The leaders of the armed takeover of an Oregon wildlife refuge were acquitted Thursday, a stunning series of verdicts that cleared Ammon Bundy, the group’s leader, as well as his brother Ryan and five others. But that surprising outcome may have overshadowed the reality that this saga is far from over.
While a jury acquitted the Bundy brothers, most of the people charged with the Oregon takeover already pleaded guilty or still have to stand trial on federal charges — a group that includes both Bundys, who are still in custody because they are facing another federal trial in Nevada stemming from a different standoff between the family and the government.
The occupation at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, a remote federal facility in southeastern Oregon, began in the aftermath of peaceful protests in January aimed at supporting two ranchers sentenced to prison for arson. The siege eventually blossomed to a sizable number of people who came and went through the snowy outpost, their activities and comments documented by reporters and occupiers alike, drawing national attention to the takeover and the decades-long dispute over federal land rights in the West.
During the trial, prosecutors described the takeover as a long-plotted occupation, while attorneys for the occupiers — who did not deny they were there — insisted they were not trying to prevent people from doing their jobs, but were instead protesting government actions.
More than two dozen people involved in the Malheur takeover were charged with conspiring to use “force, intimidation, and threats” to keep federal employees from working at the refuge during the takeover. So far, 11 people have already pleaded guilty to this charge, a series of pleas entered during the months before the Bundy trial got underway.
In at least one case, a lower-level occupier was sentenced to more time behind bars. Corey Lequieu, an Army veteran from Nevada, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two and a half years in prison along with three years of supervised release. Another person who pleaded guilty — Brian Cavalier, who was said to provide security to the Bundys — was sentenced to time served. Others are still set to be sentenced in the coming weeks and months, court records show.
In February, a little more than a year after the takeover ended in dramatic fashion, others who maintain their innocence will head to court much as the Bundy brothers did.
It is not immediately clear how federal prosecutors’ high-profile loss this week will impact this upcoming trial. Billy Williams, the U.S. attorney for Oregon, acknowledged in a statement that “we had hoped for a different outcome” to this case. He is expected to address the media later Friday.
One juror in the case defended the acquittals Friday, telling the Oregonian in an email that the verdicts were “a statement regarding the various failures of the prosecution” to prove that there was a conspiracy. This juror also told the publication that the verdicts were “not any form of affirmation of the defense’s various beliefs, actions or aspirations.”
The most high-profile people charged for the takeover were the two Bundy brothers, who were among the group of seven found not guilty of the conspiracy charge as well as a count of possessing firearms in a federal facility. (That one seems odd to many people, given the voluminous evidence of the occupiers wandering around the refuge with guns, but the charge was specifically for having a gun in a federal facility with the intent that it “be used in the commission of a crime.”)
Both Bundy brothers are being transferred to Nevada, officials said, where they are set to stand trial again in February, just days before the next trial stemming from the Oregon standoff is scheduled to begin.
Ammon and Ryan Bundy were charged in Nevada along with their father, rancher Cliven Bundy, for an armed standoff with government officials there in 2014 that also drew national attention.
That standoff seemed to presage the Oregon takeover in many ways. Authorities had gone to Bundy’s ranch planning to round up livestock that had grazed on federally owned land for years without a permit, but his armed supporters threatened to go to war. The federal government backed down from the confrontation, and the elder Bundy remained free for more than two years after that episode.
Experts say right-wing extremists were emboldened by the outcome of that standoff. The Southern Poverty Law Center issued a report stating that the Bundy ranch standoff “invigorated an extremist movement” across the country.
Ultimately, Cliven Bundy was arrested as he arrived in Oregon at the tail end of the refuge occupation. His arrest came after his sons were already behind bars. For weeks during the occupation, people were allowed to come and go from the refuge, but in late January authorities moved to arrest the Bundy brothers and others while they traveled outside Malheur.
During the same operation that saw the Bundy brothers arrested, state troopers shot and killed LaVoy Finicum, an occupier who had served as a de facto spokesman for the group. Officials said that the state troopers feared for their lives when Finicum reached toward his jacket, where they later said they found a loaded 9mm handgun. Activists decried Finicum’s death as an ambush, and the FBI took the unusual step of quickly releasing video footage of the shooting to try to explain what had happened and dispel unrest.
This shooting was deemed legally justified by authorities, but multiple investigations are still ongoing into FBI agents who were present and have been accused of firing shots and never reporting them. While the Bundy brothers were cleared for their role in the Oregon siege, it still remains possible that federal law enforcement officials could face discipline or legal action for the sole armed confrontation between police and the occupiers.
This story, first posted at 10:40 a.m., has been updated.