Oregon standoff acquittal sparks fears of new land disputes

Defendant Neil Wampler speaks as he leaves federal court. A jury exonerated brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy and five others of conspiring to impede federal workers from their jobs at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Portland, Oregon, Oct. 27, 2016 | Photo by Don Ryan (AP), St. George News

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — The stunning acquittal of seven people who occupied a federal wildlife sanctuary in Oregon during an armed standoff raised fears Friday that the verdict could embolden other militant groups in a long-running dispute over government-owned Western lands.

Supporters celebrate after hearing a verdict outside federal court. A jury exonerated brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy and five others of conspiring to impede federal workers from their jobs at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Portland, Oregon, Oct. 27, 2016 | Photo by Don Ryan (AP), St. George News
Supporters celebrate after hearing a verdict outside federal court. A jury exonerated brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy and five others of conspiring to impede federal workers from their jobs at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Portland, Oregon, Oct. 27, 2016 | Photo by Don Ryan (AP), St. George News

Meanwhile, a juror said the decision was a rejection of the prosecution’s conspiracy case, not an endorsement of the defendants’ actions.

Supporters of Ammon Bundy celebrated the verdict and said it could invite more confrontations.

The government’s top federal land official, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, issued a statement urging all employees to “remain vigilant and report any suspicious activity.”

An activist from Boise, Idaho, who once camped by a memorial to occupier LaVoy Finicum at the site where he was shot dead by police, predicted that the verdict would encourage others to act.

“I think a lot more people will be revolting, rebelling and standing up against what we see as a tyrannical government,” William C. Fisher said in a telephone interview.

The 41-day takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge last January in remote eastern Oregon was part of a larger debate about the use of federal lands in the West. The militants led by Bundy, a small business owner from Arizona, wanted to hand the refuge over to local officials, saying the federal government should not have dominion over it.

The U.S. government owns nearly half of all land in the West, compared with only 4 percent in other states, according to the Congressional Overview of Federal Land Ownership.

One of the jurors in the case asserted Friday that the panel was not endorsing militancy to resolve those issues.

The juror, identified only as Juror No. 4, wrote in an email to The Oregonian/OregonLive that the verdicts were a “statement” about the prosecution’s failure to prove a conspiracy charge “and not any form of affirmation of the defense’s various beliefs, actions or aspirations.”

In this Jan. 5, 2016, file photo, Arizona rancher Robert "LaVoy" Finicum, holds a rifle as he guards the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Ore. The stunning acquittal of seven people who occupied a federal bird refuge in Oregon as part of a Western land dispute was a rejection of the prosecution’s conspiracy case, not an endorsement of the armed protest, a juror said Friday, Harney County, Oregon, Oct. 28, 2016 | AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File; St. George News
In this Jan. 5, 2016, file photo, Arizona rancher Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, holds a rifle as he guards the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Ore. The stunning acquittal of seven people who occupied a federal bird refuge in Oregon as part of a Western land dispute was a rejection of the prosecution’s conspiracy case, not an endorsement of the armed protest, a juror said Friday, Harney County, Oregon, Oct. 28, 2016 | AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File; St. George News

The acquittal of the white occupiers came on the same day that officers in riot gear evicted protesters from private land in the path of the Dakota Access oil pipeline in rural North Dakota. Officers fired bean bags and pepper spray as they surrounded demonstrators, many of them Native Americans who have spent months fighting over tribal rights and the project’s environmental effects. At least 117 people were arrested.

“Are we going to look at these protests the same way?” asked John Freemuth, a public land policy expert at Boise State University. “I certainly think the tribes will have a point if they find themselves arrested and in jail and these Oregon guys get off.”

Bundy, his brother Ryan Bundy and five others were charged with conspiring to impede federal workers from their jobs at the refuge.


Read more: Jury acquits Bundys and five other defendants charged with conspiring against the federal government


Chris Rasmussen, a defense lawyer in an armed standoff case that happened two years ago at Bundy’s father’s ranch in Nevada, said it is “obvious” that Oregon prosecutors gambled in seeking convictions on felony conspiracy charges instead of misdemeanor trespassing charges.

But prosecutors had few other options for serious charges because the defendants never attacked anyone, said Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and a former federal prosecutor.

Rather than attempting to retake the refuge headquarters and risking a gunbattle, authorities took a cautious approach. They closed nearby roads and stayed miles away while urging the occupiers to abandon the land.

“The upside of not confronting them was it was less likely there would be violence,” Levenson said. “The downside was it was less likely that they could use the assault charge.”

The standoff finally ended when the Bundys and other key figures were arrested in a Jan. 26 traffic stop outside the refuge. That’s when Finicum was killed. Most occupiers left after his death, but four holdouts remained until Feb. 11, when they surrendered following lengthy negotiations.

FILE - In this file photo, Ammon Bundy, right, shakes hand with a federal agent guarding the gate at the Burns Municipal Airport in Burns, Ore. The stunning acquittal of seven people who occupied a federal bird refuge in Oregon as part of a Western land dispute was a rejection of the prosecution’s conspiracy case, not an endorsement of the armed protest, a juror said Friday. Burns, Oregon, Jan 22, 2016 | File photo by Keith Ridler (AP), St. George News
FILE – In this file photo, Ammon Bundy, right, shakes hand with a federal agent guarding the gate at the Burns Municipal Airport in Burns, Ore. The stunning acquittal of seven people who occupied a federal bird refuge in Oregon as part of a Western land dispute was a rejection of the prosecution’s conspiracy case, not an endorsement of the armed protest, a juror said Friday. Burns, Oregon, Jan 22, 2016 | File photo by Keith Ridler (AP), St. George News

Bundy remains in jail because he still faces charges in the standoff at his father’s Nevada ranch.

Joel Hansen, Cliven Bundy’s attorney, said Friday that he thinks the jury in Oregon “saw through the lies” of a government that “is trying to prove these Bundy brothers and their compatriots were some kind of terrorists.”

For Hansen and some others in the rural West, ownership of public land is a constitutional question that has not been settled.

“There is a seething anger among those who use the land,” he said, citing the feelings of ranchers, loggers, miners and Indians. “It’s all part of tyrannical oppression. Their goal is to manage them out of business to get them off the land.”

The Oregon occupiers had chosen, perhaps inadvertently, a part of Oregon where locals and the feds had a recent history of working together. Few who live near the sanctuary welcomed the occupiers, most of whom were from out of state.

Not long before the takeover began on Jan. 2, locals and federal officials had determined the fate of large swaths of land, Harney County Judge Steve Grasty, the top local administrative official, said last summer in an interview.

The High Desert Partnership in Harney County, a group that includes the Bureau of Land Management, the Nature Conservancy and timber business owners, had been working quietly to determine land stewardship, which Jewell credited in her statement on Friday.

Written by: ANDREW SELSKY, Associated Press. AP writers Ken Ritter in Las Vegas and Martha Bellisle in Seattle contributed to this report.

Email: news@stgnews.com

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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7 Comments

  • outsider_100@hotmail.com October 29, 2016 at 10:17 am

    While Juror #4 has attempted to explain the thought process behind the jury finding, it will certainly lead to unintended consequences for thousands of BLM employees as they perform their day to day duties.
    Blame the prosecution for their own “overreach”, but the criminal justice system performed as designed………

  • native born new mexican October 29, 2016 at 11:09 am

    The international elitists who run the US government and the world are now going to have to step up their game. They can’t let the people win. The history of Europe is full of uprisings by the common people that were then brutally put down by the ruling elite. It will be no different this time. You can only push common people so far before they feel they have nothing to lose and revolt. Every so often the elite lose. King Charles of England lost his head and Maximilian was executed by Benito Juarez in Mexico. We will see where this goes.

  • Bob October 29, 2016 at 1:05 pm

    well, i guess there’s lots of bird preserves and nature parks left to be invaded and occupied. Those redneck idiots need to get busy

    • .... October 29, 2016 at 4:32 pm

      Awww poor little boob. did them rednecks hurt your feelings ? don’t worry RealLowlife will come 2 your rescue. after all you’re his ( special ) little buddy.

  • old school October 29, 2016 at 7:48 pm

    WAY TO GO AMERICA!!!! I don’t advocate armed militias, but in pure definition and intent of the phrase “Judged by a jury of my peers”, they did exactly what they were supposed to do, they assessed the situation, the validity of laws involved and came to a decision on the moral grounds that are supposed to come into play when a
    decision is vested to a group of individuals (Jury), outside the legal system. What the
    court system wants the jury to think is that they are legally bound to render a decision
    in the same the black and white, yes or no
    constraints used in law enforcement and that not what freedom of choice is all about. What BLM had been doing to the ranchers in Oregon was criminal, they are the one who should be investigated.

  • NotSoFast October 29, 2016 at 8:28 pm

    Maybe because of the increasing world population problem, needed tax money to be gain and politically correct thinking, maybe the vast BLM land holdings in the west will be auctioned off or given to persecuted middle east migrants and paid for by the One World Government. Kind of like Sharia law tribal reservations. Might sound like a stretch? but a possibly. ‘Warning! no pigs allowed or women drivers pass this border point!! And remember, Stoning is the allowed form of punishment here. Have a nice day Bundy.

  • beacon November 2, 2016 at 9:56 am

    Anyone who has taken time to study the history of our public lands knows that federal agency personnel have had to deal with people such as the Bundys throughout the history of this nation as long as we have had public lands. There have always been folks such as this who have wanted to have the lands for themselves. The families that have made their living off public lands for these many years have continued to grow their clans and put more pressure on the land to support them. Now they’re coming back for more to help them live their lifestyle that the rest of us subsidize. The feds have transferred lands out of the public domain throughout their history and will continue to do so but they don’t need to be bullied to do it. Those of us who appreciate our public lands and the people who defend those lands from encroachment by Bundys and others appreciate the work these public employees do and go about our lives earning our livings in other ways not demanding that the feds give us anything.

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