The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After the Oregon occupation, one of the people arrested argues he was there as a journalist

A composite with handout images provided by the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office. Peter Santilli is seen on the left of the bottom row. (Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office via Getty Images)

PORTLAND — On Wednesday, a federal grand jury in Nevada indicted rancher Cliven Bundy for an armed standoff at his ranch in 2014. The indictment lists charges against Bundy, his two sons and another man authorities say helped recruit followers so that the rancher could defy agents trying to remove cattle they said Bundy was illegally grazing on federal lands.

The same indictment also charged Peter T. Santilli, host of a right-wing YouTube show. When the Nevada indictment came out, Santilli, like Bundy’s sons, sat in an Oregon jail, having been indicted earlier this month on felony charges due to the armed occupation of an Oregon wildlife refuge.

Santilli’s case has attracted the support of groups as disparate as the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon and the Oath Keepers, a citizen militia. While other people indicted have argued that seizing the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was an act of political protest, the case made by an attorney for Santilli and the 50-year-old Marine’s supporters is that he was there as a new media journalist and a “shock jock.”

The frantic final hours of the Oregon refuge occupation

Despite Santilli’s continued insistence that he was at the wildlife refuge and in Burns as a journalist and activist, a judge kept him in jail after hearing clips of Santilli’s show — proof, the government argued, of Santilli’s participation in the occupation and evidence of his potential danger to the community. As the judge read his decision, Santilli — often smiling in the courtroom and whispering in his attorney’s ear — held his head silently in his hands.

A phone call with the last four Oregon refuge occupiers was live streamed on Youtube as they walked out of the wildlife refuge and surrendered to authorities Thursday, Feb. 11. (Video: Seim, KGW TV)

The prosecution played 20 minutes of clips from Santilli’s show for the court, dating as far back as last June, in which Santilli discusses burying illegal guns, dying a free man and shooting federal agents if they came through his door uninvited. And, in a clip District Court Judge Michael Mosman called “distasteful,” Santilli expressed a desire to “try, convict and shoot Hillary Clinton in the vagina.”

Santilli’s attorney, Thomas Coan, has argued that his client was not to be taken seriously, saying that these words were the bloviations of a “shock jock,” “an entertainer” and a “new media journalist.” Mosman saw Santilli’s words differently: “When he says he will die a free man, I don’t take that as a man who is joking about it,” he said.

Santilli, Ammon Bundy and 23 others have been charged with felony counts of conspiracy to impede federal authorities from doing their jobs “through the use of force, intimidation, or threats” as part of the Oregon occupation, which ended last week. The indictment in Nevada this week charges them with conspiracy, threatening law enforcement officers and other charges.

Oregon refuge occupiers left behind guns, explosives and feces, investigators say

Despite Santilli’s extreme right-leaning views, his case has attracted the interest of First Amendment activists, including the ACLU of Oregon, which questioned whether his detention infringes on his right to free speech.

“We think the government is in an overreach position,” Mat dos Santos, Legal Director, for ACLU of Oregon, said over the phone. “We know that some of our members might be concerned that we’re taking a position in support of this guy. I think that, really, [they] should be celebrating that we take a position in support of some of the most vile and otherwise marginalized and sidelined voices.”

The ACLU won’t be representing Santilli, but plans to watch his case closely, dos Santos said. “If the government is allowed to cherry-pick our statements over the course of months or years to label us a danger, you really run the risk of silencing civil discourse.”

To many, Santilli is seen as a provocateur, mouthpiece and broadcaster for the anti-government “Patriot” movement, often screaming into a bullhorn at any whiff of opposition at the wildlife refuge. But to others, he’s a citizen journalist in military attire who had no knowledge of the conflict until the day it started.

“You speak the truth, we arrest you,” said Wilson Freimuth of Gresham, Ore., who has come to the Portland courthouse in support of Santilli. “I believe any time the media is attacked, it’s an attack on everything.”

In an interview at her Portland hotel room, Deborah Jordan Reynolds — Santilli’s girlfriend and co-host on his YouTube channel — told The Post that Santilli’s skepticism of America turned toward extreme around 2002 after he learned of conspiracy theories speculating that the government had prior knowledge of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Reynolds said that after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, Santilli, a proud Marine Corps veteran, was ready to re-enlist.

But soon “he started looking into the idea that maybe the government did know something else,” she said, and the conspiracy theories threw him. “Pete’s done a lot of changing since 9/11.”

Santilli started his YouTube channel in 2009, and his first videos show a starkly different person than the long-haired “ambush journalist” of today. In his early YouTube dispatches, Santilli wears a suit and tie in videos he calls “Consumer Advocate TV,” pointing to bottles of Coca-Cola and telling viewers that high-fructose corn syrup is “destroying America.” His videos, then, were mostly of his pets and, occasionally, his television set: often showing Fox News and C-SPAN programs.

By early 2012, Santilli became a radio persona, hosting a new program, “The Overthrow Show,” where his voice took on a deeper, haughtier tone as he discussed other conspiracy theories and lambasted American politicians. That’s when Reynolds said the two met in an online Ron Paul meetup group and decided to co-host the show together.

“People have likened Pete and I to Howard Stern and Robin Quivers,” she said. “I bust his chops on the show.”

By July 2013, the show was officially named “The Pete Santilli Show,” with Reynolds acting as co-host and announcer. Since then the pair has amassed thousands of episodes, filming six days a week — often recording two episodes a day.

Reynolds said that the show caused Santilli’s parents and siblings to distance themselves from him. And it has attracted ire from all sides: Howard Stern, in 2013, questioned Santilli’s statements about Hillary Clinton (which reportedly attracted the attention of the Secret Service). And last summer, while attending Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Baltimore, Geraldo Rivera calls a screaming Santilli a “fascist” and a “Stalinist.”

“What he does is dangerous. He’s speaking out against the United States government, and he’s an activist,” Reynolds said — an activist drawn to the stories of people he feels are oppressed, “whether it’s ranchers, townspeople, black people, yellow people, green people.”

And his style, she said, is to take a position, and get in the faces of those he views as liars.

“It’s ambush journalism,” she said. It’s “this new in your face journalism.”

While Reynolds insists Santilli “broke the story” of the armed 2014 Bundy ranch standoff in Nevada, others argue that Santilli is the reason it occurred in the first place.

“You would not have had Bundy Ranch if not for Santilli,” said J.J. MacNab, an expert on militias and anti-government extremist organizations in America. MacNab said that the militia and patriot movement was looking for a way to take a “hard stand” against the government, and “by 2014 the movement was ready… Because Pete Santilli got their attention, they convened.”

In a video shot at the Bundy Ranch conflict, some of Santilli’s current co-defendants, Ryan Payne and Jason Patrick, are seen referring to Santilli as “a good friend.”

But MacNab said that despite Santilli’s “odious” persona, she sees his work as journalistic.

“He knows where the things are going to happen. He has sources. He has people that say ‘Pete, you gotta come cover this,’” she said. MacNab said she’s never flagged Santilli as a threat. “He’s a lot of talk. To Pete, this is a game.”

Kyu Ho Youm, the Jonathan Marshall First Amendment Chair at University of Oregon’s journalism school, said Santilli’s version of “ambush journalism” isn’t a style his program teaches. Santilli, he said, is “raising all kind of questions about who is journalist and what kind of things should be part of being a journalist?”

Youm said the difference between a shock jock and a journalist is objectivity, and some sense of ethics. “If Pete is perceived to be a part of the newsmaking event, I don’t think he should be treated as a journalist,” he said, noting that Santilli’s speech could be construed as “incitement.”

Coan, Santilli’s attorney, argues his client was never encouraging people toward violence.

“The government is alleging that his rallying calls asking people to come to the area as witnesses to this, asking people to bring flowers … to come peacefully” were provoking violence, Coan said. “His intent was to put this in a spot where it had the best possibility for peaceful resolution.”

In Oregon, frustration over federal land rights has been building for years

Santilli traveled to Burns to cover the Jan. 2 protests over the prison sentences of two Harney County ranchers found guilty of arson of federal land owned by the Bureau of Land Management. In his own livestream videos, Santilli is seen speaking during the march with Ammon Bundy about taking a “hard stand” at a nearby wildlife refuge. “Let everybody know that they’re to go to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge,” Bundy said to Santilli on camera, who responds enthusiastically: “Okay!”

Bundy’s group traveled to the refuge that day and began an occupation that stretched into last week. On Jan. 26, Bundy and others in the group were arrested on a highway outside the refuge; Santilli was taken into custody about two hours later in Burns, according to the FBI. A small group of four holdouts remained at the refuge until surrendering last week after frantic negotiations broadcast over YouTube.

One of the final four who continued occupying the refuge, Sandy Anderson, was released on bail after a hearing in Portland on Friday. The other three were originally scheduled before they were pulled from the court’s schedule.

An environmental protester of the occupation, Kieran Suckling — executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity — said Santilli was far from peaceful at the occupation, where he would “show up just like a screaming hurricane of a human being.” Suckling said that one point when he had come to Burns to protest the occupation, Santilli told others that someone with Suckling was an FBI agent, and a YouTube video shows the crowd surrounding Suckling and his colleagues.

“We were dealing with an ugly mob that had been revved up by Pete Santilli,” he said. “At that point we had to flee.”

In his videos, there are times Santilli plays the eager, hired spokesman for the occupation. “They want me!” he said to Reynolds from behind the camera in a livestream from the Hammond protest. Later he steps off camera to speak with leaders of the occupation. “I’m gonna have to step away to make sure I don’t relay anything that they don’t want relayed,” Santilli said to the camera. “It’s my job to relay what’s publicly available.”

Reynolds said that’s what new media is: taking a stand, aligning with a cause. “His show is a form of his activism — his civil disobedience. He protests every day,” she said.

And she is sure that keeping Santilli in jail will only make his voice louder: “They’re creating a monster, as far as I’m concerned.”


In an Oregon town, relief at the end of the refuge occupation