An investigation could derail one of the most high-profile land-use trials in modern Western history.
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Cliven Bundy refuses to pay fees for cattle grazing on public land for 20 years.
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LAS VEGAS —The case against the first six men charged in the Bundy Ranch standoff will probably be decided on cows — and what a jury concludes drove the men to Bunkerville, Nev., three years ago this week.
After seven weeks of testimony and more than three dozen witnesses in U.S. District Court in Nevada, the case went to a jury after wrapping up with arguments about whether the defendants joined rancher Cliven Bundy in a conspiracy to stop federal agents from seizing his cattle.
Defendants said they went to protest “government overreach” and to protect the rights of people from abuse of authority.
“I can assure you ladies and gentlemen that Mr. Drexler did not come down for cows,” Las Vegas lawyer Todd Leventhal told jurors, referring to defendant O. Scott Drexler. “The government hasn’t offered any evidence that Mr. Drexler cared about cows.”
But federal prosecutors said it didn’t matter how they felt about Bundy’s cattle. In responding to his call to arms, defendants forced the Bureau of Land Management to abandon its roundup of cattle under the threat of force.
“This case is a conspiracy case, and that conspiracy began when Cliven Bundy and his family began interfering with the cattle impoundment,” said Acting Nevada U.S. Attorney Steven Myhre, who led the prosecution’s team.
In his summation, Myhre attacked claims that defendants were trying to ensure peace. He said their actions jeopardized lives and threatened law-enforcement officers, preventing them from carrying out lawful court orders.
He scoffed at the description of defendants as noble protectors of the Constitution, calling them criminals.
“It doesn’t make them noble,” Myhre said. “It makes them vigilantes. It makes them into people who took the law into their own hands.”
Dispute over grazing led to standoff
The six men were among hundreds of armed protesters who confronted federal agents in a six-day standoff that reached a climax April 12, 2014, in a dusty arroyo beneath Interstate 15 about 70 miles north of Las Vegas.
The men, from Arizona, Idaho and Oklahoma, are the first of 17 defendants to be tried on 16 identical charges in perhaps the most high-profile land-use case in modern Western history. If convicted, they could face the rest of their lives in prison.
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.
Bundy issued a social-media battle cry that spread across right-wing and militia websites, prompting supporters to converge on his ranch in what nearly became the first 21st-century range war.
The standoff was hailed as a victory by militia members. Cliven Bundy’s sons, Ammon and Ryan Bundy, cited their success at Bundy Ranch in their run-up to the siege of an Oregon wildlife refuge in 2016, also in protest of BLM policies. An Oregon federal jury acquitted Ammon, Ryan and five others in October.
No arrests were made in the Bundy Ranch case until after the Oregon siege ended.
The 12-member jury deliberated throughout Thursday afternoon and will return to court on Monday, April 17.
It must decide if the defendants were part of a criminal conspiracy who sought to impede and injure federal officers.
The jury also must determine if the men are guilty of assault and threatening federal officers, carrying or using a firearm in a crime of violence, obstruction of justice, interference of interstate transportation by extortion, interstate in aid of extortion and aiding and abetting.
The jury must work through a complicated set of 37 separate jury instructions. It must weigh the evidence to determine the culpability of each defendant.
Defense: Clients shouldn’t be treated as group
In closing arguments Thursday, defense lawyers sought to separate the defendants from one another. They continued a trial narrative that each man acted independently without coordinating with one another or the Bundys.
They said defendants traveled to Bundy Ranch because of internet images showing federal agents slamming an elderly woman to the ground, using a stun gun on one of Bundy’s sons and ordering dogs to attack protesters.
Defense lawyers focused on the morning of April 12, when Cliven Bundy held a rally telling protesters that the standoff was over, that the BLM had backed down and the cattle would be loosed from a pen where agents had corralled them.
Bundy told protesters and cowboys on horseback to “go and get those cows,” prompting a march to the the wash where protesters came face to face with federal agents.
“Cliven Bundy manipulated a whole bunch of people to come to his side,” Las Vegas defense lawyer Terrence Jackson said.
But he said his client, Gary Burleson of Arizona, wasn’t among them.
“He wasn’t in Bunkerville when Cliven Bundy started his rant,” Jackson said.
Jackson said Burleson, like other defendants, believed the standoff was over when they went to the wash because authorities had announced they were going to free the cattle. He said as far as Burleson was concerned, the standoff had ended before he even got to the ranch.
He acknowledged that his client had a gun and went to the wash, but only to see the release of the cattle.
Jackson said months after the standoff, federal agents posing as a documentary film crew were “able to manipulate my client into making really stupid statements.”
Those statements included telling undercover agents he went to the ranch because he wanted to kill federal agents.
Las Vegas defense lawyer Shawn Perez, who represents Richard Lovelien of Oklahoma, compared the government’s case to the “Where’s Waldo” children’s books.
He said prosecutors are treating the defendants as a group, but he told jurors they need to search for each one in the context of the events.
“Where are we?” Perez asked. “We didn’t see Mr. Lovelien assaulting anyone. We didn’t see him threaten anyone.”
Perez acknowledged that his client belonged to a militia and was a member of the Montana State Defense Force. But he denied government assertions that Lovelien brandished his weapon or acted with malicious intent.
He said prosecutors wrongly suggested Lovelien ran security at the Bundy Ranch and said they could produce no evidence showing he met with any of the Bundys or other standoff leaders.
He said FBI agents testified that they spent 1,000 hours looking at social-media posts and more than a half million photos and “all they could come up with was eight photos” of Lovelien.
“In not one of them was he pointing a gun,” Perez said.
He said Lovelien was singled out for prosecution because of posts he made on social media and because he was at the scene, not because of his actions.
“He wasn’t going there to create a violent atmosphere. He was going there to prevent a violent atmosphere,” Perez said.
Prosecutors: Defendants aimed ‘to show force’
Federal prosecutors said the presence of the six armed men contributed to the overwhelming show of force that caused officers to back down and release the cattle.
Myhre told the jury the six defendants were integral to Bundy’s plan to illegally force force federal agents to free the cattle — and they knew it.
“Their goal is to back down the BLM, to show force,” he said. “When you enter into a conspiracy, you are responsible for the acts of the others.”
Myhre challenged suggestions that defendants were exercising constitutional rights. He said the First Amendment right to free speech does not allow you to threaten officers and the Second Amendment right to bear arms doesn’t give you the right to threaten someone with a gun.
“These people took the law into their own hands and used guns to take something that didn’t belong to them,” he said.
He said defendants bragged that they won. But he told jurors to use the law to hold them accountable.
“In this room, things are not decided by the power of the gun,” he said.
Drexler and Lovelien and Burleson are charged, along with Todd Engel, Eric Parker and Steven Stewart of Idaho. They are described by prosecutors as the least culpable of all 17 defendants.
Defendants in the second trial include Cliven, Ammon and Ryan Bundy, and two others considered leaders of the standoff. All are being held at a correctional facility in Nevada.
The second trial could begin as early as June 5.
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