One of the more stunning moments during the trial of seven people accused of occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge came from Lt. Brian Needham of the Harney County Sheriff's Office.
While testifying, Needham described a death threat against Harney County Sheriff David Ward.
Needham said that on the morning of December 7, Ryan Payne, one of the occupiers who has already pleaded guilty in the case, came to the sheriff's office wanting to meet Ward.
Ward was away at a sheriff's conference.
According to Needham's testimony, Payne described his philosophy on how the federal government can't own land and said that Sheriff Ward was not being a Constitutional sheriff. He told Needham that he needed to get rid of Sheriff Ward using any means possible, including death.
The shocking moment was an indication of the dedication some of the defendants allegedly had to their cause and also the stress that people close to the occupation experienced, including Sheriff Ward.
Needham said that after the threat came, he called Ward immediately and told him what happened. He was interviewed by the FBI several days later.
There was additional testimony by Walter Eaton, who lives in Harney County. Eaton got into the cause of trying to defend the Hammonds, truly believing that the federal government was overreaching by making them go back to prison to finish an arson sentence.
He was also part of the initial group that went to the refuge before Ammon Bundy. Eaton testified that the first group included Ryane Payne, Jason Patrick, Ryan Bundy, Mel Bundy (who has not been indicted on charges in this case) and LaVoy Finicum, who was killed by Oregon State Police in January.
Eaton said he was offered a gun by Ryan Payne, but didn't take it. He said instead he was given a camcorder to film the activity of the initial group.
In describing the initial refuge takeover, he said the main building was locked but that other buildings were open. He said members in the group moved with purpose from building to building. He they carried firearms in their hands, out in front of their bodies with the muzzle pointed down at an angle. The group talked about getting a person in a fire watch tower and wanted to gain access to the Internet before someone cut it off.
Eaton said that after 20 to 30 minutes, he left the refuge, out of fear of being arrested.
Earlier in the day, Ward testified that he never felt threatened during a series of November meetings with Ammon Bundy and other occupiers. But the sheriff also described being overwhelmed by emails from people outside the community and those associated with the occupation.
In his testimony, Ward said he met with Ammon Bundy twice in November 2015, and that the meetings involved conversations about Harney County ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond, father and son ranchers who were re-sentenced to federal prison for committing arson on federal lands.
Ward said the Bundys were very concerned that the Hammond family was going back to prison and that Ammon Bundy and another defendant, Ryan Payne (who has since pleaded guilty in this case) met with him and said, 'You need to prevent the federal government from taking these guys back to prison. It’s your responsibility.'
There were also emails that came up during his testimony. Defendant Neil Wampler had written two emails to Ward saying the Bundys had sent out a nationwide alert and that thousands of armed citizens were going to descend on the county and essentially do the sheriff’s job for him if he wasn't willing to step up and prevent the Hammonds from going back to prison.
“The Bundys have sent out a nationwide alert,” Wampler wrote in an email sent on Nov. 17, 2015. And then on Nov. 21, 2015 he wrote another email to Ward saying “hundreds of armed citizens—including yours truly—are prepared and waiting for the call.”
The emails were submitted into evidence. Ward read both emails aloud in court as the jury followed along.
Ward also described a meeting with Ammon Bundy and about 10 other men on Nov. 19, 2015. He said they met with Ward at the law library at the Harney County Courthouse. Ward allowed them to have guns at this meeting because he said he didn’t want a Second Amendment debate about whether or not they were allowed to have them.
“I wanted to defuse the situation before it began,” Ward testified.
Ward also talked about the fact that he had been inundated with emails and phone calls; not only from Wampler, but also from people all over the country.
The sheriff's dispatch center was getting 10 times the number of calls that it usually receives, Ward testified.
He said that he was getting so many emails at the time that it was actually hard for him to find emails that he needed in order to do his job.
He even testified in court Wednesday that he is still receiving emails from people.
In the morning, the defense also cross-examined Ward. Marcus Mumford, Ammon Bundy’s attorney, raised various questions to see what would stick.
What Mumford was able to show through his line of questioning was that there wasn't discussion of the Malheur Refuge in those November meetings between Ammon Bundy and Sheriff Ward.
The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge did not come up, Ward said. The conversations focused solely on the situation involving the Hammonds. Ward also said that Ammon Bundy never posed any threat to him.
There was also some discussion as to whether or not Ward did some research into the U.S. Constitution to see whether or not the federal government can own land.
Mumford and Ward went back and forth for sometime on this point and Ward ended up saying he didn’t.
“I would say there 200 years of case law that shows they can own that land,” Ward responded.