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

Stock image | St. George / Cedar City News

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.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @tracie_sullivan

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2016, all rights reserved.

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  • tcrider October 27, 2016 at 6:51 pm

    bundy boys still in the slammer, (updated)

  • delong October 27, 2016 at 9:15 pm

    So now taking over government buildings while armed is legal? Interesting times…

    • desertgirl October 28, 2016 at 10:12 am

      What is not interesting and is deplorable is government seizure of everything they can get their hands on: personal property, state lands, and ignoring the constitution willy nilly. Federal and state forfeiture laws allow law enforcement officials to go into your home if you are suspected of criminal activity; guess what, if you were not guilty or they bust into the wrong home or business they keep what they take. These are facts. I can give you a long, long laundry list of incidents just in the past couple of years. Do you care? How about expecting our government not to steal from it’s citizens and toss their constitutional rights into the garbage which results in ruined lives. Why is a corrupt politician running for the presidency? Yeah, interesting times, when Americans defend a large government body led by self-serving, pocket lining, criminal pols.

      • RealMcCoy October 28, 2016 at 10:35 am

        Desert girl just nailed it.
        Interesting that delong is more concerned with this case than the fact a criminal politician (with a long trail of dead bodies behind her) is running for president of the United States.
        If delong and his ilk try to use the ‘she was found not guilty by the FBI’ excuse, then he will also have to abide by ‘the Bundy’s were found not guilty’ answer.

    • Chris October 28, 2016 at 1:26 pm

      It is important to read the comments of the now infamous juror #4, available at numerous sites. It is clear that the jury was convinced that the prosecution had not proven the elements of the conspiracy (no explanation why the firearms charge did not stick). He emphasized that the jury did not approve of the actions of the Bundys, nor did they sympathize with the political movement that they represent. Don’t take this verdict to indicate that the jury got aboard the ideological wagon that the Bundys, and their kind, are hoping to fill. The juror went on to explain that they did, in fact, worry that this acquittal might embolden other wacko types to take similar actions.

      • mrsmith October 28, 2016 at 3:18 pm

        “their kind”? You mean other farmers, ranchers, their kids, future generations? I’m sorry to say but even if the Bundy’s were convicted they wouldn’t be the party most violated here. Go ahead and stick your head in the sand and continue to suck on the government tit a little longer but it won’t be long until they give you the ol’ boot to the face and then I will smile when I see Chris posting comments just like “their kind”.

        • Chris October 29, 2016 at 5:42 pm

          First of all, neither of the Bundy brothers is a farmer or a rancher, nor were any of the Malheur occupiers. Secondly, it is the Bundy family who has been sucking on the “government tit” for three generations, not me. Unlike the Bundys, I work in the private sector and have never taken a cent of federal government handouts. Sounds like mrsmith is a welfare rancher or equivalent, expecting those of us who do real work and pay real taxes to support him.

  • Ron October 28, 2016 at 12:29 pm

    Hahaha…..the jury has spoken.
    Justice has been served.
    They will walk on the Bunkerville case as well.

    I will attend the celebrations at the Bundys ranch when they are aquitted in Nevada.

  • Bob October 28, 2016 at 3:48 pm

    There’s got to be a better cause than invading a bird preserve with paramilitary gear. The feds have way too much power in some areas, and I realize these rednecks hate bird preserves and want every speck of land to have cows roaming all over it, but let’s hope their next circus isn’t as foolish. The Bundy clan’s greed and stupidity make them very hard to support.

    • Henry October 28, 2016 at 5:36 pm

      Spot on, Bob. These nut jobs are like the North Dakota pipeline protesters. It’s hard to garner sympathy for your cause when you’re squatting on remote land, trying to intimidate those workers coming to do their job.

    • .... October 28, 2016 at 9:13 pm

      Awww poor little boob. oops I mean Bob, did the Bundys hurt your feelings. LOL !

  • KarenS October 29, 2016 at 6:52 am

    I think the whole verdict sounds like jury nullification no matter how juror #4 tries to spin it. His complaint about the “air of triumphalism” from the prosecution is a clue to his thinking. He seemed to be offended more by the prosecution’s presentation while ignoring the actual evidence. A glaring example is the not guilty verdict about the guy that stole the government vehicle. He was arrested in the parking lot of a grocery store 30 miles away from the refuge.

    Here’s a quote from his attorney,

    “My client was arrested in a government truck, and he was acquitted of taking that truck,” said defense attorney Matthew Schindler, who still sounded in disbelief Friday morning.”

    • RealMcCoy October 29, 2016 at 1:27 pm

      ‘We the people’ are the government, and have been since 1776. He was driving a tax-payer funded government vehicle, so he didn’t really ‘steal’ anything. A good lawyer could get out of the ‘theft’ part.

      You seem determined to believe these people are guilty of crimes they have been found innocent of.
      This was not a hung jury- they were all in agreement, so it was not just juror #4 and his opinions.

      Innocent until proven guilty means that they were innocent until the prosecution could prove they were guilty of the charges, and guess what- they did not prove it. The jury saw evidence that you and I have not even seen yet.

      Justice has prevailed. Accept it.

      • .... October 29, 2016 at 5:04 pm

        Yes justice has prevailed..so now here come the cry babies. hand out the pacifiers and crying towels

      • Chris October 29, 2016 at 5:45 pm

        Of course, he stole something. He stole the use of that vehicle from those of us who pay taxes. Medenbach pays no income tax and never has. He and all the Malheur occupiers are economic losers leaching off the federal government and legitimate taxpayers.

        • RealMcCoy October 31, 2016 at 11:06 am

          Actually it is the federal government that is leaching off the legitimate taxpayers.
          He stole nothing. He used a vehicle that has already been paid for by our tax dollars.
          Do you steal from taxpayers when you use a road that was paid for by tax dollars?
          Do you steal from taxpayers when your kids go to a public school?

          You say he pays no income tax- so do millions of welfare recipients. Will you now say that they are ‘stealing’ from taxpayers?
          Let me hear you say that….

          • Chris October 31, 2016 at 6:09 pm

            You really can’t follow an argument, can you McCoy? Medenbach does not pay taxes, so he was stealing, even by your perverse standards. I pay taxes, so the answer to your questions is obviously no. Medenbach used a vehicle that was paid for by OUR tax dollars, not Medenbach’s. He is a thief, and by any civilized standard, scum. By the way, yes, welfare recipients are stealing from taxpayers. Maybe, that includes you.

          • RealMcCoy November 1, 2016 at 10:48 am

            You really can’t follow an argument, can you Chris?
            Yes, I think welfare is theft from taxpayers, yet the LAW OF THE LAND says that it is legal, so whether he pays taxes or not, it’s not theft.
            Your ‘argument’ has been reduced to whether or not him borrowing a car that was paid for by tax dollars and therefore really belongs to no ‘one person’ is a theft.
            Of AAAALLLL the things thrown at the Bundys and their group, this is the only thing left for you to argue about, and yet he was found not guilty of theft.
            You can nitpick all you want from here on out, but the facts remain that they were all found not guilty of the charges.
            Not guilty means ‘NOT GUILTY’, which means….guess what?…


            Follow that argument.

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