On the stand Friday, David Fry, the last man standing in the 41-day occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, described in detail the rising fear he felt in the Oregon standoff's final days.
In his testimony, Fry appeared to try to set himself apart from the other occupiers. He explained why he came to Harney County, his desire to leave the refuge and why he ultimately stayed.
From Ohio To Oregon
Fry and his six co-defendants all face a charge of conspiring to impede federal workers, but on the stand Fry discussed how little he knew about the people at the refuge and why they were there in the first place.
"I never met these people — ever," Fry said.
Fry drove across the country from the Cincinnati suburb of Blanchester, Ohio, to take part in the occupation in early January. He testified he saw the refuge as a place people were watching — somewhere he could express his views on things like the Fukushima nuclear disaster and abortion. The protest appeared non-violent to him, which was appealing, he said.
"I thought it was a sit-in," Fry testified.
"A sit-in?" his attorney Per Olsen asked.
"Yes, a Martin Luther [King]-style thing," Fry replied.
Prosecutors asked Fry if he still thought the protest “MLK-style” even when he saw the amount of weapons and ammunition at the refuge. Fry said he did.
Unlike other occupiers, Fry said he was not driven to the refuge because of public land issues. In Ohio, where Fry lives, public land battles are all but nonexistent. He was unfamiliar with the concept of adverse possession, which many occupiers cite in defense of the refuge takeover.
"It's more of a Western thing," Fry said.
Fry's testimony detailed his initial link to the occupation, which was an online relationship he developed with Arizona rancher Robert "LaVoy" Finicum. Fry said he bought Finicum's book and the two exchanged messages on Finicum's YouTube channel.
"I like the way [Finicum] portrayed himself. He was a good speaker," Fry testified. He added, "I was really interested in meeting him."
Oregon State Police shot and killed Finicum during a Jan. 26 traffic stop that led to the arrest of occupation leaders, including Ammon and Ryan Bundy. The occupiers were traveling to Grant County to participate in a community meeting there at the time of the incident.
Fry testified he had missed a text message from Finicum, asking him to come along. Fry said occupiers wanted his help shooting video of their presentation in Grant County.
"I would've been in [Finicum's] truck," Fry said.
Fry also described wanting to leave the refuge shortly before Finicum was killed. He testified to a note he wrote and later discarded around Jan. 23 in which he wrote to the other occupiers he "never should have cared" and "caring is my weakness. Bye!"
Fry also said he considered leaving the refuge after hearing anti-Islamic remarks around the fire at the refuge. Fry said he was particularly frustrated after hearing one unidentified occupier say "the only good Muslim is a dead Muslim."
Why Fry Stayed
During his testimony, Fry said he came to Oregon with $700, planning to stop at the refuge, then visit his brother in California. Fry also testified he did not travel to the refuge with a weapon, though investigators found one weapon registered to Ammon Bundy in the front seat of Fry's car.
Despite an apparent divide between him and other occupiers, and a desire to leave the refuge, he stayed. Fry testified after Finicum was killed, he was very upset. He said he was not going to leave until the others did.
“I would’ve left if everybody left,” Fry said. He testified he was one of the last on the refuge with “cameraman skills” and felt compelled to document whatever happened. Prosecutors attempted to show Fry was aiding the occupation by shooting video.
On the stand, Fry described mounting fear of what might happen to him both if he stayed and if he left.
If he stayed, Fry testified he worried law enforcement agents would lead an assault on the remaining occupiers — himself, Jeff Banta, and Sean and Sandy Anderson. In his testimony, Fry said he contemplated killing himself, which he also expressed on an internet live stream of the occupation’s tense final hours.
“Under extreme stress, I might act funny,” Fry testified.
His testimony fits with earlier testimony from a mental health professional, who diagnosed Fry with schizotypal personality disorder. That condition often comes with paranoid thinking and difficulty communicating in times of stress.
“Didn’t you tell the FBI [the occupation] was not going to end peacefully?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Ethan Knight asked on cross-examination. Fry acknowledged he did.
Knight also asked Fry to explain threats he made to “take out as many FBI agents as you can.” Fry again admitted to making those statements, saying they were made out of fear.
Fry said he and the other occupiers heard news of Finicum’s killing and worried the same might happen to them.
If he left, Fry testified he feared jail. He read comments on the live stream saying he would be raped or worse if he went to prison. Fry’s attorney wanted to show some of the comments as evidence, but U.S. District Court Judge Anna Brown sustained the prosecution’s objection.
Fry expressed frustration with himself for his actions on the refuge.
“Now, looking back, it’s quite embarrassing,” he testified.
Fry also told the court why he asked law enforcement to say “hallelujah” before he surrendered.
“I don’t know why it came out like that,” Fry said. “If they were able to say it, they would’ve been less evil people in my mind.”
Subscribe To 'This Land Is Our Land'
Subscribe to "This Land Is Our Land" on NPR One, Apple Podcasts or wherever you find your podcasts. Find comprehensive trial coverage at OPB.org/ThisLand.
Share your thoughts on the trial with us on Facebook and Twitter, or by emailing us directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.