Leah Sottile | Longreads | May 2018 | 27 minutes (6,900 words)
Part 1 of 4 of Bundyville, a series and podcast from Longreads and OPB.
The place where all the chaos began is a few minutes off Interstate 15 North, where a row of American flags line a curve of rural road and the only sound is the desert wind in their fabric. Two tall flagpoles reach out from a patch of gravel topped with gilded cursive letters spelling out the opening to the U.S. Constitution: We The People.
On them hang several flags, including the American flag, the Nevada state flag, and a blue banner bearing a sharp white V stacked atop a round O — the cattle brand of the last rancher from around these parts, Cliven Bundy. He’s not the only cattleman represented on these poles; a flag bearing the mark of a rancher shot and killed by police flies here, too.
Nearby, just over the Virgin River, a rough road cuts through the dusty Nevada desert. Sandy rocks darken into a deep red all the way out to the horizon, where a dark strip of mountains jut skyward.
Drive down that road and a patch of bright green pops into view — the color of life shrill in a place where everything else looks dead.
It’s here, in Bunkerville, Nevada — in Clark County, about an hour from Las Vegas — that the 72-year-old Bundy owns 160 acres of land: the place where he raised children, grows melons, and rears cattle. A modest house is barely visible from the gravel road. Hay bales are stacked neatly in piles around the property. There’s farm equipment everywhere — hunks of metal weathered by a sun that seems to never set and winds that never cease.
For the better part of the past two years, Cliven Bundy wasn’t allowed to live here. Instead he was housed in a Nevada detainment center, wearing a red jumpsuit and jail-issue orange clogs every day, sleeping in a bunk bed in a room full of other men awaiting trial.
He had been charged with conspiracy to commit offenses against the United States, with assault, extortion, with threatening federal officers.
The trial he faced last fall, in a way, would also decide which of the two distinctly opposite characters Bundy has been portrayed as was real.
There’s Bundy’s version of himself: a rebel cowboy father of 14 and grandfather of 66 who believes the government is determined to either kill him or put him behind bars for life, while also stealing his livelihood.
Then there’s the government’s version of Bundy: a vigilante capable of summoning an army eager and ready to revolt against the federal government.
When it comes to Cliven and the rest of the Bundy Family there are a few points that nearly everyone — no matter how they vote or what side of this case they’re on — can agree:
Number 1: An event of seismic proportions occurred near Cliven Bundy’s ranch in April 2014 when he — believing federal agents were closing in — called people from around the country (many heavily armed) to his aid. Along with them came militiamen: the Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, members of western militias. People call this event a lot of things, but the most common name for it is the Bundy Ranch Standoff.
Number 2: At that time, Bundy owed the federal government at least $1 million in grazing fees. For more than 20 years, he allowed his cows to graze on public lands managed by the federal government despite not having a permit to do so. He fought in and out of court about it, and he lost every time. But he didn’t take his cows off the land. They’re still out there.
Number 3: Cliven’s own sons, Ammon and Ryan Bundy, led their own armed standoff in early 2016 at a federal bird refuge in southeastern Oregon.
And last, but not least, number 4: No matter how hard the federal government seems to try to arrest, imprison, or see the Bundys found guilty of federal crimes, they just can’t get them.
“I do not think there is a jury in this country that will convict us,” Ammon Bundy said to reporters last December outside the Las Vegas federal courthouse. Ammon smiled wide, his arm slung around his mom’s shoulders. “The truth is on our side.”
What really is the truth when it comes to the Bundys?
For the past two years, I’ve been reporting on the Bundy Family and people who consider themselves followers. I’ve talked to just as many people who see Cliven and his sons as godly figures — prophets, great historical leaders — as people who see them as terrorists, extremists, and the embodiment of everything that’s wrong with America. There seems to be no middle with the Bundy Family: You either are with them, or you’re not. And how you see the family may say just as much about you as it does about them.
This story is one of alternative facts and fake news — two, three years before those terms entered the common lexicon. It is a tale of conspiracy theories, crooked politicians, and two polarized sides who read the same facts and take away completely different messages.
When you look closely at the actions of the Bundy Family, their history, their religion, the words of their followers — you can find a story that reflects so much about America right now. There are deep divides. Unrest. You can’t talk to the Bundys or their followers about cows or land without also talking about patriotism and the flag and the Constitution and the Bible, too. Their definitions of freedom, patriotism, terrorism, and even the law might be exactly the same as yours, or they might be way, way different. To have a conversation with or about the Bundys, you have to accept that they consider themselves to be the ultimate Patriots and that they don’t acknowledge the federal government’s authority. They are here to tell the federal government what to do, and to tell the rest of us how we’ve been bad Americans.
People call their theories fringe. Others call them insane.
The Bundy name in much of the West can make blood boil. And where some have cast the old man as a crackpot, a flash in the pan, the details behind the family’s anti-government actions are complicated, stretching back decades — a century, even.
But when Cliven Bundy strolled out of jail in the first days of 2018 — cowboy hat on his head, his legs free of shackles — and raised a fist in victory, what just occurred seemed simple. For the second time, the Bundys thumbed their noses at the feds and got away with it.
* * *
April 2014. It was a sunny spring day at that place where those We The People flagpoles now stand, and a crowd of hundreds stood cheering around a stage.
Cliven Bundy was on that stage, his security detail flanking him on all sides. They wore earpieces and camouflage and scowls that masked whether any of them actually knew what they were doing.
The county sheriff stepped onto the stage, speaking into a microphone as he looked at Bundy.
The Bundys saw that the feds had finally decided to repossess their cows after 20 years of refusing to pay their grazing fees. The family called for backup. And the sheriff — seeing armed militias flooding into the tiny Nevada town and had been told that the family was willing to “do whatever it takes” to get their cows back — told the old rancher onstage that the roundup had been called off. Everyone could calm down. The cows were penned in a dusty wash under the freeway overpass — and they’d let them go. The people cheered.
But that wasn’t enough for Cliven.
He took the podium from the sheriff and wheezed into the mic that he had more demands than just getting his cows back — things that God would later tell him in a revelation. He gave the sheriff a one-hour ultimatum to bulldoze the ticket booths at nearby national parks Red Rock and Lake Mead. He wanted the sheriff to take the local Park Service officials’ guns and bring them back right here to this stage.
To lay those arms at his feet.
The crowd went nuts. “We can protect ourselves, Sheriff!” a man at the foot of the stage yelled. “We don’t need the federal government!”
The stack of guns never materialized, nor was anything bulldozed.
But what did happen was a standoff between the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) officers and a horde of Bundy’s followers, who call themselves Patriots, when Bundy told them to go get the cows back. “Get ’er done cowboys!” he said from the stage. Off they went — in cars and on horses. Most weren’t cowboys.
That day, all around the officers, camouflaged militiamen armed with semiautomatic weapons skulked through the crowd of men, women, and kids who’d gathered. High up on the overpass — far above their heads — Bundy supporters crouched low, poking sniper rifles through slats in the concrete barriers and looking down their sights at the government agents. Ryan and Ammon were there, negotiating in raised voices, getting the crowd fired up. But their father was nowhere to be seen.
No shots were fired, but an army of guns were pointed and ready to go.
The officers — realizing they were outgunned, outnumbered, outmaneuvered — let the cows go, slowly backing out of the wash. The crowd jeered.
“Go back to Washington!”
“Go back to China!” one man chimed in.
When the agents were gone and the cows had trundled back toward the ranch, Cliven’s eldest son, Ryan, climbed onto a post and held his hat high above his head. He shouted over the crowd: “The west has now been won!” The people went wild.
Sources confirmed to me that after the failed impoundment, the FBI told the BLM that they had never seen so many domestic terrorists convene in one location. Ever.
And still, it took almost two years before the Bundys or any of the people there in the wash that day saw charges for the event. It seemed like they got away with threatening the federal government.
In the meantime, Cliven drove around the west giving lectures about the standoff.
And in January 2016, Ryan and Ammon tried to start another fight over federal overreach. Over tyranny.
This time, instead of waiting for the feds to come to them, they went to the feds.
* * *
January 2016. Burns, Oregon, is a tiny, rural sneeze-and-you’ll-miss-it town in the remote southeastern part of the state. There’s a grocery store, some restaurants, a motel or two. People here drive two hours to go to the mall, to Costco. Everybody knows everybody in Burns, and they notice when outsiders are in town.
So locals noticed when Ammon Bundy started showing up around town. People paid attention when, shortly after the New Year, he demonstrated in a protest march there over the imprisonment of Dwight and Steven Hammond, local father-and-son ranchers accused of setting fire to federal lands in the early-to-mid 2000s. The men were convicted by a jury in 2012 and served out a total of 15 months in prison — far less than the five-year mandatory minimum the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 requires for arson of federal property.
That word — terrorism — got a lot of people riled up.
After prosecutors won an appeal in the Hammond case, the men were slated to go back to prison in early 2016 to serve out the remainder of the five-year minimum.
Ranchers, farmers, and foresters often light controlled fires to restore the land and promote new plant growth, and some people in Burns were irate, feeling like it was excessive to bring the men — who claimed one of the fires they set was a backburn that got out of control — back into custody.
They walked through the streets of the small town, chanting, carrying signs, making their voices heard. The Hammonds couldn’t be terrorists, could they?
When the march ended, Ammon climbed atop a snowbank in a Safeway store parking lot and instructed people to follow him to the nearby Malheur National Wildlife Refuge — a federal bird sanctuary — where they would take a “hard stand.”
Those who “know what’s going on here and have seen it for many, many, many, many years,” he said, “I’m asking you to follow me.” Taking and holding the facility would be a demonstration of their dissatisfaction, of that outrage they were feeling. Immediately people followed, but plenty of others raised their eyebrows at his proposition.
The Bundy Brothers — Ryan, Ammon — were at the refuge for just 25 days, but their armed occupation of the federal facility went on for 41, amassing the attention of right-wing militias that had come to Bundy Ranch in 2014, too.
The heavy media presence at the refuge during the occupation allowed the country to get a sense of the “Patriot” world beyond the Bundys, shining a light on some of the characters that flock to their side. Like Jon Ritzheimer, the young veteran, who, after tours in the Middle East, became famous for protesting outside mosques and then haughtily defending himself on cable news shows. Pete Santilli was there too: a fourth-rate Alex Jones who was sucked up by 9/11 conspiracy theories, started his own YouTube talk show in the spirit of Info Wars, and cheered people toward Bundy Ranch in 2014. Santilli said on his show that he wanted to “try, convict, and shoot Hillary Clinton in the vagina.”
But there were new characters, too, who weren’t at Bunkerville, like David Fry, the random computer nerd from Ohio who had trouble with local police when he got caught smoking pot in a car, and who’d struck up an unlikely online relationship with Robert ‘LaVoy’ Finicum. Finicum, an Arizona rancher who authored a book of apocalyptic fiction, radicalized and stopped paying his grazing fees after the 2014 standoff at Bundy Ranch. Fry drove to the refuge from Ohio as his parents were about to go on vacation. He wanted to meet Finicum. Fry was the final holdout in a tense overnight standoff at the end of the occupation.
There was a Blaine Cooper, a felon who was one of the first people to arrive at the refuge, and encouraged people to bring their guns. Cooper was born Stanley Hicks, but changed his name, at some point, to Blaine Cooper — the same name as Jesse Ventura’s muscled, gun-toting commando character in the 1987 action film, Predator. Cooper frequently posted videos to YouTube, including one where he wraps torn pages from the Koran in bacon, and throws them on a barbecue. “We’re going to take the first page here and wrap it up in that bacon and make it smell real good,” he says to the camera. “How’s that you fucking motherfuckers?”
And there were Sean and Sandy Anderson, a prepper couple who’d seen their camping and tactical goods business crumple and drove over from Idaho. They brought their guns to the refuge. In one video from the standoff, Sean screams into a camera: “American people better wake up! Get here! And fight for your country! Right now! It is on!”
A family gospel band crammed into a beat-up van and arrived from Kansas. A guy dressed like a sumo wrestler came to the refuge. If this was the revolution, the revolution was … weird.
Three weeks into the occupation, the Bundys were pulled over and arrested on their way to appear and speak at a meeting in another county, alongside that county’s sympathetic “Constitutional sheriff.” When they were in handcuffs, their movement was suddenly left to the people they’d never even had conversations with.
When the occupation finally ended, the trajectory of dozens of lives had been altered, spiraling off in new directions.
And one man was dead.
The Bundy family has been ranching on that swath of desert about 80 or so miles from Las Vegas since at least 1954. Cliven stopped paying the fees required to graze his cows on the public land around his property in the 1990s. Right now, those cows are still out there.
That land all around him that stretches toward the jagged mountains and the horizon that turns pink at sunset — none of that belongs to him, but to all American taxpayers.
The only contract he’s ever had with the feds was a hangover from his father’s time at the helm of Bundy ranch. When Bundy chose to stop paying his fees, the BLM — an arm of the Department of the Interior — allowed ranchers to graze their herds on that public land, so long as they had a permit. Public-lands ranchers pay a nominal fee to do so — and in the ’90s, it was around a dollar per cow per month. Cheap.
Bundy does own that verdant 160 acres that pops into view when you crest the hill right before the ranch. His issue with the BLM came when the feds started restricting which areas and how many months each year ranchers could work the land — an effort that occurred as it also balanced protection of the Desert Tortoise — a threatened species.
In his book Cities in the Wilderness, former Department of the Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt talks about how this area saw federal protection in the late 1980s as the city of Las Vegas expanded. Wilderness areas were established to protect the tortoise — and the land around Bunkerville became one of those areas. It was a sign of the times: Voters were choosing to protect wilderness and species. And it was an economic driver, too. The way lawmakers saw it, promoting the lands around Las Vegas as wilderness areas would diversify the tourism industry, attracting families — in addition to gamblers — to come to Vegas for recreation. Not to mention, the mountain views from high-rise city hotels and condos were pretty sweet.
The tortoise “had survived and prospered for eons on this land — until ranchers arrived with their huge herds of cattle and sheep,” Babbitt writes. Cattle and tortoise grazed on the same grasses — and with no one to referee, the cows usually won. When their numbers plummeted, the reptile landed on the endangered species list.
To ensure the tortoise’s protection, the county offered ranchers voluntary buyouts of their grazing permits — and most took the deal, believing that the government was effectively forcing them off their land. By 1993, Bundy was told he could still graze the land with a permit, but just for three fewer months each year to protect the tortoise. Bundy, in response, decided not to renew his permit and just keep grazing the way he wanted to.
And for decades Bundy fought the feds, telling them he believed the federal government doesn’t have any right to own land — that the law prohibiting it from doing so is right there in the Constitution, plain as day. He had other ideas, too, like how the county sheriff should be the highest law enforcement power. None of this is supported by court decisions, but that didn’t deter him from believing it with all his heart.
By 2014, when no other option existed than to repossess his cows, the Bureau of Land Management handed down orders to impound them. And even though he kept losing in court, Cliven hadn’t changed his mind at all about the law.
“I would be happy to pay my grazing fees — if I owed grazing fees to the proper government,” Cliven said in an interview with Pete Santilli just days before the standoff. “That brings us to this point of who does own this land. … How does the federal government own the ninety percent of the state of Nevada. How does that happen? I thought we were a sovereign state.
“The court says Cliven Bundy is trespassing on United States property,” he said. (Bundy often refers to himself in the third person.)
Bundy claimed he saw 200 armed federal agents, who he believed had no jurisdiction in his corner of the Nevada desert, surrounding his property. He believed the feds had positioned snipers in the hills around his home.
On one occasion, one of his sons was arrested after taking photos of BLM agents he believed to be snipers. They wrestled him to the ground and put him in cuffs.
Cliven said he wasn’t going to take it anymore. To him, if this wasn’t tyranny, what was?
About five days after BLM agents showed up on Cliven’s ranch, there was a really chaotic scene. Protesters yelled and threw rocks at BLM law enforcement agents — who held back barking dogs. The BLM was trying to get some trucks through the crowd and pushed back the protesters. In a video, an agent appears to have tossed an older Bundy woman to the ground — and then all hell broke loose.
Cliven’s son, Ammon, sped up on an ATV and stopped it suddenly in front of one of the trucks. He hopped off the vehicle, and started screaming at the officers. One of their dogs snapped at him, and Ammon kicked it in the head. The officers tased him in response, and he ripped the taser prongs from his skin.
That video went viral. And it brought even more protesters to Bundy Ranch. It has been helped along by a network of right-wing YouTubers and bloggers, who told their listeners to get to the desert.
“I have spent twenty years legally, politically, and in the media. And now it’s time to get on our boots and I guess make our stand,” Cliven told Santilli. “It seems like it’s down to We the People if we’re going to get it done. You know, things like militias. I haven’t called no militia or anything like that,” he said. “But hey, it looks like that’s about where we’re at.”
This was a range war. And the conspiracy theorists were loving it. A call went out on Facebook and through YouTube pundits like Santilli. In his interview with Bundy, he pauses to speak directly to his audience: “I’m gonna say it again: anyone in the general vicinity, if you can get to Clark County, Nevada, and show some support for our U.S. Constitution, our sovereignty, and everything we were born with, let’s get out there to help out Cliven Bundy and stand in the face of tyranny.”
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From around the country, people sped toward Bundy Ranch. They came from Montana, New Hampshire, Idaho, Oregon, California.
During the brief court proceedings in Nevada last year over the Bunkerville standoff, prosecutors told the jury that Bundy repeatedly threatened to do “whatever it takes” to protect his cows. More than once he said what could happen on his property had “the potential to be the next Waco or Ruby Ridge” — referencing the armed confrontations in Texas and Idaho that occurred between the government and citizens in the early 1990s.
It had taken more than three years to get the case into a federal courtroom. Prosecutors told the jury that Bundy, in 2014, got what he wanted by pointing a gun — or getting others to point them — at the people he disagreed with.
As the government’s lawyers presented that argument, some jurors listened. Some just looked bored. In the front row, one female juror nodded off, falling asleep so soundly that the prosecutor paused as the judge’s clerk walked across the courtroom and nudged her awake.
According to Cliven’s own attorney, Bret Whipple, Bundy refers to himself as just an “old cow” — a potbellied devout Mormon with several teeth missing in his mouth. Whipple presented one version of the old cowboy: a man who believes he has ancestral rights to the federal land where his cows feed. He said his family has been working that land since the late 1800s. And that his defying 20-plus years of court orders was not anti-government extremism, but a rural act of protest. “The American spirit believes you can stand up and speak your mind anytime,” Whipple told the jury.
“The only thing he ever wanted to do was … raise cattle.”
His sons Ammon and Ryan sat around their father in the courtroom — his co-defendants in the trial, facing the same charges. (At one point, most of the Bundy family men were facing charges for Bunkerville.)
To the rows of supporters who filled the gallery inside and to the people sprawled on lawn chairs out on the sidewalk — many who have never even met these men — Bundy is Christ in a cowboy hat. A red-white-and-blue savior, standing up for the rights of everyone in rural America.
As Whipple spoke to the jury, they listened, fascinated.
Then Ryan Bundy, who represented himself in the trial, stepped up to the courtroom podium to present his opening statements.
He painted a picture for the jury: he and his brothers as children, wading in the waters of the Virgin River.
Chasing frogs, hunting rabbits, running across the desert with their dogs tagging along at their heels. The way the hot desert earth would singe their bare feet on sweltering days.
“That is where my life began,” he told them. “And where I hope it ends.”
It’s the movie poster version of the Bundys: a family living in an unforgivable land finding beauty and solace among the desert shadows, finding life in a place where so many things can’t survive.
Living out there, so far from other people, it probably does start to feel like the earth all the way to the horizon belongs to you because only you can see it.
A black male juror in the back row nodded along in agreement as Ryan spoke.
The lady in the front row was wide awake.
* * *
At the end of 2017, the Bundys walked.
But it wasn’t because a jury decided they were innocent. Judge Gloria Navarro declared a mistrial, telling the packed courtroom that the prosecution committed six Brady violations, instances in which they willfully failed to disclose evidence that would have been beneficial to the Bundys’ case. In some cases, Cliven wasn’t all wrong. There were, in fact, cameras around Bundy Ranch. There were threat assessments by the FBI that said the Bundys weren’t violent people. There were guys with guns surveying the house.
Navarro tells the jury to go home. The trial is over.
Under a cloudless blue sky, Ammon and Ryan Bundy walk out of the courthouse, arms linked with their mother, to the fluttering of camera shutters and the claps of supporters.
People traveled from around the country — journalists, critics, Bundy sympathizers, environmentalists — to see the wheels of justice churn out long-desired answers about what this has all meant. To understand what the Bundys’ actions mean for the future of protest, for the future of Western lands. To say something definitive about the movement the family tapped into three years prior.
But a mistrial doesn’t answer any of that. In fact, the government’s missteps just posed new questions. Was the standoff at Bundy Ranch not what the feds have said it was all along? Was Cliven Bundy just a toothless old sheepdog protecting his herd?
With the mistrial, the Bundys have bested the government at its own game — again.
In late 2016, Ammon and Ryan, along with several others, were acquitted by a jury of all charges for the Oregon occupation. The jury appeared to believe that the Bundys were peaceful protesters who posed no threat to the public.
While neither of these victories proves that the Bundys’ views about the Constitution are actually right, that doesn’t matter to the family’s supporters. And those wins make me wonder if part of what the family says about the feds is actually true. The prosecutors in Nevada, by failing to disclose evidence, verified the family’s paranoia.
So is Cliven Bundy really just an old, docile cow, like his lawyer says?
How sharp and numerous do a man’s teeth really have to be to lead a revolution?
Neil Wampler is a 70-year-old hippie who came to the Malheur occupation and offered to cook for the masses of people arriving from around the country. The gray-bearded California Obama voter was, by then, a loyal member of the Patriot movement cause. Bundy Ranch converted him.
These times the Bundys stick their fingers in feds’ eye — they’re moments that burn like bright porch lights blazing on dark nights, attracting people from all around the United States who find the pull irresistible. They are chances to square off with the jack-booted thug soldiers of federal tyranny, who they feel, in one way or another, have oppressed them or would be willing to.
During the Oregon trial, Wampler, who cooked in the refuge kitchen, faced the same conspiracy charges as the Bundys for the refuge occupation.
Before the Nevada trial ended abruptly last winter, I spent a lot of time talking with Wampler over coffee during breaks from court. In the seventh-floor lobby of the courthouse — where a neon cowboy flickers down the road — I noticed a pack of Pall Malls in his shirt pocket. I pointed to them and asked if he was a Kurt Vonnegut fan. And from them on, we talked about John Steinbeck, Hunter Thompson, Joan Didion — the latter whose name he scribbled down in his notepad for later.
Bundy supporters are notoriously distrusting of media, even when you’ve been sitting next to them in court for two years like I have. They’d prefer to control their own narrative, expressing their dissatisfaction with mainstream reporters by establishing their own “media” outlets crowdfunded by supporters. And — to their credit — those propaganda arms provide exhaustive detail to supporters around the country of what happens in closed courtrooms. But they, too, filter those events through an anti-government screen.
With Wampler, I found someone who, too, is skeptical of media and government, but who could often back up what he was saying with deep historical knowledge. I found we agreed on lots of topics. Wampler served in the navy in Vietnam, dropped acid all over Haight-Ashbury. He has a wife back home in California and a 21-year-old son, mention of whom softens and quiets his speech.
But there’s this dark side to Wampler, too. He served time in prison for second-degree murder after he killed his own father in the 1970s. He doesn’t strike me as the prison-gang type, not like some people who come to the Bundys side. But despite his bookishness, he buys into their theories. Wampler believes the feds can’t own land.
It’s one thing to sit at home and watch the Bundy stunts unfold on YouTube, but I’ve always wondered what motivated someone like him to come to their side. I get that the feds aren’t always right — something that feels a little obvious to say in the era of President Trump — but an armed standoff? All those guns? Why would you be a part of this? I finally asked him.
“A large segment of the population has always wanted to keep their head down,” he explained. Most Americans, he said, have a “religious belief in the government.”
He said it’s fear that keeps people from understanding why the Bundys did what they did. People have become too trusting of the government — and the Bundys finally put their foot down and said no more. No more telling us what to do. No more asking us to follow blindly.
“The deterrent of us having the guns … raised the stakes higher than [the government] wanted to pay for,” he told me. “An armed citizenry has power and a disarmed citizenry does not. There’s no question that a raggedy band of people with guns could fight the government. When the alternatives become so grim, you have to do something.”
But knowing all of this about him, I was still surprised to hear him say how far he was willing to take these fights with the feds. He said he arrived at Bundy Ranch, at Malheur with “a sad resignation that these things had to be done.” He talked about it like it was a duty.
“It’s sad that, perhaps, me or other people might be hurt, perhaps even killed. But it just has to be done,” he said, taking a drag from a cigarette. “And if it happens to be me? That’s fine too. Not fine. But I accept it.”
“You’re willing to die for this cause?” I attempted to clarify.
“Yeah,” he said, exhaling.
Wampler wanted me to understand that he believes any violence “would be a terrible mistake” for Bundy Patriots.
No shots were fired at Bunkerville, nor at the refuge, he reminds me.
Not by the Bundys’ side, at least.
* * *
On the January 2016 day the Malheur occupation leaders were arrested — when the feds must have thought they had them once and for all — that 54-year-old Arizona rancher named LaVoy Finicum led police on a rural Oregon highway chase.
In his backseat were Ryan Bundy and Shawna Cox, the Bundy’s family secretary. Between them sat 18-year-old Victoria Sharp, the eldest daughter from the family gospel band, who had delivered a Partridge Family–style concert inside the Malheur compound.
This wasn’t the Finicum the media had seen at the refuge — the calm, measured, kind spokesperson.
This version of Finicum was shouting out his window at Oregon State Police, telling them to shoot him in the head or let him keep driving. After several minutes of tense words, Finicum hit the gas. As he drove, bullets clacked against the truck’s body. The passengers ducked. “Gun it!” Cox pressed.
But up ahead, the road was blocked — flanked by tall berms of Eastern Oregon snowfall. Finicum tried to blow through the snow, but his truck stopped immediately as it plowed into it. He jumped from the driver’s seat, yelling shoot me again and again at the officers.
Shoot me, he said as he jumped out, arms out straight, Christlike, a bullet shattering the window of the truck behind him.
Shoot me, he said to agents with their assault rifles trained on him, his right hand ducking quick inside his open denim jacket, before popping out again.
Shoot me, he said, hand jumping toward that pocket again.
Shoot me, he said, struggling to keep his footing in the deep snow, noticing another agent with a gun drawn over his shoulder. He reached deep for the 9 mm Ruger pistol in his pocket once more, his back to the officers.
He was shot three times, and bled out in the snow.
But even though Finicum didn’t comply with officers demands to get out of the car, and even though he repeatedly reached for a loaded gun in his pocket, and even though his last words were “shoot me,” Patriots call his death a murder. An assassination. A hit carried out by government goons.
Now a flag bearing his cattle brand flies alongside Bundys on the Bunkerville flagpoles.
Finicum isn’t the only person who has died believing in the Bundys.
In 2014, two months after the Bundy Ranch standoff, two Las Vegas residents with extreme anti-government views — Jerad and Amanda Miller — went on a shooting spree in the city, murdering two police officers as they ate pizza for lunch. The Millers draped a ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ flag and a swastika over one body, and pinned a note to the other that read, “This is the beginning of the revolution.”
The Millers then walked into a nearby Walmart, where they killed one civilian who pointed his own gun at Jerad. As police closed in, Jerad was killed. Amanda then turned the gun on herself.
The Bundys say they asked the Millers to leave Bunkerville, that they weren’t a part of the event at the ranch — and that may or may not be true. But the couple was there long enough to do its own interviews with the Bundys, which they posted online, and talked to the media about what was happening.
“We’re not afraid. We know that in the past the government has used force against civilians, like Waco, Ruby Ridge,” Jerad Miller told a reporter. “I feel sorry for any federal agents that want to come in here and try to push us around or anything like that. I really don’t want violence toward them, but if they’re gonna come bring violence to us? Well, if that’s the language they want to speak, we’ll learn it.”
Maybe the Bundys didn’t want any shots fired — at Bunkerville, in Oregon, or ever. But that’s not to say their followers don’t. The Bundys may not have agreed with what the Millers believed, but the Millers most certainly believed in the Bundys.
So did Bill Keebler. In June 2016, as the Bundys sat in jail in Oregon awaiting trial, the Utah militiaman planted a bomb near a BLM cabin in Arizona, hoping to create “an anti-government action with other militia groups similar to the event in Bunkerville, Nevada,” according to court documents. Keebler claimed he spent 13 days at Bundy Ranch, and he was electrified by the cause. But his bomb was a fake — the men he’d worked with on the bomb plot were undercover FBI agents. Keebler pushed the button on the fake bomb, thinking it detonated. And he was arrested a day later.
Prominent supporters of the Bundy family raised money for his commissary account, and called him a political prisoner. (Keebler plead guilty to charges in April).
When I asked Neil Wampler about people like the Millers, he pushed back at the mention. The Bundys are nonviolent, he told me. Peace is what they preach.
“I truly believe Ammon Bundy is one of the great leaders of our time,” he said. “He acts out of prayer and meditation.”
It’s a rainy November morning in Portland, Oregon, in 2017 — one month before the Nevada trial implodes in the faces of federal prosecutors. Though it’s been a year since the Bundy brothers were acquitted of the charges for the Malheur occupation, other minor players were found guilty by a jury in a second trial. Those people are still behind bars awaiting sentencing.
After the Bundys walked, a second trial of lower profile defendants were found guilty.
Duane Ehmer is one of them. He’s a welder from rural eastern Oregon who was handed a sentence of a year and a day in a federal prison for his actions at the refuge. In early 2018, he would ride across the entire state of Oregon and half of California on a brown horse named Hellboy to report to prison.
But on this day, Ehmer paced in front of the federal courthouse on Hellboy’s back, holding an American flag in one hand, rain slicked down his face. He’s trotting back and forth on the downtown Portland street as a gesture of support for a man upstairs readying to face the judge.
Darryl Thorn walked into the ninth floor courtroom wearing powder blue jail scrubs. The 33-year-old was a member of a Washington state militia before he acted as an armed guard in the Malheur refuge’s iconic lookout tower. In a video shown at his trial, he tells other occupiers, “We came here for one fucking reason: to fight.”
He smiled at the reporters who’d come to watch his sentencing. “Mornin’,” he nodded.
He looked my way. “Was there a lot of people downstairs?”
Where the Bundys had hordes of followers filling the gallery in Portland during their trial, and during the trial in Las Vegas, there I only saw Ehmer.
But I couldn’t tell him the truth — that there was just one wet cowboy outside, riding around in circles with no one else watching. So I shrugged in response.
Just before the judge came into the courtroom, some female Patriots filed into the row behind me. Thorn turned to talk to them: “Are there lots of people down there?” he asked again, his voice eager for the answer he wanted to hear.
Yes, one of them told them. There are lots of people downstairs rooting for him.
He smiled wide and pumped his fist at this small victory.
Moments later, the judge told Thorn he would continue to live in jail for the crimes he committed during the Malheur occupation, that he would continue to be away from his children. He lamented to her that he needed mental help, but he did not apologize.
She sentenced him to 18 more months in a federal prison.
I think of Thorn later when the Bundys go free in Vegas — how people like he and Ehmer pay the price for the crimes the Bundys set into motion.
I wonder whether Thorn heard that the Bundys spent Christmas with their children.
I wonder if knowing would even matter.
A true believer never strays from the path of the faithful. And I’m starting to realize that it isn’t facts or truth that matter when it comes to following this family, this movement.
It’s something so much bigger than that.
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Leah Sottile is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Playboy, California Sunday Magazine, Outside, The Atlantic and Vice.