PORTLAND, Ore. — The manager of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge testified yesterday that he learned of threats to kidnap a federal employee during the 41-day armed occupation earlier this year.
Chad Karges said that was one of the reasons he advised his employees to stay away from the refuge once the occupation began Jan. 2.
When asked by a defendant’s attorney why neither he nor his employees went to the refuge and asked the activists to leave, Karges said it "was not a safe environment to do that."
"They were fearful of what might happen," Karges said, referring to the 16 employees who usually work at the refuge.
Karges was testifying in the trial of seven of the occupiers. They are charged with conspiring to impede federal employees through the use of intimidation, force or threats.
In several hours of testimony, Karges, a 30-year veteran of the Interior Department who has been at Malheur for 17 years, said he also received intelligence that the occupiers had accessed all of his employees’ personal files.
Karges said he learned of the kidnap threat from intelligence passed on to him, slipping the fact into his testimony before a defendant’s lawyer cut him off.
Karges also said he worried that something would happen in the days leading up to the standoff.
On Dec. 31, he told two employees to go home early because of "rising tensions in the community."
In particular, he was concerned about Ammon Bundy, a defendant in the trial, and Ryan Payne, who has pleaded guilty to the conspiracy charge.
Karges had learned of their actions at the 2014 armed standoff in Bunkerville, Nev., and was concerned something similar could take place.
On Jan. 1, Karges said, he swung by the refuge to pick up his laptop and the refuge "looked as it would [have] looked any time we were closed for a holiday or weekend."
One employee asked to go to the refuge on Jan. 2, but Karges said not to because of "the continued intimidation and threats toward federal employees."
The following day, he learned of the convoys heading to the refuge.
He said he called his employees, who were due to return to the refuge Jan. 4 after the holiday, and told them not to go back.
Karges’ testimony included many photos and videos of Bundy and the other defendants at the refuge. For nearly all of them, Karges identified them and said where on the refuge they were taken.
Many of the photos showed men carrying assault rifles or using the refuge’s trucks, bulldozers and other machinery.
Other photos also showed safes that had been broken into. Karges said there was several hundred dollars’ worth of cash missing after the standoff.
When he saw similar photos during the standoff in the media, Karges said it was clear that it "was not a safe plan to send employees to work."
Karges went back to the refuge six days after the occupation concluded Feb. 11. He said the buildings were "messy," with furniture rearranged and the filing system utterly disassembled.
"In some cases, the files were just simply gone," he said. "It has been impossible to put that back together."
The visitor center is still not open to the public, Karges said.
On cross-examination, most of the defendants’ lawyers pressed Karges on how the refuge obtained its land — both in the original 1908 designation by President Theodore Roosevelt and via two subsequent large land purchases in 1935 and 1942.
Bundy’s attorney, Marcus Mumford, asked Karges if he had reviewed the deeds of the land sales.
The questions, however, drew a series of fast and repeated objections from the government, nearly all of which were sustained by federal District Court Judge Anna Brown.
Brown reiterated that the government’s ownership of the refuge land — or federal lands generally — is not at issue in the case.
"We’re not going into this," she said.