Trial To Begin In Occupation Of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Jury selection begins today for defendants accused of conspiring to occupy the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon earlier this year. That six-week-long occupation gave insight into the frustrations some in the rural West have with federal management of public lands. Oregon Public Broadcasting's Conrad Wilson reports.
CONRAD WILSON, BYLINE: On a bitter-cold day in early January, a group of armed men took over a snow-covered wildlife refuge in Oregon's High Desert, a remote place 30 miles from the small town of Burns. Ammon Bundy led the group. In a scratchy video posted online shortly after the takeover, he put the call out for others to join.
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AMMON BUNDY: We have food planned and prepared. We need you to bring your arms, and we need you to come to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
WILSON: What began as a protest over the imprisonment of two Harney County ranchers convicted of arson on federal land later grew into a standoff between armed occupiers and law enforcement. At the heart of the protest was Bundy's opposition to the federal government's ownership and management of public lands. The goal was the handover of the Malheur Refuge to local control. In February, the final occupier, David Fry, agreed to surrender to the FBI after hours of tense negotiations that were broadcast live on the internet.
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DAVID FRY: I think you guys just need to back and let me - let me - give me some room.
WILSON: At times, it seemed as though Fry might kill himself.
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FRY: If everybody says hallelujah, I'll come out.
WILSON: Many did, and Fry turned himself in. Federal prosecutors indicted 26 people with conspiracy. The government says they impeded, by force, intimidation and threats, federal employees from doing their jobs. Prosecutors also charged some of the defendants with using firearms in a federal facility and theft of government property. While many defendants have pleaded guilty, the trial for several key figures of the occupation, including Bundy, Fry and six others, begins today.
KEVIN SALI: In most cases, you know, A, there's some dispute over what actually happened.
WILSON: Kevin Sali is a Portland-area criminal defense attorney who's followed the case.
SALI: B, there might be at least some question as to sort of the legality of things that were done. And C, the defendant's goal is to, you know, be acquitted or to minimize the charges or to minimize sentencing. Here, most of those things are absent.
WILSON: Sali says prosecutors like conspiracy charges.
SALI: If two or more people agree to accomplish some unlawful objective, then, at that moment, they - they have committed a conspiracy.
JENNY DURKAN: If there was ever a conspiracy, this was it.
WILSON: From 2009 to 2014, Jenny Durkan served as the U.S. attorney for western Washington. She says prosecutors will try and argue this wasn't a political protest.
DURKAN: They did not come with flowers. They came with AR-15s. They did not respect the property. They dug trenches and trashed it. And so I think you take each of their arguments and you show the reality.
WILSON: The trial could last months. Several of the defendants in Oregon also face charges in Nevada related to the 2014 armed standoff with the Bureau of Land Management there. That incident was led by Cliven Bundy, the father of Oregon occupation leader Ammon Bundy. That trial is scheduled to begin in February. For NPR News, I'm Conrad Wilson in Portland.
MONTAGNE: Later today on All Things Considered, NPR's Kirk Siegler has an update on the first day of court proceedings in the Malheur occupation trial. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.