Jury Returns No Convictions for Four Men in Bunkerville Standoff Case
Eric Parker aims a rifle on an overpass overlooking federal agents during the Bunkerville standoff in April 2014.
A Nevada jury dealt another blow this week to the government’s case against participants in an armed uprising against federal agents three years ago.
On Tuesday, a jury acquitted two men, Richard Lovelien and Steven Stewart, of all 10 charges against them, and two others, Eric Parker and O. Scott Drexler, on most counts. The jury deadlocked on the remaining charges against Parker and Drexler, and the judge declared a mistrial.
This was the second trial for the four men, who had been accused of conspiracy to impede or injure a federal officer, among other charges. A jury in April deadlocked on all charges against them.
The four were in Bunkerville, Nevada in April 2014, when rancher Cliven Bundy and his sons rallied armed militia and other supporters to face off against agents with the federal Bureau of Land Management who had come to impound Bundy’s cattle.
The Bundys’ fight against the federal government began decades earlier as a dispute over grazing land for the family’s cattle. That dispute, and the resulting armed uprising in 2014, has become a rallying cry for armed militia groups and others who harbor distrust of the federal government. The Bundys are heroes in the so-called “Patriot” movement, and to their supporters, the cases against them have been manipulated by federal authorities desperate to crush them.
“The government did everything they could to stack and get guilty charges,” said Andrea Parker, Eric’s wife, according to The New York Times. “I might actually get to hug my husband for the first time in 18 months.” Eric Parker was photographed aiming a rifle from a highway overpass overlooking federal agents during the standoff.
Overall, prosecutors have charged 19 men in this case, and secured two convictions. One, an Arizona militiaman named Greg Burleson, was sentenced in July to 68 years after his conviction on eight felonies, including threatening and assaulting a federal officer. Undercover FBI agents filmed Burleson saying there would have been “dead bodies” at Bunkerville if federal agents had crossed a security perimeter. Another Bundy supporter, Todd Engel, was convicted of lesser charges, including obstruction of justice, and will be sentenced next month.
The case of the Bundys has bedeviled federal authorities, who have struggled to persuade juries to hold them or their supporters accountable for either the Bunkerville uprising or a subsequent standoff in Oregon. In early Jan. 2016, Ammon Bundy, one of Cliven’s sons, led an armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which was broken up by federal agents after about a month.
In the aftermath of the Malheur occupation, prosecutors brought a case right away, charging 26 defendants with felony conspiracy and other offenses. In the end, 11 pleaded guilty to conspiracy, and two were convicted on the conspiracy charge. Seven were acquitted in full — including Ammon and his brother Ryan.
At the time, Assistant U.S. Attorney Ethan Knight said the acquittals were in part the result of a growing distrust of the federal government. “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 some instances, government actions — or missteps — may have helped further that narrative. During the Oregon trial, prosecutors played a video of occupiers firing weapons at the refuge. It was a key piece of evidence that seemed compelling — until it was revealed that an FBI informant had overseen the shooting exercise.
Ammon’s attorney, Marcus Mumford, told FRONTLINE in an interview that the revelation helped strengthen their case. “Our presentation of the case was, this is government overreach, and the trial itself became an example of it,” he said.
In Nevada, juries heard how FBI agents went undercover, posing as documentary filmmakers for the fictional company Longbow Productions, to persuade the Bundys and their supporters — including Burleson — to give on-camera interviews about their roles in Bunkerville.
Prosecutors haven’t yet said whether they will attempt to re-try Parker and Drexler on the latest deadlocked charges.
Cliven, Ammon and Ryan Bundy are scheduled to stand trial in 30 days. The final set of defendants, including two other Bundy sons, David and Melvin, will go on trial once that verdict is rendered.