Ammon Bundy told jurors Tuesday that he initially wanted to stay away from the dust-up in Oregon but eventually reversed course. Bundy said he was coping with the aftermath of his own family’s battles in Nevada with the federal government, and initially wary of the consequences of any new confrontation.
PORTLAND — In tearful testimony in his own defense, Ammon Bundy on Tuesday told jurors about an anguished decision last fall to come to the support of an Oregon ranching family, a move that set the stage for the winter takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
Bundy said he was coping with the aftermath of his own family’s battles in Nevada with the federal government, and initially wary of the consequences of any new confrontation.
So, Bundy said, he brushed back calls from his father, Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, to aid two Oregon ranchers ordered back to prison after a federal judge ruled they must serve longer sentences on arson charges.
“I told him that at the time, I can’t fight another battle,” Ammon Bundy recalled, choking back sobs. “I told him I couldn’t get involved, and that’s where we left it.”
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Ammon Bundy eventually reversed course, deciding that it was his “duty to get involved,” and headed off to Oregon. He is expected to give a detailed account of his actions in the state when he resumes what is expected to be lengthy testimony on Thursday.
Bundy’s testimony this week is part of a high-stakes defense strategy to put him on the stand and enable jurors to get a better understanding of who he is and what motivated him to emerge as a leader in the occupation that began Jan. 2. U.S. District Court Judge Anna Brown allowed him to offer a wide-ranging account of his beliefs on how the federal government has undermined the rights of ranchers, loggers and miners, and the importance of county and state officials’ standing up on behalf of those in the rural West.
But his decision to testify also leaves him open to what is expected to be tough cross-examination by a federal prosecutor.
The trial in U.S. District Court here began in September, with Bundy and six other co-defendants, including his brother Ryan Bundy, facing charges of conspiracy to impede officers of the United States from carrying out their duties at Malheur refuge headquarters south of Burns, Ore.; they are also charged with possession of firearms in a federal facility.
The seven are part of a larger group of 26 people charged in a federal indictment earlier this year for their role in the refuge occupation.
So far, 11 of those named in the indictment have pleaded guilty; others, including Washington resident Darryl Thorn, face separate trials scheduled for next year.
Bundy was drawn to Oregon last fall by the case of Harney County ranchers Dwight Hammond and his son, Steven. They were convicted in 2012 of setting fires on federal lands, served time in federal prison and then faced a return to prison in the aftermath of a court ruling that their sentences were too short.
The Malheur refuge occupation began two days before the Hammonds reported back to prison, and lasted for 41 days as it morphed into a broader protest against federal land policies in the West.
Bundy and four others were taken into custody on day 24 of the occupation as they were driving outside the refuge, en route to a community meeting to the north in the town of John Day. That joint state law-enforcement and FBI action also resulted in the shooting death of another leader in the movement, rancher LaVoy Finicum.
Jurors on Tuesday saw a strikingly different Bundy than the red-bearded, cowboy-hatted man who spoke calmly — and with great self assurance — at news conference after news conference held for the media during the occupation.
Bundy has spent more than eight months in jail and took to the witness stand clean-shaven, clad in blue scrubs and looking much younger.
Bundy broke down as he talked about his initial hesitancy to come to the aid of the two Oregon ranchers. But he regained his composure as he narrated video clips of the April 2014 standoff between his own family and their supporters and federal officials who, acting under a court order, were rounding up the Bundys’ cattle from public lands, due to a failure to pay grazing fees.
Bundy told how he was tasered three times as he sought to peer into the contents of a dump truck that was under a federal escort.
The Nevada standoff ended with federal officials releasing the cattle they penned up, but the U.S. Justice Department has since brought a multitude of charges against the Bundys and others for their actions there. And after this trial is over, Ammon Bundy will face a new trial in Nevada over the ranch standoff there.
“My dad and brothers are all in jail right now. Every single one of them,” Bundy told jurors Tuesday. “It’s wrong. It’s wrong.”