Letters from the West

Bundy trial over Malheur refuge occupation holds surprises

Emmett resident Ammon Bundy began his trial Tuesday with his brother Ryan and five other defendants who continue to argue they did nothing illegal when they took over and, armed to the teeth, occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge earlier this year.

The trial is expected to last long into November and has the potential to hold the public attention like trials in the past with political underpinnings, such as the Ruby Ridge trial in Boise for Randy Weaver in 1993.

The nearly six-week occupation began Jan. 2, as a protest of the imprisonment of ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond for arson. But when the Bundys and their followers walked onto the refuge, it grew into a quixotic effort to impose their interpretation of the U.S. Constitution — not just there, but throughout the West and perhaps the nation.

“What we’re here to establish, re-establish, is the Constitution,” Ryan Bundy told me when I spoke with him on the refuge Jan. 23.

He was pushing a view I’d heard argued since the 1980s by men like James Wickstrom of the Posse Comitatus, a far-right group started in the 1960s that said the county sheriff is the highest power. Joseph O’Shaughnessy, an Arizona Militia leader, explained it to me from his camp just outside the refuge Jan. 24: No court, no Congress, no executive, no governor, no county sheriff has the authority to arbitrate the divinely created word of the Founding Fathers, he said.

O’Shaughnessy, one of 26 original defendants in the case, pleaded guilty in federal court in Portland Aug. 1 to a single count of conspiring to impede federal employees from doing their work at the refuge through intimidation. He has a plea deal pending in Nevada.

John Freemuth, executive director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University, said their views go beyond the so-called Alt-Right movement that has embraced the candidacy of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

“These guys have a bizarre view on the Constitution,” Freemuth said. “They are out of the mainstream.”

The Bundys assert in court they were seeking to “return” the refuge to the people by exercising “adverse possession,” the legal argument that by occupying land long enough, you gain ownership. They say no federal official told them they had to leave, an argument several of the occupiers made to me in January as proof they were doing nothing wrong.

They saw nothing wrong in building roads through sacred Burns Paiute ground, rummaging through artifacts and committing vandalism they called fixing up the place. To get in to see them, you went through an armed checkpoint next to the observation tower manned with a guard armed with a sniper rifle.

Two days after I left the refuge headquarters, the Bundys and several of the occupiers were stopped 40 miles away on the highway to John Day heading to a community meeting. One of them, Lavoy Finecum, ran the first roadblock, pulled off at the second and was shot and killed while reaching for a pistol.

Two weeks later, the last of the holdouts gave up. Those included Sean and Sandy Anderson of Riggins, who face trial Feb. 17, 2017.

The Bundys’ trial is very different than Weaver’s trial for murder of federal agent Francis Degan at Ruby Ridge in North Idaho in 1992. Weaver’s wife Vicki and son Sammy were killed in the siege, and Weaver and Kevin Harris were acquitted. Their attorneys, Gerry Spence and David Niven, argued that federal agents acted criminally, which led to a task force that raised questions about all of the agencies’ actions.

In the 2016 standoff, the FBI waited for weeks, allowing the protesters to come and go until stopping the occupiers on the road Jan. 26. Learning from Ruby Ridge and other confrontations, the feds let the occupiers hang themselves peacefully until Finecum’s death.

In the end, of course, the Bundys’ fate is up to a jury. It takes just one juror to prevent conviction. Such a verdict could keep the issue alive through Feb. 6, when the trial for the Bundy brothers’ father is set to begin. That trial is over the 2014 confrontation between the Bundys and Bureau of Land Management officials who sought to round up Cliven Bundy’s cattle, which he had been grazing on public land without paying for years.

The way the public perceives the trial could have short-term political effects in the West, Freemuth said. But if found guilty in this trial, and in the 2017 trial, he expects the Bundys to fade away.

“We move on to other issues fairly quickly,” he said.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker