Bundy Ranch ‘gunmen’ face retrial in Las Vegas

New evidence links defendants to other anti-government gatherings in the West.

 

Four men who took part in the 2014 standoff between the Bureau of Land Management and the rancher Cliven Bundy face a retrial next week. The defendants, who are accused of helping thwart the government’s attempts to impound Bundy’s cattle, received a hung jury in April. U.S. attorneys now get another shot at proving their case against the four men — Eric Parker, Steven Stewart, Ricky Lovelien and Scott Drexler — who face a raft of charges, including conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and assaulting federal agents. They face up to 100 years in prison.

Protesters gather near the BLM base camp under a highway overpass near Bunkerville, Nevada where federal rangers had seized 1,000 of Cliven Bundy’s cattle that he had been illegally grazing on BLM land. Some of the gunmen who came to support Bundy are being retried for their involvement in the standoff starting next week.
Jim Urquhart/Reuters

Their trial may become even more complicated this time around. New evidence that prosecutors might bring in suggests the standoff in Bunkerville, Nevada, was not an isolated incident but a piece of a larger phenomenon. Prosecutors aim to show that the defendants have ongoing ties to militia groups, by describing two similar incidents in Oregon and Montana in 2015. According to court documents, prosecutors allege that the participation of Drexler and Parker in these events is “inextricably intertwined” with the conspiracy charges in the Bunkerville trial.

One of the events, in Josephine County, Oregon, centered on a dispute between two owners of the Sugar Pine gold claim and the BLM. When the agency told the miners their claim was out of compliance, and they needed to file a plan of operations, the two men asked for help from a local chapter of the Oath Keepers, a militant anti-government group.

That April, the Oath Keepers launched what they called “Operation Gold Rush.” They gathered for several weeks and used armed patrols to guard the mining claim because they said they feared the government would try to seize the property. The group put out calls on social media for others to join. Hundreds of people from around the country, many of whom were part of the so-called “patriot” movement, came to support the cause. Drexler and Parker were among them, as members of the Idaho III%, another militant group, according to court documents.   

The second event prosecutors say they might introduce an event that took place just a few months after the Sugar Pine standoff. When two owners of the White Hope Mine claim outside the town of Lincoln, Montana, entered into a dispute with the Forest Service, Oath Keepers and Idaho III% again showed up. Drexler and Parker were allegedly among them. (The Forest Service argued that the miners had “illegally opened a road, cut down trees, built a garage and denied the public the right to access the White Hope mine.”)

These events may seem far removed from the 2014 standoff in the southern Nevada desert, in which Bundy supporters forced the BLM to abandon its impoundment of trespass cattle. In fact, the Sugar Pine and White Hope gatherings were outgrowths of Bunkerville, in part made possible by social networks forged at Bundy Ranch. Many of the same groups and individuals showed up in person or offered support via social media. All three incidents were an expression of a growing anti-federalist movement that often erupts around public land and natural resource disputes.

By casting this net across the broader movement, prosecutors might be able to prove defendants’ longstanding intentions to undermine the government. According to court documents, the evidence may help convince jurors that the defendants did not show up to Bundy Ranch on a whim.

Meanwhile, the government is also trying to preclude defendants from testifying on their personal beliefs, to explain their “state of mind” at the time of the Nevada standoff, including “their beliefs about the First Amendment, the BLM, their alternative reality view of the world, and a host of other irrelevant matters,” according to court documents. In response, defense attorneys said that prohibiting discussion of their clients’ state of mind “undermines fundamental fairness and due process, while prohibiting the defendants from presenting their theory of defense.” The judge has yet to rule on the government’s motion. 

In a trial last fall related to the armed occupation of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Ammon Bundy spent nearly 10 hours on the witness stand describing his beliefs on topics ranging from the Constitution to public-lands management. The jury in that case found Bundy, who lead the occupation, not guilty.

The Nevada retrial begins July 10 and is expected to last between seven and nine weeks. Two additional defendants originally charged in the case — Gregory Burleson and Todd Engel — were convicted of eight and two charges each, in April, and will not be retried. The current trial is the first of three related to the Bunkerville standoff. The second trial will not begin until the first is concluded. It will feature Cliven Bundy and his sons, Ryan and Ammon. Six more Bundy supporters who participated in the Nevada standoff will be tried in a third case, for which a date has yet to be set.

Tay Wiles is an associate editor for High Country News and is based in Oakland, California.