The weight of a heavy sentence landed in the quiet federal courtroom Wednesday morning, leaving Gregory Burleson occasionally stroking his graying beard and his attorney pleading unsuccessfully for leniency.
The 53-year-old Burleson was the first to be sentenced for his role in the 2014 standoff between federal agents and supporters of Cliven Bundy near his Nevada ranch.
He got 68 years in prison.
U.S. District Court Judge Gloria Navarro did take into account his blindness and frailty — he sat in a wheelchair during the hearing — but she also reminded Burleson of his crimes, which included threatening a federal law enforcement officer, obstruction of justice and interstate travel in aid of extortion.
She said agents — who hunkered down in a wash while Bundy supporters trained guns on them, recorded them and shouted at them — were scarred from the experience and suffered mental trauma.
“That isn’t something that heals over with a scab,” Navarro said. “You can’t put it in a cast or stitch it up.”
The case has been watched closely as it marked another round between the federal government and those who believe public lands should be transferred to local control. Burleson’s trial drew supporters from neighboring states throughout the proceedings, which ended in April, and a handful would gather outside the courthouse to monitor the developments and post updates to sympathizers on social media.
But only a few showed up for Burleson’s sentencing at the federal courthouse in Las Vegas. They gathered outside on the sidewalk and they stretched a banner across two ladders that read, “Whatever it takes!” and a reference to a website seeking to free Cliven Bundy.
Inside the courtroom, some supporters watched the sentencing, and Burleson’s mother appeared overcome as she talked quietly with his attorney, Terrence Jackson, in a corner outside the courtroom after Navarro’s decision.
“He was resigned,” Jackson said. “He knew this was coming.”
While Burleson’s sentence was lengthy — fellow convicted Bundy backer Todd Engel is scheduled to be sentenced in September — it was less than it could’ve been as Navarro took into consideration his deteriorating health. Jackson said he will appeal and said the sentence amounted to a life sentence for Burleson.
With the reduction, it seemed to point to the federal government’s spotty and difficult track record with the Bundy family in court.
Last year, prosecutors lost a case when an Oregon jury acquitted Ammon Bundy, one of Cliven Bundy’s sons, and six others involved in a 2016 confrontation that centered on a 41-day occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
That standoff resulted in several pleading guilty to several charges, but Ammon and a brother, Ryan Bundy, were acquitted of a slate of federal felony charges. The confrontation also drew widespread attention after one man, Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, was fatally shot while he attempted to avoid a roadblock set up by federal agents.
That acquittal of Ammon Bundy appeared to embolden those who think they are entitled to cattle-grazing rights on public lands without paying fees to the Bureau of Land Management and has given rise to some state lawmakers who have pushed for the transfer of federal lands to the states. The issue is especially prominent in states like Nevada and Utah, where the federal government controls 84% and 65% of the land, respectively.
The 2014 standoff was triggered after federal agents rounded up Bundy’s cattle they said were grazing on federal land illegally. The government says Cliven Bundy owes the government about $1 million in grazing fees. He insists he doesn’t have to pay.
After the cattle were corralled, Bundy supporters, many of them armed, arrived from Nevada and states near and far to protest the government action. The supporters set up a military-style camp by his ranch near Bunkerville, east of Las Vegas. The situation grew tense, but there was no violence. In the end, officials gave in and let the cattle go.
Four men charged in the standoff avoided convictions after jurors were unable to reach a decision on dozens of counts. Those men — Eric Parker, O. Scott Drexler, Richard Lovelien and Steven Stewart — are currently being tried again in federal court.
Cliven and Ammon Bundy are also set to face trial in Las Vegas once that trial is completed.
Burleson has 14 days to file his intent to appeal. Jackson requested a prison with medical facilities to accommodate Burleson’s health problems, including his blindness, a skin condition and a battle with alcoholism.
Burleson’s lawyer said on Wednesday that his client was manipulated into participating in the standoff and was only seeking fame — despite Burleson’s admission that he’d posted alcohol-fueled rants against the government. He said he never intended to harm or kill anyone during the standoff.
Jackson said Burleson was sucked into the movement.
“He became mesmerized by his fame,” Jackson said.
Navarro, however, said it was clear it wasn’t “happenstance” that put Burleson in the standoff. She said he wanted to be there.
3:30 p.m.: This article was updated with additional background and quotes from Gloria Navarro.
This article was originally published at 12:05 p.m.