Federal agents moved early Wednesday morning to seal off a remote wildlife refuge in Oregon, hours after authorities arrested several leaders of the armed activists who had seized the land in a shootout that killed one of the group’s most prominent members.
In the weeks since the group began its occupation, local and federal law enforcement officials had called for the occupation to end peacefully. On Tuesday, after these calls and attempts at negotiations went nowhere, authorities moved to arrest several group members while they were away from the compound. A total of eight people were arrested, at the shootout and other locations.
After the exchange of gunfire on a highway, Ammon Bundy, the group’s leader, and others were arrested on federal charges. Other members of the group remained at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, but before the sun rose over a remote swath of eastern Oregon previously best known for its bird-watching, authorities said they were blocking access to the federal land.
In a statement, the FBI and Oregon State Police said that they had established checkpoints along key routes to the refuge and that anyone who tries to travel inside would be arrested. Officials said people leaving the refuge would have their names confirmed and vehicles searched, but they did not say whether those people would be arrested.
The FBI had refrained from making arrests on the refuge because it did not want to be seen as storming the compound, and officials had publicly said they sought a peaceful resolution. Up to this point, law enforcement has not impeded the travel of occupiers, a law enforcement official said Wednesday.
“But as we call for a peaceful resolution, we’re hoping that people on the refuge will now depart,” said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing situation.
The standoff began Jan. 2 when a group, led by Bundy, went to the refuge after a protest over the imprisonment of two local ranchers convicted of committing arson on public lands. The ranchers’ case provoked a heated response in Harney County, where the refuge is located, and caught the attention of a wide swath of anti-government activists far beyond its borders. Among the hundreds who flocked to Burns to express their outrage were Bundy and his brother, Ryan Bundy.
After the rally, Ammon Bundy issued an impassioned call to arms to his fellow protesters.
“Those who want to go take hard stand,” he declared, according to people in attendance, “get in your trucks and follow me!”
A small splinter group drove to the refuge, located about 30 miles south of Burns, and a rotating cast of occupiers has remained holed up there ever since.
Shortly before 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday, federal agents and the state police went to arrest Bundy and several other occupiers while they were on Highway 395. Gunshots were fired, and one of the occupiers was killed, authorities said. It was not immediately clear who fired the fatal shots.
Bundy and his brother, Ryan, were among those taken into custody. One person was injured during the arrests and was treated at a local hospital before being released into the FBI’s custody; the Oregonian newspaper reported that Ryan Bundy was injured.
The FBI and Oregon State Police have also not said yet how many shots were fired, who fired them or identified the person who was killed. The person killed was later identified as LaVoy Finicum, who was a spokesman for the group, according to occupiers as well as Nevada assembly woman familiar with the occupiers and a Facebook page for Bundy’s father’s ranch. Finicum’s daughter also told the Oregonian that he was killed.
Gary Hunt, a board member of a militia network known as Operation Mutual Defense who arrived Sunday from California to support the occupiers, told the Oregonian that those still in the compound “have decided they’re going to hold their ground.”
But there is some confusion about who is leading the occupation now that Ammon Bundy is under arrest, Hunt added. Still, by Wednesday, people at the compound showed no signs that they were leaving.
Five people were arrested following the shootout. Later Tuesday afternoon, FBI agents in Burns also arrested Joseph Donald O’Shaughnessy, 45, of Cottonwood, Ariz., and Peter Santilli, 50, a Cincinnati man known for livestreaming refuge events. Hours later, FBI agents in Phoenix arrested Jon Ritzheimer, 32, who turned himself in to authorities. The other people arrested were Brian Cavalier, 44, of Bunkerville; Shawna Cox, 59, of Kanab, Utah; and Ryan Payne, 32, of Anaconda, Mont.
The eight people who were arrested Tuesday face federal felony charges of conspiracy to impede officers of the United States from performing their official duties through force, intimidation or threats.
The standoff in Oregon has stretched on for weeks, and questions have lingered about why federal agents did not immediately move to physically intercede. In the past, federal agents moving into places like Ruby Ridge or Waco, Tex., during standoffs led to numerous deaths, and officals have changed the way they respond to such events.
So the stalemate in Oregon persisted. Then, on Tuesday afternoon, the Bundys and several other occupiers reportedly left the refuge to attend a community meeting 100 miles away in John Day, Ore. About halfway to their destination,the FBI and the Oregon State Police ordered them to stop.
Authorities did not describe precisely what happened next, though the Oregonian reported that Ryan Bundy and Finicum resisted orders to surrender. Ultimately, gunfire broke out.
Arianna Finicum Brown, the daughter of LaVoy Finicum, the de facto spokesman, told the Oregonian on Tuesday that her father was the man killed during the exchange of gunfire.
“My dad was such a good, good man, through and through,” Brown told the Oregon paper. “He would never ever want to hurt somebody, but he does believe in defending freedom and he knew the risks involved.”
But Jason Patrick, an occupier who remained at the Malheur refuge Tuesday night, told The Washington Post that the arrests don’t change his group’s demands. He wouldn’t say how many people remain at the refuge, or who else was with him, but he said they don’t plan to pick up and leave because of the day’s events.
“Right now, we’re doing fine,” he told The Post by phone. “We’re just trying to figure out how a dead cowboy equals peaceful resolution.”
Patrick and another occupier both confirmed to The Post that Finicum was the man who died. And on Tuesday night, the Facebook page for Bundy Ranch — the site of a confrontation between the Bundy brothers’ father, Cliven, and the Bureau of Land Management in 2014, that involved Bundy supporters aiming guns at federal agents — posted a statement condemning what they described as Finicum’s “murder.”
The 54-year-old rancher from Cane Beds, Ariz., had previously told NBC News that he’d rather die than be arrested. On Wednesday, his followers were portraying him as a martyr “who stood for your children’s liberty.”
Talking to The Post in mid-January, Finicum explained that the armed group planned to remain at the refuge, which is operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, until all 187,000 acres of it were “returned” to Harney County and private ownership.
“It needs to be very clear that these buildings will never, ever return to the federal government,” he said at the time, a white cowboy hat perched atop his head, a Colt .45 pistol holstered at his hip.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) said the occupiers’ presence at Malheur cost taxpayers about a half-million dollars. They were also accused of destroying government property and harassing law enforcement and Burns residents.
Meanwhile, a wide-ranging debate has raged nationally over the causes of the occupation, the nature of its participants, the role of government, the purpose of public land and the appropriate response to an armed takeover of a federal building.
At the center of it all has been a long-running conflict over land use in the West, where huge swaths of the landscape are publicly owned.
“We’re out here because the people have been abused long enough, their lands and their resources have been taken from them to the point that it is putting them literally into poverty,” Ammon Bundy, clad in a brown rancher hat and thick flannel coat, told reporters the morning after he and his fellow occupiers moved into the Malheur headquarters. He announced that the occupiers aimed to help ranchers, loggers and others who wanted to use the previously protected land, which the Bundys believe should never have been controlled by the federal government in the first place.
“We will be here as a unified body of people that understand the principles of the Constitution,” he said.
In Oregon, more than half the land in the state is federally controlled. The government issues permits for grazing, mining and logging — major sources of income in the rural part of the state where the Malheur refuge sits. But it also lays down environmental regulations and restrictions to protect wildlife, threatening the livelihoods of actual people, some in Oregon say.
“What people in Western states are dealing with is the destruction of their way of life,” B.J. Soper, a father of four from Bend, Ore., who was once a professional rodeo rider, told The Post in early January. “When frustration builds up, people lash out.”
The rally in defense of the Hammonds was largely the outcome of that frustration. But even people who had attended the march were dismayed by the Bundy brother’s next move.
“It’s anarchy. … What we have here is old-style thinking, that might is right,” said Len Vohs, former mayor of Burns. Pointing out that the Bundys and most other occupiers weren’t even from Burns, he added, “the majority of us support the Hammonds, but we don’t need outsiders telling us what to do.”
On Jan. 4, two days into the Malheur takeover, the two ranchers convicted of arson turned themselves into federal custody without incident. In a news conference that afternoon, Harney County Sheriff David Ward told the occupiers it was time to leave.
“To the people at the wildlife refuge: You said you were here to help the citizens of Harney County. That help ended when a peaceful protest became an armed occupation,” he said. “The Hammonds have turned themselves in. It’s time for you to leave our community, go home to your families and end this peacefully.”
Criticism of the takeover made for strange bedfellows: Oregon’s Democratic governor, conservationists and members of the Paiute tribe (who consider the area of the refuge sacred ancestral land) issued calls to end the occupation of the refuge. But so did a “patriot movement” known as the “Three Percenters,” which pledges armed resistance to anything that infringes on the Constitution.
The standoff prompted some mockery — people sent the occupiers glitter bombs and sex toys — and sympathy from others. It also sparked a debate about how the occupiers would be treated if they were African American or Muslim, rather than white.
Meanwhile, federal authorities did little to dislodge the Bundys and their followers as the occupation stretched into days and then weeks. On Jan. 4, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said that the takeover was a “local law enforcement matter,” though the FBI had already said it was taking the lead the situation.
Some worried that the prolonged success of armed standoffs like those at Malheur and Cliven Bundy’s ranch in 2014 would only encourage further showdowns. Brown and local officials in Burns demanded to know why U.S. officials hadn’t taken action.
Last Thursday, Brown sent a letter to the FBI Director James Comey and U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch asking them “to end the unlawful occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge as safely and as quickly as possible.”
The news of the arrests was met with relief from conservationists and public officials. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) applauded the law enforcement response in a statement Tuesday night.
“I am pleased that the FBI has listened to the concerns of the local community and responded to the illegal activity occurring in Harney County by outside extremists,” he said in a statement. “The leaders of this group are now in custody and I hope that the remaining individuals occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge will peacefully surrender so this community can begin to heal the deep wounds that this illegal activity has created over the last month.”
Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, has spent the past two weeks in Burns following the occupation. He also issued a statement to Oregon Public Broadcasting on Tuesday after hearing the news.
“I’m saddened to see this standoff culminating in violence,” it said. “But the Bundys and their followers showed up armed to the teeth and took over lands that belong to all American people. We hope and pray those remaining at the compound surrender peacefully and immediately. Here’s hoping cooler heads now prevail in southeastern Oregon and we can return to a semblance of peace and civility.”
But an image posted on the Bundy Ranch Facebook page condemned the violent outcome.
“Tonight peaceful patriots were attacked on a remote road for supporting the constitution. One was killed,” it read. “Who are the terrorists?”
Ellen Nakashima contributed to this report.
[This is a developing story and has been updated and will continue to be updated.]