Ammon Bundy called a secret meeting in Burns, Oregon, on Dec. 29, 2015 to discuss his plan to occupy the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, former occupier Blaine Cooper testified in U.S. District Court in Portland.
The meeting was so secret, Cooper testified Monday, that occupation leader Bundy told those assembled group to turn off their cellphones and leave laptop computers in another room, away from the meeting.
Cooper, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy for his role in the occupation, said he was at the meeting that took place around the dining room table at a home in Burns.
The government’s final witness in the second trial stemming from last year’s occupation of the Malheur refuge, Cooper testified for three hours.
The four defendants on trial — Jake Ryan, Darryl Thorn, Jason Patrick and Duane Ehmer — have been charged with conspiring to prevent federal employees from doing their jobs through force, threats and intimidation, as well as other felonies and misdemeanors.
Cooper is the first occupier to cooperate with prosecutors by testifying at trial. He signed a cooperation agreement with federal prosecutors in December 2016.
Cooper, a resident of Humboldt, Arizona, served as a sort of social media recruiter before and during the occupation. He created YouTube videos encouraging fellow “patriots” to come to Burns and join their cause.
In a video posted Dec. 26, Cooper and four other occupiers appealed to supporters to come to Burns and make a stand at the Jan. 2 rally that preceded the refuge takeover.
“You guys always talk about getting off the couch and doing something,” Cooper said in the video. “How come things in our country doesn’t [sic] change?”
Cooper was a visible figure at the refuge throughout the occupation, often appearing alongside Bundy at press conferences in camouflage fatigues. His wife, Melissa Cooper, traveled to Harney County on Jan. 3 to join him. She served as a figurative den mother at the occupied bunkhouse, and was never charged for her role in the occupation.
The Coopers also brought their two daughters, then 8 and 9 years old, to the refuge during part of the occupation. The young children were mostly kept sequestered from reporters but were occasionally seen playing in hallways in their pajamas or wandering outside to sit by a campfire.
During cross-examination, the defense sought to discredit Cooper as someone willing to say anything to get a reduced sentence.
“I can tell you, I didn’t know they were going (to the refuge),” Cooper said on April, 5, 2016, in a call from jail with Melissa Cooper, which the defense played for jurors.
But during redirect, Assistant U.S. Attorney Geoff Barrow said Cooper didn’t know the occupation would take place specifically on Jan. 2.
“Correct,” Cooper responded.
Cooper, who’s in custody awaiting sentencing, entered the courtroom in a suit wearing ankle shackles and jail-issued slippers. A U.S. marshal sat directly at the foot of the witness stand.
Lisa and Angie Bundy, the wives of brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy, were also in court for the first time. At times Ammon’s wife, Lisa, was seen shaking her head during Cooper’s testimony.
Cooper testified he had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder — a result of what he called “massive abuse” during his childhood.
Prosecutors: No Guarantees For Cooper
During his direct testimony, federal prosecutors made it clear Cooper was hoping to get a reduced sentence, both in Oregon and in Nevada, but he had been offered no guarantees. Cooper has also pleaded guilty to a felony for his role during a 2014 standoff between supporters of Bundy family patriarch, Cliven Bundy, and the Bureau of Land Management in Bunkerville, Nevada.
Barrow asked Cooper if he asked for the Bundys' blessing before pleading.
“I felt I had a duty and obligation to,” Cooper said, adding that he didn’t want the Bundys to feel he was going behind their back.
“I love the Bundys very much,” he said. “They’re some of the best friends I’ll ever have.”
During cross-examination, the defense brought up the letter Cooper wrote to Ammon Bundy explaining his intent to cooperate with the government’s case.
“I have decided I have to do whatever I have to do to get home to my kids,” Cooper wrote in the letter.
He wrote that God had sent him two “crappy attorneys,” who manipulated him into a deal he couldn't reverse.
Cooper said he and six others were part of the secret December meeting — Ammon Bundy, Jason Patrick, Jon Ritzheimer, Joe O’Shaughnessy, Corey Lequieu, Ryan Payne and BJ Soper.
Of those seven men, only Soper was not charged for any role in the occupation.
Cooper testified Soper, a leader of the Central Oregon Patriots group, did not want to be part of the plan. After the initial takeover, Soper and others from the self-styled patriot movement remained on the fringe of the occupation, criticizing the tactics of Ammon Bundy and his followers but expressing sympathy with their message.
Defense Works To Discredit Cooper
Defense attorneys made several attempts to discredit Cooper and paint him as someone willing to do anything to get a reduced sentence.
During cross-examination, the defense showed jurors a video of Cooper ripping pages from a Koran, wrapping the pages in bacon and burning them. Then Cooper shot arrows into the book’s cover before burning it.
Jason Patrick’s attorney, Andrew Kohlmetz, seemed appalled.
“Burning a book that is a sacred text to millions?” Kohlmetz said to Cooper.
Related: An Occupation In Eastern Oregon
Cooper largely defended the burning, though earlier testified about his desire to make shocking videos online to get more views. Still, Cooper claimed Islam is a violent religion and defended his video as a protest against the deaths of Christians in the Middle East.
Cooper also said he was at the initial takeover of the wildlife refuge. He said people moved in a “sweep” from building to building. He said one of the occupiers moved from room to room in the bunkhouse, weapons drawn.
Cooper said he didn’t have a weapon because he already has a felony conviction on his record.
Kohlmetz also asked Cooper about having a gun at home and having guns during the Bunkerville standoff.
Cooper said the gun at home was his wife’s.
Then Kohlmetz played a tape of Cooper’s arrest in which he made statements to FBI agents about a gun in his house to protect his family.
Cooper said he was “led by the holy spirit” to take part in the occupation.
“Right now, I just want to be a hero for my little girls and tell the truth,” Cooper said.
Defense To Begin Its Case
Earlier in the day, a member of the FBI’s tactical team who was at the refuge, Kevin Murry, testified that on Jan. 29, 2016, agents surreptitiously went onto the refuge. Murry said 22 tactical team members dressed in helmets, body armor and night vision goggles walked onto the refuge from the east.
He indicated there were two teams of agents, but they made no other entries onto the refuge.
“As far as I’m aware, we went undetected,” Murry said.
The covert venture onto the refuge took place while the remaining occupiers were worried about an assault from the FBI, following the death of Arizona rancher Robert "LaVoy" Finicum at a Jan. 26 traffic stop. It was during that traffic stop law enforcement officers arrested occupation leaders and moved the occupation toward its final days.
The government plans to rest its case Tuesday after calling one final witness.
The defense will begin its case immediately after the government finishes, calling occupation leader Ammon Bundy as the first witness. His testimony is expected to last most of the day.