It was just before noon on a Saturday in April when the armed men started taking up positions in the high desert sun.
Kitted out in camouflage and tactical gear, they had driven hundreds of miles across the country to make a stand in a dry stretch of scrubland in southeastern Nevada.
Men calling themselves Oath Keepers had come from Arizona and New Hampshire, joining a militia group from Montana, Operation Mutual Aid; and members of the Three Percenters from Idaho and Oregon. This was the first time these self-styled “patriots” had come together in one place, to confront what they all believed was the growing tyranny of the federal government.
Brandon Rapolla, a Marine veteran from Oregon, was one of them. “I’m a devout Christian,” he said. “I prayed upon it very heavily. And within less than a 24-hour period, I got my gear ready and headed down there.”
They had come to defend Cliven Bundy, a longtime Nevada rancher who had declared a “range war” against the federal government. Bundy’s cattle had grazed freely across public lands near the town of Bunkerville for more than 20 years, in defiance of orders from the federal Bureau of Land Management. Bundy had ignored penalty fees and three court orders requiring him to remove the animals. Now, the bureau had begun impounding the cattle to auction them off.
The bureau had expected resistance from Cliven and his sons, who had vowed to defend a livelihood their family had maintained for generations. They even thought there might be protests from local friends and family.
“What we really did not anticipate is hundreds of militia members, many of them armed, coming from around the country,” said Steve Ellis, then the BLM’s deputy director of operations, who was watching the situation unfold from his office in Washington, D.C.
The standoff had been coming to a head for several days, and by that Saturday morning, the BLM estimated, hundreds of militia and other supporters had gathered — some on horseback, many of them armed. They vastly outnumbered the federal agents on the scene.
It was the largest gathering of militia anyone had seen in decades, and it sent shockwaves through the land management agency. Like most of his colleagues at the BLM, Ellis, a soft-spoken forester from the midwest, spent his time thinking about how best to manage public lands, not armed standoffs. Now, some of his officers in Nevada were worried they might never see their families again.
To the FBI, who had sent two agents to the scene, the gathering was more familiar, but no less concerning. They knew what had happened in the past when armed extremists confronted federal agents, and they were sobered by what they saw unfolding in Bunkerville. The message that got back to the BLM was chilling: We hunker down, people die. We go back to gathering [cattle], people die. We extricate ourselves immediately, people die.
Hoping to defuse the mounting tension, BLM officials in Washington made a decision. Saturday morning, they ordered the agents on the ground to stop rounding up Bundy’s cattle. The local sheriff, Doug Gillespie, drove out to Bundy Ranch to deliver the news. He stepped up on a makeshift stage decked out in American flags and red, white and blue bunting. The crowd roared its approval as he explained that the BLM would stop the round-up and begin dismantling the military-style compound it had set up nearby to carry out the operation.
“My intention is to keep a very emotional issue safe,” he said, turning to Cliven Bundy, who was standing with him on the stage. “What I’d like to sit down and talk with you about is how that is facilitated in a safe way.”
But Bundy had other ideas. Dressed in a crisp white button-down, a straw-yellow cowboy hat pulled low over his brow, he took the microphone and insisted that the sheriff disarm the federal officers and pile their guns at the foot of several flagpoles the protesters had erected. He also ordered the sheriff to demolish the entrances to federal parks in the area. The sheriff had one hour to do this, Bundy told the crowd in a speech filmed by cellphones and later posted online. “And then we’ll decide what we’re gonna do from this point on.”
The hour ticked by. A few people chanted “USA, USA” to pass the time, but the crowd was growing restless. Finally, the 67-year-old Bundy took the stage again. “Let’s go get those cattle,” he cried. “All we gotta do is open the gate and let ‘em back out on the river, and they’re home.” The crowd cheered.
Bundy told those with cars to drive down and block the freeway, and those on horseback to take another route. Then, he gave a parting shout: “Get ‘er goin, cowboys! Let’s go get ‘er done!” Cheering and whooping, people hopped into cars and pickups and tore off down the road to a wash beneath the highway overpass, where the BLM had set up its enclosure to hold Bundy’s cattle.
Ryan and Ammon Bundy, two of the rancher’s sons, led the crowd. They stopped about 60 yards from the gate that led to the impoundment site. Rapolla, the militia leader, said he was stationed away from the wash, in a backup force. “Anybody who went there was prepared for the federal government to take lethal action,” he said. “Whoever has the bigger stick will prevail.”
It was high noon, and tensions were mounting on both sides. Standing in the bottom of the wash, the officers were surrounded. Steep embankments rose up on either side of them.
“Long guns right in front of us,” an agent called out to his colleagues. They spotted snipers on the highway overpass above them. “OK, I’ve got two more over here that are knelt down,” said another. “There’s at least 10 or 12 long guns.”
In their positions on higher ground, the militiamen were ready.
“I’ve got a clear shot at four of them,” one man with a rifle said, as he aimed in the direction of the BLM officers, according to Reuters photographer Jim Urquhart, who was at the scene. “I’m ready to pull the trigger if fired upon,” said another.
One of the agents received a call from Ellis, who had just landed at the Las Vegas airport from Washington and was preparing to drive out to the scene. Ellis’s voice catches as he recalls the orders he gave on the phone: “Get everybody out of there,” he said. “Let them have the cattle.”
As the federal agents climbed into their cars and drove off on that day in 2014, Ammon Bundy stepped to the front of the crowd and cut off a sign the BLM had put up on a gate. He held it aloft, and the crowd roared its approval. “We finally made enough noise, enough ruckus … to get our government to act,” he said later. Someone draped a hand-painted sign on the overpass: “The West Has Now Been Won.”
Back in Las Vegas, Ellis huddled with his agents, many of them visibly shaken. He praised them for their restraint and professionalism. He didn’t care that the militias were calling it a victory. “They can gloat all they want, but everyone went home safe,” he said. “And I also knew that eventually the wheels of justice would start turning. That was not the end of it.”
Three years later, the Bundy family is still fighting the federal government — but now, from behind bars in Nevada, where they await trial for their roles in the standoff.
How they ended up there, after leading the largest armed uprising against the federal government in a generation, is a story that eclipses their own long fight over grazing land in Nevada. It goes back to an extremist militia movement that exploded in the early 1990s, amid economic anxiety and suspicion, mainly among rural, white Americans that their own government had turned against them.
The armed “patriots” who rallied at Bunkerville were the latest incarnation of this movement, which was sparked by deadly confrontations between federal agents and civilians at Ruby Ridge, Idaho in 1992 and Waco, Texas in 1993, and led to the retaliatory bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City by Timothy McVeigh two years later.
FRONTLINE has been investigating this movement and the government’s response to it, examining court records, government documents and conducting dozens of interviews. The reporting shows how in the wake of bloody confrontations, the U.S. government altered its approach to domestic extremists, at times emboldening militias and complicating efforts to hold them to account.
By the time the Bundys made their stand in 2014, federal authorities had adopted a cautious approach to militia groups, wary of provoking more bloodshed. But now federal agents found themselves struggling to deal with unforeseen consequences, even as the threat seemed once again to be on the rise.
At the time, there were 240 anti-government militia groups, more than four times the number that existed in 2002, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks domestic extremism.
These new groups had yet to threaten serious violence or rally behind a common cause — until the Bundys’ stand in Bunkerville, which would come to present the most vivid test of law enforcement’s efforts to deal with anti-government extremists in more than two decades.
I. The Bundys’ Rebellion
Ever since their ancestors settled in the Virgin Valley, an unforgiving stretch of land that extends from northwestern Arizona into southeastern Nevada, the Bundys have been on a collision course with the federal government.
From the early days, the family eked out a living running cattle in the vast desert. By the mid-1930s, the federal government began regulating the use of that land, charging ranchers fees to graze their cattle.
Nearly half of the land in western states — and 85 percent of Nevada — is public land, most of it managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The BLM became an omnipresent landlord for ranchers like the Bundys, and relied on the open desert to graze their cattle.
By the time Steve Ellis joined the BLM in 1979, Congress had begun requiring the agency to manage public land not just for ranching, but also recreation, wildlife preservation and other uses. The BLM also had to abide by new laws like the Endangered Species Act when making decisions.
Ranchers were already facing economic pressure from forces like globalization and drought. Now, they chafed at the increasing regulation of land they’d been using for years, which further threatened their operations. The BLM bore the brunt of their anger.
“Ranchers are always having to look over their shoulder and wonder, ‘When is my ranch no longer gonna be viable?’” said Leisl Carr Childers, an historian at the University of Northern Iowa. “They focus on what they try to control, which is the regulation.”
The backlash spread throughout the West and became known as the Sagebrush Rebellion for the hardy, heather-gray plant that feeds their cattle. The Sagebrush rebels shared a common cause — if not always ideology — with a rising anti-government group known as Posse Comitatus, or “power of the county.” Posse Comitatus held that local sheriffs were the highest law enforcers, and trumped federal authority. Both objected to the increasing federal oversight.
Cliven Bundy was an early Sagebrush rebel, and the Posse Comitatus doctrine aligned with his conviction that the BLM had no right to regulate his use of the rangeland. Then, in the early 1990s, he and the agency would finally clash over, of all things, a tortoise.
Development in nearby Las Vegas was threatening indigenous desert tortoises and the federal government invoked the Endangered Species Act to protect them. The county government came up with a controversial plan. They’d turn large amounts of the desert near Bunkerville into a protected habitat for the tortoises. The BLM agreed with the proposal, and began curtailing the ranchers’ use of that land.
The BLM’s Ellis acknowledged it put the bureau in a difficult situation.
“Inherently, there are going to be conflicts and challenges for us,” he said. “It’s a situation where not everybody gets what they want, and so a lot of the decisions that we make are compromises.”
Some ranchers took buyouts. Others sold to developers of residential communities or retirement areas.
Not Cliven Bundy and his family. They adamantly resisted the BLM’s plan to reduce their grazing land. “Here comes the federal government saying that we don’t have rights there — that they own the land, and everything on it is theirs,” Ammon Bundy said in one of a series of jailhouse interviews with FRONTLINE.
Cliven Bundy fought the BLM in court, arguing that the federal government had no right to the land. He lost. In protest, he stopped paying his grazing fees and let his cattle roam freely across federal lands.
“We had to make a decision whether we were just going to let all our rights and our heritage and everything that our family has done for the last 138 years — five generations — just let them go,” Ammon said. “Just walk away from them and move to the city, I guess, and try to find a whole other income and … we couldn’t make that decision. We had to say no.”
Cliven Bundy kept fighting, and the case wound its way through the courts for two decades, until the rancher owed more than $1 million in fines and fees. Finally in 2013, the BLM won a final court order allowing them to impound the family’s cattle and auction them off.
Ellis said the BLM had tried for years to avoid an impoundment. “The phone calls, the meetings, the letters didn’t work, and it’s just sort of a last resort,” he said. “It’s something we don’t like to do.”
He knew it would be a massive operation. Usually, BLM impoundments involve rounding up between 20 to 100 cattle across about as many acres. The Bundys had allowed 1,000 head of cattle to roam across an expanse of land the size of Delaware, he said.
Ellis also knew the Bundys would resist. Cliven Bundy had vowed to do “whatever it takes” to stop the roundup, including bringing in others to help him, according to court documents. When he received formal notification in March 2014 that the impoundment would begin the next month, he told the BLM he was “ready to do battle.” His eldest son, Ryan, drove out to Utah, and according to court documents, threatened the auctioneer the BLM had contracted with to sell the cattle.
Despite the family’s bellicose rhetoric, the roundup began as planned on April 5. Contract cowboys began herding the animals into a gated enclosure, to be held until they could be taken to auction.
The next day, a flashpoint. One Bundy son, David, started filming BLM convoys with an iPad. Agents ordered him to stop. When he refused, they forcibly arrested and detained him.
His mother, Carol Bundy, posted on Facebook: “They have cattle and now they have one of my boys. Range war begins tomorrow at Bundy Ranch at 9:30 a.m. We [sic] going to get the job done!”
II. Enter the Militias
As the roundup continued on Wednesday, April 9, members of the Bundy family and supporters began protesting BLM convoys. The trucks were hauling away pipelines and fencing the Bundys had installed on the grazing land they had been using. The protesters thought they had dead cows. Margaret Houston, Cliven Bundy’s sister, was out in front of the crowd, insisting the covoy stop for an inspection.
A handful of BLM agents shouted for the protesters to keep back, but Houston, a slight woman in her 50s, stepped closer to the trucks, her hands out. Suddenly, one of the agents yanked her aside, throwing her to the ground.
Ammon Bundy barreled onto the scene in his four-wheeler. He pulled in front of a dump truck, forcing it to stop, and jumped down. A handful of BLM officers, clad in tan uniforms and black wraparound sunglasses, ordered Ammon to move his ATV. Bundy didn’t stand down. Amid the shouting, he kicked a police dog, and according to the BLM officers, tried to hit an officer.
In the melee, one of the BLM agents fired a Taser at Bundy. His body contorted with the electric current, but Bundy stayed upright. Storming back to confront the officer, he was Tasered again.
Much of the scene was caught on video and quickly posted online. It went viral.
At BLM headquarters in Washington, Ellis watched the videos with growing concern. He didn’t want to second-guess the officers on the scene, but as the clips ricocheted across the internet, he realized just how damaging they would be. “That’s when it went to a Category Five hurricane,” he said.
Around the country, the videos were a call to action for militia members. To them, this was a perfect example of what they already believed: that the federal government was abusing its power to terrorize hard-working Americans. They began to congregate at Bundy Ranch.
They were men like Ryan Payne, a 30-year-old Army veteran from Montana who had founded a militia network after his last tour in Iraq, which he’d named Operation Mutual Aid.
In an interview with his local paper, the Missoula Independent, Payne explained that he’d taken an oath to defend his country from all enemies — and he worried now that the enemy was his own government. Operation Mutual Aid was intended to be a quick reaction force to defend Americans’ “public and private property, lives and liberty to exercise God-given rights.”
Payne had tried to rally his troops once before around an eighth-grader in West Virginia who was suspended from school for wearing an NRA T-shirt — but the effort fizzled after the teen’s family asked them not to come.
Now, the Bundys were welcoming the group, and any other militia, with open arms. On Facebook, Carol Bundy posted: “The Bundy Family has requested help from militia groups including Operation Mutual Aid, 3 Percenters club, freedom fighters and other like operations to come and stand with us and regain our rights and freedoms.”
This was a galvanizing moment, but also a threatening one — unlike any other time in recent memory. What had been bubbling up in distant corners around the country had exploded into full view on the internet and national TV.
“It went from being sporadic little groups here and there to being a movement,” said J.J. MacNab, an analyst who tracks anti-government extremism.
And by that hot Saturday in April, hundreds of militia members had essentially driven out federal agents at gunpoint, and walked away without any consequences. Then, newly united and emboldened, they started looking for the next place to make a stand.
III. The Militia Resurgence
Federal agents admit they were taken by surprise at Bunkerville. But years before the standoff, a few people had already heard rumblings of a gathering storm.
It was 2007, and the presidential campaign was in full swing. At the Department of Homeland Security, intelligence analyst Daryl Johnson was starting to see paramilitary training and militia propaganda videos popping up online. There were hundreds of them. Some detailed field survival skills and tips on firing various weapons. Others talked about lynching government officials.
A mild-mannered conservative, Johnson had been fascinated by domestic extremists since his youth. Now he led a team dedicated to studying them – and predicting what they’d do next.
Already that year, officials had managed to stop some extremist militia attacks. In February 2007, a militia member in Wyoming was convicted of weapons charges after he said he planned to kill immigrants crossing into the U.S. from Mexico. Two months later, five members of the Alabama Free Militia were arrested on weapons and explosives charges, after allegedly discussing plans to gun down Mexicans — and any government agents who came near them.
Johnson was familiar with the first modern militia movement from the 1990s, which drew from a mix of white supremacist beliefs, conspiracy theories, and anti-government groups like the Posse Comitatus and Sovereign Citizens, an offshoot movement that believes the U.S. government has no jurisdiction over them.
The new groups he was seeing were different. While still rooted in old ideologies, the new militias were more united in anger at either perceived action — or inaction — by the federal government over contentious issues like immigration, federal lands and gun rights. With Barack Obama heading for the White House, many were concerned about having a president they didn’t see as on their side. The groups also said they rejected racism outright, and sought to recruit military veterans.
With the power of social media, Johnson also saw a heightened threat of “lone wolf” attacks – people at the fringes of these movements who might take anti-government ideology to violent conclusions.
“Not every single group is hell-bent on overthrowing the government or wanting to instigate terrorism,” he said. “[But] you’re always running that risk of someone coming into contact with your group … then going out and doing something criminal.”
In 2009, Johnson realized that state and local law enforcement were so focused on Islamic extremism that they might be unprepared to deal with this new threat. So he wrote a report for them, summing up his findings. “We wanted to sound the alarm bells,” he said.
It leaked to the public almost immediately. Within days, it was making headlines on conservative media sites: “Disagree with Obama? Gov’t has Eyes on You”, said World Net Daily. “DHS Says Gun Owners Are Terrorists,” InfoWars declared. “The new ‘terrorists’ in this country are the Americans who love liberty, hate unconstitutional government edicts and fear the bureaucrats running Washington, D.C.,” another blogger wrote. The American Legion blasted the report for disparaging veterans.
Janet Napolitano, the Homeland Security secretary at the time, went on FOX News to apologize. She said the report was limited to extremists prone to violence — not everyone who was critical of the government.
Inside the DHS, Johnson felt the backlash. His new reports on the issue went nowhere, he said, and his team was dismantled.
But in the weeks after his report leaked, a new militia group, the Oath Keepers, debuted with a gathering — a muster, in militia-speak — in Lexington, Mass. It was led by military veteran and Yale graduate Stewart Rhodes, who would later rally at Bunkerville with other Oath Keepers. The group’s name comes from the oaths members took as current or former military or law enforcement officers to defend the country.
Soon, Richard Mack, a former Arizona sheriff, formed a similar group, the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, and would also turn up at Bunkerville. Within a few years, more than 200 retired or active military and law enforcement members had added their names to the group’s online resolution.
By the time these militias rallied behind the Bundys, Johnson had left Homeland Security in frustration, with most of his team reassigned to focus on Islamic extremists. He said the department was down to just one analyst covering domestic extremism full time.
A DHS spokeswoman disagreed with Johnson’s account, but declined to comment further. In a statement, DHS said it covers “a variety of forms of violent extremism.”
From the sidelines in 2014, Johnson watched the Bunkerville standoff, and wondered how the government would respond. “We’ve learned the hard lessons of going in with a forceful hand, so there has to be a level of patience, and tactics have to change,” he said. “Then again, you don’t want to let these people feel they’ve got the upper hand.”
IV. The FBI Makes a Move
In the days and weeks after Bunkerville, the FBI showed no signs that they were moving to arrest the militiamen who had faced off against federal agents. The militias went home energized — to Montana, Oregon, Arizona — wherever they’d come from. And the Bundys, especially Ammon, used the national spotlight to spread their message about abuses by the federal government.
But as they did so, the FBI was quietly starting to build a case against the family and their supporters.
One day, a man claiming to be a filmmaker from Nashville, Tennessee called the Bundy Ranch asking to speak to Cliven. He introduced himself as Charles Johnson with Longbow Productions, and said he wanted to make a documentary.
Since the standoff, Ammon Bundy had emerged as a leader in the family, and his father looked to him to decide what to do. Bundy was skeptical. Longbow’s website seemed a little too basic — there wasn’t even a single video clip to watch.
“I just don’t keep a lot of stuff on there because it’s not my product anymore,” Johnson said smoothly. “And that’s why I’m investing my money here, is because I don’t want it to go to the wrong hands.”
After some hesitation, Bundy let Johnson in, persuading his family and friends to sit down with the crew. For months, Johnson and his team filmed lengthy interviews with the Bundys and several militia supporters. They wanted to know who was in charge, and who planned the standoff. They offered at least one of them alcohol before they started the interview. But undercover cameras were always rolling.
None of them knew it, but Longbow was actually an FBI front.
The FBI declined to comment on Longbow Productions, but Mike German, a retired FBI agent who worked undercover with extremist groups in the 1990s, said such an extensive undercover operation would require high-level approval, particularly since an agent posed as a journalist.
As the Longbow crew filmed, the impact of Bunkerville rippled across the West. Threats and assaults against federal employees working in the wilderness were on the rise, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a nonprofit group that compiles data from federal agencies.
The Bundys and their supporters tried to provoke new confrontations. That May, Ryan Bundy and some followers joined a protest in Utah against the BLM’s decision to close a canyon trail to ATVs in order to protect the wilderness. Locals wanted to ride to the closure point, but Bundy and his supporters took it further, charging their vehicles down the closed trail as the local sheriff looked on.
In June, a couple who had spent a few days at Bundy Ranch, Jerad and Amanda Miller, went on a killing spree in Las Vegas, executing two police officers and a civilian before they were shot dead. Jerad had posted frequently on Facebook about supporting the Bundys, calling the Bunkerville standoff the “next Waco.” The Bundys later said they’d asked the Millers to leave the ranch.
The following year, in April 2015, Oath Keepers and other militia rallied around men who had been stopped by the BLM from mining on public land in southwestern Oregon. Several months later, Oath Keepers and members of the Three Percenters showed up in Lincoln, Montana to support other miners who had been prohibited from working on public land controlled by the U.S. Forest Service.
In Washington, Steve Ellis was troubled by the sporadic standoffs. “What kind of message is this sending, that if you don’t like an action the department here takes, you show up with an armed gang?” he said. “That can be very dangerous — very, very dangerous indeed.”
Federal law enforcement recognized this too. Like it had been in the days after Waco and Ruby Ridge, the militia movement was again a counterterrorism priority at the FBI, according to a senior law enforcement official.
But now, the government was taking a more cautious approach than they had decades earlier, keeping its distance. They were walking a fine line: trying to prevent militia violence but not wanting to provoke it, either.
For the FBI, that meant ceding some control, and dealing with the public perception that its agents were unwilling or unable to handle the militia threat, the official said.
“There’s a fair bit of stress involved in that,” he said. “[Militias] want the confrontation. They’re putting themselves in this position where they know, or at least expect the government is going to have to come and deal with them face to face. …That gets to the heart of where the militia movement’s current trending ideology is.”
By the end of 2015, the FBI was still working on its investigation, and the government still hadn’t made any arrests for the uprising in Bunkerville. The closest they had gotten to the Bundys was the arrest of one of Cliven’s bodyguards, Schuyler Barbeau, on a weapons violation for allegedly manufacturing an AR-15 with an illegal barrel.
Prosecutors say Barbeau had also posted favorably on Facebook about Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, and said that federal officials who didn’t uphold the Constitution as he saw it should be “lynched.”
In emails to FRONTLINE from prison, Barbeau said the government misconstrued his words. He, too, had been interviewed by Longbow Productions, he said. Barbeau has pleaded not guilty and will stand trial in June.
V. Meet the Hammonds
Through the fall of 2015, Ammon Bundy was taking his message across the West. On social media, and in town after town, he’d been telling the story of Bundy Ranch, trying to inspire rural people to stand up.
On his travels, he heard about another ranching family like his: the Hammonds, who lived in Oregon. Like Cliven Bundy, patriarch Dwight Hammond had clashed with the BLM for years.
The government had accused Hammond and his son, Steven, of setting fires that burned over 100 acres of federal land. In one instance, prosecutors said they lit a fire to cover up evidence of poaching on public land. The flames also nearly singed a teenaged relative of the Hammonds, who testified that he’d been ordered to help set the fire and was warned not to tell anyone.
In 2012, Dwight and Steven Hammond were convicted under a federal statute passed in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing that mandated a minimum five-year sentence for arson on federal property.
To Ammon Bundy, that smacked of persecution. “They went to the level of actually criminally prosecuting them under an anti-terrorism law that basically was made to punish terrorists who burn federal property,” he said.
The federal judge also found the punishment excessive, and handed down shorter sentences — three months for Dwight and a year and a day for Steven. But prosecutors appealed, arguing the judge had no right to deviate from the law.
In October 2015, the five-year sentence was reinstated. Billy Williams, the U.S. attorney in Oregon whose office appealed the sentence, said he understood the original judge’s decision. “I understand it because I’m from rural America,” he said. “We appealed because the judge didn’t follow the law.”
Ammon Bundy said he was so upset about the Hammonds’ situation he couldn’t sleep. “What they were doing to the Hammonds was wrong,” he said. “It was so wrong what was happening.”
After staying up all night reading about the case online, he decided to go to Burns, a tiny town in Harney County, Oregon, and meet the Hammonds himself.
VI. The Sheriff and the Militias
Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward hadn’t been in his job a year when Ammon Bundy called to schedule a meeting to talk about the Hammonds. Ward was a 42-year-old Army veteran who had ambitious plans to tackle the scourge of drug addiction in his vast rural county.
Those plans would soon be put on hold. As he waited for Bundy to arrive at the station, Ward read up on what had happened at Bunkerville.
“It was a little scary to have these folks show up in the community,” he said. “It makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up a bit.”
Bundy showed up with Ryan Payne, the solemn militia leader who was at Cliven Bundy’s side during the standoff. Payne wore a dark beard and a sidearm. He stared Ward down, taking care to mention that he’d been an Army Ranger. (The sheriff would later learn that Payne was never part of the elite force.)
Bundy himself was calm and polite. He quoted frequently from a small Constitution he pulled from his breast pocket. His point was clear: As sheriff, Ward had the responsibility to prevent the Hammonds from being returned to federal custody. If he didn’t, Bundy told him, “He was going to bring thousands of people to this community, and he wouldn’t be able to control what all they might do.”
Ward stood firm. “I tried to take a very clear stance that our country has laws and appropriate channels to work things out, and that armed disputes were not going to be tolerated here,” he said. “And Mr. Payne stated that was exactly what was going to happen if the Hammonds spent one more day in prison.”
As he watched them leave that day, Ward felt a pit in his stomach — the kind you get, he said, when somebody runs a stop sign in front of you. It was Nov. 5. The Hammonds were due to turn themselves in on Jan. 4. That left him less than two months to find a solution.
Ward wasn’t unsympathetic to the Hammonds. Many people in Burns knew the family and thought their resentencing was unjust, including people in the sheriff’s own department. But the Hammonds had appealed their case and lost, and said they planned to surrender peacefully. None of that seemed to matter to Bundy or Payne.
Two weeks later, Ward’s office started getting swamped with phone calls and emails demanding that he do something about the Hammonds. Some were polite, some called him names. “Coward” particularly stung. Others were sweetly threatening: I’m sure you’ll do the right thing, sheriff.
Then Ammon Bundy returned to Ward’s office with Payne and several other militiamen: representatives from the Central Oregon Constitutional Guard, Oath Keepers from nearby Josephine County, the Pacific Patriots Network, the Idaho Three Percenters and a group called the Bearded Bastards. Several wore sidearms, even though the sheriff’s department prohibits civilians from carrying weapons inside the building. Ward let them in anyway, not wanting to start a showdown over the Second Amendment. There wasn’t enough room in his office, so he led them to the law library upstairs. The militias left an armed guard posted outside the building.
This time, the militia had new demands. Now, not only did they insist that Ward protect the Hammonds, but that he also expel all other law enforcement authorities in Harney County. If he didn’t, Bunkerville would look like “small potatoes,” they said, and “tens of thousands” would come to Burns.
The men came at him like a team of drill sergeants, Ward said, firing off justifications for their demands. The sheriff was the highest law enforcement authority in the county, they said. The federal government has no right to own land outside of Washington, D.C. Their beliefs were a “mixed bag” of anti-government extremist thought. “I’ve got people throwing stuff at me from the Posse Comitatus angle, to the Sovereign Citizen angle, to the Constitutionalist angle,” he said.
Finally, Bundy closed the meeting. “He said, ‘You’ve got one week to do what’s right, sheriff.’”
Ward decided he needed help. Billy Williams, the U.S. attorney, agreed to meet in the town of Bend, about two hours away. Representatives from the FBI, BLM and other agencies were there too.
Ward wanted to know why Bundy and his supporters hadn’t been arrested for their actions in Bunkerville. “Behind closed doors I probably wasn’t as nice as some people think I am,” he said. “But the fact is, I just felt like it never should’ve come here. We had an armed rebellion once from these same people, and it should’ve been dealt with then.”
The sheriff vowed to serve warrants on them all, he said, if federal officials could get the paperwork together. The officials were understanding, but said there was little they could do. They all recognized the central problem: Bundy and the others hadn’t done anything wrong in Burns, so they had no cause to arrest them. And so far, officials in Nevada hadn’t taken any action for Bunkerville.
So Ward went home. By then, he was noticing several strangers in town, bearded men wearing camouflage, sidearms holstered at their waists or long guns slung over their shoulders.
Ward increasingly felt like his town was under siege. Residents who confronted the militias were followed home or harassed. He said militiamen toyed with his deputies, committing minor traffic violations to get a reaction. When his deputies pulled over one car, several more would pull up around him. “They’d try to put you at a tactical disadvantage,” he said. “I can’t say how many times I wanted to fight back, and knew that was not the right answer.”
By the end of December, he said, militia outnumbered local law enforcement in the community three-to-one.
VII. Bundy Takes a Stand
Just a few days after Christmas, Ammon Bundy gathered with a small group of militia members in the dining room of a home in Burns. It was about a week before the Hammonds were to return to prison, and it was becoming clear that the sheriff wasn’t going to defend the father and son the way they wanted. But Bundy had another idea.
He proposed they occupy the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, a bird sanctuary about 40 miles outside of town, according to court testimony. The act would be symbolic: The refuge is federal land, adjacent to the Hammond’s ranch. Bundy just needed more men.
The next day, he issued a tearful plea to militias around the country. “You know who you are — you that came to the Bundy Ranch,” he said. “I’m asking you to come to Burns on January 2nd to make a stand.”
In the following days, Sheriff Ward prepared for a fight. More protesters arrived in Burns, and there were rumblings that they might try to take over the courthouse, which is attached to the sheriff’s department and the county jail.
So Ward locked all the weapons in the jail and told his dispatchers that if protesters breached the building, they should bolt themselves in one of the cells and wait for him to return. He ordered them not to shoot unless the protesters tried to break in to get them.
January 2nd began with a march. It was cold and sunny. Several hundred people walked through the snow-covered streets of Burns, carrying American flags and handmade signs. The crowd stopped outside the Hammonds’ home to deliver flowers and homemade cards and sing “Amazing Grace” to the family, who came out on their porch, visibly moved.
Afterward, the marchers regrouped in the parking lot of the Safeway grocery store in the middle of town. It wasn’t clear what would happen next.
Then Ammon Bundy, clad in his brown cowboy hat, climbed up on a truck bed. “I’m asking you to follow me, and go to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge,” he cried. “And we’re gonna make a hard stand.”
But Brandon Rapolla and other members of the Pacific Patriots Network decided they weren’t going. “Well us and [Pacific Patriots Network] and Oregon Three Percent, the other groups and patriot leadership groups said, ‘No, that’s not what we’re here for,’” he said.
They hung back, at least at first, while Bundy and a close band of supporters took the road out of town.
The refuge was empty when they arrived. The workers had been told to stay at home, just in case the march in town escalated. Bundy and his followers broke the lock to the entrance and took over the handful of small stone buildings with red-tiled roofs that made up the refuge headquarters.
They dragged heavy equipment and railroad ties across the roads leading to the refuge. They posted armed guards at the entrance, patrols around the perimeter and a lookout with a scoped rifle in an old watchtower that rose more than 100 feet into the air. Bundy named their new group the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom.
“This will become a base place for patriots from all over the country to come and be housed, and live here,” Bundy explained in an interview posted to YouTube the following day, his pocket Constitution peeking out of his breast pocket. “And we plan on staying here for several years.”
VIII. The Malheur Occupation
Greg Bretzing, the FBI’s special agent in charge in Oregon at the time, was dropping his daughter off at the Portland airport when his phone buzzed with the news: Ammon Bundy and his followers had seized the refuge.
Bretzing’s agents had monitored the situation as Bundy gathered support for the Hammonds in Burns. Now with an armed occupation underway, it fell to Bretzing to figure out what to do next.
His chief concern was avoiding bloodshed. Like many at the agency, Bretzing was deeply aware of what had happened at Ruby Ridge and Waco. And he knew how close the Bundys’ standoff in Nevada had come to violence. In talks with FBI headquarters, Bretzing laid out three priorities: resolve the occupation as peacefully as possible, return the refuge to the Fish and Wildlife Service and hold the occupiers accountable.
That meant avoiding confrontation with the militias. “We knew that if we were to immediately blockade the refuge, that it could be used as a source to rally others,” Bretzing said. There would be no roadblocks, no checkpoints and no immediate arrests.
“If you look at the history of the United States, there have not been that many long-term, armed occupations,” Bretzing said. “And some that don’t bring the happiest of memories — you think of Waco, Ruby Ridge.”
So for 24 days, the FBI monitored the occupation. They set up a makeshift command post in an old junior high school, posted security guards outside and held briefings in the auditorium. Then they watched as militiamen came and went from the refuge into Burns and around the area. Agents trailed Ammon Bundy to church and the grocery store.
“It goes counter to any law enforcement officer that you’ll ever meet to stand by and watch someone break the law — clearly break the law — and be out touting the fact they’re breaking the law, and not do anything about it,” Bretzing said.
Ward unsuccessfully tried to get the occupiers to leave, offering to escort Bundy and his followers out of town. And FBI negotiators tried to reason with him on the phone. But Bretzing said Bundy had impossible demands. He insisted the FBI leave the county, and cede control of the refuge and all public lands to the local residents.
“Those are not demands that we could meet, nor are they in agreement in any way, shape or form with the interpretation of the Constitution as has been determined by the Supreme Court over many, many years,” Bretzing said.
On the refuge, occupiers went about their daily lives. Shawna Cox, a grandmother from Utah, and Neil Wampler, a hippie-turned-conservative Vietnam veteran, cooked up meals for the crowds in the refuge kitchen. And Ammon Bundy, usually shadowed by his armed bodyguard, Brian Cavalier, held periodic press conferences outdoors in front of television cameras.
“To pitch it to the American people that we were hunkered down in some old rock building looking over the window sills with our AK-47s in our hands waiting for an imminent attack from the FBI was just completely wrong,” Bundy said. “That’s not the way it was.”
But some of the occupiers also rifled through files, and uncovered the names and Social Security numbers of the 16 refuge employees, according to a reporter at the scene. They ransacked their desks, and spit tobacco on some of their photos, federal officials said. Fearing for their safety, Chad Karges, the refuge manager, said his employees and their families were moved to secret locations. Elsewhere on the refuge, occupiers dug trenches in areas considered to be burial grounds for ancestors of the Burns Paiute tribe. The occupiers took down the sign for the refuge and rebranded it the “Harney County Resource Center.”
The refuge also harbored people of more concern to law enforcement. Joseph O’Shaughnessy was an Arizona militiaman who liked to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border as a vigilante. Another of the occupiers, Jon Ritzheimer, was a tattooed Marine veteran with a fondness for the Confederate flag. He’d been part of the Bunkerville standoff, and then organized an armed protest outside a mosque in his hometown of Phoenix the following year.
In his interview with FRONTLINE, Bundy said he couldn’t control who came to the refuge. “You’re going to get all kinds of different people that are going to come, and for different reasons,” he said. “As a leader, or as an organizer, you can’t stop that. Neither should you try to stop that, to a certain extent.”
As the occupation dragged on, Sheriff Ward began to worry about the final outcome. “It wasn’t as simple as, ‘Great, we’ve got the warrants, let’s go get ’em,’” he said. “It was having to come up with a plan of how to take these guys into custody with the lowest threat of collateral damage in the community.”
Finally, on Jan. 26, the authorities saw a chance to net the core leadership all at once. FBI agents had learned that a group, including Ammon Bundy, Ryan Payne, and LaVoy Finicum, a rancher who had been with the Bundys since Bunkerville, planned to drive to a neighboring county for a meeting.
The FBI knew the route and the cars they’d be driving. Backed by state police, they set up roadblocks on an isolated stretch of highway that cut through the snowy forest. There was no cellphone service for occupiers to call in reinforcements. If shooting broke out, no civilians would be harmed.
Then they waited. Ward watched the events unfold from a feed inside the FBI’s command center in Burns. “There was a lot of anxiety,” he said. “The pressure in your chest — up your neck.”
The beginning of the operation went as planned. When the convoy was stopped, Ammon Bundy, his bodyguard and their driver were all taken into custody without incident. Ryan Payne also surrendered.
But in the second vehicle, Finicum, Ryan Bundy, Cox and another woman, Victoria Sharp, refused to get out. The white SUV idled on the road while officers from the Oregon State Police waited behind them, lights flashing.
An FBI surveillance plane filmed as events unfolded. Cox turned on her cellphone camera as Finicum made the fateful decision to try to escape.
“You can go ahead and shoot me,” he shouted. “Put the laser right there, put the bullet through the head. You want my blood on your hands? Get it done, ’cause we’ve got people to see, and places to go.”
Finicum gunned the engine, heading toward the next police roadblock, where the car careened off the side of the road, nearly hitting an FBI agent.
“Go ahead and shoot me!” he shouted, leaping out of the SUV, the FBI plane continuing to film overhead.
Finicum tromped through the snow, his hands up, then moving downward. Then, within seconds, he was shot and killed by state police. His body fell crumpled in the snow.
The Justice Department opened an investigation into the FBI’s role in the incident. Bretzing, who retired in January, says Finicum’s death was an outcome they’d tried to avoid.
“I think law enforcement showed throughout the occupation their desire to resolve it peacefully and we took every action we could to do so,” he said. “But sometimes, things are out of our hands.”
It was the beginning of the end of the Malheur occupation. The FBI made arrests in the town of Burns, as well as in Arizona, rounding up other participants who had already left the refuge. They began negotiating the surrender of the few who remained.
But in Bunkerville, Cliven Bundy wasn’t ready to let the occupation end. He boarded a plane bound for Portland, hoping to rejuvenate the movement. The Bundy Ranch Facebook page broadcast his plans: “WAKE UP PATRIOTS! WAKE UP MILITIAS!” it screamed. “IT’S TIME!!!!!”
The FBI was determined to shut him down. “We made it very clear — and of course our headquarters in Washington D.C. as well as the Department of Justice was on board — with the fact that he would not be going to Burns to support an illegal occupation,” Bretzing said.
Nearly two years after Bunkerville, federal authorities finally moved to bring charges against Cliven for his role in the standoff. When his plane touched down in Portland, FBI agents were there to handcuff him and return him to Nevada.
For the Bundy family, the wheels of justice had finally started to turn.
IX. The Oregon Trials
In Portland, assistant U.S. attorney Ethan Knight was starting to prepare his case against Ammon and Ryan Bundy and several of their supporters. A prosecutor for nearly 20 years, Knight had recently been lauded by then Attorney General Loretta Lynch for winning a conviction in the case of a Somali-American college student who had attempted to blow up a Christmas tree lighting ceremony in downtown Portland.
In the Bundy case, Knight and his colleagues faced a daunting task. Authorities had ultimately arrested 26 people for their alleged role in the occupation. Eleven pleaded guilty, including militiamen Payne and Jon Ritzheimer. Charges were dismissed against Pete Santilli, a blogger who regularly broadcast from the refuge. That left 14 defendants, who prosecutors divided into two tiers to be tried separately.
The first trial would include Ammon and Ryan Bundy, and it was less than a year away. For the Christmas tree trial, Knight had had more than two years to prepare his case against a lone defendant. Now, he was racing to try seven people in one of the highest-profile cases Portland had seen in years.
And even though the occupation had effectively been live-streamed, with the defendants giving interviews and posting their own musings on social media, Knight knew it wasn’t going to be an easy victory.
There was no blueprint for how to prosecute people who’d occupied a wildlife refuge. Misdemeanors like trespassing, vandalism and theft just didn’t seem strong enough to the federal prosecutors.
“The notion that you have this right … to storm into a facility with your guns and clear a building room-by-room like you’re at war, and that’s some kind of patriotic way to object to government policies or laws is nonsense,” said Billy Williams, Knight’s boss. “That isn’t how it’s done in this country. And if you do it the way that the occupiers did, you should be arrested and you should be prosecuted.”
The government had spent just under $12 million on its response to the occupation, several million of it to run the FBI’s command post and support the roughly 1,000 bureau employees who cycled through, according to the U.S. attorney’s office. The Fish and Wildlife Service also spent $6.3 million to protect its traumatized staff, repair the refuge and tighten security at refuges nationwide in the event of a copycat incident.
The charging decision went all the way to what U.S. attorneys call “main justice” in Washington. It was determined that each defendant would be charged with a felony: conspiracy to impede federal officers.
At the outset, Knight admitted the charge didn’t perfectly fit what the defendants were accused of doing. It was like fitting a “square peg in a round hole,” he said. “So while we certainly believed it was strong and a just case, our perspective from the inside was not that this was a slam-dunk.”
The first trial began in mid-September. Outside the federal courthouse, a majestic granite and glass building in downtown Portland, protesters rallied with signs and chanted their support for the occupiers. One man blew a shofar — a long, twisted ram’s horn — loud enough to be heard several floors up in the U.S. attorney’s offices. Another galloped a horse down the street, waving an American flag.
Inside the courtroom, the seven defendants crowded with their lawyers at tables before the judge. The attorneys were largely Portland-based public defenders, most of whom thought they were likely to lose.
“The government doesn’t go undefeated, but they tend to be pretty close,” said Matt Schindler, an attorney for Kenneth Medenbach, one of the defendants.
But Ammon Bundy’s attorney, Marcus Mumford, had a plan. A Utah-based litigator, Mumford argued that the occupiers were protesting, not conspiring. “So the case itself from the government side was one thing,” he said. “Of course, our presentation of the case was [that] this is government overreach, and the trial itself became an example of it.”
Knight and his team wheeled in bins containing the more than ten thousand rounds of ammunition they’d recovered from the refuge. During the display, he later learned, one of the jurors came away unimpressed: She said she had just about that much ammunition at home.
Knight also found himself struggling to explain the FBI’s hands-off approach during the standoff.
“The jury was left with the impression that maybe this wasn’t that bad, if in fact these folks were allowed to stay for 41 days on this wildlife refuge, and the employees were allowed to go about their business elsewhere,” Knight said. “Maybe this wasn’t such a big deal.”
He pointed out that the occupiers had been firing weapons at the refuge. Then, it was revealed at trial that the FBI had relied on confidential informants during the standoff, one of whom had overseen a shooting exercise.
Discoveries like that made the jury even more wary of the prosecution, according to one juror who spoke to FRONTLINE on the condition of anonymity. “One of the jurors said, flatly, that he was prepared to vote guilty on all charges until in the last week it was revealed some of the shady behavior of those paid FBI informants,” he said.
The verdict came down in the afternoon, six weeks after the trial began. The jury was unconvinced by the government’s assertion of a conspiracy, and found the seven defendants not guilty. Nearly everyone was surprised — except Ammon Bundy.
“A couple of days before that, I had a peace that came over me,” he said. “I believed all along that I and others would be acquitted. Why? Because the truth — what do they say? Will set you free, right?”
But Ammon Bundy wouldn’t be set free so fast.
While he had been in custody in Oregon, federal prosecutors in Nevada had finally filed their own charges against him, his brother Ryan and 17 others. Using the fake documentary footage from the Longbow operation and other evidence collected over almost two years, the government was sending the Bundys back to face trial for the Bunkerville standoff.
In protest, Mumford, Ammon Bundy’s attorney, began loudly demanding he be released. As the judge insisted he calm down, U.S. marshals closed in and shocked him with a stun gun. Mumford was briefly detained and charged with resisting arrest. He was released in time to celebrate his victory with the other defense attorneys, and soon the charges against him were dropped too.
Knight was devastated by the verdict. It was the biggest case he’d lost publicly, and that was in part, he felt, because of anti-government sentiment among the public that has become increasingly difficult to overcome.
“It’s even deeper than simply the type of anti-government sentiment that’s expressed by the takeover itself, where people have a grievance with the BLM or the Fish and Wildlife Service,” Knight said. “It’s deeper than that. And so as prosecutors, it has gotten more difficult with representatives from federal law enforcement … because there seems to be, from our vantage point, more distrust of those institutions.”
By the following Monday, Knight was back in the U.S. attorney’s office, planning for the second round.
The trial of the remaining defendants was a consolation of sorts for prosecutors. Three occupiers pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor trespassing charge before proceedings began. Two of the defendants were convicted on the conspiracy charge — Jason Patrick, one of the occupation organizers; and Darryl Thorn, who was part of the occupation security detail. The others, Duane Ehmer and Jake Ryan, were acquitted of conspiracy but convicted of felonies related to damaging the refuge.
Two trials, millions of dollars, and more than a year after the militias started trickling into Burns, it was hard for either side to claim a clear victory.
And the challenge would continue, as both sides turned their attention to the next court battle in Nevada.
X. The End of a Movement — or What Comes Next
Ammon Bundy is currently incarcerated in a private prison in Nevada, awaiting trial with his father and three brothers on conspiracy charges. Six others, including Ryan Payne, face similar charges. If convicted, they could spend decades in prison.
The outcome is far from certain. Although two of the Bundys’ co-defendants were convicted of some charges in April, the judge declared a mistrial for four others. As in Oregon, the jurors were unconvinced that what happened at Bunkerville was a conspiracy.
Ammon Bundy still carries his miniature Constitution, now in the pocket of his light blue prison scrubs, pulling it out to read to visitors. He misses his six children, one of whom hadn’t yet begun to walk when the occupation began. But he said has no regrets.
“I believe that what we have done has made a difference and will continue to make a difference,” he said.
But with most of the Bundy men now in prison, the family’s victory at Bunkerville has further jeopardized their ranching business. Although they got their cattle back, their grazing land has been curtailed even further. Last year, nearly 300,000 acres of public land south of Bundy Ranch was designated as a national monument.
Steve Ellis, who retired from from the BLM a year after the standoff, said the agency has been trying to work more collaboratively with local communities to avoid flare-ups. But he said the fight over land in the West is far from over.
“The pilot light of the Sagebrush Rebellion never goes out,” he said. “It goes down and then it flares up … but it never goes out.”
The militias who rallied around the Bundys are still figuring out what to do now. Since Malheur, the number of anti-government militia groups has declined, from 276 in 2015 to 165 last year, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center — the lowest number since 2009, when the most recent surge began. Threats and harassment of BLM employees across the West have dropped off abruptly, a former official said.
But the anti-government sentiment that the Bundys tapped into persists nationwide.
“With the acquittal of Malheur, and the election of Trump … a lot of people have seen the B.S.,” said Brandon Rapolla, the militia leader from Oregon. For him, the past two years were the start of something important and long-lasting. “Now it’s a whole community, and as a country, people are coming out and saying, ‘No.’”
Back in Burns, residents have begun to settle into quieter lives. When the refuge employees and their families came home, locals threw them a welcome-back barbecue. Most people in the town seem eager to put the incident behind them. But for some, the trauma lingers.
The refuge only officially reopened in late March, with the windows of the visitor’s center still covered in opaque plastic. On a recent morning, a few bird watchers roamed the premises, but the grounds were quiet, the buildings still locked. Some of the employees decided they couldn’t go back to Malheur and took jobs elsewhere. Some are still in counseling.
Sheriff Ward considered quitting his job and moving to get away from the bad memories. But he’s decided to stay, at least for now. “As time goes by,” he said, “I will remember why I wanted to raise my family here.”
— With reporting by Richard Rowley and Abby Ellis