The man whose horse-riding, flag-carrying images became an icon of the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was sentenced Thursday to a year and a day in federal prison.
U.S. District Court Judge Anna Brown handed down the penalty to Irrigon, Oregon, resident Duane Ehmer for his role in the 41-day occupation. He also faces three years of supervision after prison.
In March, a jury found Ehmer guilty of depredation of property, a felony. Brown also found him guilty of two misdemeanors: trespassing and tampering with vehicles and equipment.
“It’s not lost on me that he’s never accepted responsibility for his criminal conduct,” Brown said in handing down her sentence at the federal courthouse in downtown Portland.
“He hasn’t even apologized today,” she added. “He had the opportunity to leave at any point and stayed and ended up committing this felony crime.”
Ehmer said he plans to appeal his conviction.
Defense attorney Michele Kohler argued her client — a disabled veteran and single parent to a 14-year-old daughter — should be sentenced to probation. Assistant U.S. Attorney Ethan Knight argued for a 14-month prison sentence.
During the occupation, Ehmer participated in digging a trench.
Defendants argued at trial that the trenches were defensive, aimed at protecting themselves against any attack from law enforcement. Federal prosecutors said the trench showed the remaining occupiers were fortifying themselves for a fight with the FBI.
Federal prosecutors said Ehmer spent only about eight minutes operating heavy machinery owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — a fraction of the time it took to dig the trench. It was completed by another defendant, Jake Ryan. Ryan has not yet been sentenced.
The land is an archeological site and considered culturally significant to the Burns Paiute Tribe.
The tribe was outraged when it learned not one, but two trenches had been dug at the refuge.
Diane Lorraine Teeman, the tribe’s cultural heritage representative, spoke at Thursday’s hearing.
“Malheur Lake is our heart,” she said from the witness stand.
Teeman said tens of thousands of tribal members have had a connection to the land for at least the last 15,000 years.
The area where Ehmer and Ryan dug, she said, was a effectively a burial site. Teeman said she was aware of several significant sites near the trench.
“There was a sense of devastation, heartbreak and despair,” Teeman said, when she and other tribal members learned the occupier had dug a trench at the refuge
“I knew our ancestors were being excavated by that machinery,” she said, at one point pausing to grab a tissue to dab her tears. “Not being able to do anything was really heart-wrenching.”
Before he was sentenced, Ehmer read a statement while choking back tears. He spoke of his military service and his daughter. He also spoke of being terrified.
“All of my focus was on protecting human life,” Ehmer said.
He said he has a reverence for history.
“I have the utmost respect for Native Americans,” Ehmer said. “I would never hurt any artifacts.”
Ehmer also spoke of his 20 years of sobriety, something he said he was able to maintain during the stress of the occupation.
“I’m one of the few that’s been able to make it through an FBI standoff sober,” he said. “I’m very proud of that.”
Prior to Brown’s sentence, Knight said it was important for the judge to look at Ehmer’s actions in context of the occupation.
“It was a culmination of a series of choices by Mr. Ehmer to damage a property and place that was not his to damage,” Knight said.
In addition to prison time, Ehmer has agreed to pay $10,000 in restitution.