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World & Nation

Supporters of antigovernment rancher Cliven Bundy investigated for suspected death threats

Cliven Bundy

Rancher Cliven Bundy speaks to the media near his ranch in Bunkerville, Nev., on Jan. 27, 2016.

(John Locher / Associated Press)

Like her husband, Carol Bundy has little faith in the federal judicial system. “This is going to be won in the court of public opinion,” the mother of 14 grown children and the wife of renegade cattleman Cliven Bundy predicted this month.

She was referring to the dozens of indictments recently handed down by the U.S. government against her husband, four of their sons and other armed protesters involved in the January wildlife refuge takeover in Oregon and a standoff near Cliven Bundy’s Nevada ranch two years ago.

But some of that public opinion has dissolved into threats from Bundy supporters and is now being investigated by state and federal authorities, possibly leading to more criminal charges.

In email, phone messages and Facebook posts, supporters have threatened retaliation for the mass arrests and the death of Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, 55, an Arizona rancher and spokesman for the Oregon refuge occupiers who was gunned down by state troopers during a roadside confrontation.

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The messages target law enforcement officers and government officials, including Oregon’s governor, according to a sampling of threats released last week by the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office. Investigators gathered more than 80 threats as part of the office’s investigation into the Finicum shooting in neighboring Harney County.

“We’re going to shoot to kill,” said an anonymous caller to Gov. Kate Brown’s office on Jan. 27, the day after Finicum was killed on a rural highway north of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which occupiers held for 41 days. Another caller to Brown’s office warned, “You killed an unarmed rancher, so now one of you must die, unfortunately. Goodbye.”

Some messages were profanity-laced, and one sent to a police agency asked whether the FBI’s roadblock used to stop Finicum and other occupiers was illegal. “If this is so,” the sender wrote, “let me know so we can set up road blocks and kill [state troopers] and FBI because they stand against what we believe in.”

Other local, state and federal agencies have collected similar messages, including the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which has a long-running dispute with Cliven Bundy over his Nevada cattle-grazing rights. This month, he and others — now in jail in Portland facing charges related to the Oregon refuge takeover — were also charged in Nevada for the 2014 armed standoff sparked by a dispute over Bundy’s failure to pay $1 million in federal grazing fees and penalties. Altogether, 26 people have been charged in Portland and 19 in Las Vegas, some of them in both cases.

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Besides the 69-year-old patriarch, four of Bundy’s sons are also in federal custody — Ryan, Melvin, David and Ammon, one of the refuge occupation leaders. A threat sent to the BLM said that if Cliven Bundy and others were not released and indictments instead issued for federal agents and Gov. Brown, then “I am going to begin returning fire!!!!!!”

The names of the officers who shot Finicum have not been made public, and officials are collecting the threats as part of a legal effort to block the release of the officers’ identities. “Those officers have very real threats against them,” Deschutes County Sheriff L. Shane Nelson said this month.

His office’s investigation found that three shots were fired at Finicum’s pickup after he sped from a traffic stop on a snowy road. Three other shots fired by state troopers struck and killed Finicum after he left his vehicle and faced off with them, Nelson said.

Bundy supporters who saw a grainy video of the shooting concluded Finicum had been murdered, but the investigation determined that he was reaching for a gun when he was shot, and ruled the shooting justified. Two other errant shots may have been fired by members of the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team.

One of those shots hit the truck, said Nelson, and the other apparently went astray. “The question of who fired those shots has not been resolved” in part because agents failed to “disclose their shots to our investigators,” he said.

Though the FBI agents had denied firing any shots, two copper-colored casings, similar to ammunition used by the agency, were seen by a trooper near where the agents had stood. (State police use silver-colored casings.) The U.S. Department of Justice’s inspector general is now investigating the agents’ actions.

Suspicions of an FBI cover-up stoked the anger of the anti-government faithful. After Nelson’s news conference, one wrote to the sheriff claiming it was a case of murder, adding, “All of you will pay on earth or when God judges you.” Another threat stated that officers’ lives are now “worth less than a bucket of warm spit.”

Facebook messages collected by investigators included threats to kill Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward and a $1,000 reward offer for the “capture” of those who shot Finicum. The Oregonian reported that Facebook pages are also being used in an effort to identify the officers who shot Finicum. An online radio broadcaster purported to identify one trooper, and his name and home address then showed up on Facebook sites of Bundy supporters. Law enforcement sources said the named trooper had no role in Finicum’s death.

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Oregon State Police and other agencies are investigating the threats, which could result in criminal charges. Some email authors won’t be hard to find — they included their names and addresses in their messages.

Anderson is a special correspondent based in Seattle.

 

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