago Tribune reported in July 2013.
"I hesitate to rank your statements in order of just how bizarre they are," Judge Shadur told her.
In October, Judge Shadur was replaced with a judge from the Southern Illinois circuit, perhaps to avoid an appearance of bias. Phillips was told again to get a psychiatric examination in November, but then failed to show up for it. More delays pushed the trial back, and another judge, Michael Reagan, took over the case.
Finally, in June, her trial arrived. And Cherron showed up late to the first day.
A jury of six men and eight women watched as one witness after another testified that they'd discovered that Cherron had filed liens against them.
The first witness was Michael Dobbins, former clerk of the US District Court, who said that when he went to sell a parking space he owned, he found that it had a lien on it for $100 billion.
But most of the other people she filed liens against were unaware of it at the time. And none of them seemed to have suffered financial problems because of the liens. (Under 18 U.S. Code § 1521, however, it isn't necessary to prove that a victim was harmed, only that a lien had been filed in retaliation against a federal officer. There seemed little doubt that Cherron had filed the notices of maritime lien with the county.)
After two days of testimony, the jury retired to deliberate, and while they did, Phillips made yet another attempt to disrupt things.
"While the jury deliberated...Phillips went to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals six floors above the trial courtroom to try to enter an emergency appeal claiming she was beyond the court's jurisdiction," the Tribune reported.
The jury was ready with a verdict in less than three hours. They acquitted her on two counts of filing liens against police officers (who didn't qualify as federal agents under the statute) but convicted her on the other ten counts.
Since the trial, Phillips has been in custody at Chicago's Metropolitan Correctional Center. Solomon has gone to see her there five separate times, but each time Cherron has refused to see her.
Solomon has met with Joshua Anderson. "I met with him once. They're a very close family. They're just very tight about anything that's going on."
Like his famous father, Joshua played basketball at Simeon Career Academy, where his teammates included future NBA star Derrick Rose. With Rose leading the way, the team won state championships during Joshua's sophomore and junior years. Rose then played a single season at the University of Memphis before being drafted by the Chicago Bulls.
Joshua averaged 13.2 points a game his senior year as the Wolverines finished as runners-up in the 2008 state championship. Then, after initially committing to Grambling State that spring, he joined the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC) Flames as a walk on, where the coach was Jimmy Collins, who had coached Nick Anderson at Illinois. But NCAA records show no statistics for Joshua over the next three years. For his senior year of eligibility, he played at Robert Morris University, also in Chicago.
(We tried to reach Joshua through Solomon as well as his former basketball coach at Robert Morris, but he didn't respond.)
Finished with college basketball, Joshua is now working to get his college degree, a 24-year-old taking care of his young brother while his mother is in jail awaiting sentencing.
"They weren't even aware of it. They weren't aware that these liens existed until one person discovered it and then told everyone else," she says.
The documents Phillips filed were nonsensical, but the act of filing them, as retaliation, is what has her facing a decade in prison.
It's Solomon's job to help Phillips prepare a case that she deserves a far lighter sentence. But as in the past, she's getting almost no cooperation. She points out that both Cherron's brother Devon and her parents cooperated with the preparation of pre-sentencing reports by probation officers in their trials. But so far, Cherron has not.
Solomon assumes that Cherron is more interested in appealing whatever sentence she receives, and doing it pro se -- on her own. "But she won't be able to. They'll appoint an appellate lawyer," Solomon says. (Solomon herself won't be involved at that point.)
We asked Solomon if, while she's preparing for sentencing, she'd found any cases that were similar to Cherron's.
She pointed us to a case out of South Dakota: A man named Gregory Davis, who claimed to be part of an unrecognized Indian tribe, was unhappy that another member of the tribe, Michael Reed, was being prosecuted on a firearms charge. So he retaliated against the judge in the case with a $3.4 million lien. Davis and Reed were convicted for conspiring to retaliate against the judge. Reed, who had other charges against him, was sentenced in 2011 to 9 years in prison. Davis, who only filed the lien, received three years and five months, plus three years of supervised probation. It's the only case Solomon says she's been able to find where a person was convicted for retaliating with a lien on behalf of another person, as Cherron was attempting to do for her brother.
She adds that the case had another interesting wrinkle.
"They represented themselves at trial, and then on appeal they claimed the judge erred by allowing them to represent themselves because it was obvious they were incompetent," she says, laughing at the thought of it. The appeal was denied.
Will Phillips get only three and a half years, as Davis did? Or could she avoid a prison sentence entirely? Reading coverage of the lead-up to the trial, the judges who have handled it appeared to show remarkable restraint as Phillips tried one disruptive tactic after another. She came off delusional at best, and little of her actual background emerged. Or that her family, Solomon says, is known for its stature in the local community.
"The whole family is educated and successful -- the extended family, who didn't buy into the sovereign citizen thing. These aren't people who are desperate. These are highly educated, successful, middle class pillars of the community," Solomon says.
So what happened?
"Everything occurs after Devon. It stems from Devon," she says "I know criminal cases wreak havoc on families. But why did this case unravel this family? It's a fascinating question."
We asked Solomon if the family had experienced any other difficulties before Devon's prosecution.
"There are some things that happened before that probably made them more vulnerable, but they don't want to talk about it," she says. "I think this is a case of people feeling powerless against a huge force, and they chose to react to it in a way that made them feel more powerful. The sovereign citizen thing is just a vehicle for these people to self-destruct. And why did they want to self-destruct?
"None of it makes sense. This woman has risked everything for a really ridiculous ideology. Her parents did it. Her brother did it. And it all started with her brother. Four people in this family are going to end up in prison for this incredible ideology. Why do people follow this, when it so obviously is ineffective?"
Solomon says the extended family remains supportive of Cherron, if somewhat puzzled. "They've indicated that they're supportive of what I'm doing for her, even though she's not," she adds.
"Is Cherron a danger to society?" Solomon asks. "Are the liens enough to send someone to prison for seven to eight years? Obviously, she's not a criminal. She has not spent her life engaging in criminal conduct. She's not a drug dealer. She's not a bank robber. She's not a fraudster. She's a misguided individual."
The sentencing of Cherron Phillips is scheduled for October 14.