An out-of-state supporter of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy has pleaded guilty in a federal court in Pennsylvania to making threats against a Bureau of Land Management enforcement official during Bundy's 2014 standoff against federal officials over land grazing rights.
Some Bundy supporters, as well as Bundy himself, wonder whether this is the first in a series of legal moves the federal government might take against the recalcitrant rancher, whose so-called citizen militia challenged BLM officials in an armed face-off last April.
Will Michael, 24, pleaded guilty this week to threatening a federal law enforcement official as well as making interstate communication threats.
A profanity-laced phone message left for Mike Roop, the chief BLM ranger for Washington and Oregon, claimed, "We're going to kill you," according to federal court documents. Officials say it was one of 500 threatening messages that Roop received.
Michael did not travel to southern Nevada to join hundreds of Bundy supporters – many armed with semiautomatic weapons – who converged on federal land after agents swooped in to seize Bundy's cattle. For decades Bundy has refused to pay government grazing fees because he does not recognize Washington's right to collect money on Nevada land.
Michael told authorities that he saw a video on social media showing Roop shoving aside Bundy's sister, who was blocking BLM vehicles in the cattle raid, officials said. Michael will be sentenced in July.
"Part of the allegations were that the guy released personal information on Roop," Jody Weil, a BLM spokeswoman in Oregon, told the Los Angeles Times. Officials say Roop's personal and work contact information were posted online.
On Wednesday, Bundy told The Times that the charges and plea sent an uncomfortable message.
"I am concerned," he said. "It looks to me like they're looking for someone easy to pick on. This guy was back in Pennsylvania. He wasn't even out here in Nevada. I don't even know what he said."
When read part of the offending email message, Bundy replied: "Well, that might give you an idea what kind of character he is. But no matter, he has a 1st Amendment right to speak his mind. This to me sounded more like someone blowing off steam than making an actual threat."
In the year after the desert showdown, which ended with federal officials backing off and releasing the rancher's cattle, Bundy has been celebrated by Americans who seek less federal intrusion into what they view as state business.
Some 87% of land in Nevada, one of several Western states with land administered by the BLM, is run by the federal government, most of it scrub desert and prairie. Bundy followers say federal officials have blocked residents from hunting, fishing and hiking on the land, citing potential habitat damage.
But many BLM workers, especially in Nevada and neighboring Utah, have been on edge, facing the brunt of increasing public wrath. In some areas, officials have been instructed not to use marked government vehicles on the job for fear of inciting retaliation.
In a statement, the BLM said Wednesday: "The Bureau of Land Management remains resolute in addressing issues involved in efforts to gather Mr. Bundy's cattle last year and we are pursuing the matter through the legal system. Our primary goal remains, as it was a year ago, to resolve this matter safely and according to the rule of the law."
Michael Green, a University of Nevada Las Vegas historian, says he believes there will be more government moves to come. "I believe the other shoe will drop; the question is when," he said. "There is certainly a political calculation involved."
Green questioned Bundy's claim of engaging in mere civil disobedience.
"Bundy has not paid his grazing fees," he said. "And it's safe to say that what went on at his ranch last year was anything but civil."
He said Nevada agreed to give up control of much of the land within its borders when it became a state during the Civil War. “Since then,
Bundy said he had been careful not to break any laws, and that he was waiting for some move from Washington. For years, he has represented himself in a long battle with officials over his alleged unauthorized use of government-administered land near his ranch, located 80 miles north of Las Vegas.
"It sort of seems like this could be the government's first move – I hope not," Bundy told The Times. "I feel that they're picking on this guy to make an example of him, as a way to get to me."
Bundy said there was misconduct on the government's side as well. He said his supporters filed two dozen crime reports with Las Vegas police against federal agents. No arrests have been made in the case, he said.