A day earlier, ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond were prisoners at the minimum-security federal prison on Terminal Island in San Pedro, serving five-year sentences for arson.
But on Wednesday, following a Tuesday pardon by President Trump, the father-and-son pair got to fly home in style to Burns, Ore., on an oil company’s private jet, riding alongside the company’s founder, Forrest Lucas — who used his relationship with Vice President Mike Pence to help secure the Hammonds’ release.
With the massive amounts of pardon requests the federal government receives every year, “It takes talking to someone to be able to get it done, and that’s what happened here,” said David Duquette, national strategic planner for Protect the Harvest, Lucas’ nonprofit advocacy group for ranchers and farmers.
Pence was “very instrumental in helping to get this to the front and getting it out there” for a pardon by Trump, Duquette said.
The Hammonds, who own a ranch in remote eastern Oregon, had been convicted of arson for setting fires that burned federally owned land. Their five-year mandatory minimum sentence drew criticism from ranchers’ groups who have been critical of the government’s stewardship of the nation’s expansive federal lands.
The Hammonds’ case captured national attention after an armed group of antigovernment activists protested their prison sentences by seizing the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for 41 days in 2016. Public-lands advocates have criticized Trump’s pardon as a tacit approval of the occupation.
The Hammonds’ ride home with Lucas — whose company owns the naming rights to the Indianapolis Colts’ NFL playing field, Lucas Oil Stadium — illustrates the depth of the lobbying effort that helped secure clemency for the ranchers.
Lucas had taken an interest in the Hammonds after they were sentenced and imprisoned in 2015, and he broached the issue with Pence before the 2016 election, when Pence was still governor of Indiana, according to Duquette, who said Lucas wasn’t available for an interview Thursday.
Lucas, a fellow Indiana native, is a generous donor to Republican candidates, including to Pence, who received at least $50,000 from Lucas and his wife when Pence was running for governor of Indiana.
Lucas also gave Pence two tickets worth $774 to attend a Colts game in 2017 that Pence abruptly left after players on the opposing team kneeled during the national anthem. Lucas was also rumored to be a top choice to become Interior secretary by Trump’s transition team, which was led by Pence.
In the political world, Lucas is also known for his battles against animal-rights advocates, founding the Protect the Harvest activist group.
Protect the Harvest, like other ranching advocacy groups, pressedpublic officials for the Hammonds’ release. Lawyers for the Hammonds had filed a clemency request with the government during the Obama administration, but only heard back silence.
With Trump’s election, and his increasingly confident use of his presidential pardon powers, the Hammonds' supporters grew hopeful. Trump “has been very vocal, even publicly on TV, asking for more cases like this, where people know that there was a major injustice and they need to look at it,” Duquette said.
The Hammonds’ advocates also reached out to Oregon’s congressional delegation. They found little support among the state’s elected Democrats but managed to secure help from the state’s lone Republican congressman, Greg Walden, according to Lawrence Matasar, a Portland attorney who represented the Hammonds at trial and helped file the clemency petition.
“He was very helpful. He said he’d take a look,” Matasar said. “What really happened? I don’t know. It was a black box to me. From what I heard, Walden reached out to Pence.”
Two weeks ago, Walden gave a speech on the House floor calling for Trump to pardon the ranchers, and on July 1, Walden wrote in a Facebook post that the president had called him to say he was “seriously considering” clemency.
Pence’s office did not immediately respond for comment, and the Hammonds could not be reached for comment.
The former U.S. Attorney for Oregon who handled the case, Amanda Marshall, said in an interview earlier this week that the pardon was a “slap in the face” to the jurors who found the ranchers guilty, adding, “There’s no place for favoritism in law enforcement, but that’s exactly what this comes down to in the Trump administration.”