A judge has inspected their courtroom dress. One defendant has been warned against voicing “screwball positions.”
Now Tuesday, opening statements begin in the trial of seven of the people who seized the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Ore., on Jan. 2.
Those on trial include ringleaders Ammon and Ryan Bundy, part of the ranching family that in recent years has loudly disputed the federal government’s ownership and management of public lands in the West. The Bundys also captured headlines in 2014 during an armed standoff with federal agents near father Cliven’s cattle ranch in Bunkerville, Nev.
The defendants are charged with conspiring to impede Interior Department employees from doing their jobs at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge through intimidation or threats. Five of them are also charged with possession of a firearm in a federal facility.
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They’re just a few of the 26 people total who were charged with conspiracy following the occupation. Eleven have pleaded guilty, including several from the Bundys’ inner circle. Charges were dropped against another man, Peter Santilli, who described himself to the Oregonian as a “shock jock” independent broadcaster. (He still faces charges in Nevada over the 2014 incident.) Seven defendants sought and received a delay in their trial, now scheduled for February.
Most key figures were arrested during a Jan. 26 traffic stop that ended with police fatally shooting Arizona rancher Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, a spokesman for the occupation. Others left after Finicum’s death, but four holdouts extended the standoff to 41 days.
WHO ARE THE DEFENDANTS?
Occupation leaders and brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy; two of the last holdouts, David Fry and Jeff Banta; as well as Shawna Cox, Kenneth Medenbach and Neil Wampler. All are charged with conspiring to impede U.S. Interior Department employees at the refuge through intimidation, threats or force.
Cox, Fry, Banta and the Bundys also are charged with possessing a firearm at a federal facility. Cox, Medenbach and Ryan Bundy are acting as their own lawyers. (Over the summer they’ve filed numerous motions denying the federal court’s authority to hear the case.) Scroll down to read more about each of the seven on trial this week.
WHY WERE THEY AT THE REFUGE?
It started as a protest against the imprisonment of two Oregon ranchers convicted of setting fires and grew into demands for the U.S. government to turn public lands over to local control.
The father-and-son ranchers distanced themselves from the occupiers, reporting to prison two days after the standoff began. Ammon Bundy and others contend that the Constitution limits federal power to acquire and own property within a state’s borders, revealing the larger dispute over the government’s control of vast expanses of Western range.
Protesters mostly came and went from the refuge as they pleased. They changed the signs to "Harney County Resource Center" as they attempted to gain control of the land, which they said they would turn over to local officials to administer. The group held frequent news conferences and said they were doing maintenance and other work at the site as they moved heavy equipment around the area.
Prosecutors say the conspiracy began a couple months before the takeover, when Ammon Bundy and Ryan Payne, who pleaded guilty in July, visited the Harney County sheriff and warned of extreme civil unrest if he did not shield the ranchers from prison.
HOW DID THE OCCUPATION END?
The Bundys and other leaders were driving to a community forum when police stopped and arrested them. Finicum fled and crashed his truck into a snowbank to avoid a police roadblock. Authorities say he was reaching for a weapon when he exited the vehicle and that’s when Oregon State Police officers opened fire.
The four occupiers who remained after Finicum’s death finally surrendered on Feb. 11 after protracted negotiations with federal authorities who surrounded the refuge.
Counterprotesters and Oregon officials, including Gov. Kate Brown, grew frustrated at the amount of time it took for federal authorities to move against the Bundy group.
WHAT’S THE GOVERNMENT’S EVIDENCE?
The takeover received extensive media coverage, Ammon Bundy gave daily news conferences and the group used social media in a mostly unsuccessful effort to get others to join them. In short, there’s no question the group occupied the refuge. Prosecutors have said the evidence includes seized weapons, thousands of photographs, thousands of hours of video and reams of information gleaned from social media.
WHAT’S THE RANCHERS’ DEFENSE?
They claim they used their First Amendment rights to engage in a peaceful protest and that those with guns were exercising their Second Amendment rights. The occupiers contend that nobody was threatened, no workers were impeded from performing their duties and the government fired the only shots. Moreover, they say those shots, which killed Finicum, showed why they needed guns for protection.
IS THE TRIAL GOING TO LAST LONGER THAN THE OCCUPATION?
It looks that way. U.S. District Judge Anna Brown has set aside three days for jury selection, and opening statements are tentatively scheduled to start Sept. 13. The trial is expected to take two or three months.
AREN’T THE BUNDYS ALSO FACING TRIAL IN NEVADA?
They and five others from the Oregon case have been charged in the 2014 armed standoff with federal agents near their father Cliven’s cattle ranch in Bunkerville, Nevada. The three Bundys are scheduled for a February trial in Las Vegas.
The elder Bundy drew national attention after his sympathizers pointed weapons at agents rounding up his cattle on public land. The U.S. government says he racked up more than $1.1 million in unpaid grazing fees and penalties over two decades, while Cliven Bundy claims it has no authority over the land.
Several people took part in both standoffs. Federal officials were widely viewed as having backed down from the elder Bundy, possibly emboldening the Oregon occupation.
Cliven Bundy was arrested at Portland International Airport in February when he arrived to visit his sons.
MORE ABOUT WHO’S IN COURT THIS WEEK
AMMON BUNDY: The occupation leader, 41, of Emmett, Idaho, speaks in measured cadences about the U.S. Constitution and how, in his belief, it limits the federal government's ability to own public land. He has a wife and six children, owns a fleet-maintenance business and resides on a property that includes an orchard with 240 apple trees.
RYAN BUNDY: Ammon's brother, 43, of Cedar City, Utah, whose facial injuries stemming from being hit by a car as a youth make him easily identifiable. Authorities say he planned an escape from jail and also got into a scuffle with a guard. He and his wife, Angie, have eight children. She maintains a blog that provides an unvarnished look at their family life.
DAVID FRY: Known as "The Last Holdout," the 28-year-old from Blanchester, Ohio, surrendered Feb. 11 after a lengthy negotiation that was carried live on a YouTube feed. He talked of UFOs, requested pizza and marijuana, and threatened to kill himself. Defense attorney Per Olson has said a mental health expert will testify that Fry suffers from a personality disorder characterized by paranoia, and it intensifies under stress.
JEFF BANTA: The 47-year-old of Yerington, Nevada, was one of the final four occupiers. He arrived at the refuge Jan. 25, a day before the Bundys were arrested and Finicum was killed.
SHAWNA COX: The 60-year-old from Kanab, Utah, was in the truck with Arizona rancher Robert "LaVoy" Finicum before he was fatally shot by Oregon State Police. Cox sued the U.S government after her arrest, seeking damages "from the works of the devil in excess of $666,666,666,666.66." A judge allowed Cox to act as her own lawyer but warned her not to question the authority of the court or take other "screwball positions."
KENNETH MEDENBACH: The only Oregonian on trial, Medenbach, 63, has been fixated on whether U.S. District Judge Anna Brown took the appropriate oath of office when she was appointed in 1999. He's repeatedly brought it up at pretrial hearings and filed a lawsuit on the issue that was quickly dismissed. He's from the city Crescent.
NEIL WAMPLER: A former woodworker, the 69-year-old from Los Osos, California, was convicted in 1977 of second-degree murder in the death of his father. The Tribune of San Luis Obispo reported that he has previously written letters to the newspaper criticizing gun control measures.