CEDAR CITY – A jury acquitted several defendants Thursday charged with conspiring against the federal government after they seized a national wildlife refuge in rural Oregon last January in an attempt to bring attention to a long-running dispute over control of federal lands in the western United States.
The jury’s decision comes following six weeks of testimony and nearly a week of deliberation. All seven defendants were charged with conspiring to impede officers of the federal government – specifically the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management – from carrying out their duties at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and other places through force, threat or intimidation.
Four of the seven – Ammon Bundy, his brother Ryan Bundy, David Fry and Jeff Banta – were also charged with possession of a firearm in a federal facility in the course of the conspiracy. Others were also charged with stealing government property. In order to have been found guilty of this charge however, the four would also have to have been found guilty of the conspiracy count.
The Bundy brothers are part of a Nevada ranching family embroiled in a lengthy fight over the use of public range, and their occupation drew an international spotlight to a uniquely American West dispute: federal restrictions on ranching, mining and logging to protect the environment. The U.S. government, which controls much of the land in the West, says it tries to balance industry, recreation and wildlife concerns to benefit all.
The trial stems from when Nevada rancher Ammon Bundy led an armed group in the takeover of the wildlife refuge in Harney County, Oregon, last January. The occupation lasted 41 days before the FBI and Oregon State Police took action arresting multiple people and ultimately killing Robert “LaVoy” Finicum during what they termed an “enforcement operation” on Highway 395.
Finicum acted as the group’s spokesman during press conferences and often spent time interacting with the public to educate them on the issues the Arizona rancher felt so passionate about such as the U.S. Constitution and what he believed was the encroachment of the federal government.
The move to take over the refuge was in part to protest the imprisonment of Dwight and Steve Hammond, who were sentenced to prison for arson on federal land, a crime they had already served time for and since been released.
According to the Associated Press, during the trial Ammon Bundy told jurors his experience during the 2014 Bunkerville, Nevada, standoff led him to believe he and his group needed to be armed as occupiers of the refuge or face aggression by federal authorities.
“They physically beat us up,” Ammon Bundy testified.
Part of the evidence introduced in the case was a photo of a blood stained T-shirt that Ammon Bundy testified was taken after he was Tased by federal officials during the 2014 standoff.
He said he didn’t want that to happen again, the Associated Press reported.
“There was no way the FBI would give us our First Amendment right unless we expressed our Second Amendment right,” Ammon Bundy testified.
Ammon Bundy testified that the group had no intention of being the aggressor and had tried working with elected officials before deciding to take what he called a “hard stand.”
Ammon Bundy shared his experience on the stand about the standoff in 2014 and how the Clark County sheriff in Nevada came to their aid to successfully negotiate with the BLM. Bundy said it was a significant experience, according to the Associated Press.
Ammon Bundy shared that he had met with Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward in November 2015 to ask for similar intervention with the Hammonds. After speaking with him several times however it became clear, he said, Ward was not going to go for it.
He then said he drafted a redress of grievance to local and state representatives of Oregon hoping they would rise to the occasion – he received no response. When a fellow occupier asked a Harney County Commissioner why he hadn’t replied, he allegedly told him the “FBI directed (elected officials) not to respond to the petitions,” Ammon Bundy said.
The same information was reiterated by another elected officials and again in a letter sent by Gov. Kate Brown on Jan. 20.
“The FBI and other law enforcement entities … asked state officials, including me, to limit our comments (about the situation in Harney County) to which I have done with great difficulty,” Brown wrote.
Now months after the end of the takeover, occupiers still claim their actions were an attempt to garner support for the Hammond family.
Ammon Bundy testified there were three goals:
- To bring media attention to the Hammonds’ situation.
- To highlight the issue of federal land control that affects the whole country.
- To use “adverse possession” as a method of transferring the land back to the people of Harney County who could then be free to utilize it as a resource.
Ammon Bundy also said as of Jan. 1 he had made no formal plans to occupy the refuge. After the day’s rally for the Hammonds, the Nevada rancher said he stood on top of a snowbank and told everyone who wished to continue protesting to join him and others in occupying the refuge.
In testifying in his own defense, Ammon Bundy spent three days amplifying his belief that government overreach is destroying Western communities that rely on the land, the Associated Press reported.
Federal prosecutor Ethan Knight also asserted the occupiers intimidated federal employees from going to work by taking over their workplace as an armed militia.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Craig Gabriel argued that what occurred at the federal bird sanctuary outside Burns, Oregon, was not just a protest and that the group knew exactly what they were doing.
“This was not a redress. This was retaliation and it was retribution for what refuge workers and BLM workers had done to the Hammonds,” Gabriel told jurors.
He continued by telling jurors that neither the FBI, nor its informants, are on trial and that the case is about defendants relying heavily on armed guards who were posted at the front and back of the refuge and the watchtower in an attempt to keep federal employees out.
Gabriel argued the government does not have to prove that each defendant intimidated or threatened federal employees but only that their actions were “all done behind armed guards with the benefit of that intimidation.”
“This was a dangerous and armed standoff,” Gabriel said. “You saw the defiance.”
In Knight’s closing statement Oct. 18, Knight argued, it is “inherently intimidating” to have your workplace taken over by an armed group that doesn’t like you.
Federal prosecutors took two weeks to present their case, finishing with a display of more than 30 guns seized after the standoff. An FBI agent testified that 16,636 live rounds and nearly 1,700 spent casings were found.
Ryan Bundy didn’t deny taking over the workspaces but said there no conspiracy to prevent them from going to work.
“We didn’t know their names, their tasks. We didn’t know whose seat we were sitting in, and we didn’t care,” Ryan Bundy said.
That may sound callous, Bundy told jurors, but “our purpose was so beyond such considerations.”
Authorities had charged 26 occupiers with conspiracy. Eleven pleaded guilty, and another had the charge dropped. Seven defendants chose not to be tried at this time. Their trial is scheduled to begin Feb. 14.
If convicted, the conspiracy charge faced by all seven defendants is punishable by up to six years in prison.
Despite the acquittal, the Bundys are expected to stand trial in Nevada early next year on charges stemming from another high-profile standoff with federal agents. Authorities rounding up cattle at their father Cliven Bundy’s ranch in 2014 because of unpaid grazing fees released the animals as they faced armed protesters.
Cliven Bundy is scheduled for trial on the 2014 standoff Feb. 6, 2017, in Las Vegas, Nevada.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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