As federal prosecutors seek to convict Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy for his role in a near-violent standoff two years ago with the Bureau of Land Management, they’ll likely turn to a brawny special agent named Dan Love.
With his Oakley shades, armored vest and ball cap turned backward, Love in 2014 stood feet from hundreds of protesters — many brandishing guns — who were poised to storm BLM’s cattle corrals about 7 miles from Bundy’s private ranch northeast of Las Vegas.
Testimony from Love, with his eye-level view of the standoff, could be key to the government’s successful prosecution of Bundy; his sons Ammon, Ryan, Mel and Dave; and other alleged standoff leaders including Ryan Payne and Pete Santilli.
Cliven Bundy, 70, orchestrated the "massive armed assault" against Love and his fellow officers in 2014, prosecutors said, to threaten them into abandoning the roughly 400 cattle BLM had rounded up from public lands. The men face charges that could put them behind bars for decades.
Love, who has been described as muscular, tall and quick-witted, is both loved and reviled in Nevada and Utah, where he’s BLM’s top cop. He worked for the Federal Air Marshal Service from 2002 to 2006 and has been with BLM for roughly a decade, based in Salt Lake City.
Critics say Love has a massive ego and lacks the gravitas needed to navigate the red-hot politics of federal land management in those states.
Yet allies praise Love for keeping BLM employees, citizens and priceless natural resources safe. His composure and restraint during the April 12, 2014, standoff near Bunkerville may have saved lives, they said.
"He’s one of those people you either work well with or you don’t like his style," said Pat Irwin, a two-term commissioner of Pershing County, Nev., who worked with Love on BLM’s law enforcement during the annual Burning Man festival.
Love has led some of BLM’s most challenging law enforcement operations in states where federal authority is often not welcomed.
Love was the lead agent in BLM’s two-year, undercover investigation with the FBI nearly a decade ago into illegal Native American artifact trafficking in the Four Corners region that resulted in the arrest of more than two dozen people and the suicide of a well-respected local doctor. In 2008, Love arrested and helped prosecute environmental activist Tim DeChristopher for disrupting a BLM oil and gas lease sale in Salt Lake City that critics said imperiled Arches National Park and the climate.
Love also prodded Burning Man to provide "VIP" accommodations for agency officials during the weeklong festival on public lands in the Black Rock Desert, a request that drew ridicule from Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and national embarrassment for BLM.
Love’s credibility and reputation will be key if he’s called to the witness stand in the Bundy case. The Justice Department said it plans to call between 30 and 45 witnesses and present more than a terabyte of evidence.
BLM refused to allow Love, his law enforcement superiors or its state directors to comment for this article. Nor would BLM answer basic questions about Love’s professional resume — when he was hired, his age, where he previously worked and his law enforcement qualifications.
Many other former and current officials likewise declined to comment. They include Carlie Christensen and Brett Tolman, former U.S. attorneys for the District of Utah who worked directly with Love during the Blanding artifacts raid; Larry Shackelford, who was special agent in charge before Love and supervised him; former BLM Director Bob Abbey; and former BLM Nevada State Director Amy Lueders, who worked with Love during the Bunkerville incident and is now BLM’s New Mexico state director.
BLM’s silence in the face of Love’s critics is puzzling given the high stakes in the Bundy case and the desire of many BLM employees to see Bundy behind bars.
One former government official familiar with the issue said that Utah’s congressional delegation wants Love relocated from his post and that BLM leadership appears amenable to making that happen.
"It’s unfortunate that Dan has become something of a political pawn," said the official, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the situation. "There are clearly elements in the agency who would prefer he simply fade away, in part to appease Hill critics."
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) in March introduced H.R. 4751, a bill to eliminate BLM and Forest Service law enforcement and transfer policing powers on federal lands to local sheriffs. Chaffetz said his constituents want to see a "little more Andy Griffith and a little less Rambo" from BLM law enforcement officers.
He’s not a fan of Love.
"There’s one common denominator where things have gone wrong: It’s Dan Love," Chaffetz said in an interview. "The Department of Interior knows how to solve this problem; thus far, they’ve decided not to do that."
A Chaffetz spokeswoman declined to elaborate on what that solution is.
Sheriffs in Utah don’t like Love, either. They see him as heavy-handed and dismissive of local authority.
Love oversaw BLM’s decision in 2012 to allow several contracts with local sheriffs to expire, according to BLM’s former Utah State Director Juan Palma. The contracts, which reimburse sheriffs for providing enhanced law enforcement patrols on federal lands, were a bad deal for taxpayers, BLM has said. Local sheriffs saw BLM’s decision as retaliation for the state’s bid to take over federal lands.
"Dan’s lost a lot of trust with the sheriffs, so he’s got some hills to climb," Garfield County Sheriff Danny Perkins said.
Yet Love has taken steps to mend relations, Perkins said.
"He is making more of an effort — how genuine it is, I don’t know," Perkins said. "I don’t hate Dan Love. In fact, he’s kind of comical to be around."
‘Not real pleased’
BLM’s law enforcement division includes about 195 uniformed rangers who patrol federal lands and write citations for things like illegal off-road driving and target shooting. BLM also employs about 70 special agents, plainclothes officers who specialize in long-term investigations of crimes like theft of paleontological and archaeological resources or illegal marijuana grows. Love is among five special agents in charge who lead the special agents.
Love was a special agent when he joined BLM’s investigation of illegal artifacts trading in the Four Corners, which was known as Operation Cerberus Action. By June 2009, Love was the lead BLM case agent for the operation.
He enlisted the help of Ted Gardiner, a 50-year-old recovering alcoholic and dealer of Anasazi artifacts, as a confidential informant. Gardner wore a hidden camera to record deals with southeast Utah residents, spending $335,685 in government money to buy 256 artifacts. On the morning of June 10, 2009, the FBI and BLM simultaneously served search and arrest warrants at a dozen homes and more than two dozen people were arrested.
Two of the defendants later committed suicide, including James Redd, 60, a respected doctor from Blanding who connected a hose from his car’s exhaust pipe to asphyxiate himself. Redd’s family later sued Love in the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah, alleging he violated Redd’s Fourth Amendment rights by using excessive force to "make an example" out of him. Judge Richard Shelby last December dismissed the case after finding Love’s conduct reasonable.
Love was named BLM’s "agent of the year" for the operation, according to the Los Angeles Times, and was promoted to special agent in charge for Utah and Nevada. Prosecutors and American Indians called Cerberus a success, arguing it recovered truckloads of illegally obtained antiquities, raised awareness of the artifacts trade and deterred future trafficking.
But the raid — in which 150 agents wearing bulletproof vests searched houses and hauled away suspects in handcuffs and shackles, according to the Deseret News — sowed deep distrust of BLM law enforcement and local resentment of Love.
"A lot of people in Utah are not real pleased with him," said Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). "There are some problems that I think have to be ironed out."
Love defended the operation in 2011, telling the Deseret News that "I would be hard-pressed to find any law enforcement officer across the country that when serving an arrest warrant or a search warrant isn’t properly geared." The arrests were carried out in unison, officials said, to prevent defendants from fleeing or destroying evidence.
Pat Shea, who served as BLM director during the Clinton administration and is now a Salt Lake City defense attorney, is also among Love’s critics. Shea represented DeChristopher, the fraudulent oil and gas bidder whom Love arrested and helped prosecute.
"To be a federal law enforcement officer in 2016 requires the ultimate form of diplomacy," Shea said. "Your first tool is persuasion. The last tool after careful planning is ordering or force."
Critics said Love’s go-it-alone mentality failed BLM during the Bunkerville impoundment. They blame Love’s sour relationship with former Clark County, Nev., Sheriff Doug Gillespie, whose assistance could have lent the operation more legitimacy in the eyes of conservative protesters, many of whom refused to acknowledge BLM’s jurisdiction over the lands.
BLM had tried for months to secure a contract with Gillespie and his Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department to assist in crowd control at Gold Butte, but the deal crumbled at the eleventh hour. Gillespie later told the Las Vegas Sun that BLM misled him about the circumstances of the impoundment, an allegation BLM denied.
Love’s allies said he was an honest broker with Gillespie but the sheriff betrayed him.
Gillespie declined to comment for this article.
As tensions escalated in Bunkerville — on April 12, hundreds of Bundy supporters amassed in front of Love and his fellow rangers, with more than 60 brandishing firearms, according to prosecutors — Love negotiated with Ammon Bundy at the corral gates for a peaceful end to the impoundment.
"In a highly volatile situation with heavily armed antagonists, Love negotiated a peaceful resolution," said Celia Boddington, who was serving as BLM’s assistant director for communications at the time and is now retired. "When all is said and done, he was the person most responsible for ensuring that nobody got killed that day. While many are eager to play Monday morning quarterback, history will judge him kindly."
Prosecutors say protesters targeted Love during and after the roundup.
In an indictment, prosecutors said Santilli approached Love on the morning of April 9 and threatened him by asking, "What are you guys going to do if 10,000 people show up? … Are you prepared for this?"
Santilli that day told Love that BLM law enforcement officers would be arrested and sent to jail, according to a recorded conversation between the two.
"I don’t know how you plan on arresting me, but good luck with that," Love said in the recording. "That’s not going to end well for you."
Santilli’s attorneys last week said that Santilli was acting as a mediator in that conversation and that the tone of the conversation remained "respectful." There were no threats against Love, they said.
In November 2014, Santilli and an unnamed associate left Love a voice message threatening his family, prosecutors wrote in a legal filing last month in the Nevada federal district court.
"You are outnumbered," Santilli said, according to the filing. "My listenership alone, OK, will respond to Bundy Ranch if you go anywhere near it. I need to tell you that … we don’t recognize the BLM. We don’t recognize your authority. We will have your guns taken away. We will have you incarcerated."
Santilli was arrested by the FBI on Jan. 26 for his role in the 40-day Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation. He faces separate charges over that incident in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon.
The leaders of the Bunkerville standoff face felony charges of threatening a federal law officer, conspiracy to impede or injure a federal officer, assault on a federal officer and other charges that could put them in prison for decades. A trial is set for next February in the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada.
Love’s allies credit him with drawing a line in the sand against anti-federal-lands activists bent on toppling BLM’s control. Conservationists have hammered the Obama administration for backing down in the Bundy roundup and for failing to prosecute past incidents on public lands, which critics say enabled the Malheur takeover.
"He’s very passionate about what he does, and perhaps that causes ire with others," said one former BLM law enforcement official who asked not to be named. "There’s ego. All cops have egos. If you’re going to be in this business, you have to have some."
Burning Man officials can attest to Love’s bravado.
On Jan. 10, 2014, Love walked into a BLM meeting with top Burning Man officials at the festival’s San Francisco headquarters wearing mirrored sunglasses and a Glock pistol on his hip, according to multiple sources.
"Talk about a passive, peace-loving place," said Mike Ford, a former BLM official who was at the meeting and was consulting for Burning Man organizers at the time. "That heavy, macho, armed attitude, that doesn’t serve the agency well."
A year later, a Reno Gazette-Journal investigation revealed BLM — Love in particular — had demanded the festival provide enhanced accommodations for agency officials, including flush toilets and access to Choco Tacos, M&Ms, licorice and Chobani Greek yogurt, in exchange for receiving a permit to operate.
BLM later backpedaled on the request and has since removed Love from the role of negotiating Burning Man’s permit.
"It’s no great secret we’ve been frustrated with BLM law enforcement in the past," said Burning Man spokesman Jim Graham. "BLM brought in a new management team just before the event in 2015, and we’ve seen a marked improvement in our working relationships."
Irwin, the Pershing County commissioner, defended Love’s work at Burning Man. He called Love a "good interface" who has done "a really good job as an advocate of public safety in Pershing County."
Burning Man annually draws upward of 70,000 revelers to a remote desert playa north of Reno for eccentric and fiery art installations. As festival attendance grows, the number of BLM personnel needed to oversee the event has doubled to 160 over the past five years, BLM told the Associated Press last year. The agency said it is running out of places to house them in nearby Gerlach, Nev.
"When I’ve got a law enforcement guy working out there on a 12- to 14-hour shift, I want him to have a place where he can relax, rest and rejuvenate," Irwin said. "They need to get some good sleep to be sharp and on top of their game."
BLM and county law enforcement don’t come to the event for fun but rather to ensure no one gets hurt, he said.
"I could see where he’s coming from," Irwin said of Love. "I can see where taking care of my guys is important."
Reporter Kevin Bogardus contributed.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated which committee Sen. Orrin Hatch leads.