Jury Returns Convictions in Oregon Refuge Takeover

A year after armed militia and antigovernment extremists took over an Oregon wildlife refuge, the courtroom scorecard stands at two convictions, 11 guilty pleas and seven acquittals.

The latest update came late last week when a U.S. District Court jury found occupation organizer Jason Patrick, 43, of Bonaire, Ga., and security guard Darryl Thorn, 32, of Marysville, Wash., guilty of conspiracy — using intimidation, threat or force — to prevent employees at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge from performing their jobs at the facility.

Duane Ehmer, 46, of Irrigon, Ore., and Jake Ryan, 28, of Plains, Mont., the other defendants tried in the second Malheur prosecution, were found not guilty of the conspiracy charge. But both were convicted of depredation of government property for using an excavator to dig two deep trenches near the refuge headquarters — a felony punishable by as much as six years in prison.

The verdicts came after a 10-day trial in Portland — the second prosecution following the 41-day occupation in early 2016 at the federal refuge near Burns in rural eastern Oregon.

Unlike the first trial that ended with acquittals that disappointed prosecutors and many others, including public land advocates, the second prosecution offered the jury direct evidence that the refuge takeover did involve a conspiracy — a plan that was hatched by Ammon Bundy and others several days before it was put into action.

“This case is about four defendants who went too far,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Ethan Knight told the jury in closing arguments on Thursday.

Defense attorneys partially failed in their attempts to convince the jury that federal prosecutors had proved their conspiracy theory beyond a reasonable doubt.

The defense team posed questions for the jury touching upon the FBI’s response to the illegal occupation, including the agency’s decision to send nine informants to comingle with the occupiers during the standoff.

One of the informants was in charge of a security team and another trained occupiers on “how to remove motorists from cars at gunpoint and oversaw firearms training,” the Oregonian reported.

The organizers of the illegal occupation, brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy and five others, were acquitted in the same courtroom last October on similar conspiracy and weapons charges following a five-week trial.

In the second trial, the “prosecution sharpened its case this time, zeroing in on how the actions of the men on trial revealed their intent to intimidate federal workers and explaining that jurors didn't need to see a formal written or verbal agreement to find a conspiracy,” reporter Maxine Bernstein wrote in the Oregonian.

 Still pending is a ruling from U.S. District Judge Anna J. Brown who will issue a written decision whether Patrick, Thorn, Ehmer and Ryan should be found guilty of pending misdemeanor charges, including trespassing.

During the second trial, former occupier Blaine Cooper, of Humboldt, Arizona, became the first former occupier to testify against fellow defendants in the Oregon case. He previously struck a deal with prosecutors, pleading guilty to conspiracy, and hoping for a lighter sentence in exchange for his testimony and cooperation with investigators.

Cooper, 37, also is expected to be a key prosecution witness in the forthcoming companion prosecution in Nevada where Ammon Bundy and his father, Cliven Bundy, and others face serious charges growing out of the April 2014 standoff at Bunkerville, Nev.  Cooper has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States and assault on a federal officer in the Nevada case.

Prosecutors have described Cooper as a “recruiter” who used social media and other means to urge antigovernment and militia activists to show up and participate in the 2014 Nevada standoff and the subsequent Malheur refuge occupation.

In the second Portland trial, Cooper testified that a secret plan for the armed takeover of the Malheur refuge was discussed at a Dec. 29, 2015, meeting in the Burns, Ore., home of Patty Overton.  Cooper testified he was there, along with Ammon Bundy, Ryan Payne, Jason Patrick, Joseph O'Shaughnessy, Corey Lequieu and B.J. Soper.  Overton was not charged in the conspiracy.

Cooper said the organizers discussed establishing security checkpoints at the entrance to the federal wildlife refuge and also talked about logistics, including food and power, and what to do if confronted.

Cooper told the jury the occupation of the federal refuge was intended to call attention to issues raised by Ammon Bundy, who wanted the local sheriff to intervene and prevent ranchers Dwight and Steve Hammond from going to prison on Jan. 4, 2016, for federal arson charges.

After the Jan. 2 rally, Cooper testified the he returned to Overton's house to get “militia gear,” including body armor, camouflage clothing and boots, the Portland newspaper reported.

At the refuge, a few miles south of Burns, Cooper said he and others following Ammon Bundy’s plan conducted a building-by-building search, using assault-style rifles.  Cooper testified those involved in the armed sweep, including Patrick, announced as they entered refuge buildings, “Is anybody in here? The militia is here ... hello?'”

“The idea was to stay there as long as it took” to lay claim to the federal refuge and give control of it to the residents of Harney County, Cooper testified, according to reports in the Portland newspaper. 

Ammon Bundy, called as a defense witness in the trial of his former followers, also confirmed he attended the Dec. 29 meeting where he laid out the plan for the refuge takeover.  The secret meeting was four days before a large rally and parade in the small eastern Oregon community of Burns, intended to show support for the Hammonds.

Bundy testified that “more needed to be done” because of what he described as “zero response” from government officials to the injustices being directed at the Hammonds.

At the secret meeting, Bundy testified, “I proposed going into the refuge.”

He testified recalling that Cooper, Jon Ritzheimer, Ryan Payne and B.J. Soper were at the meeting, but didn’t remember if Jason Patrick was in attendance, as Cooper testified.

Bundy also testified that he had revealed his refuge occupation plan to members of the Harney County “Committee of Safety,” composed of ranchers and other activists sympathetic to the Hammonds’ plight.