Federal agents sealed off an Oregon wildlife refuge occupied by armed protesters Wednesday, hours after authorities arrested several members of that group and killed one of the most prominent occupiers.
The frenzy of activity at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County marked a sudden escalation in the ongoing standoff that has simmered for more than three weeks, ever since a small group of men and women took control of a remote facility in southeastern Oregon.
Officials set up checkpoints and roadblocks around the refuge, saying that people who tried to travel inside would be arrested and calling for the armed people remaining there to leave. That message was echoed by the leader of the group later in the day. But law enforcement officials suggested Wednesday that the situation at the refuge would not continue indefinitely and placed blame for the fatal encounter a day earlier on those occupying the refuge.
“They had ample opportunity to leave the refuge peacefully,” FBI Special Agent in Charge Greg Bretzing said at a news conference late Wednesday morning. “And as the FBI and our partners have clearly demonstrated, actions are not without consequences.”
Late Wednesday night, the FBI announced it had made probable cause arrests of three more occupiers: Duane Leo Ehmer, 45, of Irrigon, Ore.; Dylan Wade Anderson, 34, of Provo, Utah and Jason S. Patrick, age 43, of Bonaire, Georgia.
All three men had been in contact with the FBI and chose to turn themselves into agents at the checkpoints around the refuge. They face the same federal felony charge as those against the occupiers arrested Tuesday: conspiracy to impede officers of the United States from discharging their official duties through the use of force, intimidation or threats.
A total of eight people had left the refuge since law enforcement encircled it early Wednesday morning. In addition to the three arrested, five others were released.
The FBI also said that several vehicles were known to have left the area at some point before the checkpoints were established.
It’s not clear how many people were left at the refuge as Wednesday night went on, but the FBI release stated that the agency and its partners “continue to work around the clock to empty the refuge of the armed occupiers in the safest way possible.”
At the Wednesday news conference, Bretzing described the arrests of the previous day as authorities taking “the first steps to bring this occupation to a conclusion,” and said authorities were still working to “empty the refuge of those who continue to illegally occupy” the land. Anyone who wanted to leave could do so, but only after traveling through a checkpoint where they would be identified, Bretzing said.
Ammon Bundy, the group’s leader, released a statement Wednesday afternoon through his attorney saying that he wanted the people at the refuge to leave. The attorney read the statement after Bundy, who was arrested Tuesday, appeared in a Portland courtroom.
“Please stand down,” the statement said. “Please stand down. Go home and hug your families.”
In the statement, Bundy asked that people there be allowed to leave without being prosecuted and said that he wanted those at the refuge to let them fight the battle through the courts.
Reporters in the area Wednesday said that there were indications some of the occupants were leaving the refuge. Earlier in the day, with the sun still high overhead, a highway near the refuge was blocked off by a simple sign reading “Road closed.”
On the shoulder, some news trucks and a handful of reporters were gathered, observing the empty road; about half a mile past the sign, law enforcement officers were gathered.
Local and federal law enforcement officials had called for the occupation on a remote swath of eastern Oregon land, previously best known for its bird-watching, to end peacefully, and the FBI has called its response “deliberate and measured.”
However, there have been criticisms of how long it has stretched on, with Gov. Kate Brown (D) writing a letter urging federal officials to bring a “swift resolution” to the situation, as well as others questioning whether occupiers would have been treated with patience if they were black.
A senior U.S. law enforcement official defended the response, saying the FBI did not want a repeat of bloody sieges in Waco, Tex., and Ruby Ridge, Idaho. The official said it did not matter who was inside — there was no need to act more hastily because the occupation involved abandoned buildings in an isolated area, no hostages and no one being directly threatened.
“Why would we do that?” the official said Wednesday. “This was a very, very good outcome.”
There had been no visible law enforcement presence around the refuge as the situation stretched on for days and weeks, and occupiers came and went, though they said they remained on guard. The group’s leaders had felt comfortable enough to move freely, leaving the refuge’s headquarters to attend meetings with residents and law enforcement officials.
On Tuesday afternoon, with the group’s leaders away from the refuge and traveling on Highway 395, FBI agents and the Oregon State Police moved to arrest them on federal charges. Five occupiers were arrested on the highway, including Bundy, the group’s leader. Three other people tied to the situation were later arrested in Oregon and Arizona.
All of the people arrested on the Oregon highway surrendered to authorities except for one man, later identified as LaVoy Finicum, a spokesman for the group who had previously said he would rather die than go to jail.
Another official familiar with the encounter said Finicum refused to surrender and was fatally shot; authorities said Wednesday they were investigating the shooting and have not revealed any details about the incident.
“I’m disappointed that a traffic stop yesterday that was supposed to bring peaceful resolution to this ended badly,” Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward said at the news conference.
Ward added: “It didn’t have to happen. We all make choices in life. Sometimes our choices go bad.”
The U.S. law enforcement official said that the FBI picked the time and place they would move to arrest Bundy and the other leaders.
“We call the shots, not the bad guys,” the official said. The official also said there were “fractures” in the group’s leadership and described them as “tired from reacting to strange noises at night.”
The arrests gave some locals hope that Burns, Ore., would regain some sense of normalcy.
“I was excited. I was waiting for four weeks for them to be arrested,” Jen Hoke of Burns said about hearing news of the arrests. “I hope it ends today. That would be fabulous.”
Hoke said it was frustrating that the occupiers had the freedom to “come and go” as they pleased.
“They didn’t accomplish anything,” Primrose Truesdell said. Her husband, Ken, echoed her thoughts between sips of coffee at the Doughnut Hole in downtown Burns: “No one wanted them here. They can go back to wherever they came from. I’d wave them goodbye.”
The eight people who were arrested Tuesday face federal felony charges of conspiracy to impede officers of the United States from performing their official duties through force, intimidation or threats. Seven of them appeared in a Portland courtroom to hear the charges against them, and motions for release were denied in each case.
It was unclear whether any of the people who were at the 2014 showdown involving the Bundy family would face additional charges stemming from that incident.
The people arrested included leaders of the movement and a de facto spokeswoman, and some of them were also involved in the 2014 standoff at the Bundy ranch.
News of the arrests met with relief from conservationists and public officials. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) applauded the law enforcement response in a statement Tuesday night.
“I am pleased that the FBI has listened to the concerns of the local community and responded to the illegal activity occurring in Harney County by outside extremists,” he said in a statement. “The leaders of this group are now in custody and I hope that the remaining individuals occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge will peacefully surrender so this community can begin to heal the deep wounds that this illegal activity has created over the last month.”
In a statement, Harney County Judge Steve Grasty said: “I am relieved this situation is coming to an end, however, I am saddened by the loss of life. I hope and pray that those who remain at the refuge will stand down peacefully.”
The standoff began Jan. 2 when a group, led by Bundy, went to the refuge after a protest over the imprisonment of two local ranchers convicted of committing arson on public lands. The ongoing situation has drawn new attention to long-standing frustrations with the federal government’s management of land in the West.
The ranchers’ case provoked a heated response in Harney County, where the refuge is located, and caught the attention of a wide swath of anti-government activists far beyond its borders. Among the hundreds who flocked to Burns, Ore., to express their outrage were Bundy and his brother, Ryan Bundy; a smaller group drove to the refuge, about 30 miles away from Burns, and has remained there since.
Bundy and his brother, Ryan, were among those taken into custody Wednesday. Authorities said that one person was injured during the arrests and was treated at a local hospital before being released into the FBI’s custody; the Oregonian newspaper identified the injured person as Ryan Bundy.
Ward, the sheriff, who has criticized the occupation and urged the people involved to leave, said the situation was “tearing our community apart.”
“It’s time for everybody in this illegal occupation to move on,” he said Wednesday. “There doesn’t have to be bloodshed in our community. If we have issues with the way things are going in the government, we have a responsibility as citizens to act on those in an appropriate manner. We don’t arm up. We don’t arm up and rebel. We work through the appropriate channels.”
He continued: “This can’t happen anymore. This can’t happen in America, and it can’t happen in Harney County.”
Ward has previously said the situation led to intimidation in Harney. He told a community meeting that his parents, his deputies and their families were followed, adding that his wife left town after someone flattened her tires.
The FBI and Oregon State Police have not said yet how many shots were fired on the highway Tuesday, who fired them or officially identified the person who was killed. But occupiers and others identified the slain person as Finicum, who had acted as a spokesman for the group.
The Facebook page for Bundy Ranch — the site of a confrontation between the Bundy brothers’ father, Cliven, and the Bureau of Land Management in 2014, that involved Bundy supporters aiming guns at federal agents — posted a statement condemning what it described as Finicum’s “murder.”
Arianna Finicum Brown, daughter of LaVoy Finicum, told the Oregonian on Tuesday that her father “would never ever want to hurt somebody, but he does believe in defending freedom and he knew the risks involved.”
Jason Patrick, an occupier who remained at the Malheur refuge Tuesday night, said the arrests didn’t change his group’s demands. He and another occupier also told The Post that Finicum was killed.
Patrick wouldn’t say how many people remained at the refuge, or who else was with him, but he said they don’t plan to pick up and leave because of the day’s events.
“Right now, we’re doing fine,” he told The Post by phone. “We’re just trying to figure out how a dead cowboy equals peaceful resolution.”
Finicum, a 54-year-old rancher from Cane Beds, Ariz., had previously told NBC News that he’d rather die than be arrested. On Wednesday, his followers were portraying him as a martyr “who stood for your children’s liberty.”
Talking to The Post in mid-January, Finicum explained that the armed group planned to remain at the refuge, which is operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, until all 187,000 acres of it were “returned” to Harney County and private ownership.
“It needs to be very clear that these buildings will never, ever return to the federal government,” he said at the time, a white cowboy hat perched atop his head, a Colt .45-caliber pistol holstered at his hip.
The three other people arrested on the highway were Brian Cavalier, 44, of Bunkerville, Nev.; Shawna Cox, 59, of Kanab, Utah; and Ryan Payne, 32, of Anaconda, Mont. Later Tuesday afternoon, FBI agents in Burns also arrested Joseph Donald O’Shaughnessy, 45, of Cottonwood, Ariz., and Peter Santilli, 50, a Cincinnati man known for livestreaming refuge events.
Hours later, FBI agents in Phoenix arrested Jon Ritzheimer, 32, who turned himself in to authorities. Unlike some of the other occupiers, who were relatively unknown figures nationally, Ritzheimer was known for his contempt for Muslims and organizing an anti-Muslim protest last year.
Bundy had said that the occupiers would leave only when the two local ranchers were freed from prison and the land was taken away from the federal government.
Carissa Wolf in Burns, Ore., Leah Sottile in Portland and Ellen Nakashima and Niraj Chokshi in Washington contributed to this report.
[This is a developing story and has been updated and will continue to be updated.]