A federal grand jury indictment unsealed Thursday charges Ammon Bundy and 15 other people involved in the standoff at an Oregon wildlife refuge with a single count of “conspiracy to impede officers of the United States” — even as four of those charged remain at the refuge, refusing to surrender to FBI agents who surround them.
The indictment, by a grand jury convened in United States District Court in Portland, Ore., comes more than a week after Bundy and others were arrested during a traffic stop three weeks into their armed occupation of the nearly 200,000-acre Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in the high desert of eastern Oregon.
On Jan. 2, Bundy led a protest in Burns, Ore., over the prison sentences handed to two ranchers who had set fires that spread to federal land. Later the same day, he and a small armed group took over the remote refuge, which is about 30 miles southeast of town.
Bundy and others said they would not leave until the federal government transferred the refuge to local control — an idea local leaders opposed and legal experts said was implausible.
According to the indictment, the defendants occupied the refuge “by force while using and carrying firearms.” They “brandished and carried firearms on the premises” of the refuge “and prevented federal officials from performing their official duties by force, threats and intimidation.” It also notes that the occupiers refused to leave and “threatened violence against anybody who attempted to remove them.”
But the three-page indictment also recounts events beginning months earlier. On Oct. 5, it says, two of those charged traveled to Harney County, where the refuge is located, “to warn the Harney County sheriff of ‘extreme civil unrest’ if certain demands were not met.”
By November, “defendants and conspirators recruited and encouraged other individuals, known and unknown to the grand jury, in person and through social media and other means of communication, to participate and assist in the above described conspiracy.” From November until the end of January, the indictment says, defendants went to Harney County “to intimidate and coerce” residents “in order to effectuate the goals of the conspiracy.”
The charge, a felony, carries a maximum six-year prison sentence as well as potential fines.
Rural Harney County and Burns, its largest city, have been on edge. For weeks after the occupation began, law enforcement kept its distance, allowing occupiers to come and go from the refuge and visit places in town. Then, on Jan. 26, Bundy and others were arrested during a traffic stop north of Burns. One occupier, Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, 55, was shot and killed by state police during the incident.
In court appearances after the arrests, lawyers for some of the protesters have argued that they were conducting traditional acts of civil disobedience — a notion that federal judges involved the case have rejected.
While the number of people occupying the refuge rose to several dozen in the initial weeks, many people fled or were allowed to leave by authorities in the hours and days after the Jan. 26 arrests. Just four have remained since late last week — David Fry of Ohio, Jeff Banta of Nevada and Sandy and Sean Anderson, a married couple from Idaho. All were charged in the indictment unsealed Thursday.
Since Bundy’s arrest, he has called on the four holdouts to “stand down” and leave the refuge peacefully. Before Thursday, the four had said in a series of interviews and video broadcasts online that they would not leave unless they were assured that they would not be charged.
Oregon Public Broadcasting reported Wednesday that the four now have access to just a single working phone, which was provided to them by the FBI for negotiation purposes.
The refuge has been closed since late December, after federal workers began reporting threats and suspicious activity. In Burns, several hundred people gathered on Monday both in support and in opposition to the occupation.
Other wildlife refuges nationwide have been placed on alert, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Thursday.
“We’re not able to provide any specifics at this time, but can confirm that due to the evolving situation in eastern Oregon, all Service stations are on alert and being advised to take appropriate caution,” Gavin Shire, a spokesman for the agency, said in an email response.
The Associated Press reported that additional officers have been sent to the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex on the Oregon-California border, Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada and Modoc National Wildlife Refuge in Northern California.
In addition to Bundy and the four holdouts at the refuge, those indicted include Bundy’s brother Ryan Bundy, Jon Ritzheimer, Joseph O’Shaughnessy, Ryan Payne, Brian Cavalier, Shawna Cox, Peter Santilli, Jason Patrick, Duane Lee Ehmer, Dylan Anderson and Kenneth Medenbach.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Portland said Cox and O’Shaughnessy had been released from custody while all others remain in custody. Another defendant, Peter Santilli, who ran a livestream broadcast from within the refuge, has a hearing scheduled late Thursday at which he is expected to seek release.
Folllow @yardleyLAT on Twitter.