Authorities closing in on Oregon’s Malheur occupation

FBI calls for removal of occupiers following eight arrests and the death of one man late Tuesday.

 

Jan. 29 update: As of Thursday night, the Federal Bureau of Investigation reported that four occupiers remained at the refuge and that the agency is working to get them to come out peacefully.

Officials for the Federal Bureau of Investigation said Wednesday they will begin controlling access to Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, following the arrest of eight suspects and the death of one man late Tuesday.

The FBI and Harney County Sheriff set up checkpoints to control access into and out of the refuge, the FBI said in a statement Wednesday morning. The only people allowed to pass will be Harney County ranchers who own property in specific areas. Others will be asked to leave. Those who do not comply will be arrested. Those leaving the refuge must show identification and will have their vehicles searched, the FBI said.

The announcement comes following the shooting death of Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, a core member of the group of armed occupiers at the Malheur refuge. Federal Bureau of Investigation officers moved to arrest several of the illegal occupiers at about 4:25 p.m., Pacific Standard Time, on Highway 395 north of the refuge. 

malheurroadblock-ap-jpg
Sgt. Tom Hutchison stands in front of an Oregon State Police roadblock on Highway 395 Jan. 26 between John Day and Burns, Oregon. The roadblock was set up by the FBI and the Oregon State Police to attempt to take into custody participants in the armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
Dave Killen/The Oregonian via AP

The suspects arrested Tuesday include Ammon Edward Bundy, 40, the leader of the Malheur occupation. Also arrested were Ryan Bundy, 43, of Bunkerville, Nevada; Brian Cavalier, 44, also of Bunkerville; Shawna Cox, 59, of Kanab, Utah; Ryan Payne, 32, of Anaconda, Montana; Joseph O’Shaughnessy, 45, of Cottonwood, Arizona; and Peter Santilli, 50, of Cincinnati, Ohio. 

Arizona man Jon Ritzheimer, a member of the Three Percent militia, who had spent time at the refuge in support of the occupation, turned himself in to the Peoria, Arizona, police late Tuesday. Prior to coming to Oregon, Ritzheimer gained national attention for making incendiary comments about Muslims and organizing anti-Islam rallies.

One of the arrestees was treated for a gunshot wound at a local hospital and released last night. Officials have not released the name of the injured suspect, but the Oregonian reported it was Ryan Bundy. All arrestees face a federal felony charge of conspiracy to impede officers of the United States from discharging their official duties through the use of force, intimidation, or threats, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 372.

  

Tuesday’s arrests come amid 25 days of occupation at the Malheur refuge, following a protest in nearby Burns, Oregon, in support of ranchers Steven and Dwight Hammond, who were being sent to jail over charges of arson on public land.

Bundy and a small group of supporters, many of whom were armed militia from across the region, took over the refuge Jan. 2. They claimed they were taking a stand against federal overreach in matters of natural resource management and touting the far-fetched idea that all federal lands, including the refuge, should be turned over to local ownership.

It was unclear early Wednesday what will happen to the occupation, or the broader movement it represents. 

“I would expect that the evidence against them will be presented to a grand jury in the weeks ahead, however, and that even more serious charges will be filed based on their unlawful occupation of the Malheur Refuge,” says David Uhlmann, former head of the Department of Justice’s environmental crimes section. “There is no question that the Justice Department would pursue the most serious possible charges — to include domestic terrorism — if a militant group took over federal property on behalf of ISIS or as part of an effort to overthrow the US government. The threat from this group was far less dangerous but no less illegal, and I expect that the Justice Department will insist on felony charges and jail time for anyone who does not cooperate in the case.”

Finicum was one of the most visible of the occupiers, often speaking at length at press conferences about the occupiers’ aims and beliefs. 

Robert “LaVoy” Finicum at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Jan. 3, 2016.
Brooke Warren/High Country News

Finicum owned a ranch in northwestern Arizona, and has also long been a foster parent. He told reporters at the refuge that foster care, not ranching, was his main source of income. Tax documents from the Catholic Charities Community Services Inc. show that in 2009, Finicum was compensated about $115,000 for foster care, and in 2005, he received $99,000. The children in his care were taken out of his home by child services after the occupation began, thus depriving him and his wife of that income. He and his wife, Dorthea Jeanette, also owned a business called Southwest Horse and Trails, but they and the business declared bankruptcy in 2002.

The public record on Finicum is thin prior to 2014. But he appears to have gone through a major transformation after the standoff at the Bundy Ranch, just over the Nevada border from Finicum’s, in April of that year. Finicum joined the Bundys during the standoff, and helped them successfully wrest their cattle from the BLM.

Shortly thereafter, Finicum developed an online persona, with a website and Facebook page titled, “One Cowboy’s Stand for Freedom,” and laid out his creed in a series of YouTube videos. As is the case with Ammon Bundy and other members of their ad hoc movement, Finicum’s ideology was less old-school Sagebrush Rebellion than it was a broader brand of extreme libertarianism. He accused the BLM of stealing water from a huge tank on his land and other transgressions, but also spoke out against Obamacare and gun control, and encouraged his followers to stockpile enough food and supplies to survive for at least a year, in case of some sort of apocalyptic event. He even sold “Defend the Constitution” t-shirts and wrote a novel, “Only By Blood And Suffering: Regaining Lost Freedom.”  

In his videos, Finicum appears to get deeper and deeper into his cause as time goes on, transitioning from merely proselytizing to inflaming actual revolt. In November of 2015 he rallied southern Utah ranchers to take part in a “Cowboy Uprising” by refusing to pay grazing fees, a la Cliven Bundy, and asked for militia support. His speech to them repeatedly invoked the American Lands Council and its seizure of federal land philosophy.

Referring to the Bundy standoff, Finicum wrote in 2014: “When I rode around that corner to face those federal guns, I knew I might never see my family again and I did it because I knew that the federal government was using the law to unjustly steal a man’s property…. I’m willing to die standing on this line.” He used similar rhetoric during the occupation, hinting that he’d rather go down shooting in the name of an ideological crusade than to spend his life in a “concrete box.”

Officials have not yet given any details regarding the exact events that led up to Finicum’s death. But as news got out that Finicum was dead, supporters of the Bundys and the occupation unleashed a flurry of propaganda on social media, accusing the feds of murdering him and raising the specter of retaliatory action against the government and law enforcement. 

“My heart and prayers go out to LaVoy Finicum’s family he was just murdered with his hands up in Burns, OR,” tweeted Nevada Assemblywoman Michele Fiore. Fiore is well-known for her extreme right wing views, her support of the Bundy family and for the Second Amendment calendars she produces and models in, posing with high-powered firearms. On its own Facebook page, the Bundy Ranch posted photos of Finicum, noting, “… our government murdered him while he was unarmed with his hands in the air… Who stands with liberty?”

But in a video posted on YouTube this morning, Ammon Bundy’s bodyguard Mark McConnell, who says he was detained and released, had a different account. “He (Finicum) was not on his knees," McConnell says, basing his take on what he saw and heard during the altercation. "He went after (the enforcement officers). He charged them. LaVoy was very passionate about what he was doing up here.” 

Still, McConnell's account might have come too late to defuse the situation. Extremist Internet forums lit up last night with the language of revenge. “These are the first shots of a new revolution,” wrote commenter “Nextrush” on freerepublic.com. “His death will be avenged.”

DC correspondent Elizabeth Shogren contributed reporting to this story. Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor of HCN and Tay Wiles is the online editor.