Standoff leaders Ammon and Ryan Bundy and five others were found not guilty of conspiring to impede federal workers from doing their jobs at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon.
PORTLAND — A federal jury Thursday acquitted the leader of the winter occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and six others, in a big courtroom victory for the militant movement challenging federal control of public lands and a wrenching setback for federal prosecutors.
The jury found brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy and five others not guilty of conspiring to impede federal workers from doing their jobs during the 41-day armed takeover that ended Feb. 11 at the refuge, some 300 miles southeast of Portland.
“This is off-the-charts unbelievable,” said Matthew Schindler, an attorney for defendant Kenneth Medenbach. “I had been telling my client you can count on being convicted. You don’t walk into a federal court and win a case like this. It just doesn’t happen.”
Malheur refuge trial at a glance
Seven defendants: Ammon Bundy, Ryan Bundy, Shawna Cox, Kenneth Medenbach, Jeff Banta, David Fry and Neil Wampler.
Primary charge filed against all seven: Conspiracy to prevent, by “force, intimidation, and threats,” employees of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Land Management from carrying out their duties.
Other charges filed against some defendants: Theft of government property, use and carry of a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence.
The trial stretched on through five weeks of lawyers’ arguments and witness testimony, then days of jury deliberations that included a rare replacement of a juror accused of bias, before finally ending in a moment of drama and chaos.
After the verdicts were read, Ammon Bundy’s attorney, Marcus Mumford, argued his client should be set free, while U.S. District Court Judge Anna Brown said he must be returned to custody of federal marshals, since he and his brother still faced charges in Nevada stemming from a 2014 standoff near their father’s ranch.
“Mr. Mumford, you really need to not yell at me now or ever again,” Brown admonished.
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Mumford’s protests grew louder until he was finally tackled and hit with a stun gun by marshals, said defendant Shawna Cox and another member of the defense’s legal team. The judge ordered the courtroom cleared.
Morgan Philpot, co-counsel for Ammon Bundy, said he was five feet away when Mumford was taken down by U.S. marshals. He said Mumford screamed as he was tased in the back.
Mumford was released late Thursday.Ammon and Ryan Bundy remained in custody.
Speaking to reporters Thursday night, Mumford talked about being taken down to the floor by the marshals.
“Don’t tase me. That’s what I was saying. You don’t need to I’m on the ground,” Mumford said.
The 12 jurors, many drawn from outside Portland, found Ammon Bundy, Shawna Cox, David Lee Fry, Jeff Wayne Banta, Kenneth Medenbach and Neil Wampler not guilty on all counts. They found Ryan Bundy not guilty of conspiracy and possession of firearms but could not reach a verdict on a theft charge.
For the U.S. Justice Department, this was a major prosecution in the aftermath of an occupation that sent shock waves reverberating across the West.
From the time of the takeover through the whoops of joy released in the courtroom Thursday, the case has generated passionate support from Bundy backers who want to turn more federal land over to local control for increased grazing, logging and mining. It has also triggered a backlash from environmentalists and others who consider the occupation an assault on public land.
“While we had hoped for a different outcome, we respect the verdict of the jury and thank them for their dedicated service, during the long and difficult trial,” said Billy Williams, the U.S. attorney for the Oregon District, in a statement.
Kevin Sonoff, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Portland said Friday morning that officials there will “regroup with our trial team and decide what we will do going forward.”
Prosecutors filed an indictment earlier this year charging 26 people, including the seven defendants in the just completed trial, in the conspiracy to takeover the refuge.
Since then, charges were dropped against one man, and 11 pleaded guilty, although one of them is now seeking to withdraw his plea. Meanwhile, another seven, including Darryl Thorn, a Washington resident, are scheduled to go to trial on the conspiracy charge next year.
Win ‘for rural America’
Bundy supporters outside cheered and blew a horn, and somebody even rode a horse. They chanted for the release of the Bundy brothers and prayed in memory of LaVoy Finicum, a rancher and occupation leader killed by law-enforcement authorities as they sought to make arrests on a highway outside the refuge.
“A stunning victory for rural America,” declared defendant Neil Wampler.
Those who opposed the occupation saw a darker future.
“I fear this ruling will embolden other militants to use the threat of violence and I worry for the safety of employees at our public land- management agencies,” said John Horning, executive director of WildEarth Guardians, in a statement. “It is entirely possible there will be threats or intimidations from militants that believe such actions are justified by this verdict.”
Dan Ashe, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director, said in a statement, “We are profoundly disappointed in the outcome of the trial,” and are “committed to the security, healing and comfort of refuge employees.”
Some refuge employees served as prominent government witnesses, testifying about being displaced from their refuge headquarters and moved to other locations in the Northwest out of concern for their safety.
In closing arguments that stretched two days, prosecutors stressed the defendants were not on trial for their beliefs,and had an absolute right to protest government actions. But they argued the defendants stepped over the line into a criminal conspiracy to occupy the refuge and — through the use of armed guards and other acts of intimidation — keep federal employees away from their offices south of Burns.
Ammon Bundy called the takeover a “hard stand” against the return to prison of two Oregon ranchers, Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son Steven Hammond, after a federal judge ruled they had not served long enough sentences on arson charges.
The defendants said they never discussed stopping individual workers at Malheur from accessing their offices but merely wanted the land and the buildings. That was the technical argument. The emotional argument made by the defense was that the takeover was an act of civil disobedience against an out-of-control federal government that held tyrannical rule over the rural West.
“Thousands came to his cause and his movement not to break the rules … but to try to find a way to get the government to follow theirs,” Mumford said in his closing remarks to the jury.
How the prosecutors’ case failed to convince jurors will be debated for some time.
Prosecutors took two weeks to present their case, finishing with a display of the more than 30 guns seized. An FBI agent testified that 16,636 live rounds and nearly 1,700 spent casings were found.
The group seized the refuge, established armed patrols and vetted those who visited. The government argued all of the defendants realized they were preventing the federal employees from going to work, and thus were part of a conspiracy.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this case is not a whodunit,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Ethan Knight said in his closing statement, arguing that the group decided to take over a federal workplace that didn’t belong to them.
But jurors rejected that argument. And under the instructions given to them by Judge Brown, if there was no conspiracy, they could not find the defendants guilty of firearms charges.
Ammon Bundy and Ryan Bundy 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— because of unpaid grazing fees — released the animals as they faced armed protesters. Ammon and Ryan Bundy and other family members named in a federal indictment face numerous charges, and if convicted, they risk decades of prison time.
Defendant Jeff Banta made clear after the verdict that he still backs the Bundys.
“I love it, it’s great. I’m going to get on with my life, he said.
Banta said he expected to go have a beer, then soon head to Nevada, where he hopes to get construction work and support the Bundys in their legal struggles.
Drama in deliberations
Drama marked jury deliberations. One juror accused another of bias, and Brown on Wednesday replaced the accused juror with an alternate who had to travel back to Portland from Central Oregon.
Ammon Bundy said the plan was to take ownership of the refuge by occupying it for a period of time and then turn it over to local officials to use as they saw fit.
Bundy also testified that the occupiers carried guns because they would have been arrested immediately otherwise, and to protect themselves against possible government attack.
Ryan Bundy, who acted as his own attorney, did not testify.
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.
The takeover ended peacefully as the last four occupiers surrendered Feb. 11, but before that, on Jan. 26, Finicum, who had emerged as a spokesman for the movement, was shot to death. The shooting came as police tried to apprehend leaders of the occupation as they drove north to speak at a community meeting in John Day.
Fish and Wildlife officials said the occupation cost the federal government $4.3 million, including restoration and other expenses.
At the Malheur refuge, employees have returned, but the headquarters complex, which includes a visitor center, will not be open to the public until sometime next year when a new security system is completed.