The leader of the armed occupation of an Oregon wildlife refuge urged his colleagues-in-arms to “stand down” Wednesday, as a small band of holdouts vowing to fight fell under increasing pressure to surrender to the cordon of law enforcement now surrounding the sprawling facility.
By late Wednesday, it appeared that several of the protesters still inside the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge were heeding the request, as three more people were arrested and several others were allowed to leave freely, according to the FBI and other sources.
The FBI, which began setting up checkpoints around the refuge early Wednesday, said a total of eight people had left through the checkpoints, including the three who were arrested.
One of those detained, Duane Leo Ehmer, 45, of Irrigon, Ore., had become a symbol of the occupation. He made a custom of going on morning “patrols” carrying an American flag while riding his horse, Hellboy.
Another, Jason Patrick, 43, of Bonaire, Ga., had become an unofficial leader of the remaining group after the arrest of much of the occupation’s top leadership in a traffic stop a day earlier.
Officials identified the third person arrested Wednesday as Dylan Wade Anderson, 34, of Provo, Utah.
“Each chose to turn himself in to agents at a checkpoint outside the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge,” the FBI said in a statement Wednesday night.
All three face the same charge faced by the eight taken into custody Tuesday: a federal felony count of conspiracy to impede federal officers from discharging their official duties through the use of force, intimidation or threats.
“The FBI and our partners continue to work around the clock to empty the refuge of the armed occupiers in the safest way possible,” the agency said.
Earlier in the day, at least some at the refuge were still expressing defiance.
“There are no laws in this United States now! This is a free-for-all Armageddon!” a heavyset man holding a rifle yelled into a camera transmitting from the refuge. He urged others to join those at the protest site, adding that if “they stop you from getting here, kill them!”
But that was before leader Ammon Bundy, arrested with other protesters Tuesday in a law enforcement operation that killed one of their comrades, called for those remaining in the high-desert refuge to “go home and hug your families.”
Bundy and several codefendants appeared in U.S. District Court in Portland on Wednesday afternoon and were ordered held without bond.
“Right now, I'm asking the federal government to allow the people at the refuge to go home without being prosecuted,” Bundy said in a written statement read after the hearing by his attorney, Mike Arnold. “To those remaining at the refuge, I love you. Let us take this fight from here. Please stand down. Please stand down. Go home and hug your families. This fight is ours for now -- in the courts.”
Authorities were offering free passage to most who left peacefully, and there were signs Wednesday evening that FBI agents were in communication with those inside the refuge before the departures.
“We’re just camped here by the fire,” one of the occupiers, David Fry of Ohio, said in a brief telephone interview.
“I’m waiting on the FBI calling,” he said.
A live stream feed Fry was running from the refuge through most of the day Wednesday showed a group with apparently mixed feelings. Some holdouts seemed ready to leave, while others were counting their weapons and ammunition.
“I want to go to my wife,” a man could be heard saying Wednesday afternoon, complaining that his credit card was maxed out and he was driving a rental car. “Sorry, guys.”
“No hard feelings,” another man responded.
At one point, the live stream caught what sounded like the cocking of a gun, and at least six occupiers could be seen passing through the camera’s field of vision and discussing their available weapons and ammunition.
“You got enough rounds for the 12-gauge?”
“We’ve got, what, two SKS [rifles]?”
“Hey, Sean! I think these fit your gun – they won’t fit the AR [rifle].”
“Anybody got a .45 pistol?”
But by Wednesday night, the stream included an image of a campfire burning in darkness, with a few voices talking of topics ranging from their personal finances to marijuana, relationships and the stars above.
“Oh, another great night,” a woman said. “There’s the Milky Way.”
Bundy and four other protesters were arrested Tuesday after a traffic stop on a highway north of Burns, a rural town in eastern Oregon. One, Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, an Arizona rancher who had insisted this week he would die before returning the refuge to federal control, was shot and killed during the confrontation.
Elsewhere, two other protesters and a right-wing Internet show host were also taken into custody.
At a news conference Wednesday, federal officials provided no details about the incident. Gregory T. Bretzing, special agent in charge of Portland's FBI division, called the law enforcement operations “a very deliberate and measured response.”
A pair of unverified videos from a man and a woman who said they were traveling with the protesters when they were arrested said that Finicum was shot after he sped away from officers during the traffic stop.
Even as many weary residents in Burns expressed hope that the arrests would speed the end of the standoff, it was also clear that neither they nor law enforcement had wanted it to end violently.
“This has been tearing our community apart,” Harney County Sheriff David Ward said of the armed protest during a news conference in Burns, where he urged “everybody in this illegal occupation to move on.”
“There doesn't have to be bloodshed in our community,” Ward said. “We have issues with the way things are going in our government; we have a responsibility as citizens to act on those in an appropriate manner. We don't arm up and rebel.... This can't happen anymore. This can't happen in America.”
Ammon Bundy, 40, and his brother, Ryan, who was also among those arrested Tuesday, are the sons of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who led an armed standoff of his own against the federal Bureau of Land Management in 2014 in a dispute over $1 million in unpaid grazing fees.
The younger Bundys are among those leading the small group that took over the Oregon refuge on Jan. 2, saying they were protesting federal land management policies in general but also the prison sentences of two local ranchers who set fires that spread to federal land.
The BLM became a target of their anger in Oregon, according to an FBI affidavit unsealed as part of the criminal charges.
One local BLM employee said Jon Ritzheimer, an anti-Muslim activist involved in the occupation, and another man accosted her in a grocery store for wearing a BLM shirt.
“When she turned around, the second individual shouted, ‘You're BLM, you're BLM,' at her,” FBI Agent Katherine Armstrong wrote in the affidavit.
“That person further stated to [the BLM employee] that they know what car she drives and would follow her home. He also stated he was going to burn [her] house down.”
Activists began targeting her, the employee said. A vehicle matching one she saw Ritzheimer and the other man driving began to appear parked in front of her home and in front of her workplace, she said.
A week later, a white truck with a Confederate flag sticker in the rear window tailgated her and flashed its lights, the affidavit says.
After Tuesday’s arrests, law enforcement agents moved swiftly to surround the refuge. On Wednesday morning, they blocked roads outside while protesters still inside could be seen operating heavy machinery.
A group in contact with the occupiers, calling itself the Pacific Patriots Network, urged supporters to “stand by” as it urged peace and gathered more information about what was happening. “Cooler heads must prevail,” the group said in a statement.
The Tuesday arrests came as the Bundys and others were traveling to a community meeting north of Burns.
Gunfire broke out when the FBI and Oregon State Police intercepted the group on a rural stretch of U.S. Highway 395 about halfway between the refuge and the town of John Day.
“Law enforcement agencies put a lot of work into doing the best tactical plan they could to take these guys down peacefully,” Ward said.
Details of what happened on the highway were scant. Officials would only say that shots were fired.
Ryan Bundy, 43, of Bunkerville, Nev., was shot in the arm, and the 55-year-old Finicum was killed, his daughter and Nevada state Assemblywoman Michele Fiore said.
The void of official information about the incident has been filled by unverified videos circulating widely on social media among occupation supporters.
A man named Mark McConnell, who is identified as Ammon Bundy's security guard, posted a video on Facebook early Wednesday in which he said that he was driving one of the group's vehicles and that Finicum had been driving the other.
McConnell said that after officials detained him and the other passengers in his vehicle, including Ammon Bundy, Finicum sped away with Ryan Bundy, Shawna Cox, 59, and “an 18-year-old girl” riding with him.
“LaVoy is very passionate about this ... about what we're doing here. … But he took off,” said McConnell, who said he was released after two hours of interrogation. He said he was not among the original occupiers.
“Don't put speculation, don't put nonsense out there,” McConnell said, scolding Facebook commenters who were not at the scene. “Get to business, we have work to do here, all right. Let's not let LaVoy's death be in vain.”
A second witness’ unverified account gave a more dramatic – and more controversial – version of events, which has yet to be either substantiated or contradicted by law enforcement.
A young woman who identified herself as Victoria Sharp gave an audio interview in which she said she was in Finicum’s vehicle at the time of the encounter with police.
The Kansas City Star reported that the woman had recently visited the refuge as a member of a Kansas-based singing troupe. The Bundy Ranch Facebook page, operated by Cliven Bundy, prominently posted the interview on the top of its page.
In it, the woman said that officers who had attempted to stop their vehicle fired a single shot at passenger Ryan Payne when he stuck his head out the window. After Payne climbed out, she said, Finicum sped away and soon hit a snowbank.
“He got out of the car, and he had his hands in the air. … He’s like, ‘Just shoot me, then!’ … They did,” she said. “They shot him dead. [He was] just walking, with his hands in the air, and they shot him.”
She recalled asking aloud, “Is he dead? Is he dead?” Agents continued to fire, she said, as she and two others still in the vehicle cowered. “We were praying, like, so hard,” she said.
“No one even touched their gun, no one pulled their gun out … We showed no aggression at all,” she said.
Are the two video accounts authentic? Maureen Peltier, who spent a week and a half at the camp and who stayed in contact with the occupiers and their supporters, said she didn’t personally know either Sharp or McConnell, though she said McConnell was relatively well known by other camp supporters.
“Everybody has turned their phones off or is just not answering them,” Peltier said. “There’s a lot of people down there I don’t know where they are and if they are OK.”
From the live stream Wednesday night--before the FBI announced the departures from the refuge--all appeared quiet. “You know what, I think I’m just going to cut off the live stream,” Fry said at one point. “I think like half the people are just wanting to see us die anyways.”
The stream stopped a moment later. But soon, Fry was streaming again.
Yardley reported from Burns and Pearce reported from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Nigel Duara in Phoenix contributed to this report.