A Montana man convicted of a felony for digging trenches on the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge during the 2016 armed occupation appeared in court Wednesday for sentencing.
Jake Ryan, 28, was sentenced to one year and one day in federal prison, followed by three years probation. He will receive credit for roughly two months he spent in custody while awaiting trial. He is also being charged $10,000 in restitution.
In a surprising last-minute move, Ryan attempted to dismiss his lawyer and represent himself at sentencing.
Ryan and his attorney, Jesse Merrithew, filed a motion this week notifying the court that Ryan wanted to represent himself and that Merrithew was withdrawing as his counsel.
Shortly before the hearing began, Ryan filed dozens of documents challenging the authority of U.S. District Court Judge Anna Brown and the entire court system.
Hometown: Plains, Montana
Jake Ryan was found not guilty of conspiracy; not guilty of carrying a firearm in a federal facility; guilty of depredation of government property.
“I do not wish to proceed with this sentencing,” he told Brown. “I wish to live my life in peace and move on.”
Brown reminded Ryan that he’d been convicted by a jury and asked why he wanted to represent himself and set aside his attorney’s legal expertise at such a late stage in his case.
“I am pulling the mask off of another identity,” Ryan replied.
Under questioning from Brown, Ryan repeatedly read declarations written on a piece of paper that he is “a living man” separate from Jake Ryan, who he described as a “fictitious entity created by the government.” At times, Ryan spoke haltingly and stumbled over his words.
The effort resembled similar declarations presented by one of the occupation’s leaders, Ryan Bundy. Bundy represented himself at his 2016 trial for the Malheur occupation and his more recent trial for a similar standoff at his father Cliven Bundy’s ranch.
Bundy was not convicted of charges in either case.
The statements and filings by Ryan, made by a number of defendants in the Malheur occupation case, are typical of declarations created by a fringe movement of people who call themselves “sovereign citizens.”
Brown characterized Ryan’s statements as “legal gibberish that has no significance here” and denied his motion to represent himself.
She said she worried he wasn’t prepared to address the legal issues in a sentencing hearing and would not have an adequate record to appeal her sentence in the future without his attorney’s aid during the proceeding.
Ryan played a minor but memorable role in the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County, Oregon, in 2016.
He arrived at the refuge near the end of the armed standoff and was one of the last people to leave. He fled the refuge as law enforcement closed in on the property. He was eventually arrested in April 2016, when he was found armed and hiding in a shed on private property in Washington.
Last March, a jury acquitted Ryan of two of the charges against him, including conspiracy to impede federal officers and possession of firearms in a federal facility.
But the jury did convict him of a single felony charge, depredation of government property. Evidence presented during the trial showed Ryan using an excavator to dig trenches at the refuge in the final days of the occupation.
He was also convicted of lesser misdemeanors: trespassing and tampering with equipment.
The trenches, according to prosecutors, were intended to defend him and others from what Ryan feared was an imminent attack by the FBI.
Prosecutors pushed for a sentence of 18 months in prison, arguing that the area Ryan damaged is a sensitive cultural site for the Burns Paiute Tribe. They noted that the government and the tribe spent $147,000 assessing the damage and filling in the trenches.
The tribe’s cultural director, Diane Lorraine Teeman, spoke during the sentencing. She said the digging happened in an area with known tribal burial sites.
“It was very traumatic to all of us who were aware that there may be some of our people dug up,” she said. “We have many strong beliefs about how we protect our dead.”
According to Zeeman, hundreds of artifacts had to be buried again, a task made difficult because the trenches also contained human waste and discarded tampons.
Prosecutors also noted that Ryan brought firearms to the refuge, and that he did not turn himself in to law enforcement willingly.
Merrithew argued that his client should receive a sentence of probation.
Ryan lives with his parents in Plains, Montana, and has no prior history of arrest or criminal activity, according to Merrithew.
“While he helps out with his family’s political activities, Mr. Ryan’s personal passion is acting; he donates hundreds of hours of his time to the production of community and school theater plays,” Merrithew wrote in a court filing.
Dozens of members of Ryan’s community in Montana, including his local sheriff, wrote letters to the court, asking the judge to not impose a prison sentence on Ryan.
Merrithew wrote that his client had offered to plead guilty to charges related to digging the trench and wanted to make amends for harm he’d done to the tribe. He said prosecutors rejected the overtures.
Merrithew argued that Ryan was among the “least culpable” people charged in connection with occupation.
Asked by the judge if he wanted to make a final statement, Ryan turned and faced Zeeman.
“Ever since I was a little kid, I loved the idea and the rich history of tribes,” he said. “If I would have known that it was a burial site, I would not have done it.”
Ryan continued, saying he was saddened by atrocities that had been done to the tribes like “the stealing of the children by de facto corporations.”
He then elaborated on his arguments that the court was illegitimate, stating that he was not subject to its rules, did not consent to his sentence and expected to be awarded penalties of $1,440 per day for his time in court.
Handing down her sentence of one year and one day, Judge Brown noted that it was the same sentence she gave to Oregon resident Duane Ehmer, who was also convicted of a felony for digging trenches at the refuge.
Brown said Ryan’s declarations in court undermined his attorney’s arguments that he deserved a more lenient sentence.
“It is troubling, when we have the tribe here, that he would demean the laws of the United States,” Brown said. “It is a sad situation that Mr. Ryan has put himself in and complicated, to his own detriment.”
Citing Ryan’s statement that he did not consent to his sentence, prosecutors asked that he be taken into custody by the U.S. Marshals immediately. Brown agreed.
Ryan emptied his pockets and was led away by the marshals as his mother and sister held each other and wept.
A total of 13 defendants pleaded or were found guilty for their roles in the Malheur occupation and are collectively paying $78,000 in restitution.