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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‘This is a case of standing up for what you believe … not to commit a crime,’ defense attorney says in closing argument.
LAS VEGAS — From the moment Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy urged armed protesters to free cattle from a government roundup, federal prosecutors say they joined a conspiracy to thwart the law.
Even before the April 12, 2014, standoff reached its climax, Bundy supporters were recruiting, preparing and planning to assault law-enforcement officers and stop them from carrying out their duties, prosecutors told a federal jury on Wednesday.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicholas Dickinson capped seven weeks of testimony in the trial of six men accused of taking up arms against federal agents by insisting they were not part of a lawful protest but part of an anti-government militia force.
“Why would these six defendants travel to a place they’ve never been?” Dickinson asked. “They were clearly coming to show force, or match force, with the federal government.”
Defendants countered that they didn’t conspire to stop the roundup of Bundy’s cattle. Instead, for separate reasons and mostly unknown to one another, they said they traveled hundreds of miles to Bundy’s ranch because federal agents were trampling on people’s rights and inflicting harm under the color of law.
They said they came to ensure peace and exercise their First Amendment right to peaceably assemble using their Second Amendment right to bear arms.
“This is a case of standing up for what you believe … not to commit a crime, not to assault federal officers,” Las Vegas lawyer Richard Tanasi said. “There is no conspiracy in this case.”
The conspiracy charge is critical to the government’s case because it opens the doorway to several additional charges, including assault, threatening an officer, impeding officers and impeding interstate travel in aid of extortion.
The six men, from Arizona, Idaho and Oklahoma, are the first of 17 defendants to be tried on 16 identical charges in the most high-profile land-use case in modern Western history. If convicted, they could face the rest of their lives in prison.
The case pits cattle ranchers and state-rights activists against U.S. Bureau of Land Management policies.
U.S. District Court Judge Gloria Navarro walked the jury through 37 separate jury instructions Wednesday morning, explaining how the charges against the men needed to be considered and the level of proof needed for a guilty verdict.
Prosecutor Dickinson told the jury the case isn’t complex. He said the defendants didn’t need to know they were engaged in a conspiracy in order to break the law. Once they joined Bundy, Dickinson said, they “were in it for everything that happened.”
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. Hundreds of supporters, including members of several militia groups, streamed to his ranch about 80 miles north of Las Vegas.
Ripple effects from BLM decision to back down
After the BLM abandoned the roundup, 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 BLM abandoned the roundup because they were afraid they were going to die, Dickinson said. He said law-enforcement officers were surrounded and outgunned in a dusty arroyo beneath Interstate15 where they had penned the cattle.
He said Bundy and his militia “used the barrel of a gun to force those officers to leave federal land.”
Dickinson said officers knew that engaging militia members could spark a shooting war, with innocent men, women and children caught in the crossfire.
“They did not have the resources to stand up to an armed mob,” he said.
Dickinson used the defendants’ social-media posts, emails and videotaped interviews to punctuate his points during nearly three hours of arguments.
“The war has actually begun,” defendant Todd Engel of Idaho wrote in an online post on April 8.
“If they keep messing around, they are going to find out what battle-born means,” defendant Eric Parker, also of Idaho, said in an April 9 post.
Gary Burleson of Arizona made some of the most inflammatory statements referenced in court, saying he was prepared to die and meet his ancestors in the “hallowed halls of Valhalla,” the massive Norse hall ruled by the god Odin in Viking mythology.
“I look forward to joining my ancestors in the afterlife,” said Burleson, who has diabetes and is now blind. “Wish me a good fight … a good death.”
Defendants state their case to jurors
Three defendants presented their own arguments to the jury Wednesday, claiming the government had tried to wrap them together in a neat conspiratorial package that didn’t exist.
They said they were moved to join Bundy after seeing internet images of officers throwing an elderly woman to the ground, loosing dogs on one of Bundy’s sons and shocking protesters with stun guns.
The defendants said they were also inspired to act by the so-called First Amendment zone that officers established to cordon off anticipated protesters, which they described as anathema to free speech.
Tanasi used audiotapes of law-enforcement officers and their social-media posts to counter claims that they feared for their lives. He played snippets of officers making fun of female protesters, calling women ugly, mocking an overweight woman and cracking jokes about going to church.
Parker’s attorney, Jess Marchese, said his client decided to join the protest because he believed Bundy’s rights were being violated.
“If he’s not secure in his rights, I’m not secure in mine,” Parker wrote online.
Marchese said the fact that Parker brought a gun is not surprising when you consider he is from rural Idaho, where guns are part of the landscape.
“That’s just another day at the office for a good ol’ boy from southern Idaho,” Marchese said.
He argued that FBI agents who posed as filmmakers and interviewed defendants months after the standoff constantly put words in their mouths and asked questions until they got incriminating statements.
“I wasn’t sure if he was a used-car salesman trying to sell defective cars to senior citizens,” Marchese said of the undercover agent.
‘I wasn’t assaulting anybody, wasn’t threatening anybody’
The day’s most emotional moments came from Engel, who has represented himself in the trial.
He appeared nervous and confused as he tried to explain why he went to Bundy Ranch. He was interrupted by frequent objections from prosecutors as he stumbled through his narrative.
“There is not one shred of evidence that I conspired with anybody,” he said. “I wasn’t assaulting anybody, wasn’t threatening anybody and wasn’t brandishing a weapon.”
He said he stayed away from the wash during the protest and rushed to get help from law-enforcement officers when he heard there could be shooting. Engel said he urged Nevada Highway Patrol officers to intervene and stayed with officers during the peak of the protest.
Engel acknowledged that he was carrying a gun and that he cursed federal agents as they drove away from the wash.
But he reminded jurors that officers testified he was helpful during the standoff and that they patted his back as they left the scene.
“What more could I do?” He said in a halting voice. “I was helpful … I like to think that I had a part in helping to make it end peaceful.”
Engel was the last person to testify Wednesday. The case is supposed to wrap up with arguments from the final three defendants on Thursday. Then it will go to the jury for deliberations.
The six defendants have been described as the least culpable of all 17 defendants in the case.
Defendants in the second trial are scheduled to include Cliven, Ammon and Ryan Bundy and two others who are considered the 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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