The leaders of an armed occupation at an Oregon wildlife refuge were found not guilty of conspiracy and firearms charges Thursday, dealing a blow to federal officials seeking to prosecute leaders of a growing militia movement credited with emboldening anti-government actions.
Ammon and Ryan Bundy were both charged with conspiracy to impede officers from doing their job and accused of encouraging militia members to flock to Harney County, Oregon, in January, prompting a tense standoff with law enforcement and militia members in the rural community.
The two brothers were among the first seven defendants to face trial in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge standoff trial, along with other leaders and prominent faces of the standoff that kept the community on edge.
But 10 months after the armed occupiers were charged and one of its leaders was shot and killed by state troopers, a federal jury acquitted the men of federal conspiracy charges. Jurors could not reach a verdict on a theft charge against Ryan Bundy.
After the jury's decision was read, Ammon Bundy's attorney, Marcus Mumford, began to argue with the judge that his client was free to go, reporters at the scene said.
As the argument continued, about five US marshals reportedly tackled Mumford to the ground and deployed a Taser. The judge then ordered everyone out of the courtroom.
US marshals told reporters Mumford was taken into custody and that the incident was being investigated.
Judge Anna Brown said Ammon Bundy could not be released because he is still facing federal charges in Nevada on another trial.
A total of 26 people who took part in the Oregon occupation were charged in federal court. Eleven defendants have agreed to plea deals with prosecutors, while seven others are expected to go to trial in February.
"While we had hoped for a different outcome, we respect the verdict of the jury and thank them for their dedicated service," Billy J. Williams, attorney for the district of Oregon, said in a statement. "We strongly believe that this case needed to be brought before a Court, publicly tried, and decided by a jury."
Greg Bretzing, special agent in charge of the FBI in Oregon, who led the agency's effort to end the occupation, said he was disappointed in the outcome.
"For many weeks, hundreds of law enforcement officers — federal, state and local — worked around-the-clock to resolve the armed occupation at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge peacefully," Bretzing said in a statement. "We believe now — as we did then — that protecting and defending this nation through rigorous obedience to the US Constitution is our most important responsibility."
Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward, who had said he and his deputies had been criticized and threatened by the Bundys and their supporters during the standoff, said he stood behind the jury's decision, despite not agreeing with the result of the trial.
"While I am disappointed in the outcome, I believe our form of government and justice system is the best in the world," he said in a statement. "These folks were tried in a federal court of law and found not guilty by a system of their peers. This is our system and I stand by it."
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, who criticized the armed occupation while it was ongoing, said she was also "disappointed" by the verdict.
Outside the courthouse where supporters of the defendants had gathered in protest during the trial, people hugged and cheered after hearing the verdicts. Supporters carrying American flags were seen circling the courthouse and chanting: "What do we want? Freedom."
As word spread of the not guilty verdicts, one yelled out, "We beat the federal government."
"They just beat the federal government," the unidentified woman was heard saying in a video. "We win."
Ammon and Ryan Bundy are both sons of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who also sparked a standoff with federal authorities in 2014 over unpaid grazing fees. Cliven Bundy is also facing federal charges in Nevada.
Although both were acquitted of charges in Oregon, both Ammon and Ryan Bundy are also facing federal charges in Nevada in connection to the standoff there at their father's ranch.
The charges there include conspiracy to commit an offense against the US, conspiracy to impede or injure a federal officer, assault on a federal officer, and threatening a federal officer.
In Oregon, the jury also cleared five other defendants who were tried along with the Bundy siblings.
Another seven defendants involved in the occupation are scheduled to be tried in federal court in February.
Prosecutors argued that the leaders of the group planned to take over the federal land and keep federal employees from going to work there. The occupation, they argued, was not an impromptu act as it was depicted on the first day, but planned by the leaders to prompt a confrontation with federal officials.
"These defendants took over a wildlife refuge and it wasn't theirs," Ethan Knight, assistant attorney, argued in his closing arguments, according to Oregon Public Radio. "The people of Burns did not ask for this."
The defendants argued the occupation was not planned and that despite their actions their intention was not to prevent employees from going to work.
Ammon Bundy's attorney, Marcus Mumford, argued during closing arguments that Bundy was a victim of federal government overreach, and criticized the FBI's use of confidential informants.
"We're counting on you to stop government overreach," Mumford said, according to OPB. "Our trust is in you."
Leaders of the occupation have said the armed occupation was a peaceful protest against the jailing of local ranchers who were convicted of lighting illegal fires on federal land. As the occupation continued, however, the grievances from those at the refuge were more about federal government overreach and ownership of lands than the jailing of the ranchers.
The case was handed to the jury last week, but deliberations came to a halt when the jury asked Judge Anna Brown about the possibility of bias from one juror who had apparently been a government employee about 20 years ago.
The juror was eventually dismissed and an alternate placed Wednesday. By Thursday morning the jury told Brown they had reached a decision.
Those who who were tried in this case included:
Ammon and Ryan Bundy
Ammon and Ryan Bundy, were both charged with conspiracy to impede federal workers from doing their job, possession of firearms in a federal facility and theft of government property.
Their father, Cliven Bundy, is a Nevada rancher who led a standoff against the government in his ranch in 2014. Federal agents had seized Cliven Bundy's cattle over a dispute of unpaid grazing fees that had accumulated to more than a million dollars over the years.
As militia members flocked to the Bundy ranch and initiated an armed standoff with federal agents, government officials there backed down and withdrew — a move that was seen as a victory for militia and anti-government groups who had flocked to the ranch to assist their families.
Several experts credit the government's actions, and the interpretation of a victory by militia groups, for emboldening and inspiring the takeover of the refuge in Oregon.
Cox, a friend of the Bundy family, was among the first occupiers of the refuge.
She was also with the Bundy family during the standoff with federal agents in Nevada in 2014.
Cox helped leaders draft a set of demands to local and federal authorities during the first days of the standoff, including demands that federal lands in Oregon be turned over to local ranchers and miners.
A 28-year-old from Ohio, David Fry is not believed to have played a leading role in the standoff, but he was among the last occupiers of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to leave, broadcasting the final moments of a tense standoff with federal agents live on YouTube.
Fry repeatedly threatened in his videos that he and the last holdouts would end the standoff in bloodshed only. He eventually walked out of the refuge holding a gun to his head, but surrendered himself to officials.
Wampler drove from his home in California to join the occupation in Burns, Oregon.
Though he arrived early during the occupation, several at the refuge at first refused to acknowledge his presence there.
Wampler, who is 68, had been convicted at the age of 29 of killing his father in Lake County, California.
Talking to reporters, he said he was working at the refuge as a cook.
Medenbach was one of the first to be arrested during the occupation, picked up by authorities at the parking lot of a convenience store driving a federal truck taken from the refuge.
Medenbach had been tasked with getting supplies in the nearby town of Burns for the occupiers, and authorities arrested him when he drove to a store with the stolen truck.
He has represented himself in court and, in court filings, has shown strong leanings toward the sovereign citizen movement, which challenges the validity of federal courts and officials and believes the federal government invalid.
In one court filing, Medenbach challenged the oath of office taken by the judge presiding over the case and demanded he and the other defendants be released and paid $50,000 for lost wages and $100,000 each for punitive damages against the government.
The motion was denied.
Jeff Banta was among the last four holdouts at the refuge, along with co-defendant David Fry.
However, his court-appointed attorney has argued he was not a leader or a decision maker during the occupation.
A carpenter from Nevada, Banta arrived at the refuge on Jan. 25, a day before agents arrested Ammon and Ryan Bundy, as well as other leaders of the occupation.