BURNS, Ore. — The 41-day armed occupation of a remote Oregon wildlife refuge ended peacefully Thursday as the last four anti-government activists surrendered to FBI agents, following a dramatic and emotional hour-long negotiation with the final holdout broadcast live on YouTube.
After repeatedly threatening to shoot himself, complaining that he couldn’t get marijuana, and ranting about UFOs, drone strikes in Pakistan, leaking nuclear plants and the government “chemically mutating people,” the last occupier, David Fry, 27, lit a cigarette, shouted “Hallelujah” and walked out of his barricaded encampment into FBI custody.
Fry’s surrender, which had an audience of more than 30,000 people listening live, capped an extraordinary 18 hours in which the country’s growing and extreme anti-government movement morphed into something that more closely resembled a strange and nerve-racking reality-TV show.
The drama included the unexpected and high-profile arrest Wednesday night of Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher whose sons started the refuge occupation and whose armed 2014 standoff with federal officials over grazing rights established him as something of a patriarch of the anti-government movement.
Bundy, 74, was arrested at the Portland airport on his way to the refuge, after issuing a Facebook call for “patriots” and “militia” to “wake up” and head to Burns, the tiny town near the refuge. He was charged in federal court with six counts stemming from the earlier standoff.
Fry surrendered hours later, bringing an end to a bitter five-week standoff at the snowy Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in the remote high desert of eastern Oregon that drew international attention to the nation’s growing anti-government movement and long-simmering anger over federal land-management policies in the West.
The episode resulted in the death of one occupier, LaVoy Finicum, a cowboy-hat-wearing grandfather and occupation spokesman who was fatally shot by an Oregon state trooper during a Jan. 26 operation that resulted in the arrest of the occupation’s leaders.
The arrests and Finicum’s death came after FBI officials had deliberately allowed the occupiers to hold the refuge without challenge for nearly a month, mindful of the severe backlash after sieges in Waco, Tex., and Ruby Ridge, Idaho, turned bloody in the 1990s. The FBI did not send its elite Hostage Rescue Team to the refuge to avoid the perception that authorities were using disproportionate force.
Still, Finicum instantly became a martyr to anti-government groups. A folk song called “The Ballad of LaVoy Finicum (Cowboy’s Stand for Freedom)” was posted on YouTube the day after he died. Fry, in a video this week, referred to the refuge as “Camp Finicum.”
The anti-government movement, which believes that the federal government operates largely outside the powers granted to it in the Constitution, was energized in recent weeks by the sight of a handful of “patriots” and “constitutionalists” holding out against authorities in a dead-of-winter drama that was fanned like a brush fire across social media.
While the occupiers regard themselves as defenders of American liberty, the Anti-Defamation League, the Southern Poverty Law Center and others who track extremist groups describe them, and the “militias” that support them, as dangerous and at times violent. Many of those groups have been around since the 1970s, but the militia movement that has enthusiastically rallied around the occupation largely arose in the 1990s after Waco and Ruby Ridge.
The final four holdouts were Fry, of Blanchester, Ohio; Sandy Anderson, 48, of Riggins, Idaho; her husband, Sean Anderson, 47; and Jeff Banta, 46, of Elko, Nev. They were arrested and taken to Portland, where they will face charges of conspiracy to impede federal officers.
The four had been alone at the refuge since shortly after the Jan. 26 arrests. For most of that time, they had stayed in communication with the outside world via videos and phone calls in which they likened themselves to the revolutionaries who founded the nation.
They spent about five hours on the phone Wednesday evening — a call carried live on YouTube to more than 60,000 listeners — engaging in sometimes hysterical negotiations involving evangelist Franklin Graham and Michele Fiore, a fiery Nevada state legislator and Republican candidate for Congress.
During the phone call, the four alternately expressed their willingness to die for their cause and their willingness to surrender. They likened themselves to Mel Gibson’s character in “Braveheart,” the Scottish independence fighter William Wallace.
The occupiers had asked for Graham, the son of evangelist Billy Graham, to negotiate on their behalf. Fiore, an early and vocal supporter of the occupation, spoke for hours with the occupiers, trying to keep them calm, encouraging them as “patriots,” praying with them and urging them to turn themselves in.
“If we go to jail, that’s admitting that we did not follow the Constitution. And we did follow the Constitution,” Sandy Anderson told Fiore on the phone call. “. . . That’s why we’re here. We were standing up for the Constitution. Expressing our First Amendment right to peacefully assemble. And they are crucifying us for that.”
The refuge standoff was initially orchestrated by Bundy’s sons, Ammon and Ryan, who are among 23 people now indicted in the case. A federal judge in Portland has denied bail for the Bundy brothers and several others; they have been charged with conspiracy to impede federal officers.
At the heart of the occupation was fury over the management of federally owned land. In Oregon, more than half the state’s territory is controlled by the government; in Nevada, it is more than 80 percent.
Residents have long been granted permits to graze their livestock and conduct other commercial operations. But in recent years, the government has imposed more restrictions, largely in response to an increasing emphasis on environmental concerns.
Some ranchers complain that the government now places more value on protecting species such as the sage grouse than on helping people earn a living. Environmentalists and others counter that the government has a responsibility not to allow commercial interests to trump smart environmental management.
The federal government says Cliven Bundy owes about $2 million in unpaid grazing fees. But when Bundy rallied hundreds of armed supporters in 2014, the government backed down, allowing him to declare victory.
According to those who study anti-government groups, there has since been an increase in similar armed standoffs at mines and other sites in the West. So few were surprised when a Jan. 2 protest in Burns to support two local ranchers who were ordered to return to prison for setting fires on federal land evolved into an armed takeover at the refuge.
The vast majority of area residents never supported the takeover. While most understood the occupiers’ frustration over federal land management, only the most hard-core approved of taking federal property with armed force.
“I’m proud of this community,” Harney County Sheriff David Ward said at a news conference Thursday afternoon. “I’m proud of my friends and neighbors. . . . I love this country. And a house divided against itself cannot stand. I’ve seen division in our community, division in families, division amongst friends and neighbors, and divisions in our church congregations. There’s good that can come out of this. Our friends and neighbors can get off social media and sit down over a cup of coffee and talk out their differences.”
Fry, the final holdout at the refuge, was a late arrival who was not a core member of the occupation. He is a dental assistant from a town near Cincinnati who said he left a family vacation in Costa Rica to join the Oregon siege. Fry has a criminal record that includes convictions for drug possession and disorderly conduct.
On Thursday, after the other three holdouts surrendered to the FBI about 9:40 a.m., Fry remained behind, refusing to leave and spending the next 75 minutes on the live-broadcast telephone call.
The call was orchestrated by Gavin Seim, an unsuccessful Washington state congressional candidate and self-proclaimed “liberty speaker.” He was joined on the line by KrisAnne Hall, a lawyer, author, speaker and radio host.
Hall patiently reasoned with Fry, whose thoughts seemed to wander, and urged him to walk out of the refuge headquarters and give himself up to the FBI, who were waiting outside with Graham and Fiore.
Fry spoke about his anger at the government, “monopolies” and “corporate interests,” and said, “My future, my life, my country was stolen.”
“David,” Hall said, “you will never know your future if you don’t walk out of that room.”
Fry relayed a long list of his “grievances” with the government, such as “paying taxes for atrocities,” that he said included drone strikes that killed “Pakistani children.” He called President Obama a “traitor.”
He said he was willing to die, and could be heard telling the FBI negotiator on the other line that “I’ll kill myself before I [expletive] let you take me.”
Hall urged him to keep himself alive, surrender and keep helping in the “revolution” against the government.
“Do you want to walk out of this room and help us in this fight, or do you want to leave us alone?” she said. “You need to live, that’s the bottom line here.”
Fry complained that if he surrendered he would end up in jail.
“I’ll be buried behind the court system, and you people will go back to watching football,” he said.
Then, just before 11 a.m., Fry abruptly changed his tune.
“One more cigarette,” he said, followed by the scratching sound of a lighter.
“Well, all righty then,” he said.
“David, how’s it going?” Hall said. “Are you still talking to the FBI?”
“You say hallelujah!” he shouted, and SWAT team members and others could be heard shouting with him.
Then: “I’m walking towards them right now.”
The connection to Fry’s phone went dead.
Hall began sobbing with relief.
Seim directly addressed the tens of thousands of people still listening to the live stream.
“It’s a shame that our country’s come to a point where people like David have to fear their own government,” he said. “This should be a lesson to everyone.”
Berman and Sullivan reported from Washington.