An unusual ripple effect of the mass shooting that left 58 people dead and hundreds wounded along the Las Vegas Strip on Sunday is that it could have implications for a high-profile federal trial that is set to begin here next week — a case that also involves weapons.
A Montana militiaman who is accused of weapons charges and conspiring against the U.S. government asked a federal judge this week to delay his trial by 60 days because of the Las Vegas shooting. The charges against Ryan Payne stem from the 2014 Bundy ranch standoff in Bunkerville, Nev., and the trial is slated to start with jury selection Oct. 12.
On Thursday, Payne’s attorneys filed an additional motion, seeking to move the trial out of Las Vegas and to a different venue nearly 450 miles away: the federal courthouse in Reno, Nev. They argued that it would be impossible to seat a fair jury in light of the gun-related massacre.
“In Reno, the jury pool will not include an overwhelming number of persons who personally know victims or survivors,” Payne’s attorneys wrote. A jury pool from the Las Vegas area, they argued, “will find it impossible to put the events of Oct. 1 out of their memory any time in the near future.”
Ammon Bundy, also charged in the case, filed a similar motion Friday seeking to join the request to delay and move the trial.
The judge Friday evening agreed to move the trial to Oct. 30, according to an attorney for Payne.
Investigators are still examining evidence in the Mandalay Bay hotel room that Stephen Paddock used to fire upon a country music festival, and wounded victims and their families are still in Las Vegas as people begin to recover. More than two dozen of the wounded remain in critical condition at area hospitals.
Attorneys for Payne filed a first motion Monday — hours after the shooting — asking for a continuance because of the slayings.
“Las Vegas is in mourning,” the motion read. “The tragedy has affected the daily lives of every resident in this city. Thousands of people have lost friends and loved ones. This is not the time to pick a jury and commence a trial in this case.”
The court case emerged from events in April 2014, when Payne and hundreds of other people gathered at the Bundy family ranch to protest what they called overreach by the federal government. Cliven Bundy, an elderly rancher, had refused to pay grazing fees to the Bureau of Land Management for two decades. And when officers came to impound his cattle, he and his supporters put out a call for reinforcements.
People from all corners of the country rushed to his defense, some on horseback, some carrying American flags, some wearing camouflage and flak jackets.
And they carried guns. In photos from the standoff, men stood sentry on a nearby overpass, looking down the scopes of rifles pointed at those agents.
Now, with jury selection set to begin, Payne’s attorneys are arguing that it is too soon for residents in Las Vegas to be unbiased in a trial that will heavily discuss the presence of firearms at the 2014 standoff.
“The shooting has immediately led to a discussion about guns, with much negative attention focused on a perceived laxity of gun laws and on persons who choose to bear and carry high-powered firearms, as is legal in Nevada,” the motion reads.
Payne was not the only defendant worried about the mood in the city after the shooting. On Tuesday, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that co-
defendant Peter Santilli, who says he was acting as a reporter at the Bundy ranch incident, accepted a plea deal in the case.
“One of the reasons he took the deal is because of the events that happened at Mandalay Bay,” his attorney, Chris Rasmussen, told the newspaper. “The shooting made him realize that this is a difficult case in trying to defend Second Amendment rights, and after the shooting it’s going be onerous, or very difficult. People aren’t going to be in the mood to hear about gunmen. . . . He knows that this isn’t a time to be talking about the Second Amendment. It’s kind of offensive.”
On a bright spring day in 2014, when federal agents came to round up Bundy’s cattle, they faced a crowd of hundreds of angry protesters in a dusty desert wash. Some simply stood and shouted at the agents; others stood sentry on a nearby overpass, armed with sniper rifles.
The federal government, in its indictment, alleges that Payne, Santilli and several others led a conspiracy against federal agents, “recruited gunmen,” “organized gunmen” and “led the armed assault on federal officers at the Impoundment Site.”
Although no shots were fired during the 2014 incident, Payne’s defense says that jurors inevitably will see the presence of rifles and other weapons differently because of Sunday’s mass shooting, and that that could lead to bias and an unfair trial.
Attorneys for Payne declined to comment beyond what is in the motion.
Payne’s motion clearly states that he and other defendants “have nothing to do with this act of mass murder.”
Paddock’s motive — or any reason at all behind the attack — remains elusive, although it is clear that he planned it out, shuttling nearly two dozen weapons into his room at the Mandalay and setting up video surveillance of the hallway outside the doors. His relatives have said they did not know Paddock to have any strong religious or political views, and his girlfriend said she had no indication he was planning any kind of violence.
“For the deadliest mass shooting in American history to go down without any indication about what this guy is about is very peculiar,” said Ryan Lenz, a senior investigative reporter for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project. “What’s even more confounding is there’s no evidence to suggest it’s tied to any particular ideology, which puts journalists and researchers in a very peculiar place. Is this really an instance of meaningless violence? Bloodshed for bloodshed’s sake?”
Lenz says there is no evidence to suggest Paddock’s attack had any connection to the upcoming trial or the Bundy family’s land-rights cause.
Paddock’s home was located in Mesquite, Nev., a city of 18,000 next to tiny Bunkerville. Paddock — like many people in the town — purchased weapons from a store there called Guns & Guitars. At least one gun recovered in the Mandalay Bay hotel room was purchased there.
Jonathon Speece, 41, a gunsmith at the store, said he is a close friend of the Bundy family, lives near their ranch and has helped out around the property. Speece also has helped organize protests against the treatment of the Bundy family and their pretrial detention.
Speece said he interacted with Paddock casually at the store but said Paddock had no connection with the trial or the Bundy family.
“He had absolutely no ties with the Bundys,” Speece said. “He never made any inquiries about them, he never visited them — nothing like that.”
The Bundy ranch trial slated to start next week will be the third of its kind this year. A spring trial for a group of defendants resulted in a mistrial, while a second resulted in mostly acquittals.
Sottile reported from Portland, Ore., and Sullivan from Las Vegas and Mesquite, Nev. Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.