BURNS, Ore. — After 41 days, the armed occupation of a rural Oregon wildlife refuge ended peacefully here Thursday as the last four anti-government activists surrendered to FBI agents, following a dramatic and emotional hour-long negotiation with the final holdout broadcast live on YouTube.
After repeatedly threatening to shoot himself, complaining that he couldn’t get marijuana, and ranting about UFOs, drone strikes in Pakistan, leaking nuclear plants and the government “chemically mutating people,” the last occupier, David Fry, 27, lit a cigarette, shouted “Hallelujah” and walked out of his barricaded encampment into FBI custody.
The FBI said it arrested David Fry at about 11 a.m. without incident. Before he was taken into custody, agents arrested Sandy Anderson, 48, of Idaho; her husband, Sean Anderson, 47; and Jeff Banta, 46, of Elko, Nev. They were taken to Portland to face federal charges.
Fry’s surrender, which had an audience of more than 30,000 people listening live, capped an extraordinary 18 hours in which America’s growing and extreme anti-government movement morphed into something that more closely resembled a strange and nerve-racking reality TV show.
And it brought an end to a bitter, five-week standoff at the snowy Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, in the remote high desert of eastern Oregon, that drew international attention to anti-government extremist sentiments along with long-simmering anger over federal land-management policies in the American West.
That movement, which believes the federal government operates largely outside the powers granted to it in the Constitution, was energized by the sight of a handful of “patriots” and “constitutionalists” holding out against federal and state authorities in a drama that was fanned like a brush fire across like-minded social media accounts and YouTube.
In this area, though, many residents were not happy with the ongoing occupation and the protests. Harney County Sheriff David Ward, who criticized the occupation and repeatedly called for it to end, sounded an optimistic note after Fry’s arrest.
“I’m proud of this community,” Ward said at a news conference Thursday afternoon. “I’m proud of my friends and neighbors….I love this country. And a house divided against itself cannot stand.”
The refuge will remain closed for weeks while law enforcement officials process evidence and check for explosives, Greg Bretzing, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Portland division, said at the same news conference.
He also said that Harney County residents who visited the refuge or brought food to the occupation won’t be charged, saying they were only concerned with people who came “with criminal or violent intent.”
Fry and the three others were all that remained of the occupation since shortly after authorities arrested the group’s leaders on Jan. 26 and, in the same encounter, fatally shot LaVoy Finicum, who had become a spokesman for the occupiers.
Those arrests and Finicum’s death marked a sudden, swift escalation in the law enforcement response to the occupation, which for weeks continued without any visible law enforcement presence in the area. Occupiers were allowed to come and go seemingly at will, prompting criticism and a letter from Gov. Kate Brown (D) calling for federal officials to bring a “swift resolution” to the situation.
Since the arrests last month, the four remaining occupants stayed in communication with the outside world via videos and phone calls in which they likened themselves to the revolutionaries who founded the nation. They spent about five hours Wednesday evening on a phone call, also carried live on YouTube to more than 60,000 listeners, and engaged in emotional and sometimes hysterical negotiations involving evangelist Franklin Graham and Michele Fiore, a fiery Nevada state legislator with a history of controversial statements.
During the phone call, the four alternatively expressed their willingness to die for their cause and their openness to surrender. They likened themselves to Mel Gibson’s character in the movie “Braveheart.” The occupiers had asked for Graham, the son of evangelist Billy Graham, to negotiate on their behalf. For more than a week before he arrived Thursday, Graham spoke to the people at the refuge, according to the FBI.
The livestream offered an extended look at mindset of these remaining people. One of them insisted that she would turn herself in to custody only if she could bring her gun. In the background, a voice could be heard on a bullhorn faintly telling the four to come out with their hands up.
Fiore, an early and vocal supporter of the occupation, spoke for hours with the occupiers, trying to keep them calm and urging them to turn themselves in.
“If we go to jail, that’s admitting that we did not follow the Constitution. And we did follow the Constitution,” Sandy Anderson told Fiore on the phone call. “… That’s why we’re here. We were standing up for the Constitution. Expressing our our First Amendment right to peacefully assemble. And they are crucifying us for that.”
Once the occupiers came out, Fiore was able to greet them, and said: “We hugged them and we hugged them tight.”
Before the occupation ended, other lawmakers also turned up and offered assistance. Four state representatives from Idaho and Nevada came to the refuge and said they would serve as human shields between the FBI and occupiers. “We figure the FBI would not shoot us,” said Idaho Rep. Judy Boyle (R).
Another person apparently hoping to head to the refuge was stopped before he could make it very far. Federal agents on Wednesday night arrested Cliven Bundy, father of the group’s leader and himself a veteran of armed standoffs with federal agents, as he arrived in Portland.
Cliven Bundy appeared in a Portland courtroom on Thursday afternoon wearing blue jail scrubs with a pink jail T-shirt poking out from the sleeves and neckline, shackles around his ankles. He spent most of the time in court reviewing the 32-page complaint against him. A hearing will take place next week to discuss keeping him detained.
Bundy was charged with five counts stemming from a 2014 incident at his ranch that saw hundreds of people — many of them armed — join him at the ranch to face off with federal agents going to seize cattle he was illegally letting graze on public lands.
His arrest Wednesday and the hours-long phone conversation marked the latest strange twists in a saga that began Jan. 2 when a small group seized the refuge in what they said was a show of support for two local ranchers convicted of arson and sentenced to prison.
That group, led by Ammon Bundy, Cliven’s son, adopted the name Citizens for Constitutional Freedom and said they were protesting the federal government’s involvement in land ownership in the area.
Their occupation stretched on without much incident until Jan. 26, when Ammon Bundy, his brother and other members of the group were arrested while traveling outside the refuge. During this stop, the Oregon State Police shot Finicum after he tried to flee. The FBI released video showing that when he was shot, Finicum appeared to be reaching toward a loaded gun he was carrying, but the shooting prompted new protests and anger among anti-government protesters.
Fiore told the Las Vegas Sun that the FBI footage “looks like an ambush of tactical guys,” adding: “It looks like it might have been hired out. We have questions.”
After Ammon Bundy was arrested and Finicum killed, federal agents quickly blockaded the refuge and, as other occupiers fled or were arrested, the group dwindled to the four who were arrested Thursday.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said in a statement that “there is still much that needs to be done so that the community and the larger public can be welcomed back to their refuge.”
So relieved this ordeal is over. Many thanks to law enforcement who brought the Harney County occupation to a close. 1/2
— Kate Brown (@OregonGovBrown) February 11, 2016
Billy J. Williams, the U.S. attorney for the District of Oregon, praised the end of “a long and traumatic episode.”
“It is a time for healing, reconciliation amongst neighbors and friends, and allowing for life to get back to normal,” Williams said in a statement.
Later on Thursday, Williams said that nine other people were indicted — and seven of them arrested — for their roles in the occupation.
No one was injured, and no shots were fired. Today marks day 41 of the occupation of the refuge. #OregonStandoff
— FBI Portland (@FBIPortland) February 11, 2016
These final four occupiers were among the 16 people indicted by a federal grand jury over the Oregon standoff. The group “prevented federal officials from performing their official duties by force, threats and intimidation,” according to the indictment.
Law enforcement officials also said that additional charges were possible against people who were involved in the 2014 standoff at Cliven Bundy’s ranch in 2014.
The complaint against Cliven Bundy, filed Thursday, states that officers responding to his ranch faced a threat from armed people on bridges who “took sniper positions behind concrete barriers, their assault rifles aimed directly at the officers below.”
Bundy was charged Thursday with assaulting a federal officer, using or carrying a firearm during a crime of violence, interfering with commerce by extortion and obstructing the administration of justice.
A defiant Bundy had insisted last month that the government — which had attempted to confront him over money he owed for grazing his cattle on U.S. property, only for the federal agents to stand down after guns were aimed at them — has “no policing power” over his ranch.
Experts had said the outcome of this standoff “invigorated” anti-government groups. Mark Pitcavage, senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, one of the country’s leading specialists on right wing radicals, said that a showdown like the one in Oregon “was inevitable … because the anti-government extremists have been itching for a confrontation with the federal government.”
— Conrad Wilson (@conradjwilson) February 11, 2016
Ammon Bundy, meanwhile, who had led the occupation charge, had initially released statements after his arrest asking those at the refuge to “stand down” and give up peacefully.
He changed his tone last week. In one statement, he made demands regarding how Harney County Sheriff David M. Ward should block off the refuge so the lands can be given “back to the people.” And in a recorded message after the indictment was unsealed, Bundy told the Oregon State Police and FBI to go home, leaving out any suggestion that the occupiers should leave.
Berman and Sullivan reported from Washington. Leah Sottile in Portland and Sarah Kaplan and Adam Goldman in Washington contributed to this report.