Ammon Bundy, one of the key figures of the armed occupation of the Malhuer National Wildlife Refuge, took the stand Monday in U.S. District Court, where he acknowledged taking over the refuge and said the group worked together to accomplish the goals of the occupation.
Bundy, who had his ankles shackled and a pocket copy of the Constitution poking out of his blue jail scrubs, pushed back when prosecutors said he led the occupation near Burns, Oregon.
“It was more of a combined effort,” Bundy said, acknowledging a group effort among the occupiers.
The Department of Justice has charged Bundy and 25 others with conspiring to prevent employees with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from doing their jobs.
The charge carries a maximum sentence of six years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Several defendants have already pleaded guilty and await sentencing.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Ethan Knight asked whether Bundy knew he was going to occupy the refuge before he did so Jan. 2.
“I did, well, I didn’t actually,” Bundy said, correcting himself. “There was no decision by myself or others to do that.”
Bundy’s attorney, Marcus Mumford, has denied his client’s role as a central leader of the occupation, but the claim runs counter to documented events before and during the occupation.
Bundy took the stand Monday during a joint detention hearing with his brother Ryan Bundy.
Based on Ammon Bundy’s testimony, it became clearer the intent of the occupation was to answer what Bundy considers an open question for the courts: whether the federal government could “own” land in states beyond the reasons specifically outlined in the Constitution. Bundy said he thought the occupiers might be charged with trespassing, which they could then use in the courts to explore the role of federal lands.
In addition to conspiracy, federal prosecutors have charged many of the defendants with possession of firearms in a federal facility, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Knight said the FBI recovered about 50 firearms at the refuge, more than 6,000 rounds of ammunition and some 1,000 spent shell casings. None of the weapons recovered were illegal, he said.
The government has a photo of Ryan Bundy carrying a firearm, Knight said. He added that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives also traced a legally purchased rifle to Ammon Bundy after it was recovered from the refuge.
In the past, Ammon Bundy’s attorney have claimed he did not carry a weapon during the occupation. Interviews with Oregon State Police troopers after Bundy was arrested Jan. 26 support that claim, stating he was unarmed during the traffic stop. However, a sworn affidavit from FBI special agent Katherine Armstrong states that law enforcement removed a .40 caliber pistol from Bundy when he was taken into custody.
“There’s no question in my mind this was an armed occupation under the leadership of these two defendants, among others,” U.S. District Court Judge Robert Jones said.
During the hearing, prosecutors also said Ryan Bundy tried to escape from the Multnomah County Detention Center.
U.S. Assistant Attorney Geoffrey Barrow told the court sheriff’s deputies searched Ryan Bundy’s cell April 8 and found 12–15 feet of torn bed sheets that had been braided into a rope, as well as extra clothing and food stores in containers.
“We have actual evidence that he tried to escape,” Barrow said.
Ryan Bundy denied it, telling Jones that “it’s simply not true.”
Bundy, who is representing himself, also argued for his pretrial release Monday.
His wife, Angela, and many of his eight children were present in the courtroom Monday, and at times they became emotional. At one point, a court clerk walked over with a box of tissues, which the family and others used to dab tears from their eyes.
Reading from a statement, Ryan Bundy said he loved his wife and children, and he wanted to go home before trial to help provide for them. Bundy said he was involved in his community, and that he and his wife were both leaders in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Bundy said he wasn’t aware of the occupation when he came to Burns to protest the conviction of Dwight and Steven Hammond, two Harney County ranchers who were convicted of arson on federal land.
“I did not come with a change of clothes or with a winter coat,” Bundy said.
Bundy acknowledged he’s been critical of the federal government’s role on public lands in the West but denied having ever been a violent person.
“I have been in jail presumed innocent for six months,” he said. “I have been treated the same or worse as convicted felons.”
Bundy also told the court, if released, he would appear for trial.
Even if Jones grants the brothers’ request, their release is unlikely.
Both Ammon and Ryan Bundy have been charged in Nevada, related to a 2014 armed standoff between their father, Cliven Bundy, and the Bureau of Land Management.
“I am not ashamed of what we have done and believe we have committed no crime,” Ryan Bundy said.
Cox To Represent Herself At Trial
Earlier in the afternoon, Jones granted defendant Shawna Cox’s request to represent herself in the September trial. But he placed conditions, saying if she called the rule of law into questions — as she has in court filings — she would be held in contempt of court.
Cox has filed a lawsuit against the trial judge in the case, U.S. District Court Judge Anna Brown. Jones questioned Cox’s accusation that Brown has the same last name as Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and therefore could be related and engaged in nepotism.
Jones said he was concerned that if a jury heard those kinds of statements it could taint the trial for other defendants. He told Cox she had “no business” talking about the law before a jury.
“I’m trying to think of kind adjectives,” Jones said, unable to think of how to describe Cox’s filings with the court. “You’ve got this horrible, distorted view of the law and procedure.”
Jones said by representing herself, Cox was potentially subjecting herself to convictions that might be avoided.
“It’s like a doctor trying to take out his own appendix,” Jones said. “It’s stupid.”
Cox said she was unable to abandon her views of the federal court system but would refrain from future comments.
“Your honor, I would still like to represent myself with standby counsel,” Cox said.
At the close of Cox’s hearing, Jones noted that the protest began because of the Hammonds.
“The Hammonds went to jail because of Congress. It had nothing to do with the judges,” Jones said, noting Federal District Judge Michael Hogan tried to give them a reduced sentence but was later prevented from doing so because of mandatory minimum sentencing.
“If the court had its choice, the Hammonds would’ve been given what we think is a more appropriate sentence,” Jones said.