PORTLAND, Ore. — A Burns resident and sympathizer of the activists at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge testified yesterday in court that he accidentally became one of the first occupiers.
Called to the stand by federal prosecutors, Walter "Butch" Eaton told the jury that he initially supported Ammon Bundy and others’ efforts to keep local ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond from serving five-year prison sentences for setting fire to public lands.
On Jan. 2, Eaton, 46, marched in a peaceful protest in Burns. He recalled that the Hammond case was "very important to me. Still is."
At the protest, a leader of the effort, Ryan Payne, approached him.
"Ryan Payne came up to me and said, ‘Are you ready to go?’" Eaton said. (Payne has pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges.)
Eaton, a retired carpenter who is bald, with a long beard and glasses, hopped into a car with some of the activists, thinking they were heading to the courthouse as part of the protest parade.
Soon, he realized they were heading elsewhere.
During a 30-mile drive, the others asked Eaton if he was armed. He wasn’t, and they offered him a gun. There was an assault rifle on the seat next to him.
It was then, Eaton said, that he began thinking, "What’s really going on?" he said.
Quickly, Eaton found himself at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge as part of the first convoy of occupiers.
Clearly nervous on the witness stand, Eaton said that once they were at the refuge, the other activists moved quickly, in an organized fashion and "with a purpose" to secure all the buildings on the refuge.
There was also a trailer in the convoy that contained camping gear and generators. Eight of the 10 people were also clearly armed, Eaton said. Ryan Bundy, he said, was carrying a "beautiful piece," meaning gun.
A horn was blown to give an "all clear" after the buildings were secured, and they all returned to the visitor center.
There, Eaton said, they discussed getting someone into the tower on the property, obtaining the wireless internet password and sending someone who was armed to the back entrance of the refuge.
And everyone was instructed to take an oath: "Don’t fire until fired upon," Eaton said.
Nearly all of that was accomplished in about half an hour or less, Eaton said, at which point he became uncomfortable with what was happening.
"I walked home," Eaton said. After 2.5 miles, his wife picked him up.
Eaton’s testimony is important to the government’s prosecution. The seven defendants on trial are charged with conspiring to impede federal officials through intimidation, threats or force during the 41-day occupation, which ended Feb. 11.
To succeed, the government must convince the jury that there was an agreement among the conspirators to do something unlawful and that they acted on it. The precision and planning Eaton described appeared designed to establish that a plan had been hatched and put into motion.
Eaton will return to the stand today to face cross-examination. But before letting him leave the stand, Assistant U.S. Attorney Craig Gabriel asked Eaton, who visited the refuge twice more during the armed standoff to deliver firewood, why he didn’t stay at the refuge from the beginning.
"Because of this," he said, nodding toward the defendants. "Honestly, I was afraid of going to jail."