Federal employees spoke Thursday about their inability to work during the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation last year.
At U.S. District Court in Portland, Jurors also viewed a video that showed occupiers talking about killing those workers if they had to flee the Harney County facility.
“I wasn’t able to perform my duties at the refuge,” Linda Beck, a former fish biologist at the refuge, told the court. “It wasn’t safe for me to go to work.” This is the second time Beck and other federal employees testified. She spoke previously in last year’s trial of more prominent occupation leaders. Those men and one woman were acquitted on all charges.
Bureau of Land Management Special Agent Jason Curry talked Thursday about two “Closed Permanently” signs that had been fastened to the BLM office in Hines, near Burns in eastern Oregon.
“We had to remove the signs before you could open the door,” Curry said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Geoff Barrow later asked if the sign would “physically impede” work by BLM employees.
“Yes, it would,” Curry said.
“I have no further questions,” Barrow responded.
‘Is That Your Gun?’
Thursday’s questions were the latest attempts by federal prosecutors to show jurors that the four occupiers on trial were part of a conspiracy whose intent was to prevent federal employees from doing their jobs.
Sixteen employees worked at the refuge at the time of the occupation. Since then, five have taken positions elsewhere. The remaining employees are back, working at the refuge, but the headquarters buildings remain closed to the public. Officials expect they will reopen later this year.
As at the first trial, Barrow showed Beck photos of her office during and after the occupation. He asked Beck questions like whether her office was open to the public and if it looked the same as she had left it before the 41-day long occupation began.
Beck said there was a sign on the fence outside her office that said “closed to the public.”
“Is that your gun?” Barrow asked, showing the jury a photo of occupation leaders Ryan Bundy, cradling a long gun, with Ammon Bundy sitting at Beck’s desk.
Beck responded that it wasn’t.
“I’m not allowed to have firearms in my office,” she said.
As in her testimony during the first trial, Beck said she wasn’t able to conduct carp removal from Malheur Lake and the Blitzen River during January 2016.
During cross-examination, Jake Ryan’s attorney, Jesse Merrithew, asked Beck if any of the men on trial had objected in emails or phone calls to the carp-removal program.
“I have no idea,” Beck responded.
The Occupiers’ State Of Mind
To prove their case, prosecutors have to show the occupiers’ state of mind at the time of the occupation was to keep federal employees from going to work.
Jess Wennick, who runs the grazing program at the refuge, said he was told by his boss to not go to work because of the occupation.
“He said it was not safe to return to work at that time,” Wennick testified.
“If your office had not been taken over and occupied, would you have returned to work?” Barrow asked.
“Yes,” Wennick said.
Borrowing a line from his previous testimony, Wennick referred to the office next to his as a “technological sweatshop” after the occupation because it smelled and computer parts were strewn about the room. Wennick testified it appeared the occupiers brought a scanner to the refuge and used it to copy government files.
During Wennick’s cross-examination, Merrithew again drove at the question of the occupiers’ intent. He asked whether the men on trial had voiced opposition to bird surveys taken at the refuge.
“Not to my knowledge,” Wennick said.
“You don’t know who precisely was in those offices,” Merrithew said.
“No,” Wennick responded.
Federal prosecutors repeatedly stressed through their witnesses that across Harney County, federal employees were impeded by the occupiers.
Matthew Yeager, an FBI agent who analyzed Facebook accounts for some of the occupiers, testified about a series of private messages and public posts. Some were new; others were included as part of last fall’s trial.
“I’m getting conflicting message on the 2nd,” read one private message from Gavin Seim to Ammon Bundy on Dec. 30, 2016, seemingly referring to a planned protest in Burns on Jan. 2. “On one hand it’s being called a rally and protest. On the other it’s a call to action. People are confused.”
“I would never show up to a rally without my arms,” Bundy wrote back.
On Dec. 31, 2016, a man named Brandon Thomas wrote a private message to Bundy:
“I think you aught [sic] make it more clear that people should not take as a green light to stand against the FEDs, like was done at your family’s ranch,” Thomas wrote. “Just my two cents.”
“It’s much more than a protest,” Bundy wrote back.
Facebook messages also showed defendant Darryl Thorn discussing his involvement with the refuge.
“I was part of the federal building occupation,” Thorn wrote in a private message Jan. 3.
A photo posted to Facebook shows Thorn sitting in what Agent Yeager said was the fire tower at the refuge.
“Good good sitting here at the refuge standing guard,” Thorn wrote in another message.
During cross-examination, Marc Freidman, Thorn’s attorney, asked Yeager if Thorn was at the refuge when the photos were uploaded. Yeager said he couldn’t tell, but added that Thorn “was very boastful about his participation in the occupation.”
A Meeting Captured On Video
The day ended with an 11-minute video depicting a meeting in the fire bunkhouse at the refuge on Jan. 26, 2016, after the leaders were arrested and Arizona rancher LaVoy Finicum was shot and killed by Oregon State Police during a traffic stop.
The video depicts defendant Jason Patrick appearing to lead a meeting about whether the remaining occupiers should leave the refuge or stay. Thorn and Ryan are also present.
“We are the David in the David and Goliath story,” Patrick says. He tells the small group assembled in the bunkhouse kitchen that he has already put out a message to the media saying the remaining occupiers want a peaceful resolution.
“If we change tactics, the narrative changes to domestic terrorism,” Patrick says.
Off-camera, an unidentified person can be heard saying, “We already have our martyr,” presumably a reference to Finicum. Another unidentified person suggests the group should “execute” federal employees and their families.
Thorn, who is sitting on a bar stool smoking a cigarette, with a long gun resting against his leg, says the remaining occupiers should stay.
“All I see is a buck of salty motherf———,” Thorn says. “We came here for one reason and that’s to fight.”
At one point in the video, Ryan, who doesn’t appear to speak, is seen standing next to Thorn.
Blaine Cooper, another occupation leader, suggests leaving the refuge in one of the firetrucks and heading for Idaho, where the occupiers can regroup. Cooper says they could put five armed people on the truck and “if they try and follow us, lay lead down.”
Patrick and Thorn can be heard disagreeing with the plan.
“I came to defend the Constitution, not flight,” Patrick says at one point.
But during his redirect, Barrow pointed out that in the end, Patrick, Thorn and Ryan all voted to stay, rather than leave the refuge.