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for people who care about the West

The Malheur Refuge trials are over, but the movement that led to them isn’t.

Four defendants receive guilty verdicts, ending a yearlong drama.

 

For 41 bone-cold days in the winter of 2016, a group of armed men and women occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon.

The significance of that event depends on whom you ask. To the government prosecutors — who spent the last year in federal courtrooms bringing charges against 26 people arrested there — it was a conspiracy. To most of the public, it was an armed takeover of a bird refuge. On social media, it was a standoff.

To the people on trial, it was a dramatic act of protest. A constitutional right, they’d say. (Supporters and defendants often carried pocket-sized copies of the U.S. Constitution with them at the refuge and in the courtroom). It was the reaction of people who felt unheard by their elected officials. It was a calling, a message whispered to them by God, a cause that compelled them to drive across mountain ranges and state lines in the dead of winter.

On Friday, four defendants, bit players in the year-long drama, received a mix of guilty verdicts for their roles in the occupation, wrapping up one of the strangest moments in public-lands protests in recent memory.

Jason Patrick, Darryl Thorn, Jake Ryan and Duane Ehmer were found guilty of charges associated with 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
Courtesy of Multnomah County Sheriff's Office.

From the moment men carrying semiautomatic weapons left the first boot prints in the snow at Malheur, on Jan. 2, 2016, until Friday, the occupation unfurled like a modern-day, tech-driven Western. It was more Westworld than Louis L’Amour: horses and saddles, live feeds and smartphones.

In some ways, the drama only started as the occupation ended.

As several occupation leaders were cuffed in late January , the occupation’s only working rancher, 54-year-old Robert “LaVoy” Finicum was shot and killed as he yelled shoot me! at police and reached for a 9 mm Ruger in his jacket. A drone caught the shooting from above, a cameraphone from the ground.

In court, the drama continued: the defendants, who are white, said they were acting in the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr. Ryan Bundy tried to escape jail by tying bedsheets together. Ammon Bundy refused to get dressed for court. He offered to read the Constitution to the federal judge presiding over his trial to explain why he believed the feds cant own land.

And then, in late October, Ryan and Ammon, the occupations key players, sons of notorious Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, were acquitted of all charges. So were five others. It was a shocking verdict — one that surprised even the defense. 

Outside the courthouse after the charges were read, Patriot supporters who held signs and flags, cried and hugged.
Leah Sottile

But on Friday, a new jury looked less favorably on the four remaining defendants — delivering a mix of verdicts. Darryl Thorn, who carried a gun at the occupation and made out with his girlfriend in the refuges watchtower, was found guilty on both conspiracy and gun charges.

Jason Patrick — an activist who often appeared at Ammon Bundys side during daily press conferences at the refuge — was found guilty on conspiracy charges. The remaining two — an Oregon welder named Duane Ehmer who was widely photographed riding a horse named Hellboy around the refuge, and Jake Ryan, a homeschooled Montanan  — were found guilty of willfully damaging government property. Theyd raked the claw of an excavator across soil that some argued was filled with Native artifacts.

If Octobers acquittals came as a shock, todays guilty verdicts came, too, with a degree of confusion and questions of fairness. How does a jury find Ammon Bundy — who rallied people to the refuge, conducted TV interviews and was touted as the leader of the occupation  — not guilty of conspiracy, but convict the grunt who made out with his girlfriend while he was on guard duty?

Matthew Schindler, the attorney for Kenneth Medenbach who was acquitted last fall, attended court Friday. “I was surprised when everyone was acquitted last fall,” he told TV cameras. Is today’s verdict fair? “Life ain’t fair. That’s just reality. … Is it fair to Darryl Thorn that hes convicted, and Ammon Bundy is not? I dont know.”

Jason Patrick, who will be sentenced in May, wasnt surprised by the verdict. But he says his fight isn’t over: “The silver lining of the guilty verdict is it continues in court,”  he said. “The chance to address things that should be righted is still there.” 

He sees the governments charges against him as a way of silencing him. “Now Im a convicted felon because I told the government they were wrong — loudly enough the whole world heard it.”

In the courthouse Friday afternoon, U.S. Attorney Billy Williams appeared in front of TV cameras and microphones with prosecutors Geoffrey Barrow and Ethan Knight at his side. Hands folded as if they were in church, the men  calmly emphasized that though the people on trial were different, the evidence stayed the same.

“The defendants were not on trial for their beliefs, but for their conduct,” Williams said. We cannot have people taking over government offices and facilities at the end of a gun and expect no consequence,” he said. The rule of law matters.”

“I’m elated that justice has finally been served,” Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, said. “An armed assault on public lands is an armed assault on American values.”

“I’m still concerned, though, that the far-right lawmakers who supported and empowered the Bundys are still trying to give away or sell off our public lands to the highest bidder,” he said. “Stealing America’s birthright with political tricks is no more acceptable than stealing it with guns."

“These felony convictions are a victory for Americans who use and enjoy public lands,” Steve Pedery, conservation director at Oregon Wild, said. “But something tells me it won’t stop Rob Bishop and other politicians from trying to enact the Bundy agenda in Congress.”

In October, some feared the acquittals would embolden other to seize more federal facilities. But today, it seemed that guilty verdicts only further motivated the takeovers sympathizers. To them, the October verdicts created heroes. Today, they made martyrs.

Outside the courthouse Friday, acquitted defendant Neil Wampler smoked a cigarette and indulged questions from reporters. “We can feel sad and shed a tear today,” he told me, his eyes turning glassy as he spoke. “But our resolve in this fight has not been dampened. Other people in history, for example Gandhi, have decided the ideas and principles … are worth going to jail for.

They’re worth dying for.”

Leah Sottile is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Oregon.