The arson legal drama that ignited the Ore. occupation

By Robin Bravender | 01/05/2016 12:54 PM EST

The two ranchers whose arson convictions sparked the siege of an Oregon wildlife refuge quietly reported for prison yesterday, even as armed militants vowed to continue their occupation until the pair are released from jail.

The two ranchers whose arson convictions sparked the siege of an Oregon wildlife refuge quietly reported for prison yesterday, even as armed militants vowed to continue their occupation until the pair are released from jail.

Dwight Hammond, 73, and his son Steven Hammond, 46, started their sentences yesterday at FCI Terminal Island, a low-security federal prison in San Pedro, Calif., according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The longtime Oregon cattle ranchers have been battling the U.S. government for years over alleged arson in a legal drama that’s pitted family members against each other in diverging accounts of events and even drawn in the Obama administration.

The Hammonds have said they plan to work within the legal system to challenge the five-year sentences they argue are unfair. The Supreme Court earlier this year refused a request to take up their appeal, but their attorneys said yesterday that they’ll ask the White House for clemency.


"We hope that President Obama will agree with us and with the veteran judge who presided over the trial that the mandatory five-year minimum sentence is far too long for these ranchers," the Hammonds’ attorneys said in an email.

Meanwhile, members of another family — Ammon and Ryan Bundy — have taken up arms to protest the Hammonds’ convictions, leading the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon that’s now in its fourth day. The Bundy-led occupiers are voicing broad complaints over federal land management, but a rally protesting the Hammonds’ imprisonment preceded the seizure of the refuge building.

The Hammonds have distanced themselves from the occupation, and their lawyers said yesterday that Dwight and Steven Hammond "respect the rule of law."

Ammon Bundy told ABC News yesterday that he doesn’t speak for the Hammonds, but that "we have spoken many, many times, and we understand each other on this issue."

He added, "The Hammonds are only going to jail because they just feel there’s nothing else for them to do. … They very well know that this is wrong, along with all their neighbors and the other ranchers in the area."

Arson, child abuse allegations

The Hammonds come from a long line of ranchers. The family’s cattle operation — Hammond Ranches Inc. — dates back to 1964 and has long used a combination of public and private lands. In 2006, the family owned more than 10,000 acres of private pasture and had a permit from the Bureau of Land Management authorizing cattle to graze on tens of thousands of acres of public land, according to court documents.

The family’s legal drama unfolded in 2010, when the father and son were indicted on a long list of criminal charges alleging that they had opposed BLM management of rangelands and had been responsible for setting multiple fires over more than 20 years.

A two-week trial was held in a U.S. district court in Oregon in June 2012, where witnesses offered competing tales about how fires in 2001 and 2006 had been started.

According to several witnesses and government attorneys, the 2001 fire was sparked after the Hammonds led an unauthorized hunting expedition on federal land and illegally shot several deer. After a BLM district manager witnessed the illegal hunting, Steven allegedly handed out boxes of matches and said they were "going to light up the whole country on fire."

He also allegedly gave a box of matches to his then-13-year-old nephew, Dusty Hammond, instructing him to drop lit matches along the fence line separating the Hammonds’ land from federal land. The resulting flames, "which were 8 to 10 feet high, spread quickly and forced the teenager to shelter in a creek," according to a federal appeals court.

The fire damaged 139 acres of federal land, according to the U.S. government, and destroyed evidence of the illegal deer hunt.

The Hammonds’ attorneys disputed the testimony of Dusty Hammond and others, arguing in court that the hunting had taken place on private land and that the fire was set intentionally to burn off invasive species.

Dwight and Steven have a complicated relationship with Dusty.

Dusty told local law enforcement officials in 2004 that Steven hit him in the chest during an argument over chores and then rubbed Dusty’s face in the gravel. Dusty also told a police officer that he had scratched initials into the skin on his chest with a paper clip, which angered Steven and caused his uncle to use sandpaper to remove the initials from his chest, according to court documents, which also include photographs of the scars. Dusty said his grandparents, Dwight and Susan Hammond, were present at the time.

When the police followed up with the Hammonds about Dusty, Steven said that "raising kids is like raising cows or dogs," according to the interview transcript. Steven, Dwight and Susie declined to say who had sanded Dusty’s chest.

Dispute over sentence lengths

According to federal prosecutors, Steven started another fire in 2006 in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. A lightning storm had sparked numerous fires in the area, and Steven started several "back fires" — an effort to prevent the lightning fires from destroying the ranch’s winter feed. Those fires burned about an acre of public land, according to court documents. His attorneys argued in court that natural causes accounted for the vast majority of that fire.

The Hammonds’ attorneys depicted the defendants as "men of the highest caliber, not only hardworking and fair in their dealings, but generous to others." They each served on the local school board, helped organize science and career fairs, and bought auctioned livestock each year to donate most of the meat to a senior citizens’ center, their lawyers said.

In 2012, a jury convicted Steven of two counts and Dwight of one count of using fire to maliciously damage U.S. property. The Hammonds were acquitted on some charges, and the jury failed to reach a verdict in others, including conspiracy charges.

Despite the government’s objections, U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan sentenced Dwight to three months and Steven to one year and one day in prison. The law requires a five-year minimum sentence for arson on federal lands, but the judge said he didn’t think Congress intended that minimum sentence to apply to fires in the wilderness. A five-year sentence "is grossly disproportionate to the severity of [the Hammonds’] offenses," does "not meet any idea I have of justice, proportionality," and "would shock the conscious to me," he said.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed with that argument, finding the sentencing illegal because it didn’t meet the minimum five-year requirement. The judges sent the case back to the Oregon district court for resentencing.

The Hammonds petitioned the Supreme Court to hear an appeal, arguing in part that the five-year minimum sentences violated the Eighth Amendment by constituting cruel and unusual punishment for their offenses. The high court in March refused to hear their appeal.

The Obama administration’s Solicitor General Donald Verrilli had prodded the Supreme Court to reject the case. "Congress had good reason to ‘consider arson, regardless of where it occurs, to be a serious crime’ warranting a five-year minimum sentence," Verrilli told the justices.

In addition to setting fires that "damaged or destroyed federal property and endangered the safety of others including firefighters, campers and hunters lawfully using public land, and petitioners’ own grandson/nephew," he said, the Hammonds "went to great lengths to cover up their serious crimes."

In October, Chief Judge Ann Aiken of the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon sentenced both of the Hammonds to five-year prison terms with credit for time they had already served.

When activists marched past the Hammonds’ home Saturday in support of the family, Dwight told the local news network KOIN, "It’s the most humbling experience that anybody could have," as he appeared to be fighting back tears.

"It’s not about me, it’s about America, and somehow we gotta get the wheels back on this wagon because they are flying off," he told the network, adding that he felt the prison term represented a life sentence for him, given his age. "This makes it over for me. … It just seems like a little overreach for having burned 127 acres."