The Justice Department is facing increased pressure to crack down on the militants who have occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Oregon for nearly three weeks.
Over the past week, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D), former Interior Deputy Secretary David Hayes, Harney County’s highest elected official and Portland’s The Oregonian newspaper have called on the federal government to take more aggressive action against Ammon Bundy and his fellow occupants at Malheur.
"The situation is absolutely intolerable, and it must be resolved immediately," Brown said yesterday at a media briefing to discuss her 2016 agenda. "The very fabric of this community is being ripped apart."
Brown said federal authorities "must move quickly to end the occupation" and bring the occupants to justice, adding that "the spectacle of lawlessness must end."
She estimated that the occupation was costing taxpayers $100,000 each week to pay for law enforcement, travel, food, lodging and other expenses. She said she’ll be asking the federal government for a reimbursement.
The Joint Information Center in Harney, led by the FBI, said it had no response to Brown’s statement and would not comment on its response to the occupation.
"The FBI’s investigation is ongoing so it would not be appropriate to provide details at this time," it said. "It still remains that the FBI is the lead agency for the refuge and they are working for a peaceful resolution."
Yesterday, The Oregonian, the state’s largest newspaper, published an editorial warning that the federal government’s passive response is rewarding the occupants with nonstop media coverage.
"Unchecked disregard for federal law and public property, combined with cunning media manipulation, rewards delusional behavior among people whose lives are otherwise spent enjoying discounted grazing rates on lands owned by American taxpayers," the paper said.
Up to now, no uniformed officers have come to the refuge headquarters and authorities do not appear to have shut off electricity, Internet or supplies of supporters, guns or food to the refuge compound about 30 miles south of Burns.
That will no longer suffice, the paper said, especially because one of the occupants, Arizona rancher LaVoy Finicum, has publicly invited ranchers to sign a pledge at the refuge Saturday to stop paying their grazing fees.
"Measured but aggressive actions should be taken, among them cutting off power to the refuge headquarters and engaging armed ranchers arriving to join in Finicum’s signing ceremony — itself a potential civic disruption that legally warrants investigative action," the paper wrote.
Among other steps, Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward should notify the occupants when utilities will be shut off and when they will be forced to endure Harney’s frigid winter temperatures, The Oregonian said.
Harney Judge Steve Grasty said he agrees.
"I’d like to see the facility locked down and those people isolated," he said in an interview with Greenwire this morning. "I’d like to see them isolated from all comforts of life."
Grasty said he has received regular updates from Ward, who is working closely with the FBI, about the law enforcement response but that he’s trying to stay an arm’s length away.
Grasty called Bundy a threat to the community.
On Tuesday, the Arizona businessman and son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy attended a community meeting at Burns High School and was accompanied by militants who carried weapons into the gymnasium, Grasty said.
"I just find that offensive," Grasty said. "Is that meant to be intimidation?"
At the meeting, with Bundy sitting in the bleachers, Grasty walked to within several rows of him and said, "Mr. Bundy, be very clear. I’m happy to meet you any place outside my county. It is time for you to go home." Furious community members took to the microphone to ask Bundy to leave the refuge and at one point the crowd chanted "Go, go, go …" according to media reports.
No public officials have advocated that law enforcement storm the refuge, a move that could result in bloodshed.
Federal agents have taken a cautious approach, hoping to avoid tragedies such as what happened in Waco, Texas, in 1993, where a gun battle between federal agents and the Branch Davidians left 10 dead, and at Ruby Ridge, the northern Idaho site of a deadly confrontation in 1992 between federal agents and suspected white supremacist Randy Weaver and his family.
Yet frustration is growing that DOJ has taken no action to prosecute Bundy or especially his father for his decadeslong refusal to pay grazing fees or remove his cows that are roaming illegally on public lands near Gold Butte northeast of Las Vegas.
In April 2014, militants came to the elder Bundy’s Bunkerville ranch and some pointed guns at Bureau of Land Management employees during an attempted roundup of Bundy’s cows. They have also not faced justice.
The perception that Cliven Bundy stood down the federal government has spurred more anti-government activity — most recently at Malheur — according to former high-ranking government officials and a July 2014 intelligence assessment from the Department of Homeland Security.
The militants at Malheur have given federal prosecutors a smorgasbord of potential crimes to prosecute.
"Prosecutors may very well have already obtained secret grand jury indictments and warrants that FBI agents would use when they deem the time is right to make arrests, likely avoiding any violent confrontation," Bill Morlin of the Southern Poverty Law Center wrote in a blog post last week. "That conduct, legal experts say, clearly suggests there is probable cause to charge those individuals with trespassing on federal property, destruction of federal property, unlawful access to federal computers or possession of firearms and dangerous weapons in federal facilities."
Morlin suggested that the occupants’ actions could also fit the definition of "federal crime of terrorism" because their words and actions are meant to intimidate or coerce the government.
As the occupation approaches its fourth week, a growing number of participants have faced arrests or citations off the refuge.
Those include Brian Cavalier, 44, Ammon Bundy’s bodyguard, who was arrested by Buckeye, Ariz., police last week on an unspecified outstanding warrant but was later released and has returned to the occupation.
Last Friday, Oregon State Police arrested Kenneth Medenbach, of LaPine, Ore., after he drove a refuge-owned truck to the Safeway grocery store in Burns on probable cause for unauthorized use of a motor vehicle.
Last Sunday, OSP cited Darrow Burke, of Ukiah, Calif., for having no operator’s license, after his van rolled over on an icy road off U.S. Highway 20. He had been at the refuge for the past week.
The Oregonian reported yesterday that one of the occupants is a 68-year-old convicted killer from California. Neil Sigurd in 1977 was convicted of second-degree murder in the killing of his father, Forey Edward Wampler, The Oregonian confirmed (see related story).
As the occupation rolls on, it is attracting to the refuge anti-government militants with divergent agendas, some having relatively little to do with public lands disputes that Bundy says precipitated the takeover.
They include a video gamer from Ohio, David Fry, and self-proclaimed "U.S. Superior Court judge" Bruce Doucette, from suburban Denver, who said there is "significant" evidence that government officials have committed crimes, according to The Oregonian.