The armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon, which started over the weekend as a demonstration in support of two local ranchers facing federal imprisonment, has a cast of colorful characters from across the West. Some have holed up inside the refuge, and others have been standing guard, delivering supplies and protesting outside. A few of the more prominent figures:
Ammon and Ryan Bundy
The brothers leading the occupation are among the 14 children of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who led a weeks-long armed standoff over federal grazing fees in 2014.
“It’s up to us, We the People, to restore and defend the Constitution,” Ammon Bundy, 40, who ran a valet car service in Phoenix before recently moving to Idaho, tweeted Monday.
His brother Ryan, 43, runs a construction company in Cedar City, Utah. The local ranchers’ case, he told NBC News, is “an example of the terrorism that the federal government is placing upon the people.”
The Bundys, like other participants in the Oregon occupation, appear to be driven in part by their Mormon religious beliefs. In a video posted New Year’s Day, Ammon Bundy defended the occupation as a “righteous cause” that he and others were obligated to take on.
“I began to understand how the Lord felt about Harney County and about this country, and I clearly understood that the Lord was not pleased,” he said.
Said Ryan Bundy: “We’re trying to accomplish the task of restoring rights to the people who have lost them or surrendered them.”
Guarding the refuge entrance has been a man in a gray camouflage winter coat who has identified himself to reporters only as Captain Moroni from Utah — another Mormon reference.
According to Mormon beliefs, Moroni was an ancient insurrectionist leader who inspired an army of followers to confront a corrupt king by turning his coat into a flag and raising it as a “title of liberty.”
“And it came to pass that Moroni was angry with the government, because of their indifference concerning the freedom of their country,” the scripture says. The king ultimately fled.
When Ammon Bundy called for “fellow patriots” to join him in the occupation, the Utah volunteer said he felt a religious obligation, especially because Bundy’s call echoes what Moroni told his followers, according to Mormon scripture.
“I just knew it was the right thing,” he told OPB News. “I’m willing to die here.”
A retired Marine from Phoenix, Ritzheimer has led various armed rallies in Arizona against Muslims and drew the attention of law enforcement last month after he drove cross-country to confront residents of a Muslim enclave in upstate New York.
In a video about the Oregon occupation posted online Sunday, Ritzheimer appears holding a copy of the Constitution saying: “We need to stand our ground together. If we don’t stand our ground together, that’s when we fall.”
Ritzheimer in a second video criticizes the federal Bureau of Land Management: “The kids that have never had their hands dirty, and now they get these jobs at the BLM, and now they’re going to tell these ranchers, these people who are more in tune with the ground and with the earth out here, they’re going to come out here and tell them how to run their show, how to ranch, how many head of cattle they can have, where they can go, where they can’t go on their own damn land.”
Toward the end of the video, Ritzheimer calls on others to join the occupation. “We need real men here,” he said. “Americans who have the intestinal fortitude to come here and take a stand and say enough is enough.”
The Montana electrician and Army veteran is among those in the occupied refuge and has boasted to the press of organizing civilians into sniper squads to confront federal agents at the Cliven Bundy ranch in Nevada in 2014.
“We had counter-sniper positions on their sniper positions. We had at least one guy, sometimes two guys, per BLM agent in there,” Payne told the Missoula Independent weekly newspaper in Montana. “If they made one wrong move, every single BLM agent in that camp would’ve died.”
Payne has been a constant presence near the refuge in recent weeks and told the Oregonian newspaper that he was determined to take a stand on behalf of locals. “We’re sending the message: We will protect you,” Payne said.
Mack has been among those protesting in support of the ranchers now serving time on a federal arson charge, but has not been one of those occupying a federal building in the refuge. Mack, former sheriff of Graham County, Ariz., is best known as a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the federal government alleging that portions of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act violated the Constitution. A former lobbyist for Gun Owners of America, Mack also founded the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Assn., which claims the right to refuse to enforce federal laws.
Mack met Saturday with the ranchers, Dwight Hammond, 73, and his son Steven Hammond, 46. He then blogged about his experience in Oregon, noting he and his group did not support the occupation.
“This is about our country, our liberty and our sacred Constitution. This is about federal agents who have done the same thing the Hammonds have been charged with and for which they have received no punishment whatsoever,” he wrote.
Mack called for an end to the occupation, saying, “Local officials, including the Harney County sheriff, are still working for a peaceful resolution on the Hammonds’ behalf. We will continue to work and pray for its success.”