Michele Fiore’s phone lit up as her flight touched down in Portland, Ore., just after 6 p.m. Wednesday. The FBI was closing in on the armed occupation of a remote federal wildlife refuge, and the last four occupiers were panicked.
On a phone call being live-streamed to tens of thousands of people on YouTube, the four were demanding to speak with Fiore, a Nevada state assemblywoman who had flown to Oregon to offer her help.
Fiore pulled a Sharpie from her purse, wrote the number on her wrist, and dialed.
“This is Assemblywoman Michele Fiore. Yes, I’m here,” she said.
It was the start of a long 18 hours for Fiore, and the beginning of the end of an angry five-week standoff by anti-
government activists in the lonesome high desert of eastern Oregon.
The last four holdouts had been barricaded on the refuge for two weeks, since the FBI and Oregon State Police arrested the occupation’s leaders. During the Jan. 26 arrests, a state trooper had shot and killed LaVoy Finicum, 54, the group’s main spokesman.
Others gave themselves up over the next two days, but a well-armed group of four — David Fry, 27; Sean Anderson, 47; his wife, Sandy Anderson, 48; and Jeff Banta, 46 — dug in and refused to yield.
Though the FBI had released a video showing that Finicum was shot after he appeared to reach for a gun in his jacket pocket, the four called it an assassination and took to calling the refuge “Camp Finicum.” Now, they feared for their own lives.
For days, the FBI had deliberately held back, hoping to avoid more bloodshed. But now it had rolled Bearcat armored trucks closer to the occupiers’ encampment and were intensifying negotiations.
“We came in slowly; we didn’t come in fast like we were assaulting,” said a senior U.S. law enforcement official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation. “With the Bearcats . . . we could protect our people if [the occupiers] did something stupid, without having to escalate.”
By cellphone, the FBI urged the occupiers to come out peacefully. But they wanted to go free without facing charges, the official said — an unacceptable demand.
“Their demands never changed,” the official said. “There was no real belief on our part that they were negotiating in good faith.”
The four felt they would be safer if they used social media to draw attention to their plight. That decision, the law enforcement official said, “changed the dynamics. It allowed them to have this platform.”
Gavin Seim, an activist who describes himself as a “Liberty Speaker,” helped Fry and the others connect to a livestream he hosts on YouTube. On that broadcast, they raged that the FBI would “murder” them. They screamed at FBI agents in the background, calling them Nazis.
And they asked for Michele Fiore.
Fiore’s battery was dying. Seven percent.
Seated in the last row of the plane, she fumbled with her carry-on bag, talking to Seim and the occupiers as she exited the plane. She scanned the arrivals hall for an outlet and sat down on the floor to plug in her phone.
A native New Yorker who moved to Nevada in the 1980s, Fiore had made a name for herself with tough talk about putting “a bullet in the head” of rapists and terrorists — and with her “Second Amendment Calendar,” which features the 45-year-old blonde wearing tight clothes and carrying an array of guns.
A candidate for Congress, Fiore is a celebrity among anti-government activists. She has long fought against federal control of land in the West — the initial spark for the refuge takeover. Fiore was also among the first to call Finicum’s death “murder.”
As she juiced up her phone, she kept talking, trying to project calm. She offered to come to the refuge to negotiate “peacefully, with no bloodshed.” She was still talking when the TV cameramen spotted her.
Fiore went to find Mike Arnold, an attorney representing the occupation’s jailed leader, who had come to meet her. The pair escaped the cameras by flagging down a stranger to drive them to the airport parking garage and Arnold’s Ford pickup truck.
Arnold texted the FBI. The previous day, Fiore said, he had offered her help in negotiating an end to the siege, an offer the FBI rejected. Now he tried again.
“We can slow this down,” he wrote. “This doesn’t need to be a military operation.”
An FBI negotiator got on the phone: “We need you to come to Burns,” he said.
On the livestream, Fiore assured the four holdouts that the FBI would not harm them. Yes, she said, the federal government had overstepped its authority. But she urged them to surrender so they could live to continue their anti-government protest.
“We’re putting our big-girl panties on now and we are taking America back,” she said. “And we’re doing it the right way.”
In the darkness, Fiore and Arnold sped east, across the snow-capped Cascade Range and into the rolling high plains of eastern Oregon. Arnold kept talking to the FBI, and Fiore to the four holdouts.
Everyone recognized the growing hysteria. In one video posted to YouTube, a furious Sean Anderson said: “They’re going to murder all of us . . . American people better wake up and get here and fight for your country right now: It is on. If they stop you from getting here, kill them!”
On the YouTube livestream, an agitated Fry shouted: “They got their machine guns pointed at us. They got six armored vehicles. It’s hard to keep calm. I’m ready to go, I’m ready to die!”
He invoked the deadly sieges at Waco, Tex., and Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in the 1990s.
“Everybody’s in position, ready to wipe these guys out,” Fry said of the agents. “I’m about to Molotov cocktail them. I’m ready.”
Monitoring the livestream, the FBI could see that the four were “amped up,” the senior law enforcement official said, so they backed off to “let the situation defuse a little bit.”
Fiore was key to that strategy, he said, as was the Rev. Franklin Graham, a North Carolina evangelist and the son of the Rev. Billy Graham. The four holdouts had asked for Graham to negotiate on their behalf, and the FBI had contacted Graham, according to Graham’s Facebook page.
For the past week, Graham had been talking and praying with Fry and the others. Now, he was in the air on his way to the refuge.
Around midnight, a deal seemed to be set: If Graham and Fiore were at the refuge by morning, the occupiers would surrender. Fiore and Arnold stopped for the night in Bend, a ski town about three hours from the refuge, feeling good.
Then Fiore’s phone rang.
It was Carol Bundy, wife of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, famous for his 2014 standoff with federal agents over unpaid cattle grazing fees. Their sons, Ammon and Ryan, the original leaders of the refuge occupation, had been arrested the day Finicum died and were locked up in Portland.
Carol was upset. Cliven Bundy had flown to Portland to visit his sons, and now she couldn’t find him. It turned out he was also in custody, nabbed by the FBI as he got off his plane and charged with six counts related to the 2014 standoff. Officials feared Bundy was heading to the refuge to inflame the situation: On Facebook, he had urged “patriots” and “militia” to “gather as many people as possible and go now!!!”
Fiore called the FBI and complained that the arrest could jeopardize their fragile agreement with the skittish occupiers.
“What the hell is wrong with you guys?” she said. “You really have to do this now?”
The next morning, at 5:45 a.m., three FBI agents arrived at the hotel in a red Kia minivan. Fiore and Arnold hopped back in his Ford, and they headed east.
On the long, empty road, Fiore’s cellphone service was spotty. The drive was taking longer than expected, and the four holdouts were getting nervous and second-guessing their decision to surrender.
“They were having cold feet,” said KrisAnne Hall, a prominent tea party activist and radio host from Florida. “They felt that . . . people would look at them as failures.”
Hall was in Boise, Idaho, about 200 miles east of the refuge, and ready to offer her support. On Thursday morning, she was asked to fill in for Fiore on the livestream. She encouraged them to stick to the plan, to remain calm.
“I hate this use of the word, ‘surrender,’ ” Hall told them. “We’re not surrendering, we’re taking this to a new fight.”
Around 8 a.m., Fiore and Arnold arrived at the tiny airport near Burns, the closest town to the refuge. Still on the livestream, they were led into a tent the FBI had set up as a command center.
Graham was already there; an FBI agent gave him a Bible that had belonged to Finicum, Fiore said. One of the last occupiers had passed it to the FBI and asked them to get it to Finicum’s widow in Arizona, the agent said. Graham said he would make sure it was delivered.
They drove south toward the refuge in a caravan of black SUVs. Fiore and Graham stayed on the livestream, passing the phone back and forth. Graham led the holdouts in prayer. They seemed calmer.
At an FBI checkpoint inside the refuge, Fiore and Graham transferred to a Bearcat with three agents and lost their cellphone signal.
The armored truck lumbered deeper into the refuge, pulling within 30 feet of the tent where Fry, the Andersons and Banta were holed up behind a barricade of trucks. Three or four other Bearcats, along with other FBI vehicles and heavily armed agents, surrounded the encampment, Fiore said.
An agent handed a microphone to Graham and then to Fiore so they could identify themselves over the Bearcat’s loudspeaker.
“The FBI is going to give you commands. Follow their commands,” they said. “Once the FBI has you, they will bring you to us. We have their word.”
Sean and Sandy Anderson stepped out of the dirty white tent and walked toward the FBI. More than 18,000 people were listening on the livestream.
Fry, still in the tent, described the scene:
“Sandy and Sean both have their hands up in the air. Sean has a flag in his right hand. They’re both holding hands. . . . Now they are kissing and hugging. It’s okay.”
He continued: “They are not pointing guns at us. They’re just basically patting her down.”
Moments later, Banta left the tent.
“They let him take the American flag and hold it up in the air,” Fry said.
But suddenly the fragile situation had a new twist.
Fry wasn’t moving.
“Unless my grievances are heard, I will not come out,” he yelled to the FBI agents outside.
From her hotel room in Boise, Hall urged Fry to surrender.
“Go ahead, David, we’ve got this under control. We’ve got people who are willing to pick up the fight,” she said.
“I’m actually feeling suicidal right now,” Fry replied. “I have to stand my ground. It’s liberty or death. I will not go another day a slave to the system. I’m a free man. I will die a free man.”
Outside, the Andersons and Banta were handcuffed and led to Fiore and Graham. Fiore said they all embraced and stood in a circle, praying and talking for the next half-hour.
Then an FBI agent told them Fry was balking.
On the livestream, Fry was rambling almost incoherently about the government, abortion, the Middle East, nuclear power plants, drone strikes in Pakistan and his belief in UFOs. He railed against “monopolies” and “chemical castration” by the government. He was angry that he couldn’t “find a way to make an income without paying taxes for atrocities.” He complained that nobody would bring him any marijuana. He spoke about killing himself and said he had his weapon at his side.
The FBI called Fry and handed the phone Graham. He urged him to come out. Fiore did, too.
Then Sandy Anderson took the phone: “David, listen they were very nice. They didn’t mistreat us. They’re not going to hurt you.”
Sean Anderson and Banta told Fry: “We have to stick together; we made a pact last night that we were coming out together. So we need our fourth.”
But Fry wasn’t moving.
The FBI had made Arnold wait just outside the refuge. As Fry’s emotional state deteriorated, he decided to call Ammon Bundy in jail.
Bundy made a personal appeal for Fry’s surrender, which Arnold recorded and texted to the FBI. Inside the refuge, an agent played the recording over the Bearcat’s loudspeaker.
“David, this is Ammon Bundy,” he said on the 96-second clip. “I want you to know that there is a future out here. You have a future. . . . Your actions here really mattered and we love you. Please come out of there.”
After several silent minutes, Fry lit a cigarette and said, “Well, alrighty then.”
He shouted that he wanted everyone there to say “Hallelujah.”
The FBI agents yelled “Hallelujah!”
Thirty miles away, at an FBI command post in an old schoolhouse in Burns where top state and federal officials were watching a live video feed, everyone shouted “Hallelujah!”
And Fry walked out of the tent.
Adam Goldman contributed to this report.