As protesters chanted outside a federal courthouse in Nevada on Thursday in support of scofflaw rancher Cliven Bundy, the 69-year-old entered the courtroom and was asked for his plea on charges stemming from his role in a massive standoff between militia and federal enforcement over his cattle in 2014.
"I make no plea before this court," Bundy said. His reason, of course, is that he doesn't believe that the federal government has the authority to even charge him with a crime.
The moment was a high-water mark in a federal crackdown on those involved in the 2014 standoff. Since March 3, the US Department of Justice has handed down 19 indictments—including the charges against Bundy and four of his sons—pertaining to the standoff, which was set off by the rancher's refusal to acknowledge laws preventing him from letting his cattle graze on federal land.
Two of those sons—Ammon and Ryan—are also named in an even larger indictment related to the 40-day armed siege that took place at the Malhuer Wildlife Refuge, just outside of Burns, Oregon, earlier this year, during which a group of politically active ranchers calling themselves Citizens for Constitutional Freedom moved themselves into the visitor's center to protest the federal Bureau of Land Management's ownership of land in the West.
Together, the two federal cases represent a vast federal crackdown on the activities of "patriot" protest groups in at least four states.
The Oregon indictment was made even more expansive this week, with the addition of a new and unnamed defendant, and a slew of new charges including damage to native American sites and illegal possession of weapons. The total number of defendants is now 26, although the 26th defendant's name was redacted from the court document released Wednesday for unknown reasons, possibly because the new defendant isn't in custody yet.
"I think any people looking at this room would have to concede the case is complex by the sheer volume of the persons accused," Portland District Court Judge Anna J. Brown said Wednesday. According to The Oregonian, 3,500 pages of evidence have so far been submitted to the court, and a long trial is expected. In addition to the charge of damaging protected property, all 26 defendants are being charged with federal conspiracy, 20 with illegal weapons possession at the federal refuge, nine with related weapons charges, and three with theft of government property.
The case represents the latest chapter in the Oregon militia saga. On January 26, Ammon Bundy and five other alleged occupiers were arrested, and one occupier, Robert "LaVoy" Finicum, was killed in a standoff with the Oregon State Police. The siege on the Malheur Refuge subsequently fizzled out, and the final occupier was arrested on February 11.
Earlier this week, Malheur County District Attorney Dan Norris announced that an investigation into Finicum's death found that the shooting by state police officers was justified, and "in fact, necessary." On Thursday, the Deschutes County Sheriff's Office released released hundreds of pages related to the investigation, including police and forensic reports. The doc dump doesn't include information related to federal and state investigations into the incident.
On Tuesday, the DOJ announced it is conducting its own independent inquiry into allegations that FBI agents failed to properly report firing two gunshots, neither of which hit Finicum. "The question of who fired these shots has not been resolved," Greg Bretzing, an FBI investigator. Five FBI agents whose names are currently being kept secret are under investigation for failing to properly report them.
A video released by the Deschutes County Sheriff's office provides some context for law enforcement's conclusion that the shooting was justified, and it seems to debunk myths circulating among patriots' groups that Finicum was shot while trying to surrender.
The video, which syncs phone footage taken by an occupier named Shawna Cox with extant aerial footage of the shooting, shows Finicum talking about getting shot by the police long before exiting the SUV. The remarks include, "you back down, or you kill me now—go ahead, put the bullet through me. I don't care," and "put the laser right there, and put the bullet through the head." The audio from the car catches Finicum continuing to talk about being shot after he exits the truck and runs out into the snow.
Aerial video—parts of which had been released prior to Tuesday—show the Oregon State Police approaching and eventually shooting Finicum three times in the back. Analysis of the footage by The Oregonian focuses on the two stray shots, one of which can be seen penetrating the interior of the truck right as Finicum exits.
Finicum's supporters remain unconvinced. On Tuesday, his wife Jeanette posted a statement to Facebook, claiming again that her late husband was shot while attempting to peacefully surrender. "He was walking with his hands in the air, a symbol of surrender. When he reached down to his left, he was reaching to the pain of having been shot," she posted to the group "LaVoy Finicum's Stand for Freedom #LibertyRising."
Nothing in the video and reports suggests that her reading of events is correct. In interview transcripts, the deputies who fired at Finicum consistently report that he appeared to be reaching for a gun. In the video, his hands come down well before he's shot.
The ongoing federal cases in Oregon and Nevada are complicated further by the involvement of federal judges in Idaho, where Orville Drexler and Eric Parker are being held for their alleged involvement in the Nevada standoff, and in Utah, where Cliven Bundy's son Dave has been arrested.
In an interview from jail on Tuesday, Ammon Bundy told a Portland news station that he feels fully vindicated by the Justice Department investigation into the stray shots just before Finicum's shooting. "They continued to escalate force upon us, until finally they ended up killing somebody," he told reporters. "And then they tried to make their story, and now it's starting to unravel, and that's what happens when your story isn't solid."
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