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Judge Cites Combat-Related PTSD In Sentencing Malheur Defendant


A mid-level leader in the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was sentenced Thursday to one year and one day in prison, followed by one year in a re-entry house.

During an emotional hearing in federal court, Jon Ritzheimer was also sentenced to three years probation. He had already agreed to pay $10,000 in restitution.

Ritzheimer pleaded guilty to one count of felony conspiracy last year for his role in the 41-day refuge takeover.  

Jon Ritzheimer
Hometown: Peoria, Arizona
Sentenced

Federal prosecutors pushed for more prison time, while Ritzheimer’s defense attorney asked that her client receive probation, home detention or placement in a halfway house.

U.S. District Court Judge Anna Brown said she was trying to strike a balance.

“This whole criminal episode was about disrespect for the law,” Brown said in court. “I can’t justify in my mind no prison time.”

Defense attorney Terri Wood provided the court with a detailed report that said Ritzheimer suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and a mild traumatic brain injury as a result of serving two tours in Iraq as a U.S. Marine.

The report wasn’t released publicly, but it was discussed in open court Thursday.

Wood argued that the conditions stemming from Ritzheimer’s deployments explained his actions at the refuge.

“PTSD is a directly related to his combat experiences,” she said. “It actually changes the brain chemistry.”

The defense lawyer said the Bureau of Prisons lacks the ability to give Ritzheimer the same level of care that he was getting at a Veterans Affairs hospital in Phoenix, where Ritzheimer has been treated since the occupation. She said that since the takeover ended, Ritzheimer had been going to therapy and poses a low risk for re-offending.

“The risk happens if he gets sent to prison,” Wood said. “He doesn’t need to go to prison to teach him a message.”

But prosecutors said Ritzheimer used his status as a veteran to give the occupation legitimacy.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Craig Gabriel said the government took Ritzheimer’s mental health into consideration in recommending he serve 24 months in prison.

“This kind of conduct deserves prison time,” Gabriel said.

He said Ritzheimer arrived in Burns in December 2015 and used social media to encourage others to join the occupation.

“People did come to the refuge specifically because of Mr. Ritzheimer,” Gabriel said. “And when they got there, he did put them to work doing armed guard duty.”

Gabriel said Ritzheimer was also part of the initial group that took over the refuge, clearing the federal facility as a military-style unit, building by building. In court filings, prosecutors say Ritzheimer wore body armor and carried an AR-15 style rifle.

“Thank God there were no employees there,” Gabriel said. “If there had been, we could be looking at a very different case.”

Compared to others sentenced in the case, Judge Brown seemed to struggle more with how to handle Ritzheimer’s situation: balancing his conduct at the refuge against his mental and physical health.

“I’m still trying hard to do the right thing here,” she said before announcing the sentence.

During Thursday’s hearing, Ritzheimer apologized repeatedly for his actions at the refuge.

“I am sorry for all this,” he said. “It’s been a tremendous mess.”

FULL COVERAGE

An Occupation In Eastern Oregon

Ongoing coverage of the federal case against the people involved in the 41-day armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and how life has changed in Harney County, Oregon.

He said he tried to be a voice of reason at the refuge and “wanted peace the entire time.” He also said he was touched by statements from refuge employees that he read before the sentencing hearing.

Ritzheimer wore a blue suit and several military medals that dangled off his left jacket pocket.

At one point, he choked up and began taking the medals off.

“I’m not proud of them any longer,” he said.

Brown responded: “I hope that the day comes that you’re proud of your medals again. No one here today is contesting your valor or service.”

Brown concluded the hearing by wishing Ritzheimer “good luck.”

Prosecutors also said they intended to recommend the following sentences for several other Malheur defendants:

  • Jason Patrick, 24 months in prison
  • Joseph O’Shaughnessy, 12 months in prison
  • Ryan Payne, 41 months in prison

Payne is also on trial in Nevada for his role in the 2014 standoff between rancher Cliven Bundy and federal agents. He’s pleaded guilty to conspiracy in Oregon. At a hearing Friday, Brown will consider the Oregon impact of a Nevada judge’s decision to release him from custody during that trial. 

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