One of the militia members occupying a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon was arrested Friday on suspicion of driving a stolen truck — the first arrest since armed protesters took over the refuge two weeks ago.
Kenneth Medenbach, 62, of Crescent, Oregon, was taken into custody by state police at a Safeway more than 30 miles away from the refuge, where he was allegedly spotted driving a truck owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The armed militants took over the refuge on Jan. 2, after a protest in the small community against the conviction of two local ranchers. But an armed faction of the protesters headed to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge afterward, and have remained there for nearly two weeks in what has been a tense standoff with local and federal authorities.
The Safeway, the only major supermarket in the city of Burns, has been a common stop for many of the occupiers looking for supplies and food.
LaVoy Finicum, one of the leaders of the armed occupiers there, told BuzzFeed News that Medenbach was among the group of men who took over the refuge on Jan. 2.
"He was a great help," he said. "He's been carrying a heavy load, doing a lot of the heavy work."
Finicum said he learned of the arrest "as soon as they picked him up," but there were no immediate plans to ask for his release, or for the group to try to bail him out.
Medenbach was with a group of people who went into town to pick up supplies for the occupation, Finicum said.
Harney County Sheriff officials said two vehicles had been reported stolen by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and were recovered during the arrest.
A spokesman for the sheriff's department told BuzzFeed News that Medenbach was transferred more than 150 miles away to the Deschutes County jail to be processed.
Medenbach is expected to face federal charges, the spokesman said.
Since taking over the refuge, the armed protesters have taken control of several of the sheds, barracks and vehicles that were kept there.
BuzzFeed News observed several of the men driving trucks with government plates at the refuge, including some with decals for the U.S. Fish And Wildlife Service.
As the standoff has lingered on, Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward has asked locals to stop sending supplies and food to the men at the refuge.
Leaders of the armed group have asked officials for federal lands to be turned over to local ranchers, and for the release of two local ranchers.
They also maintain they have broken no laws, arguing that the refuge itself is public land.
Earlier this week, the group also a new sign at the entrance of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, calling it the Harney County Resource Center.
Pictures of government vehicles at the refuge appeared to have been fitted with decals with that name as well.
Finicum told BuzzFeed News they put "Harney County Resource Center" signs on the trucks, but that Medenbach had been told about the risk of driving into town.
"He shouldn't have taken them into town," he said, adding that the trucks are being used inside the refuge.
Court records reviewed by BuzzFeed News show Medenbach is already facing federal charges connected to another standoff in Oregon last year between federal agencies and anti-federal government groups.
Medenbach is facing charges of unlawful camping and unlawful occupancy in connection to the Sugar Pine Mine standoff last year, where protestors there were concerned that the Bureau of Land Management would seize mining equipment and destroy a cabin.
Part of the conditions of his release were to notify the court ahead of time in writing before camping on federal lands.
Medenbach, who is a member of the Josephine County Oath Keepers, has argued in federal court the charges should be dismissed because "there are no public lands of the United Sates in the State of Oregon," a similar claim made by protesters at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
According to court documents, he has also argued the federal court has no jurisdiction to convict him, since jurisdiction was granted after congress started, "perverting the Constitution."
The judge ruled Medenbach's arguments have no merit, and asked that any future motions be filed by his court-appointed attorney.
Despite the arrest, Finicum said the rest of the group at the refuge are not concerned about being arrest during trips into town.
Ammon Bundy, another leader of the group, has gone to church in Burns, Finicum told BuzzFeed News, and also planned to drive into town for a haircut this weekend.
"It's been calm out here," he said. "We called for calm."
Still, Finicum said they've been hampered in other ways. A community meeting that the group was hoping to hold Friday at the county fair grounds was blocked by local authorities.
During a phone interview with BuzzFeed News, Finicum said he was taking down an FBI camera that had been set up down the road from the refuge.
"They are not damaged, we just dont want them here," he said.
The armed militia members are nearing two weeks at the refuge. Finicum said he hopes the arrest on Friday is not a sign of a more strong-arm tactic by law enforcement.
"I certainly hope not," he said. "They need to be neighborly."