Two years ago this April, a stricken Nevada rancher named Cliven Bundy, prosecutors say, got on the phone with the host of an Internet radio show to further a shadowy conspiracy against the government. As officers gathered near his home to move his cattle from protected federal land — an opening salvo in what Bundy deemed a “range war” — Bundy thought the end was nigh and prepared for a real war, “a massive armed assault” against the U.S. government, which he regarded as illegitimate.
“They have my house surrounded,” Bundy said, according to prosecutors. “… The federal government is stealing my property … [the Bureau of Land Management, or BLM] are armed with assault rifles … they have snipers … I haven’t called no militia but, hey, that look like where we are … there is a strong army out here … we are going to have to take our land back … somebody is going to have to back off … we the people will put our boots down and walk over these people … they are up against a man who will do whatever it takes.”
Now, Bundy, two of his 14 children, the radio host, and another self-styled “freedom fighter” have been indicted on a host of federal conspiracy charges related to the standoff at the Bundy ranch two years ago — a standoff that presaged the takeover of a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon last month. The defendants, if convicted, face maximum sentences of 20 years in prison on some of the counts and $2.5 million in fines on charges ranging from extortion to assault on federal officers.
With Bundy and sons Ryan and Ammon — central figures behind the Oregon occupation — in jail, the indictment could be the beginning of the end of one outspoken, heavily armed family’s nearly generation-long refusal to recognize the legitimacy of federal law, the government said.
“The rule of law has been reaffirmed with these charges,” said Daniel G. Bogden, U.S. attorney for the District of Nevada, in a statement. “Persons who use force and violence against federal law enforcement officers who are enforcing court orders, and nearly causing catastrophic loss of life or injury to others, will be brought to justice.” The defendants have not filed formal pleas or commented on the charges, except to say they would fight them through a legal defense fund they’ve established.
In some sense, the Bundy indictment retells a familiar tale. Cliven was jailed and indicted on conspiracy charges earlier this month on his way to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in rural southeastern Oregon, where his sons, before their arrest, orchestrated an occupation that lasted 41 days.
But the new, 51-page indictment — as much like a Cormac McCarthy novel as a legal document can be — links the alleged actions of the Bundy family, radio host Peter Santilli, and anti-government activist Ryan Payne, all of whom the government says “planned, organized, and led” a “massive armed assault against federal law enforcement officers” in April 2014. And it also offers an explanation why federal agents — widely criticized for giving the Bundys a pass — held their fire in attempts to avoid mass death in a shootout with a man court documents portrayed as a dangerous demagogue.
Since 1998, the indictment said, Cliven Bundy had battled a federal court order to remove more than 1,000 cattle he allowed to trespass on public land. He resisted the initial order as well as two additional ones; he refused to pay about $1 million in fees. In March 2014, the BLM prepared to remove Bundy’s herd and impound it. That’s when Bundy allegedly threatened contractors working for the BLM and agents, saying he would gather “several hundred” people with him to prevent the action.
“I will do whatever it takes,” prosecutors say he told a BLM agent. “You interpret that the way you want.” He added: “Bundy’s ready … whenever [the federal government’s] got the guts to try it.” And: “All of those cowboys are going to be thieves who steal my cattle … it’s like they’re staging for a war.”
In April 2014, war preparations escalated. The government was able to get 75 of his animals, Bundy claimed. His sons Ryan and Dave Bundy — not indicted Wednesday — were arrested trying to block a BLM convoy.
“I have said I’d do what it takes to keep my cattle so I guess it is going to have to be more physical,” Cliven Bundy said.
The Bundys then initiated a propaganda campaign, the government said, posting “false, deceitful and deceptive statements” to the Internet — saying, among other claims, that the government was targeting the family with snipers. The Bundys established a “base of operations” near a “potential choke-point” where they could derail the BLM, flying the Nevada and U.S. flags. And, with host Santilli’s and activist Payne’s help, they allegedly recruited “followers.”
“We have made the decision to mobilize in Nevada,” Payne allegedly wrote in an email to “Operation Mutual Aid,” a “coalition of States Militias, Patriotic Civilians, Individual Freedom Fighters” and others on April 8. “… We have approximately 150 responding, but that number is [gr]owing by the hour.”
“What are you guys going to do if 10,000 people show up?” Santilli told an officer on April 9, according to the indictment. “… Are you prepared for this?” On April 11, when “hundreds” of armed followers were in place, patrolling the territory and creating security checkpoints, Santilli added: “If you make the decision to go face-to-face and someone gets hurt we are going to hold you responsible.”
April 12, the government said, was the day of reckoning: when “defendants organized, led, and executed a mass assault on federal law enforcement officers in order to obtain the seized cattle.”
Bundy rallied his followers, the indictment alleged. He organized two armed groups — one in vehicles, one on horseback — to get the cattle back, blocking an interstate highway in the process. At 11:50 a.m., “over 400 of Bundy’s Followers had converged upon the Impoundment Site, many of the Followers openly brandishing assault rifles, others bearing side arms, the combined group grossly outnumbering the approximately 50 officers that had moved … to protect the gate.”
Federal agents got on loudspeakers. They warned Bundy’s followers that they were violating a court order. They saw armed followers — some wearing tactical gear, some wearing body armor, some using unarmed followers as “human shields to mask their movements,” some taking “sniper positions” — coordinating their positions as they grew ever closer, ignoring orders to leave and demanding the release of Bundy’s cattle.
“Still they came,” the indictment said.
Agents, outnumbered four-to-one, were “dangerously exposed,” the government claimed. At the bottom of a wash below highway bridges and surrounded by steep embankments, they had no cover from Bundy’s gunmen on higher ground. They had come to execute a judicial order, and walked on to a potential killing floor.
“Seeing the combined force arrayed against them — an organized crowd of more than 400 Followers, more than 270 of the Followers in the wash directly in front of them, more than 60 Followers among the crowd carrying or brandishing rifles or pistols, 40 Followers on horseback, snipers concealed on and under the bridges above them with their rifles zeroed-in on the officers, gunmen intermingled with the crowd using the unarmed people to shield their movement, gunmen in over-watch positions on the high ground, all refusing to leave, all of them there to get the cattle — the officers believe they were going to be shot and killed,” the indictment read.
It continued: “They were stymied — prevented from shooting the gunmen who posed such an obvious threat to their lives out of concern they would spark a firefight that would kill or injure unarmed people. Unable to surgically remove the deadly threats before them, outnumbered, outgunned, and located in a dangerously exposed and tactically inferior position, the officers knew they were easy targets. They still held their ground.”
As trigger-fingers itched, Ammon Bundy negotiated with authorities. They wanted the followers to back up so that they could safely leave. Ammon refused — the federal agents would have to leave first.
“You need to leave,” he allegedly said, according to the indictment. ” … That’s the terms … No, you need to leave … you are on Nevada State property … the time is now … no, the time is now.”
Would federal agents back down in the face of armed militants to avoid another Ruby Ridge or Waco? Would they turn the other cheek when faced with an uprising, in its way, similar to the Whiskey Rebellion during the administration of George Washington? Yes, it turned out — “to prevent the disaster that was sure to follow.”
The government’s fences were taken down. The cattle were released to Bundy — who with his co-defendants, the government alleged, “continue[s] to take such actions as necessary to hold, protect, and prevent the impoundment of the extorted cattle.” Patrols of armed men prevented Bundy’s arrest or further investigation, prosecutors said.
The rancher’s alleged transgressions remained unanswered — until now.
“Today marks a tremendous step toward ending more than 20 years of law breaking,” Bureau of Land Management Director Neil Kornze said in a statement. “The nation’s public lands belong to all Americans.”