Cliven Bundy’s sway over his followers featured prominently in first of three trials.
By Tay Wiles/High Country News
After the nine-week trial in Las Vegas, a jury is now deliberating over the fate of six men for their parts in the 2014 armed standoff between supporters of rancher Cliven Bundy and the federal government.
The standoff and ongoing court battles reflect a longstanding war in Western states over public lands, which has taken on new energy from a recent upswelling of anti-federal “patriot” groups across the country that began in 2008. The 2014 face-off drew hundreds of people from across the country, many of whom were loosely or directly affiliated with self-styled militia groups. People camped near Bunkerville, Nevada, to protest a federal impoundment of Bundy’s cattle, which were grazing illegally on public land. The lead-up spanned several days and the standoff itself occurred on April 12, ending when Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service employees abandoned the operation in order to avoid a violent confrontation.
Defendants Steven Stewart, Ricky Lovelien, Eric Parker, Gregory Burleson, Todd Engel and Scott Drexler face charges including conspiracy to impede federal officers, obstruction of justice and threatening federal officers. This case is the first of three related to the standoff; there are 17 defendants total, with Bundy and his sons grouped in the second trial, which may not begin until June.
Throughout the first trial, prosecutors and defense described the 2014 events in starkly different terms. The government portrayed the showdown as terrifying for federal officers who were merely trying to follow court orders to round up 1,000 head of cattle that had been illegally grazing federal lands for years. The defense team portrayed their clients as people trying to stand up for what they believed in and attend a protest, which resulted in no bloodshed.
In closing arguments this week, defense attorneys distanced their clients from the Bundys. “Mr. Cliven Bundy manipulated a whole bunch of people and got them to come out to the site,” said Terrence Jackson, who represented Burleson. “Just because someone gets up and gives some crazy speech, doesn’t make it (my client’s),” said defense attorney Todd Leventhal, who represented Drexler, in reference to Bundy telling supporters to retrieve his cattle from the Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service roundup and telling the county sheriff to disarm the federal officers.
Prosecutors countered that the defendants knew what they were getting into. They were not there to just hold a protest sign, Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicholas Dickinson said, but to take the cows back.
Dickinson also reminded the jury that an FBI witness had testified that leading up to the standoff “they were seeing a build up of militia like they had never seen before — anywhere.” Multiple defense attorneys countered that their clients were not militia members. “I’m not in any militia,” Parker said in a video taken after the standoff. “When you do (join a militia), you get involved with other people’s agenda.” Parker also said he was part of a “county civil defense unit” from Idaho.
The jury also heard contradictory stories over what the defendants’ intentions were on the day of the standoff and whether they had an agreement — tacit or otherwise — to impede. Some attorneys insinuated their clients could not have conspired because they barely knew anyone else in the crowd of 400 protesters at the standoff. The prosecution countered you don’t have to know someone to have an agreement, saying the defendants complied with Bundy’s call on the morning of April 12 to retrieve the cattle, to “get it done.” Some defense attorneys responded that their clients were just there to watch.
Attorneys on both sides displayed defendants’ social media posts leading up to the day of the Nevada showdown and video interviews conducted afterwards, to prove their intentions. “I literally went there to put them six feet under,” Burleson told undercover FBI agents months after the standoff, referring to federal employees. On the other hand, Lovelien said in a social media posting prior to the standoff: “The entire point of the militias going to Nevada is to prevent violence, not to start violence.”
The standoff participants’ use of guns also proved to be a major theme of the trial. Defense attorneys said firearms are protected by the Second Amendment to the Constitution. The prosecution countered that they are not protected if they are used to intimidate, threaten or assault.
The jury began deliberations on April 13 and is expected to continue on Monday April 17. Bundy and his sons are expected to go to trial in late May or early June.
Tay Wiles is an associate editor for High Country News and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @taywiles on Twitter.