For much of January, people came and went from the refuge with seemingly little interference from law enforcement. But by late January, authorities arrested the group’s leaders — including Ammon Bundy and his brother, Ryan — and fatally shot one of the most high-profile occupiers, LaVoy Finicum, who had acted as a spokesman for the group. Federal agents sealed off the refuge, and people fled the grounds until just four holdouts remained.
On Feb. 11, the occupation came to an end when the last four anti-government activists were taken into custody, peacefully surrendering following a surreal negotiation carried out online before a rapt audience.
This case has since shifted to a federal courtroom in Portland, where seven defendants face charges that included conspiring to impede U.S. officers as well as counts of firearms crimes. In recent months, 11 other defendants pleaded guilty and another saw the charges against him dropped.
Last week, a jury of eight women and four men from all corners of Oregon were chosen. But before the long-anticipated trial at the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse could begin, Judge Anna Brown announced that one of the jurors had been excused on hardship conditions. That juror was replaced by an older white man — making the 12-person jury now all white.
As the opening statements began Tuesday, Geoffrey Barrow, an assistant U.S. attorney, started by presenting a timeline of the occupation in four chapters: the buildup, the takeover, the arrests and the aftermath.
Barrow said that the takeover began with a “peaceful protest” in nearby Burns, Ore., over the arrests of two local ranchers. But Barrow said this was escalated by Ammon Bundy, leader of the occupying group. In video footage shown inside the courtroom, Bundy can be seen announcing to the crowd: “We’re gonna make a hard stand. We’re going to insist the Constitution be protected in this county.”
During his comments, Barrow said that Bundy and the others began plotting the occupation in November 2015 when they met with Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward over the situation involving the ranchers. Barrow said Bundy delivered “an ultimatum” to Ward and promised to return with “thousands.”
When he began to speak to jurors, Marcus Mumford, Ammon Bundy’s attorney, said that the “case is not about federal employees” being kept from doing their jobs. Instead, he argued, “it’s about the federal government.”
Mumford described Bundy as a man protesting an overreaching federal government.
“The issues are serious,” Mumford said. “One man is dead. Ammon has been labeled a terrorist and imprisoned for seven months.”
Mumford went on to say that Bundy was trying to organize people, saying that “Bundy is being prosecuted under the administration of a former community organizer for organizing his community.”
Other defendants who spoke in the afternoon Tuesday broke from the script that has come to define the occupation. An attorney for 68-year-old Neil Wampler argued that her client is “an old hippie who can’t shut up,” who came to the refuge to learn and to act as a cook for the occupiers. He left and later, when charges were being filed against occupiers, called the FBI and turned himself in.
Matthew Schindler, a co-counsel for Kenneth Medenbach — a 62-year-old and one of only two Oregonian defendants — argued that his client sympathized with the fading opportunities in rural America. “These rural people,” Schindler said, “are now an endangered species. Their way of life is slowly fading into history.”
He added: “It’s just a fact that 8,000 people in 10,000 square miles have no voice in Washington DC.”
Attorney Per C. Olson presented statements about David L. Fry, the 28-year-old whose final hours at the refuge were broadcast in a dramatic online livestream. Olson painted a portrait of “a young man who is troubled by a lot of things in the world.”
If the months leading up to the opening statements were any indication, the trial could be an unusual spectacle. Debates over potential jurors turned into arguments over the Second Amendment. At multiple points during the hearings, people charged in the standoff interrupted with outbursts; last month, Ryan Bundy, who is acting as his own lawyer, argued with the judge over his belief that the Constitution doesn’t allow the federal government to own land. (The Oregonian reported this summer that Bundy had tied bedsheets together in an escape attempt, but he disputed that, saying he was just practicing braiding rope.)
After his arrest, Ammon Bundy had said that he planned to “use the criminal discovery process to obtain information and government records.” He had also resisted the description of his group as armed occupiers, saying that they were educating people and trying to help them reach freedom.
Even as the trial got underway, the effect of the takeover could be felt in other ways. The Malheur refuge’s headquarters remained closed, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, while other parts of the grounds reopened for visitors.
The FBI brought agents to Malheur specifically trained in crimes relating to art and cultural property, because the refuge is the Burns Paiute Tribe’s historical home and houses thousands of tribal artifacts. Authorities examining the refuge after the takeover ended said they found guns, explosives and feces on the grounds.
Meanwhile, officials were still looking into the fatal shooting of Finicum, the occupier killed by Oregon state troopers in January. While the Malheur County district attorney said the deadly shooting was justified because the troopers feared for their lives, the incident prompted other investigations because authorities say FBI agents who were there fired shots and never reported them.
The FBI agents were part of the bureau’s elite Hostage Rescue Team. Deschutes County Sheriff Shane Nelson said investigators believed HRT agents fired two shots, neither of which hit Finicum. Nelson said his office was investigating this aspect of the shooting, as was the Justice Department’s inspector general.
Berman reported from Washington.
[This story, first posted at 12:18 p.m., has been updated with details from the opening statements once they began.]