Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and his family essentially won their fight against the federal government this week — at least for now.
The Bundys came out of two federal trials as free men. They had faced conspiracy, weapons and other charges after the 2014 armed standoff in Bunkerville, Nevada, and the 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon.
With Monday’s mistrial ruling by U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro in Nevada, Bundy supporters and opponents are looking ahead to next steps for the so-called patriot movement.
Hours after the mistrial, about a dozen Bundy supporters celebrated around a long table at a Mexican restaurant in Redmond, Oregon. The small crowd was in great spirits, clapping one another on the back and ordering margaritas.
Navarro declared the mistrial because the prosecution and the government purposely withheld key evidence in the Nevada case. She labeled the government’s conduct “outrageous.” For the group gathered in Redmond, the judge’s recognition of the prosecutors’ misconduct serves as an affirmation of their beliefs.
“It’s just very vindicating,” said Kim Fritz. “It’s everything that we’ve said very loudly, all along.”
Prosecutors delayed turning over documents that showed there were government snipers outside the Bundys’ Nevada ranch during the 2014 standoff. That was one of several important pieces of evidence the government withheld, leading to six distinct Brady violations that led to the mistrial.
“For the judge to finally realize that and come out and say it is just really amazing,” said Fritz, who said she had previously held little faith Navarro was conducting a fair trial.
One of the group organizers, BJ Soper, raised his glass.
“Here’s to two years’ worth of justice being served,” he said. The crowd responded with amens and whooping from the around the table. “We have to keep pushing.”
A Growing Force Of Bundy Followers
Nearly two years ago, Ammon and Ryan Bundy were taken into custody for their role in the occupation of the Malheur refuge, along with Montana electrician Ryan Payne.
The group said they took over the federal facility as a way to protest the imprisonment of two Oregon ranchers, Dwight and Steven Hammond, and to protest federal land ownership. Over the course of the 41-day occupation, dozens of armed outsiders showed up at the refuge.
A jury eventually acquitted the Bundys and seven other defendants in one Oregon trial, but 13 others either pleaded or were found guilty in separate trials. Payne was among the people who pleaded guilty in Oregon.
Both Bundy trials have been a rallying cause for people like Soper, who wants to see public lands under local control. Others hold deep distrust of the federal government as it stands today.
“I’ve done nothing else in my life for two years,” said Soper who was in Burns during the Oregon occupation.
He didn’t condone the refuge takeover at the time, but he also didn’t believe the Bundys should go to prison. Soper said he felt a calling to help support Bundy family members. He organized fundraisers for the Bundy children and wives, who waited while their husbands were detained in jail.
With the trials now over, the question is what will the self-described “patriot movement” do next? Soper said there’s nothing planned immediately.
“We kind of shoot from the hip,” he said. “When we feel like there’s a need for something we’ll get in there and do it.”
For their part, the Bundys — the coalescing force for this movement — are not disappearing just because the trials are over.
A mistrial does not equate to a not guilty verdict, but the Bundys have said they are feeling victorious. At a press conference Wednesday, family patriarch Cliven Bundy chastised the local sheriff and continued to buck the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s right to control the federal land where his cows graze.
That conflict over grazing land and unpaid fees is what sparked the 2014 standoff near Bundy’s ranch.
“I graze my cattle only on Clark County, Nevada, land and I have no contract with the federal government,” Bundy declared.
Still, without federal trials to focus on, it’s not yet clear whether a single cause can unite the many groups that make up the movement. Some will fight for pardons for the other defendants in these cases. Some Bundy supporters, like Kim Fritz in Redmond, are planning a run for local office. Fritz said she sees that as one way to have a voice in local issues she cares about — like access to public lands.
“What people don’t understand is that yes, it should be public land that we all get to go and enjoy,” she said. “But they’re closing it off from us right and left to preserve animals, or a species, or flat out a historical site.”
“It shouldn’t be federal land anyway, it should only be state land,” said Donna Hammond, an activist from Prineville, Oregon, referencing a specific interpretation of the Constitution that Bundy supporters say constricts the federal government’s ability to own land.
That interpretation isn’t likely to gain traction anytime soon, at least not in U.S. courts.
“There’s no grounds for any legal argument here,” said John Freemuth, executive director of the Cecil D. Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University. “It’s been repudiated by the courts. So the solution from a Bundy perspective — certainly not from many other people, but from his — would be to get Congress to transfer the federal lands to states. It’s a political solution, not a legal solution.”
Some Bundy supporters are also gathering petition signatures to try to convince President Trump to pardon Dwight and Steven Hammond, the Harney County ranchers who went to prison for setting fire to public land.
Harney County Disappointment
As the Bundys return free to their homes, some Harney County residents worry that the occupiers could return and re-traumatize the community.
“I’m worried about what the next steps on the part of those individuals is,” said Steve Grasty, the former Harney County judge who served during the 2016 occupation. “If they think they got off not guilty, then what’s that enable them to do?”
Burns resident Liz Appelman worked for the BLM for more than 30 years. She said prosecutors in both Nevada and Oregon messed up.
“I am totally flabbergasted that the government could do such a lousy job twice,” she said.
For Appelman and many who were against the Oregon occupation, the Nevada trial represented a second chance to see the Bundys held accountable after they were disappointed by the acquittals in Oregon.
“A lot of people, myself included, were hoping that Nevada would have them pay some sort price for what they did,” Appelman said. “And the government screwed it up.”
Bundy Sees A Righteous Movement
What is clear at this point is that both trials left the Bundys and their supporters feeling empowered. Outside the courthouse on Monday, Ammon Bundy, a devout believer in the Mormon faith declared that God had given his family an advantage.
“He motivated us to stand,” he told a supporter, via Facebook live. “He delivered us in the end and gave us great advantage in the courtroom.”
At the Mexican restaurant in Redmond, Ammon Bundy’s supporters echoed that sentiment.
“How about Ryan Bundy?” said Soper, referencing his self-representation in both the Oregon and Nevada cases. “He was probably the best lawyer in the group.”
Another supporter chimed in: “That’s because he had God on his side.”