Trial begins over standoff in Nevada
Case of Cliven Bundy and his sons is about respecting the rule of law, prosecutor says.
LAS VEGAS — Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and his sons repeatedly violated court orders to remove their cattle from public land while inciting and escalating an armed standoff with government agents near their Bunkerville ranch more than three years ago, federal prosecutors told a jury Tuesday.
Acting U.S. Atty. Steven Myhre laid out the government’s case against Bundy and two of his sons, Ammon and Ryan, along with cohort Ryan Payne, during an opening statement that lasted about two hours.
The standoff, which ended when federal officials backed down and released Bundy’s cattle, helped the 71year-old rancher attain folkhero status in the eyes of those who say the federal government squelches personal freedom.
Myhre told jurors that the case wasn’t about free speech, legitimate protest or gun rights. Instead, he said, jurors needed to weigh whether the nation would be better governed by the rule of law or the end of a gun.
Bundy’s attorney, Bret Whipple, said the federal government was the aggressor, and that decades-long attempts to seize cattle and demand payments on land Bundy’s family had used since 1877 caused the standoff. Whipple said the Bundy protest had always been peaceful.
The standoff, which drew self-described militia members from several states, grew larger, Whipple said, because Americans from around the country saw a family being abused by federal authorities and wanted to come to their aid.
“Why were they there?” Whipple asked. “Because in America, it’s OK to help.”
The high-profile case is expected to push into 2018 as prosecutors aim to prove the Bundy family and militia leader Payne tried to stop the government from seizing cattle that were grazing on public land by threatening a federal officer, carrying and using a firearm, and engaging in a conspiracy.
Cliven Bundy has become a revered figure among those who believe the federal government has overstepped its authority in requiring grazing fees for cattle on land controlled by the federal Bureau of Land Management, and has raised the larger question of federal control of land in the West.
Myhre methodically took jurors through a timeline leading up to the April 12, 2014, standoff at an overpass along Interstate 15 about 90 miles north of Las Vegas.
He said the conflict began in 1993, when Cliven Bundy decided to stop getting permits and paying grazing fees for his cattle that had settled on federal land.
Whipple argued that Bundy had tried to pay the state of Nevada the grazing fees because he didn’t recognize BLM sovereignty over grazing land, and said the family held water rights in the areas where the cattle were grazing.
The prosecutor said Bundy had plenty of opportunities to comply with court orders and his violation of those lawful demands gave authorities the right to remove the cattle.
“Mr. Bundy interfered,” Myhre said. “The level of interference escalated.”
Myhre supplied a narrative of the heightened tensions through photos, social media posts and a recording of a conservative California talk-radio program in which the Bundys claimed to be victims of government tyranny.
Myhre told jurors those claims were false and that the BLM was simply executing a lawful court order to remove cattle that were grazing illegally.
As Myhre spoke, the photos showed militia members carrying rifles in confrontations with law enforcement — including an image of Ammon Bundy being tasered by police after running his allterrain vehicle into a truck driven by workers involved in the removal of cattle.
But Whipple said Ammon Bundy rammed his ATV into the truck because it was carrying private property, including water pipes that help sustain the ranch.
Whipple showed the jury video of a woman being thrown to the ground — a woman prosecutors said was standing in the way of trucks and was moved for her safety. But Whipple said the video showed the woman wasn’t in front of the trucks.
Whipple didn’t dispute that some Bundy supporters were armed, but he showed images of other supporters praying with a Bible under an overpass during the standoff, saying it was a protest of government overreach that wasn’t about guns.
He said the people who gathered believed the Bundys were in danger.
“At the end of the day, the government is us,” Whipple said. “The government said ‘no more.’ ”
Myhre said authorities feared for their lives when about 400 Bundy supporters faced off against about 30 federal agents. He told jurors they would hear testimony from officers saying: “We were outnumbered. We were outgunned.”
The case is a high-profile showdown for the federal government as it looks to rebound from several recent losses to the Bundys in court.
Ammon Bundy, 42, and Ryan Bundy, 44, were acquitted on similar federal felony charges related to their roles in a 41-day standoff at an Oregon wildlife preserve in 2016.
Twice this year, Las Vegas juries acquitted or deadlocked on multiple charges pinned to several Bundy cohorts involved in the Bunkerville clash.
Federal prosecutors managed to get Eric J. Parker, 34, of Hailey, Idaho, and O. Scott Drexler, 47, of Challis, Idaho, to plead guilty last month to one count of obstruction of court orders.
This trial has already seen a few twists and turns, including the delay of opening arguments last week.
Another delay was threatened Tuesday when Myhre asked for a continuance to review emails that had been brought to his attention this week.
The request was opposed by the defendants and denied by U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro.
“Let’s get it done,” Cliven Bundy told the judge.
The trial will continue Wednesday with opening statements from the other defendants.
AMMON BUNDY, center, in Oregon in 2016. He is on trial in Las Vegas with his father and brother.