When Ryan Payne took a plea deal in July in the case against the occupiers of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, it was an important win for the prosecution: Payne was considered one of the strategic leaders of the 41-day occupation.
But earlier this month, Payne asked the court to reverse his plea from guilty to not guilty.
Payne, 33, is an electrician and Army Veteran from Anaconda, Montana, who has been characterized as a tactical leader in the occupation. Prosecutors say he and Ammon Bundy went to Harney County in November and December and met with Sheriff Dave Ward to present their "redress of grievances." Prosecutors also said Payne and Bundy demanded that Ward provide a safe haven for ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond, to prevent them from having to report to federal prison.
The plea deal Payne originally struck with prosecutors recommended he spend somewhere between 41 and 51 months in prison. He was facing a conspiracy charge that carries a maximum of six years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
In addition to conspiracy and weapons charges related to the Oregon occupation, Payne also faces a slew of criminal counts tied to the 2014 standoff in Bunkerville, Nevada. He hasn’t entered a plea for those charges yet.
Payne agreed to answer OPB's questions by phone from the Southern Nevada Detention Center, where he is being held without bail.
Q: Why does Ryan Payne want to withdraw his guilty plea in Oregon?
Payne said that he didn’t have much time to reflect upon and consider the Oregon plea deal, and that he was under "duress and pressure" from the government.
"I succumbed to that duress and pressure," he said. "And I was able to regather my wit, mostly through my faith in the Creator … that the people will be the righteous judges."
In his Oct. 11 motion to withdraw the plea, Payne's attorney Rich Federico argued the foundation of the Oregon deal was an assumption that Payne and the government would also reach a deal in Nevada. That apparently fell through.
“On the date Mr. Payne signed the Oregon plea agreement, the Nevada offer was only in a draft format,” Frederico wrote. “Notably, the entire ‘statement of facts’ section of the Nevada plea offer had been left blank. When Mr. Payne arrived in Nevada, he was only then provided a ‘statement of facts’ that Nevada prosecutors demanded he agree to in order to secure the deal.”
Payne told OPB that the government's evidence against him is and was unclear: “You don’t know what the government has. The indictment is very vague. It doesn’t say who was impeded, who conspired, where they conspired," he said. "So you’re left in the dark and that’s part of the pressure and duress.
“They mount a massive amount of pressure on you to try and scare you into taking these pleas," he said.
Q: Why does Payne believe that the judge might honor his request?
Payne said his responses when he originally entered his guilty plea were equivocal. When U.S. District Court Judge Anna Brown asked if he actually impeded federal officials, he responded, "as it has been presented to me, it is my understanding that I did."
"I surely don't answer in a way that alludes to my understanding that I committed a crime," Payne told OPB.
Payne said he also believes that some of the evidence presented after he reached his original plea deal works against the government's case, including revelations about the FBI's use of confidential informants during the occupation.
“These people definitely have an interest in fabricating stories," he said. "Just that knowledge, it removed some of the darkness; it shed some more light, and I was able to make a decision with a clearer head.”
The government’s use of informants came out in the ongoing trial of Ammon Bundy and the other defendants, months after Payne's plea deal was settled. Payne pointed to government informant Fabio Minoggio, alias "John Killman," who testified that he unwittingly assumed a leadership position in training occupiers.
"We can see now, a known federal informant inserting ideas into people's heads and trying to stir people up in an already tense situation," Payne said.
Q: The first occupation trial for those other seven defendants is in jury deliberation right now. So why did Payne ask to withdraw his plea now, instead of waiting for a verdict?
Payne believed the timing would strengthen his case to the judge, and expressed certainty that the seven defendants will be found not guilty.
"I didn't want to have the impression with the court that the reason I was doing this was because of some outcome in the current trial that's going on up there," he said.
Brown will likely decide whether or not Payne can withdraw his plea after the jury has issued a verdict for the other occupiers. If she agrees, Payne could go to trial with the remaining defendants in Oregon, a case scheduled for mid-February. Or he might first be tried in Nevada for the Bunkerville charges along with Ammon and Ryan Bundy. That trial is schedule to occur concurrently with the second Oregon case.
Q: Why did Payne want to talk?
Payne told OPB that his attorneys had recommended he not speak to media.
"The public defenders are absolutely advising me that I should not talk to the media," he said. "Everything that I could say, the government will try to misconstrue it to use against us in court."
He is represented by Lisa Hay, the federal public defender for the District of Oregon, along with Rich Frederico, the district’s assistant federal public defender.
But Payne echoed a mantra of Cliven and Ammon Bundy in explaining why he wanted to speak publicly: “Sunshine is the best disinfectant."
You can hear more about the federal trial of the Malheur Refuge occupiers on OPB’s podcast “This Land Is Our Land."
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