Grand jury indicts 16 for Oregon wildlife refuge occupation

A federal grand jury has indicted 16 people for their roles in the Oregon wildlife refuge standoff,
Ammon Bundy, one of the leaders of the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, arrives for a news conference near Burns, Ore., Jan. 13, 2016.
Ammon Bundy, one of the leaders of the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, arrives for a news conference near Burns, Ore., Jan. 13, 2016.

A federal grand jury has indicted 16 people for their roles in the Oregon wildlife refuge standoff, charging them all with a count of conspiracy to impede officers of the United States.

The group’s leader, Ammon Bundy, and 15 other people “prevented federal officials from performing their official duties by force, threats and intimidation,” according to a sealed indictment filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon and unsealed Thursday. Each person could face up to six years in prison.

In addition to Bundy, his brother, Ryan, and others taken into custody last week in Oregon and Arizona, the indictment also charges the four people still at the refuge.

The indictment came a little more than a week after authorities began arresting people involved in the armed occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and, while taking the group’s leaders into custody, fatally shot one of the most high-profile occupiers.

Authorities then blockaded the federal refuge in eastern Oregon and, as people fled or were arrested, the occupation dwindled to just four people.

The law enforcement response to the occupation was largely out of sight since it began in early January, and occupiers were allowed to freely travel to and from the refuge. This abruptly changed last week when the FBI and Oregon State Police moved to arrest Bundy while he and others were traveling outside the refuge.

During this encounter on an open highway, one of the occupiers — LaVoy Finicum, who had acted as a spokesman for the group — tried to flee and, after he got out of his car, was shot and killed by an Oregon State Police trooper. The FBI quickly released video footage of the shooting and said it showed Finicum twice reaching toward where he had a holstered handgun. However, Finicum’s supporters maintain he was not a threat and have described his death as “an assassination.”

On the same day the indictment was filed, a judge also rejected the argument that one of the occupiers arrested should be allowed to go to Finicum’s funeral.

The standoff at the remote wildlife refuge began on Jan. 2 when a small group traveled there and said they had seized the facility to support two local ranchers convicted of arson and sentenced to prison.

This group, which took on the name Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, also said they were protesting the federal government’s involvement in land ownership in the area, touching on longstanding unhappiness in Western states over the way this land was managed.

Bundy is the son of rancher Cliven Bundy, whose decades-long fight against the federal government sparked a 2014 showdown that saw armed supporters face off with federal agents, who eventually backed down. Experts say this showdown invigorated anti-government groups.

Since his arrest, Bundy has released multiple statements calling for the four remaining occupiers to go home. However, while he had previously told them to leave the refuge and said “this fight is ours for now in the courts,” this week he changed his message. He again asked the occupiers to give up, but insisted that the refuge should remain closed until it can be taken away from the federal government.

“I am requesting that the four remaining protesters go home now so their lives are not taken,” Bundy said in the statement released through his lawyers Tuesday. “This will allow the FBI and [Oregon State Police] to also go home and end their armed occupation of Burns and Harney County.”

After this happens, he said, the refuge should be blocked off by Harney County Sheriff David M. Ward so that the lands can be given “back to the people.”

Ward had repeatedly asked the occupiers to leave and, after Finicum’s death, said in emotional remarks at a news conference that it “didn’t have to happen” and again said he wanted “everybody in this illegal occupation to move on.”

A group called the Pacific Patriots Network had issued a “call to action” asking anti-government activists to protest in Burns, Ore., over Finicum’s death. The group also called for Ward to resign and demanded that essentially every law enforcement officer and local official involved in the standoff be either arrested or forced to resign.

The Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association, a group that has publicly supported Ward, said Thursday that it did not stand by people who it described as arming themselves, breaking into publicly-owned buildings and intimidating and harassing local residents and officials.

“These men and women are asking for change, and we support their right to challenge our government to make change,” the association said in a statement. “However, we do not agree with or support any citizen or elected official who would advocate for change in a manner that includes illegal action, threats of violence, or violence against any citizen of the United States.”

The three-page indictment filed Wednesday said that the issues in the area began last October, when two people involved went to Harney County to warn of “extreme civil unrest” if demands were not met. The following month, the people charged worked to recruit other people, and they traveled with other people to Harney County “to intimidate and coerce the population,” prosecutors said.

While the people in custody in Oregon were scheduled to appear in a federal courtroom in downtown Portland on Wednesday, they were removed from the court’s schedule at the last minute when the indictment was filed.

Instead, the courtroom teemed with defense attorneys arguing to Judge Janice Stewart that their clients had a right to be there. Stewart disagreed, saying that after an indictment is filed, “a defendant no longer has a right to the preliminary hearing.”

An attorney for Shawna Cox, one of the people arrested last week and released to her home in Utah, had argued that Cox should be allowed to attend the funeral for Finicum, since they were both from the same town.

“It’s a very small town . . . almost everyone in the town knows one another,” Tiffany Harris, Cox’s attorney, said. “My client is requesting permission to. . .enter the church, attend the church service, and simply to go home.”

A prosecutor objected, saying that Cox “is on pretrial release for a very serious crime.” The judge rejected the request. On Thursday, Harris filed an emergency motion asking again for Cox to be allowed to go to the service.

Last week, a judge had ordered the continuing detention of Bundy, his brother and others, rejecting arguments that the occupation was similar to the Boston Tea Party or civil rights era protests. Lisa Hay, an attorney for Ryan Payne, one of the people still in custody, had made those comparisons last week, but the judge disagreed, saying that the Oregon occupation “was so far beyond a peaceful protest.”

On Wednesday, Hay called the decision not to have Payne and others in court “an unfortunate beginning.” She said said it was particularly troubling that “in a case like this, where many of the people distrust the government to begin with, that we would have proceedings begin with our clients not in court.”

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