Editor’s note: This story was reported in collaboration between OPB and Willamette Week. The first feature in this series, ‘Bundyland,’ was published by WW.
Almost two weeks into the armed occupation at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, there doesn’t appear to be a concrete plan for resolution.
To find out what the armed militants and law enforcement are doing to end the occupation, OPB sent Amanda Peacher to the occupied refuge, and John Sepulvado to talk with federal, state and local law enforcement. They set out during the same three-hour span Thursday.
10:55 A.M, At The Occupied Refuge
For the past twelve days, armed militants led by Ammon Bundy hold an 11 a.m. press conference at the top of the driveway leading to the refuge headquarters. It’s often a spectacle as militants, reporters, producers, cameramen and local gawkers mix on a dirt roadway surrounded by snow.
Today is no different.
Duane Ehmer, a militant from Irrigon, Oregon, sits atop his brown horse named “Hell Boy.”
“He’s got a job, he’s not just for looks,” Ehmer says, explaining that Hell Boy is used to patrol the frozen desert around the compound at night.
While there’s still a sense of the surreal here, it’s tempered compared to the same time last week. There are fewer reporters than just a week ago. They’re joined by a few occupiers who mill around the refuge entrance, chatting and stomping their feet in the cold. They wear camouflage and stocking caps, and instead of chatting it up with reporters — as they once did — they kick at the ice near the campfire.
For the militants, the morning press briefings are the oxygen that breathes life into their occupation. This is the occupiers’ chance to repeat their message, knowing the press will listen, hoping there will be some news of when this might end.
Finally, Ammon Bundy arrives to speak, his head topped — as it always is outside — with a brown cowboy hat.
“Good morning and I apologize for my tardiness. Thank you for being here,” says Bundy, before once again explaining why his group has occupied the 187,787 acres of federally owned and maintained land.
He occasionally looks down at prepared notes, but, yet again, doesn’t explain when the group plans to leave. Instead, he launches into a familiar speech about the oppressive nature of the federal government.
“The only safe place for the land and the resources are in the hands of the people,” Bundy says.
10:55 A.M., FBI Base Outside of Burns
The safest stretch of land in Harney County is some 30 miles away from the refuge and about 7 miles out of town. On a two-lane highway surrounded by scattered ranches and sagebrush, the FBI has set up shop next to the Burns Municipal Airport.
Federal agents have a different media strategy than the militants — they want the press to get lost.
“Hey, bud, can I help you?” an unidentified agent says to an OPB reporter. “Do you need assistance?”
The agent walks from behind a concrete barrier blocking the airport road.
He’s dressed more for Syria than southeast Oregon. He’s wearing a military-grade green bulletproof vest, helmet, side arm and a utility belt that would make Batman jealous.
In so many words, the reporter is told to leave. It’s a politely tense exchange, with both the FBI agent and OPB working quickly to understand what’s going on.
When asked who’s in charge, the FBI agent points at the road that heads back to Burns.
“You mean the sheriff?” the reporter asks.
The FBI guard nods and then asks if he can take a picture of the reporter’s face and press pass. The reporter consents.
“We just like to know who is who around here,” the unidentified guard says.
The reporter gets in his car, and drives back into town to try and talk with Harney County Sheriff.
11:30 A.M., At The Refuge
Inside a cramped office normally occupied by a fish biologist, two women from Washington meet with Ammon and Ryan Bundy to learn more about the occupation.
As Bundy often does with newcomers, the men and women form a circle, kneel down and pray.
“Dear Lord, we just come before you today, walking in your spirit,” the woman says, her head bowed low.
After prayer, the discussion turns toward federal and local government roles and responsibilities. As the discussion begins to reach a climax, there’s a knock at the door.
“These two young gentlemen are from Burns,” says Ritzheimer. “They’re here to join the militia.”
The newcomers stand up straight, their hands folded in front of them as Ritzheimer presents them to Ammon Bundy.
Bundy stands to shake the young men’s hands. He thanks them for joining the occupation, before Ritzheimer leads them away for a briefing on their operation and the complex.
11:30 A.M., Encounter With Law Enforcement
As Bundy is welcoming men to his self-described militia, the OPB reporter leaving the FBI complex is being followed from the airport by a black SUV.
The reporter speeds up, and the SUV speeds up. The reporter turns left. The SUV goes left. The short tailing ends at a Safeway parking lot in Burns, where both vehicles park.
The reporter gets out of the car to talk to the police officers.
“Is there a reason y’all are following me?” he asks.
“Excuse me?” an unidentified sheriff’s deputy asks.
“I’m wondering why y’all are following me.”
“Why are you out at the airport?” says another unidentified deputy.
After some discussion, the officers say they were concerned the reporter was a militant.
There are dozens of deputies from across the state in Harney County since the occupation began, responding to reports of intimidation, bomb and kidnapping threats.
Unknown people in the community have threatened federal employees, their families and friends throughout the occupation. OPB has also confirmed militants have used files at the refuge to access credit card information and personal telephone information for government employees.
The deputies and the reporter talk it out in the parking lot.
They deputies want media credentials and a reason for being by the airport. Then, one of the men recognizes the reporter from a previous visit to the blocked gates.
“We’re just doing our jobs,” one deputy says. “Things are tense around here.”
1 P.M., At The Refuge
At the refuge, it’s more relaxed — or at least, as relaxed as it can be in a complex guarded by armed men.
Women clean the kitchen and sing Christian songs. Walking through the complex, a militant in a watchtower peers at reporters through a pair of binoculars.
At the blocked entrance, militant Carl Bramman guards the gate near a popping campfire. He’s been standing here for hours.
“Tending fire, watching the gate, that sort of thing,” says Bramman.
A light snow begins to fall. Vehicles freely come and go with supplies. There’s not one law enforcement vehicle in sight. The refuge lights and heat remain on. And they’ll stay on, according to one federal official with whom OPB spoke — he says shutting them off would escalate the situation.
1 P.M., Law Enforcement Command Center
Law enforcement has also established a command center in the middle of Burns.
They’ve taken over school district and county buildings, and fenced off two city blocks. The entrances are guarded 24 hours a day, and tall security lights shine on the property at night.
It’s unclear what exactly the FBI, state and local law enforcement are doing inside the command center. When agents do appear, they carry empty boxes out to trucks or plastic grocery bags into buildings.
But it’s clear that keeping things calm is priority No. 1 for law enforcement — although, they won’t say that publicly.
As the Bundys will seemingly speak with anyone who will listen, law enforcement spokespeople won’t talk about the investigation. Requests for detailed comment on the situation are routinely denied.
However, federal sources familiar with the occupation, investigation and legal case did speak to OPB on the condition of anonymity.
Those sources tell OPB there is still hope among law enforcement leadership the occupation will end without violence. That’s why law enforcement doesn’t patrol the area, block travel to the refuge or take other actions that could lead to a confrontation.
There’s also a legal concern that a shootout, or raid, could make it harder to get jury convictions and prosecute material supporters.
For now, it seems as though the FBI is taking a chance: If the militants can’t get the standoff they want, they’ll get sick of standing around.
This story was reported in collaboration between Willamette Week and OPB.