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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS EDITOR
    High Country News seeks an editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk. This individual will lead a team of passionate journalists...
  • HIKING TO THE EDGE:
    Confronting Cancer in Rocky Mountain National Park. Poetry and photos on survival thinking. E-book and paperback available at Amazon.com.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation has grown into America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more than...
  • IPLC RIGHTS AND EQUITY PROGRAM ASSOCIATE
    A LITTLE ABOUT US Founded in 1951, the Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FUTURE WEST
    Future West seeks an executive director to lead this dynamic organization into the future. Based in Bozeman, MT this well-respected nonprofit provides communities in the...
  • PART-TIME EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mitchell Museum of the American Indian Location: Evanston, IL Salary Range: $45,000 @ 24 hours per week. send resume: [email protected] www.mitchellmuseum.org
  • COMMUNICATIONS LEAD
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • SENIOR POLICY ADVISOR
    Since 1989, The Nature Conservancy in Alaska has been doing work you can believe in protecting the lands and waters that all life depends on....
  • OUTDOOR PROGRAM - ASSISTANT DIRECTOR
    St. Lawrence University seeks to fill the position of Assistant Director in the Outdoor Program. To view the complete position description, including minimum qualifications required,...
  • PUBLIC LANDS DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a dedicated advocate for conservation and public lands Public Lands Director a "make a difference" position Conserve Southwest...
  • FOR SALE
    Yellowstone Llamas Successful Yellowstone NP concession Flexible packages
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT & MARKETING
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners is seeking a full-time Director of Development & Marketing. This is a senior position responsible for the development of all marketing...
  • LEGAL DIRECTOR
    The Legal Director will work closely with the Executive Director in cultivating a renewed vision at NMELC that integrates diversity, equity, and justice. Black, Indigenous,...
  • VICE PRESIDENT, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    The Vice President for Landscape Conservation leads Defenders' work to promote landscape-scale wildlife conservation, focusing on four program areas: federal public lands management; private lands...
  • NOVA SCOTIA OCEAN FRONT
    Camp or Build on 2+ acres in Guysborough. FSBO. $36,000 US firm. Laurie's phone: 585-226-2993 EST.
  • COMMUNITY FORESTER
    The Clearwater Resource Council located in Seeley Lake, Montana is seeking a full-time community forester with experience in both fuels mitigation and landscape restoration. Resumes...
  • GUNNISON BASIN ROUNDTABLE
    The Gunnison Basin Roundtable is currently accepting letters of interest for ten elected seats. Five of the elected members must have relevant experience in the...
  • PCTA TRAIL CREW TECHNICAL ADVISORS IN WASHINGTON'S NORTH CASCADES
    Seasonal Positions: June 17th to September 16th (14 weeks) - 3 positions to be filled The mission of the Pacific Crest Trail Association is to...
  • WE'RE LOOKING FOR LEADERS!
    As we celebrate 50 years of great Western journalism, High Country News is looking for a few new board members to help set a course...
  • WIND RIVER WRITERS AND PHOTOGRAPHERS RETREAT BY THE NATIONAL BIGHORN SHEEP CENTER
    Enhance your writing or photography skills with world-class instructors in the beautiful Wind River Mountains. All skill levels welcome. Continuing education credits available.