For weeks, law enforcement had kept their distance from the isolated wildlife refuge. They wanted to avoid a massacre out in Oregon’s high desert.
Since Jan. 2, Ammon Bundy and several other armed activists had chosen the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge as the site of a daring protest that riveted and infuriated many Americans.
The men, who gave news conferences in their cowboy hats, opposed the government’s prosecution of two local ranchers — as well as federal administration of the West’s vast public wildlands. The local sheriff, fearing violence, pleaded for the men to leave.
They called his bluff and refused, and on Tuesday afternoon, the government finally played its hand.
At least one occupier was killed and eight others were in custody on federal charges Tuesday night after law enforcement struck in a flurry of surprise arrests that caught protesters who had temporarily left the occupied refuge, apparently to attend a community meeting.
Gunshots broke out when the FBI and the Oregon State Police apparently intercepted Bundy and several of his supporters on a rural stretch of U.S. Highway 395.
Details of what happened during the showdown were scant. Officials would only say that shots were fired.
Ammon’s brother, Ryan Bundy, 43, of Bunkerville, Nev., was shot in the arm, and Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, a 55-year-old Arizona rancher who had acted as a spokesman for the group, was killed in the highway confrontation, according to Nevada state Assemblywoman Michele Fiore.
Ammon Bundy, 40, who has acted as a leader of the occupation, told his wife in a phone call that the group had been cooperative when law enforcement agents confronted them, according to Fiore, a Bundy family supporter who spoke with Bundy’s wife on Tuesday.
“It’s very unfortunate. The only saving grace is there’s six witnesses to it,” Fiore said in an interview.
“My perspective is our government has acted lawless and we have got to stop” it, she said.
Ryan Bundy was treated for non-life-threatening injuries and released into FBI custody.
It was not clear Tuesday night whether other protesters remained at the wildlife refuge.
The Bundy brothers are the sons of Cliven Bundy, a southern Nevada rancher who was at the center of a tense armed standoff of his own with federal Bureau of Land Management officials in 2014.
When federal officials seized some of the family’s cattle over an estimated $1million in unpaid grazing fees, a ragtag band of armed militiamen rode to his defense at his ranch about 90 miles outside Las Vegas.
The BLM backed down and released the cattle.
“Isn’t this a wonderful country we live in?” the elder Bundy said sarcastically Tuesday night when The Times informed him about the arrests and the death.
“We believe that those federal people shouldn’t even be there in that state, and be in that county and have anything to do with this issue. ... I have some sons and other people there trying to protect our rights and liberties and freedoms, and now we’ve got one killed, and all I can say is, he’s sacrificed for a good purpose,” he said.
In addition to the Bundy brothers, those arrested on the highway included Brian Cavalier, 44, also of Bunkerville; Shawna Cox, 59, Kanab, Utah; and Ryan Waylen Payne, 32, of Anaconda, Mont.
Within two hours, officials had also arrested Peter Santilli, 50, of Cincinnati and Joseph Donald O’Shaughnessy, 45, of Cottonwood, Ariz. Another occupier, Jon Eric Ritzheimer, 32, turned himself in to police in Peoria, Ariz., without incident, officials said.
All face a federal felony charge of a conspiracy to impede federal officers from discharging their official duties through the use of force, intimidation or threats.
The group of about 15 men and women took over the wildlife refuge Jan. 2 after a march in support of Oregon ranchers Dwight and Steve Hammond, a father and son who had been sentenced to prison for setting fires on federal land.
The protesters have issued a muddled set of demands for ending the occupation. They demanded freedom for the imprisoned Hammonds and asked that federal land be returned from the U.S. government to local landowners, the county and the town of Burns, near the refuge.
They made it clear they were willing to resort to violence if the federal government moved against them, but also said they did not want such a confrontation.
Firearms were a constant presence at the wildlife refuge. Men walked around casually with assault rifles slung over their shoulders or with handguns holstered on their hips.
One day a reporter saw a man dressed in military clothing with a patch that read “MILITIA,” cleaning a Russian rifle.
When asked on Jan. 15 about all the weaponry, Ammon Bundy replied, “That’s ridiculous that you would connect walking around with arms to violence. That’s what keeps it peaceful.”
Through it all, the protesters won support from around the country, and also among some local residents. But they also angered many. Around Burns, signs popped up declaring: “Bundy militia go home” and “No Bundy caliphate.”
“We’re trying to accomplish the task of restoring rights to the people who have lost them or surrendered them,” Ryan Bundy said earlier this month.
“We don’t want it to end with violence. We’re not looking for bloodshed,” he said in an interview with The Times.
But around Burns, frustrated community members wondered when the occupation might end.
“We can enforce the Constitution in Harney County, and that’s what we intend to do,” Ammon Bundy told reporters one day. “We have a lot of plans.”
Times staff writers Nigel Duara in Phoenix and Steve Padilla in Los Angeles contributed to this report.