Update: Prosecutors dropped the charge against Peter Santilli on Sept. 6.
PORTLAND, Ore. – The most visible faces of the 41-day armed occupation of an Oregon wildlife refuge are set to stand trial this September.
The exceptional case could make for one of the state’s most compelling trials in years. The federal trial, taking place in the U.S. District Court in Portland, is closed to cameras but journalists from Portland and around the country will report back during the proceedings.
Jury selection will begin Sept. 7 and is opening statements are set to start Sept. 13.
Seven of the protesters who took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge from Jan. 2 to Feb. 11 will be tried in September. They all face charges of conspiracy to impede federal officers. Some are also charged with possession of firearms at a federal facility and theft of government property, among other charges, after they stormed the remote Eastern Oregon wetlands, illegally took over the facility and demanded the release of two ranchers convicted of arson on federal land.
If convicted, the defendants could face between 6 years and two decades in prison for their roles in the Oregon standoff.
Those facing trial in September include brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy, the leaders of the standoff. Also on trial is David Fry, the last occupier to remain at the refuge. Fry made headlines for live-streaming a phone call where here hysterically yelled at an FBI negotiator, “You’re going to hell. Kill me,” before surrendering.
Other defendants include Neil Wampler, convicted of murdering his father, Kenneth Medenbach, who has already been found guilty in another federal occupation case, Jeff Wayne Banta, one of the last four holdouts, and Shawna Cox, one of the first arrested occupiers to be released.
The Oregon charge has been dropped against Peter Santilli, a self-described “independent journalist” who was also at a 2014 standoff in Nevada involving the Bundys and their father, Cliven Bundy.
Clockwise from top left: Ammon Bundy, David Lee Fry, Neil Wampler, Ryan Bundy, Shawna Cox, Peter Santilli, Jeff Wayne Banta and Kenneth Medenbach.
Nineteen people have been indicted in the Nevada standoff and most are set to be tried for that incident on February 2.
Of the others facing charges for the Oregon standoff, 11 have taken plea deals so far and another seven are scheduled to stand trial Feb. 14, 2017.
A 27th occupier, Robert “LaVoy” Finnicum, was shot and killed by Oregon State Police during the occupation.
Those who took plea deals have either agreed to or will likely face between six months of home detention and 3 ½ years in prison.
The Bundys and others facing trial say they are unwilling to plea for a lesser sentence.
“I can honestly say that yes it was worth it,” Ammon Bundy said in a jailhouse interview with KGW. “They’re trying to stop people from exercising their free speech and First Amendment rights.”
Bundy compared the occupation and his continued efforts from jail to the efforts of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the women’s rights movement.
“A good example of effecting change in a jail cell is Martin Luther King, Jr.,” Bundy said. “He did the same thing. He seemed to make a pretty good effect on people.”
About the trial
This will not be a standard jury trial, and the court is prepared for that reality. The trial is expected to last for three months, with proceedings each Monday through Thursday.
Because the trial will be so long, the jury box will hold up to 20 people instead of the standard 16.
Just 25 people, including friends and family of the defendants, will be able to watch the trial publicly. That means most of the media and other observers will be watching a live stream of proceedings from a nearby courtroom. No photography or recording is allowed.
The legal representation is also unique, with three of the defendants, Ryan Bundy, Shawna Cox and Kenneth Medenbach, representing themselves. The three successfully lobbied Judge Anna Brown to allow for self-representation, with the promise they wouldn’t question the law or talk in front of the jury about issues that have previously been resolved.
Ammon Bundy chose not to represent himself, but one of his lawyers, Marcus Mumford, has already been criticized for placing his client on the stand during a pretrial hearing, helping the prosecution gather evidence from Bundy’s witness statements.
The prosecution is expected to call notable figures present during the occupation to the witness stand. According to a Washington Post report, the government intends to call Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward, Harney County Judge Steve Grasty and BLM Special Agent Jason Curry to the stand. Seven refuge workers are also expected to testify.
About the defendants
Ammon Bundy – Ammon Bundy was the leader of the armed occupation, with his brother, Ryan and spokesman, LaVoy Finicum often by his side. Bundy grew up Mormon and watched his father, Cliven Bundy, battle the federal government for decades over grazing rights before the 2014 standoff in Nevada. Bundy followed in his father’s footsteps, launching his own occupation at the Oregon wildlife refuge two years later.
Bundy owns a truck service company in Phoenix, Arizona. He has 13 brothers and sisters.
Charges: Conspiracy to impede officers, possession of firearms at a federal facility
Ryan Bundy – Ammon Bundy’s older brother, Ryan, also devotedly followed his father as he fought federal law. Ryan Bundy lives in Cedar City, Utah and runs a construction company, according to NBC News.
Ryan Bundy has apparently had a difficult time in jail so far. In April, he reportedly tried to escape from jail using a homemade rope, and in August, refused to let doctors remove metal shards from his shoulder because he said they were critical pieces of evidence, according to Oregonian reports.
Charges: Conspiracy, possession of firearms in a federal facility, theft of government property
Shawna Cox – Cox is from Kanab, Utah and was one of two women, along with Sandra Anderson, who face federal charges for their roles in the occupation. A Guardian article describes her as an anti-government activist who countersued the feds for $666,666,666,666.66, claiming she “suffered damages from the works of the devil.”
Peter Santilli – Santilli describes himself as an “independent journalist” and “shock jock” who covered Cliven Bundy’s standoff in Nevada for his radio show, The Pete Santilli Show. The Cincinnati, Ohio resident is also a defendant in the Nevada trial.
Santilli described himself as a spokesman and international media coordinator for the Oregon occupation.
UPDATE: Prosecutors have dropped a conspiracy charge against Santilli for his role in the Oregon occupation. He still faces charges for his role in the Nevada standoff.
Kenneth Medenbach – Medenbach, of Crescent, Oregon, is a construction worker and chainsaw artist who went to Lane Community College, according to his Facebook page.
Medenbach was the first occupier to be arrested, when he drove a federally owned truck off the refuge to a grocery store. He has already been found guilty of another federal charge stemming from a protest in Southern Oregon in 2015, for illegally camping on federal land. He represented himself in that case and lost.
Charges: Conspiracy, theft of government property
David Lee Fry – Fry drew attention as the last occupier to leave the refuge. He live streamed the bizarre communication between himself and FBI negotiators, at one point asking agents to yell “Hallelujah” with him. He surrendered after they complied.
Fry is from Blanchester, Ohio and met Robert “LaVoy” Finicum online. Fry helped Finicum publish a novel before joining him and the rest of the occupiers in Oregon.
Charges: Conspiracy, possession of firearms at a federal facility
Neil Wampler - Wampler, from Los Osos, Calif., was convicted of second-degree murder for killing his father in 1977, he admitted to the Cal Coast News. Wampler said he killed his father during a drunken rage and turned himself in. Wampler served four years in prison for the crime.
Wampler said he served as the camp cook during the standoff in Oregon.
Jeff Wayne Banta – Banta was one of the last four holdouts at the wildlife refuge. He surrendered the morning of Feb. 11, along with Sean and Sandra Anderson.
Before the occupation, Banta was a construction worker in Elko, Nevada. He has two children and is divorced. Banta was released from jail in late February and has been in Nevada ever since.
Charges: Conspiracy, possession of firearms in a federal facility
Who took a plea deal: Jon Ritzheimer, Joseph O-Shaughnessy, Ryan Payne, Brian Cavalier, Blaine Cooper, Wesley Kjar, Corey Lequieu, Jason Blomgren, Geoffrey Stanek, Travis Cox, Eric Lee Flores
Who will be tried on Feb. 14, 2017: Jason Patrick, Duane Leo Ehmer, Dylan Anderson, Sean Anderson, Sandra Lynn Anderson, Darryl William Thorn, Jake Ryan
Published Sept. 1, 2016