Bundys’ Trial for Conspiracy in Nevada Standoff Begins

Ammon Bundy removes a "closed area" sign after the BLM agreed to release his family's a cattle near Bunkerville on April 12, 2014.

Ammon Bundy removes a "closed area" sign after the BLM agreed to release his family's a cattle near Bunkerville on April 12, 2014. (Jason Bean/Las Vegas Review-Journal)

October 30, 2017

The conspiracy trial against members of the Bundy family for their role in an armed uprising against federal officials in 2014 begins on Monday, the latest chapter in a sprawling case that has rallied anti-government militias and members of the so-called “Patriot” movement.

Cliven Bundy and his sons Ammon and Ryan, along with Montana militia leader Ryan Payne, each face multiple charges, including conspiracy and assault on a federal officer. If convicted on all counts, they could spend decades in prison.

The trial is the culmination of a years-long investigation into the armed standoff, which began in April 2014 after federal agents came to the family ranch near Bunkerville, Nevada to impound Cliven Bundy’s cattle. Bundy had allowed his cattle to graze for years on federal land without paying the required fees. The Bundy family rallied supporters — including armed militiamen — to their aid, leading to a tense confrontation with agents from the federal Bureau of Land Management. Anxious to avoid bloodshed, U.S. officials ultimately backed down, relinquishing the family’s cattle.

It was a watershed victory for the Bundys and their supporters. But it also galvanized a nationwide movement of self-described “patriots” opposed to perceived government overreach — and put the Bundys at the forefront.

Two years later, Ammon went on to spark another showdown with federal agents when he and his supporters occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. Federal officials broke up the occupation after about a month, but not without a cost. Ammon, his brother Ryan and Payne were all arrested, and one of their closest supporters, Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, was killed by Oregon State police.

In Nevada, prosecutors say that Cliven, the two Bundy brothers and Payne conspired to lead the uprising against federal agents, during which some supporters allegedly trained weapons on federal agents. Some of the evidence includes Facebook posts and messages traded between the Bundys and militia leaders, including Payne, in which they discussed, among other things, plans to travel to the ranch.

Officials will also introduce clips from interviews filmed by an undercover FBI agent, according to court documents. The agent posed as a documentary filmmaker named Charles Johnson, and persuaded the Bundy family and several supporters to sit for recorded interviews. In audio and video recordings, some of which were obtained by FRONTLINE, Johnson asked about the Bundy “family rank structure” and who planned the uprising.  

Ammon told FRONTLINE he talked his family into participating. “They went to our home,” he said. “I think about that. The whole time my mom’s in there cooking for them and they’re plotting to destroy our family.”

Payne and the Bundys have pleaded not guilty, saying they were holding a peaceful protest against government overreach. “What that was, was a protest,” said Dan Hill, Ammon’s attorney. “And Ammon certainly did everything humanly possible to make sure there weren’t any threatening elements in that protest.”

But in court filings, even the defendants acknowledged the dubious optics of armed men training weapons toward federal agents.

After the Oct. 1 Las Vegas massacre, which killed 58 people and injured more than 500 others, Payne asked the judge to push back the trial. Not only was the shooting local, he noted, but the killer was a white man from Mesquite, Nevada, a tiny town just up the road from Bundy ranch. While there’s no known connection between the Las Vegas shooter and the Bundys, Payne argued the jury would be now impossibly biased against men accused of conspiring to turn their weapons against federal agents.

“The images the government will show at trial will resemble the print and television images jurors will have seen on endless repeat while following last night’s events,” he argued in court filings the day after the shooting. “It is unrealistic to expect the similarity of these two scenarios will not prejudice the defendants.”

The judge agreed, postponing the trial to today.

For prosecutors, a guilty verdict is anything but certain. So far, federal officials have had a mixed record in their attempt to bring the Bundys and their supporters to justice — in part, they have said, because of growing distrust of the federal government.

In Oregon, Ammon, his brother Ryan and five others were acquitted of conspiracy for their role in the Malheur occupation. In a second trial, two supporters were convicted on the conspiracy charge, while two others were convicted on lesser felonies.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Ethan Knight, who tried the Malheur case, has said government mistrust was a challenge at trial.

“In the almost two decades that I’ve been handling criminal cases as a prosecutor, it has gotten more difficult with federal law enforcement like FBI agents,” he told FRONTLINE. “Because there seems to be, from our vantage point, more distrust of those institutions.”

In Nevada in April, a federal judge declared a mistrial for four Bundy supporters involved in the uprising at Bunkerville. Two others were convicted of some charges, including Greg Burleson, an Arizona militiaman who now faces up to 68 years in prison for eight felony charges, including threatening and assaulting a federal officer. 

The remaining four were retried. Two were acquitted, while the others — Eric Parker and Scott Drexler — ultimately accepted plea deals this month. Each could face up to 25 years in prison.

Once a verdict is rendered in the Bundys’ Nevada trial, prosecutors have one more set of defendants, including two more Bundy sons, Melvin and David, and other militia supporters. Their trial will begin in the coming months.

Sarah Childress

Sarah Childress, Series Senior Editor, FRONTLINE



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