On a cold January morning, a posse led by a former Army company commander named Matt Shea rolled into the Harney County Courthouse and wanted to speak to the sheriff.
But this wasn’t a group of militants, or outlaws. They were state lawmakers from four western states, including Oregon. Most of them were members of a group called the Coalition of Western States, or COWS.
They were hoping to talk directly with Sheriff David Ward and convince him to support the armed militants at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Instead, COWS members would meet that day with a Harney County deputy and a sheriff from another county, an FBI agent and other local officials.
The out-of-town visitors presented themselves as wanting to help understand and, if possible, end the armed occupation at the refuge.
“I’m just looking at peaceful resolve,” said Nevada Assemblywoman Michele Fiore, a COWS member who was patched into the meeting by phone.
“That’s our intent,” agreed Shea, a state representative from Washington. “If there’s any opportunity to save life and prevent any further escalation of anything, I think we all agree we should take those opportunities.”
Oregon Republican State Rep. Dallas Heard also attended the meeting, however he says he is not a member of COWS.
The 90-minute conversation was recorded by participants at the Jan. 9 meeting and given to OPB.
On the recording, Harney County Judge Steve Grasty thanks the group for their concern, but asks them to stay away from the refuge. Grasty said the militants were showing signs of fatigue and defeat, and worried that a visit from lawmakers would reinvigorate Ammon Bundy and the rest of the occupiers.
“If we’re getting close (to a resolution), and you embolden Bundy by your presence, and this runs on for weeks and months, it will be awful in this community,” Grasty said.
The FBI agent also asked the lawmakers not to visit the refuge.
Those pleas fell on deaf ears. And Grasty’s prediction came true.
COWS representatives visited the refuge, which was closed to the public. The lawmakers acknowledge they fed the militants information gathered from that meeting, and militant leaders talked openly about what they learned from those disclosures.
“These lawmakers have shown great courage to support us,” said Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, who would later die after being shot by state police. “Much more than others who refused to come and look us in the eye.”
The visit was the latest step in an ongoing and organized campaign by these lawmakers, essentially the political arm of the militant movement, to make a once-radical political cause part of the mainstream.
Small beginnings in Bunkerville
How OPB reported this story
This story is based on reporting on the ground before, during and after the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and post-occupation interviews with participants. It was reported and written by John Sepulvado with reporting contributions from Amanda Peacher, Conrad Wilson, Amelia Templeton, Kristian Foden-Vencil and Kimberley Freda.
Matt Shea is no stranger to armed confrontations: In April 2014, the lawmaker – who has sponsored legislation to split Washington into two states — traveled from Spokane Valley to Bunkerville, Nevada, to support Cliven Bundy’s armed standoff with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
The federal government began impounding Bundy’s cattle after he failed to pay for decades of grazing leases. Bundy responded with an armed faceoff against federal agents that attracted international media attention and hundreds of new followers to his cause.
“This is a war on rural America,” Shea said in one video from Bunkerville.
In Nevada, Shea met other state and local elected officials who had also come to support Bundy, including Fiore and Greenlee County, Arizona, Commissioner Robert Corbell. “I met Matt at the Bundy ranch,” Corbell said in an interview. “And we’re talking state sovereignty and all that, and we said, ‘We’re all elected officials. Why not try and get some laws changed?’ So, we went to the casino at the state line, and in the motel room there … we created COWS.”
The explicit purpose of the Coalition of Western States, according to the group’s website, is to “restore management of public lands to the States where it Constitutionally belongs.” While the organization claims to have more than “50 legislators and grass roots leaders predominately in the Western United States,” leaders would not release a roster of members, meeting agendas, meeting notes or tax filing status.
Several COWS members took an active role in Bunkerville, and beyond.
Fiore and other COWS members became darlings of right-wing paramilitary groups skeptical and even hostile to the federal government, including the
. By the end of 2014,
and other coalition participants had sponsored bills that would transfer federal land back to local governments in six states.
All the bills failed, and as time put more distance between the public’s memory and the Bundy standoff, COWS went from a political stampede to an afterthought.
“We all kind of fell out of touch until things started heating up again in Oregon,” Corbell said. “That’s when I started getting calls.”
Corbell told OPB that coalition leadership knew Ammon Bundy planned to take over U.S. government property in Harney County before it happened, but were unsure which federal outpost it would be. The federal government owns about 75 percent of the land in Harney County.
“We knew he was going to do something,” Corbell said, “because something had to be done.”
In October 2015, COWS began posting to social media about the resentencing of Dwight and Stephen Hammond. In a Dec. 11 press release, the coalition accused the federal government of engaging in "a literal, international conspiracy to deprive" ranchers and farmers of their property rights in Harney County and throughout the West.
Some of the press release was lifted word-for-word from what Matt Shea had said at Bunkerville the previous year. The language hadn’t changed, even if the location had.
“This is a war on rural America,” the release stated.
“The Coalition of Western States stands ready to defend the continued federal overreach and once and for [all] restore management of public lands to the states where it constitutionally belongs.”
A fact-finding mission
The audio recording of the Jan. 9 “fact-finding” meeting between COWS and Harney County officials shows that Shea, Fiore and at least five other state lawmakers attempted to negotiate on behalf of the militants.
The recording captures a tense conversation that begins under the auspices of peaceful resolution and ends with calls by COWS members to take action.
Early in the meeting State Rep. Judy Boyle, a Republican from Midvale, Idaho, suggested that the group had a unique role to play as intermediaries between law enforcement and the militants.
“We know they’re outsiders, and we’re outsiders, so maybe we can get through to them,” Boyle said. “They did an act of civil disobedience, but they took it way too far. Much too far.”
The lawmakers wanted information from law enforcement, including what tactics the FBI anticipated taking against the militants. They wondered aloud, for example, whether refuge power would be cut. Law enforcement personnel repeatedly declined answering. The lawmakers continued to ask.
Who Is In COWS?
Though the Coalition of Western States claims to represent "50 legislators, elected delegates and grassroots leaders," the group declined repeated requests from OPB to identify its members. COWS has said its members come from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico.
A few members did identify themselves in a Dec. 11 press release that decried the government's treatment of Harney County ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond. Those people are:
- Washington Rep. Matt Shea
- Arizona security consultant Lyle Rapacki
- Florida-based constitutional speaker Kris Anne Hall
- Arizona Rep. Mark Finchem
- Idaho Rep. Heather Scott
- Nevada Rep. Michele Fiore
- Washington Rep. Graham Hunt
- Arizona county Sup. Robert Corbell
- Arizona county Sheriff Richard Mack
- Washington resident Steve McLaughlin
- Arizona firearms instructor Cope Reynolds
- Washington veteran Anthony Bosworth
- Washington talk show host Gavin Seim
They also wanted to know what criminal charges the occupiers might face. After getting nowhere with that line of inquiry, coalition members asked with whom they could negotiate on behalf of the Ammon Bundy-led militants.
“There is no negotiation,” said Marion County Sheriff Jason Myers, one of the local law enforcement officers at the meeting. “Just go home. We’re not going to negotiate because we just want them to leave this community.”
“The issue that causes concern is not entirely just the occupation of that facility, it’s the other people this has brought into our community,” said Harney County Deputy Sheriff Brian Needham. “There have been many threats made. There are people in the community that are dangerous people.”
Finally, over the phone, Fiore tried to turn the meeting into a call to action.
“The BLM has become a bureaucratic agency of – basically – terrorism,” she said. “So at what point do we band together as elected officials, and say, ‘Enough is enough of the BLM?’ Can we divert this conversation? At what point are we going to actually do something for our citizens?”
Judge Steve Grasty, the leading elected official in Harney County, dismissed that notion out of hand and asked Fiore and others not to call federal officers “terrorists.”
Coalition members pressed the FBI to compromise with militants, specifically with their demand that federal land be transferred to states.
"Would it be possible for somebody, whether it's the U.S. Attorney's Office, to say that 'We agree that there needs to be a conversation at another level,'" said Washington Rep. Graham Hunt, a Republican from Pierce County who has since resigned after it was revealed he misstated his U.S. military record.
Hunt suggested that someone in the federal government could propose land transfers as a “conversation over a prolonged period of time.”
“Obviously, I don’t think anybody in this room believes federal lands are going to be transferred overnight,” Hunt said. “And this is all going to be an issue that we can go home with.”
Meanwhile at the refuge, Ammon Bundy made repeated calls for similar transfers of federal land.
At the refuge
Fiore and other COWS members helped militants plan press events, including one in which a New Mexico rancher promised to stop paying grazing fees to the BLM. But the coalition’s efforts on behalf of the militants went beyond public relations.
At Shea’s request, Anthony Bosworth – a one-time candidate for Yakima County Sheriff – went to the refuge as a “security specialist.” He also stayed at the facility.
“I traveled to the refuge in an attempt to de-escalate the situation… at the request of the Coalition of Western States,” Bosworth wrote in an email.
Bosworth also helped militants – including Blaine Cooper, another occupation organizer – flee the compound.
Cooper was widely tracked on social media and in press accounts because he brought his wife and children to the refuge. Melissa Cooper became the boss of the barracks and oversaw the cooking and housecleaning.
Yet the Cooper family disappeared on the night LaVoy Finicum was killed and Ammon and Ryan Bundy were arrested. They wouldn’t be heard from for a week. Blaine Cooper was eventually charged with conspiracy alongside the Bundys.
Early on Jan. 27, hours after the traffic stop that ended in Finicum’s death, militant Jason Patrick stood just outside the refuge chain smoking and readying for a federal raid. He kept glancing at his cellphone, checking for a text message from a group that had fled hours before in anticipation of a federal roundup.
“Blaine was on the outbound group with COWS,” Patrick told a reporter. “I think they made it past the FBI checkpoint.”
Patrick said it was Bosworth driving them.
In his email to OPB, Bosworth said he could not remember with whom he left the compound. But he acknowledged helping some militants get out.
“There were many people among those that chose to leave after I negotiated safe passage for them, and I don't know every one of them,” Bosworth wrote. “I was just happy to see the FBI hold up their end and allow for the safe passage of those that wanted to leave.”
The end of the occupation
At first, Michele Fiore had no interest in playing the role of negotiator.
In a Jan. 30 interview, the Nevada assemblywoman repeatedly expressed anger and frustration that Ammon Bundy was being held without bond.
She cursed the federal magistrate judge who denied Bundy’s bail request due to the ongoing occupation. She was also angry that the last four holdouts on the refuge refused to surrender despite pleas from Bundy to do so.
“Can you please write a story that these people aren’t us?” Fiore asked. “This wasn’t the plan. It wasn’t supposed to go down like this. They weren’t at the Bundy ranch. Nobody knows who these people are.”
The next evening, Fiore said she and her allies would take a new approach with the final four.
Over the 10 next days, Fiore and fellow Coalition of Western States members KrisAnne Hall and Gavin Seim reached out to the remaining occupiers by phone and electronic messages. Hall is a self-described Constitutional scholar. Seim is a former Washington Congressional candidate who serves as COWS’ social media coordinator.
“We stayed in contact with them pretty much during that entire time, minus a few days when the phones were cut,” Fiore said.
And when the FBI finally began to close the perimeter on the militants, holdout David Fry called Fiore. She couldn’t take the call because she was already on a plane headed to Portland.
After the failed attempt, Fry called Seim, who streamed their conversation online. At the peak, more than 75,000 people were listening. They heard Fry, along with husband and wife militants Sean and Sandy Anderson, scream and invoke Finicum’s death as a reason not to surrender.
“I declare war against the federal government,” Fry said at one point. “There’s no way to beat this any more. Liberty or death.”
Ultimately, Fiore helped deescalate the situation, in part by leading the group in prayer over the phone. Fiore and Seim talked to the militants for more than four hours straight.
Related: After Holdout, David Fry Surrenders
In the end, Fry and the others gave themselves up after several tense exchanges. Fiore traveled with the FBI agents who met the four militants as they surrendered.
Fiore confirmed to OPB that she traveled to Oregon as part of the COWS contingent. Hall did not return numerous requests for comment. Seim responded to OPB’s request for comment in an email.
“My role was not representing COWS in particular,” he wrote. “That said, legislators and members of COWS were each taking individual action to assure safe passage and to reveal the truth of what the FBI was doing in Oregon. Members of COWS worked hard in front of and behind the scenes and good work was done.”
The trials to come
Immediately after the surrender, as Fiore and others were being hailed as heroes for helping to negotiate a peaceful end to the occupation, coalition members praised the FBI.
“My personal experience with the FBI was incredible in this case,” Fiore said. “Kind, gentle and emotional, and I’m the conservative Republican girl who doesn’t trust the police. We have to get back at looking at our police as part of the solution, not part of the problem.”
A week later, the warm glow had worn off, and Fiore, Seim and other people who’ve publicly associated with COWS were back to accusing the FBI of dirty tricks in Harney County.
"The people of Burns are still being terrorized by the FBI," Seim said during a broadcast of his Internet radio show on Feb. 16. "The FBI is going around from house-to-house, they're trying to get people to turn each other in."
On the same show, Fiore said federal court officials were colluding with federal prosecutors to ensure the militants would never be freed.
“We’re in this federal courtroom, and there’s the United States versus Americans,” Fiore said. “That just ripped my heart out … . It’s just appalling.”
Seim then called on “patriots” to learn the names of the judges, prosecutors and marshals.
“On the surface level, these are secret courts, guys,” Seim said. “We got to do something about this.”
Fiore, who is running for Congress, has attended several of the militants’ pre-trial hearings in the downtown Portland federal courthouse. She’s spoken to the press on behalf of the occupiers afterward. She’s come back to Oregon, she said, in part to ensure that defendants in charges related to the standoff at Cliven Bundy’s Nevada ranch are treated fairly.
"Basically, I'm here to meet with the detainees on an official capacity… from Nevada," Fiore said March 11 after a pre-trial hearing for Pete Santilli, an Internet radio host charged in both Oregon and Nevada. "Also, as a representative of Nevada, I would urge all our Nevada attorneys to seek trial outside of Nevada, because I do not think they will get a fair trial in Nevada."
Meanwhile, the arrest of the militants appears to be strengthening the Coalition of Western States, or at least helping its cause. Although she wouldn’t provide names, Fiore said the coalition has new members, including from the East Coast.
The GOP-controlled Congress is also considering legislation that would remove the Bureau of Land Management's ability to enforce the law.
“We are not going away,” Fiore said. “We are dug in, and we will fight until this tyranny is defeated.”