BUNDY RANCH STANDOFF TRIALS
LAS VEGAS — When jurors sit down Tuesday for opening statements in the case against Cliven Bundy, they will be considering much more than the fate of a Nevada rancher accused of leading a 2014 armed standoff against federal land agents.
They will be thrust into a deciding role in one of the most high-profile land-use cases in modern Western history, and their verdict could affect the federal government’s position in managing more than 600 million acres of public land.
For federal prosecutors, the case is about protesters who drew down on federal agents. They say it’s about conspiracy and weapons charges. They say Bundy, his sons Ammon and Ryan Bundy, and militia member Ryan Payne organized a rebellion to prevent Bureau of Land Management agents from rounding up Bundy’s cattle from public lands.
They have been charged with with 15 felonies, including conspiracy, obstruction of justice, extortion, using firearms in the commission of crimes, assault and threatening federal officers. If convicted, they could spend the rest of their lives in prison.
Bundy, who does not recognize the federal government’s authority on public lands, has turned the case into a platform for state’s rights.
He has argued that the Bureau of Land Management has overstepped its role and that the agency’s imposition of fees, arbitrary regulations and policies is threatening his family’s way of life.
Bundy has maintained there was no conspiracy and that federal agents were the ones who ratcheted up tensions. He has claimed supporters were staging a peaceful protest and exercising their constitutional rights to bear arms.
For many Americans, images of the four-day standoff in a dusty wash below Interstate 15 about 70 miles north of Las Vegas were shocking. Hundreds of protesters, ranchers and militia members took armed positions around federal law-enforcement officers, some lying prone on freeway overpasses and sighting down long rifles.
No shots were fired before federal authorities abandoned the roundup and retreated from the wash, saying they feared for their lives and that they avoided a bloodbath only by the narrowest of margins.
For all of that, making a solid case against Bundy and his supporters has so far eluded prosecutors. Two federal juries in Las Vegas have rejected conspiracy claims against six defendants in earlier trials.
Oregon case results in acquittals
Ammon Bundy. (Photo: Getty Images)
A federal jury in Oregon also acquitted Ammon and Ryan Bundy last year for leading a 41-day siege of a remote wildlife refuge in 2016. The siege culminated in the shooting death of LaVoy Finicum, an Arizona rancher who joined the Bundys in protest of federal land policies.
Finicum was shot by police after he ran a roadblock, plowed into a snowbank and got out of his truck while yelling and advancing on authorities. Police said he was reaching for a weapon.
In addition to the Bundys, the Oregon jury acquitted five others who were charged in the siege. Payne took a deal to avoid trial and pleaded guilty to conspiring to preventing federal employees from carrying out their duties. He has since sought to withdraw his plea.
Ammon and Ryan Bundy cited their success at the Bundy Ranch standoff — referred to in militia circles as The Battle of Bunkerville — in their run-up to the siege of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge.
19 people charged for roles in standoff
This April 12, 2014, file photo shows the Bundy family and their supporters gathering together under the Interstate 15 highway overpass just outside of Bunkerville, Nevada, to confront the Bureau of Land Management and demand the release of their impounded cattle.
For decades, the BLM repeatedly ordered Bundy to remove his cattle from federal lands and in 2014 obtained a court order to seize his cattle as payment for more than $1 million in unpaid grazing fees.
The Bundys launched a social-media rallying cry. Hundreds of supporters from every state in the Union, including members of several militia groups, converged on the Bundy ranch.
The standoff was hailed as a victory by militia members.
No arrests were made in the Bundy Ranch case until after the Oregon siege ended.
Last year, the government charged 19 people for their roles in the standoff. Two men took plea deals. Trials for the remaining 17 defendants were broken into three tiers based on their alleged levels of culpability in the standoff.
Despite the different levels of culpability, all were charged with the same crimes. And they have remained locked up. The Bundys, Payne and other defendants were denied bail and have remained incarcerated for more than 18 months while awaiting trial.
A jury in April deadlocked on charges against four of the first six defendants. It convicted Gregory Burleson of Arizona and Todd Engel of Idaho on weapons and obstruction charges, but dismissed all of the conspiracy charges.
The government launched its retrial of the four defendants in July. But a second federal jury did not return any guilty verdicts after four days of deliberation.
Richard Lovelien of Oklahoma and Steven Stewart of Idaho were acquitted on all counts and walked out of court in August free after spending more than a year in prison.
Eric Parker and O. Scott Drexler were acquitted on most charges, but jurors deadlocked on a few weapons charge. Rather than face a third trial, both pleaded guilty last month to a misdemeanor charge of obstructing a court order.
They will not serve additional time in prison, getting credit for time served. Both retained their rights to own weapons as part of the plea deal.