For weeks in Oregon’s rugged backcountry, the two brothers were the face of the armed occupation of a wildlife refuge — two men dressed in flannel and cowboys hats with copies of the Constitution jammed in their breast pockets.
Now Ammon and Ryan Bundy — behind bars since the occupation wound down after the shooting death of one protester and the systematic arrests of others — are headed to trial in Portland for their alleged leading role in taking over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
The federal court trial of the Bundy brothers along with six codefendants is expected to spark lively arguments over the government’s right to control federal land such as the wildlife refuge in southeast Oregon.
The Bundys and their anti-government followers occupied the site for 41 days in January and February, surrendering soon after one occupier was killed by state police. For taxpayers, the takeover tab came to $9 million in costs and damage, federal officials estimated. Millions more are being spent on the resulting federal trials this year and next.
The occupiers, a colorful group of ranchers, militia members and others, demanded the federal government hand over land it manages to individual states to use as residents wished — such as for cattle grazing. In daily news conferences outside a squat government building where the occupiers were holed up, they accused the federal government of essentially stealing land from citizens of the West.
The Bundys’ father, Cliven, had led a 2014 armed standoff near his Nevada ranch to protest being charged for letting his cattle feed on U.S. land. Government officials backed down from the confrontation, saying they wanted to avoid bloodshed, and the Bundys declared victory, inspiring the subsequent Oregon takeover.
Cliven Bundy, 70, is now charged in the Nevada takeover with four of his sons, including Ammon, 41, and Ryan, 44. Trials are set to start in 2017. Cliven Bundy remains in federal custody in Las Vegas. He and the sons, members of the Mormon church, said their actions in Nevada and Oregon were inspired by their faith.
In Portland this week, the defense has indicated it will rely on novel legal challenges and, as needed, colorful historical references to persuade the jury.
Last week, in a court document, one of the Bundy attorneys, arguing the U.S. government has no jurisdiction in Oregon, said the federal officials were acting like the federales in the 1948 classic western “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.”
The attorney noted that in the movie when Fred Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) asked the lawman (actually, a bandit) where his badge was, the bandit memorably responded, “Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges. I don’t have to show you any stinking badges!’'
Said the attorney, Marcus Mumford: “The government’s response says, essentially, we don’t need to prove no stinking subject matter jurisdiction! ... But that’s the thing, they do.”
Ryan Bundy, who is acting as his own attorney, had drawn the most attention of the defendants.
Authorities say he was caught planning to escape from the Multnomah County Detention Center by tying sheets together and scaling a wall, though he told jail personnel he was only practicing tying knots. And in one court motion, he questioned his own competence.
“I, ryan c, man, am an idiot of the ‘Legal Society,’” he wrote in the court document in an attempt to explain his independence, “and; am an idiot (layman, outsider) of the ‘Bar Association’; and; i am incompetent; and; am not required by any law to be competent.”
Ryan Bundy also tried to subpoena Gov. Kate Brown and other government officials to testify in the case, sought $800,000 in damages for his arrest and claimed to be a member of the “sovereign Bundy family” not subject to federal law.
Followers of the trial can expect more legal unorthodoxy if pretrial briefs are any indication. Mumford and other defenders have some room to argue, for example, that a favored sovereign legal principle — “adverse possession,” providing for the takeover of others’ land through occupation — applies in this case. It can be mentioned to show a defendant’s state of mind, U.S. District Judge Anna Brown has ruled.
But Brown also told both sides that the outcome will not rest on that principle or U.S. land management policies. The only question will be whether the occupiers prevented federal employees from doing their jobs. If found guilty of impeding workers, they could get up to six years in prison.
Altogether, 26 people were charged. In addition to the eight defendants facing trial this week, seven are set for trial in early 2017. The remainder have pleaded guilty, and one, Corey Lequieu, became the first defendant to be sentenced, given a 2-year term last month.
Cliven Bundy and four of his sons are set to go to trial next year in Nevada relating to the 2014 land takeover that brought the Bundys to the public’s attention. As Cliven Bundy explained in several interviews, his war with federal rule began as a mission from God.
“The Lord told me, ‘This is your chance to straighten this thing up,’” he said.
Anderson is a special correspondent