PORTLAND, Ore. — A federal grand jury has indicted 16 people in connection with 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. On Thursday, a defiant Bundy again defended the occupation and called on the authorities blockading it, rather than the remaining occupiers, to leave.
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 protesters fled or were arrested, the occupation dwindled to just four people.
The law enforcement response to the occupation had been 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 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 trooper. The FBI quickly released video footage of the shooting and said it showed Finicum twice reaching toward where he had a holstered handgun. 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 Jan. 2 when a small group traveled there and said it had 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 long-standing unhappiness in Western states over the way the land is managed.
Bundy is the son of rancher Cliven Bundy, whose decades-long fight against the federal government sparked a 2014 showdown in which armed supporters faced off with federal agents who eventually backed down. Experts say this showdown invigorated anti-government groups.
While Bundy had previously released statements calling on those still at the refuge to “stand down,” saying that he and others would take their fight to the courts, his comments shifted this week as he instead used messages relayed through his attorney to issue demands to authorities.
On Tuesday, Bundy released a statement through his attorneys saying he wanted the four people there to leave because this would “allow the FBI and [Oregon State Police] to also go home and end their armed occupation of Burns and Harney County.” After that, 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.”
After the indictment was unsealed, Bundy defended the takeover as “a needed action” to protest the government. In a recorded message played Thursday by his attorney, Bundy went on to say that the government “chose to end our educational efforts with attacks of force” and told the Oregon State Police and FBI to go home, leaving out his earlier suggestions that the remaining occupiers need to leave.
Ward met with Bundy during the standoff and had repeatedly asked him and his group to leave. After Finicum’s death, Ward 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 arrested or forced to resign.
The Harney County Court released a statement this week in response to the group’s request that its three members — a judge and two commissioners — resign along with Ward, saying: “All four individuals decline the request.”
The Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association, which 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 problems in the area began in 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 others, and they traveled with them to Harney County “to intimidate and coerce the population,” prosecutors said.
Bundy’s attorney, Lissa Casey, was critical Thursday of a decision not to allow him and others to appear in court a day earlier. 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 from the same town.
“It’s a very small town. … Almost everyone in the town knows one another,” said Tiffany Harris, Cox’s attorney. “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.”
Hay said on Wednesday the decision not to have Payne and others in court “an unfortunate beginning.” She 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.”
On Thursday, a judge agreed to release Duane Ehmer, one of the people indicted, and said he could return to his home in Irrigon, Ore., where he runs a welding shop and works part time herding cattle. He will be monitored by a GPS tracker, barred from possessing any weapons and is not allowed to return to Harney County.
The judge said that Ehmer, who rode a horse and carried a flag, became a “symbol” of the takeover. An attorney said his joining the occupation was impulsive. Another hearing set for Thursday was postponed until the following day.
Later on Thursday afternoon, another of the people indicted — Peter Santilli, 50, of Cincinnati, known for livestreaming refuge events — was held on bail after video clips of him were screened.
Prosecutors showed statements that he had made on camera talking about shooting law enforcement if they came through his door, killing Hilary Clinton and burying illegal weapons. The government’s argument was that he was not covering the occupation as a journalist, but as a member of the conflict, while Santilli’s attorney argued that his words were simply those of a “shock jock” and “are not taken seriously.”
Berman reported from Washington.
[This story has been updated.]