A federal judge in Nevada Monday dismissed the criminal indictment against the Bundy family and one of their key supporters, dealing federal prosecutors and federal land management agencies an embarrassing rebuke.
In Oregon, the dismissal prompted both celebration and deep dismay.
The case stemmed from a 2014 standoff between members of the Bundy family, fellow ranchers, armed milita and the Bureau of Land Management.
U.S. District Court Judge Gloria Navarro ruled that federal prosecutors improperly withheld key information from the defense, and she dismissed the charges with prejudice. That effectively ends the government’s case against family patriarch Cliven Bundy, his sons Ammon and Ryan, and U.S. Army veteran and militia leader Ryan Payne.
“The day has changed,” said Brett Whipple, Cliven Bundy's lawyer. “There will be a new standard for the government’s treatment of evidence and requirements of due process.”
Technically, prosecutors could appeal Navarro’s ruling, but they realistically face a difficult path if they choose to pursue charges against the four men.
“The federal government is out of touch with the local needs is what this really comes down to,” Whipple said.
The Bunkerville standoff began in spring 2014 when the Bureau of Land Management obtained a court order to round up and impound Cliven Bundy’s cattle, which were grazing on the public land next to his family’s ranch. For two decades, the elder Bundy refused to pay grazing fees. He owes the BLM more than $1 million in unpaid fees and fines.
The case raises questions about the BLM’s ability to effectively manage more than 150 million acres of grazing leases across the American West, including 14 million acres in Oregon. It was closely watched by environmentalists, cattle ranchers and anti-government activists.
And it’s the second sweeping victory for the Bundys and shocking defeat for the U.S. Justice Department; brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy were acquitted for their role leading the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County, Oregon, in 2016.
The Bundys and their followers contend the Constitution prohibits the federal government from owning land.
Members of various militia and so-called patriot groups that have followed the case said the judge’s ruling is vindication for their long-held beliefs.
“This is huge,” said Ken Medenbach, a 23-year veteran of the sovereign-citizen movement who was acquitted by the Oregon jury for his role in the Malheur occupation. "There’s nothing in the Constitution that gives the federal government the power to own land in the states.”
Legal scholars say that issue, however, has been settled. The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the federal government’s broad authority to own and manage land.
Medenbach described the outcome of the Nevada case as example of the corruption of the federal government — and of divine intervention.
“There’s a higher power in control,” he said. “Federal land is going to go back to the states. Abortion is going to stop, same-sex marriage is going to stop. Otherwise God is going to destroy this country.”
Neil Wampler also stood trial with the Bundys for the Malheur occupation.
“They tried to make an example out of this good family, and we made an example out of them,” he said Monday.
Speaking to reporters outside the federal courthouse in Las Vegas, Ammon Bundy encouraged people to assert their rights.
“And then when it comes time to defend them, they need to defend them,” he said in a video posted online by The Oregonian/OregonLive.
Even though it was a separate case, many environmentalists and opponents of the occupation in Eastern Oregon viewed the Nevada case as an opportunity to get justice.
"It’s heartbreaking, because I know so many people who have worked to support everything the BLM stands for and managing the land," said Liz Appelman, a Harney County resident who worked for the BLM for 30 years.
“Federal prosecutors clearly bungled this case and let the Bundys get away with breaking the law,” tweeted Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. “The failure of this case will only embolden this violent and racist anti-government movement that wants to take over our public lands.”
During the Bunkerville standoff, Cliven Bundy became a darling of conservative media and politicians, until he told a journalist he wondered if African-Americans were “better off as slaves, picking cotton.”
While the Bundys went to trial and successfully fought the charges against them, a handful of other defendants in the Nevada standoff were convicted by a jury.
In Oregon, several lesser-known defendants charged in the Malheur wildlife refuge occupation pleaded guilty, and others were found guilty at a trial in 2017 of conspiracy or damaging government property. Among those who pleaded guilty in the Oregon case is Ryan Payne, who no longer faces charges for his role in the Bunkerville standoff. Prosecutors have recommended he serve 3 to 4 years for his role in the Oregon occupation.
The 13 defendants who pleaded or were found guilty in the Malheur occupation are collectively paying $78,000 in restitution.
Andrew Comez, standby attorney for Jason Patrick, who was convicted of conspiracy, acknowledged that the gamble of going to trial rather than accepting a plea agreement paid off for some.
“On one level, of course there’s a miscarriage of justice, assuming first that they’re all guilty, which I don’t concede," he said. "But, in a perfect world, everyone who did the crime should do their time, right? But we know that doesn’t happen.”
Cliven Bundy plans to address the public Tuesday afternoon to discuss what he plans next.
Bundy’s cattle, a herd of big-earred, humped-back Brahman crosses, still graze federal lands near the Bundy ranch, four years after the BLM’s failed attempt to round them up.
Whipple, Cliven Bundy’s attorney, estimates that at one time, there were about 400 mothers and calves, but they have likely been reproducing on the range, he said.
“There’s probably more of them there than there were before.”