Bunkerville standoff case ruled a mistrial

Two defendants found guilty, but jury “deadlocked” over fate of remaining four.

 

In a stunning twist, the first of three federal trials related to the 2014 armed standoff between Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and federal land managers has been ruled a mistrial. The proceedings lasted over two months, but the trial has now been slated to begin anew on June 26. The jury was “deadlocked,” or undecided, on ten counts each for four of the six defendants, prompting Judge Gloria Navarro to declare a mistrial.

Despite the mistrial, two defendants did receive partial verdicts that will remain intact. Prior to the mistrial announcement, the jury released a verdict this morning for Todd Engel of Idaho and Gregory Burleson of Arizona. Engel was found guilty on two counts out of ten: obstruction of justice and interstate travel in aid of extortion. The prosecution considered Engel a “gunman,” who stayed on the roads above the sandy wash where protestors approached federal officers during the standoff. A former landscaper, Engel represented himself in court. Burleson, who carried a long gun in the wash and told an undercover FBI agent that he went to Bunkerville to kill federal employees, was found guilty of eight charges out of ten — excluding conspiracy against the U.S. government and conspiracy to impede and injure a federal officer.

After at least five days of deliberation, the jury was hung on all other counts. This morning, the judge ordered the jury to continue deliberations one last time, and when the jurors still could not reach verdicts, the judge declared a mistrial.

Scott Drexler, one of the six defendants in the first of three trials in Nevada, carries a rifle near the BLM base camp during the standoff over Bundy grazing rights in April 2014. The jury was hung on charges for Drexler and the presiding judge declared a mistrial.
Jim Urquhart/Reuters

“This is a total answer to (our) prayers,” Bundy supporter John Lamb of Bozeman, Montana, said in a livestream video from outside the federal courthouse in Las Vegas, after hearing of the partial verdicts.

All of the defendants in this trial are considered “low-level” actors in the standoff, not central organizers. Defendants in the second trial include Cliven Bundy himself and his sons Ryan and Ammon, as well as Pete Santilli and Ryan Payne, and was slated to begin June 26. It’s unclear whether that trial will still begin that day or be delayed.

The desert standoff, 75 miles northeast of Las Vegas, centered on Cliven Bundy’s illegal grazing of 1,000 cattle — but the trials symbolize much more than that. The standoff has come to represent the bitter, longstanding political battle in Western states over who should control public lands. The events also reflect how decades-long efforts to replace federal landlords with state and local managers has drawn new energy from a separate and more recent upwelling of self-described “patriot” groups across the country.

The 2014 events at the Bundy ranch drew hundreds of anti-federal protesters from across the country, some of whom were loosely or directly affiliated with self-styled militia groups. They camped out for many days, and some for weeks, to protest the impoundment of Bundy’s cattle, which had been grazing illegally on public land for years. (Bundy also had not paid grazing fees and owes the federal government at least $1 million.) The standoff itself occurred on April 12, when Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service employees rounded up about 400 cattle but then abandoned the operation to avoid a violent confrontation with armed supporters.

Evidence presented at the trial revolved around the intentions of each defendant at the standoff (did they mean to impede officers or merely to protest?), how afraid the federal officers were when faced with the armed crowd, how strong Cliven Bundy’s influence was over his followers, and which defendants may have recruited other people to come help.

A date for the third trial of several more supporters of Cliven Bundy, who are considered “middle-tier” actors at the 2014 standoff, has yet to be set. Burleson and Engel now await sentencing for the charges they have been found guilty of; that decision is expected on July 26 and 27.

Tay Wiles is an associate editor for High Country News. She can be reached at taywiles@hcn.org

version of this story was published in our magazine, on May 15, 2017.