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Antigovernment Refuge Occupiers Guilty of Trespass, Tampering

Four men with antigovernment views who “actively participated in the armed occupation” of an Oregon federal wildlife reserve last year have been found guilty of various misdemeanor criminal charges.

Jason Patrick, Duane Leo Ehmer, Darryl William Thorn and Jake Ryan were each found guilty of trespassing on U.S. Government property and tampering with government vehicles and equipment in a ruling by U.S. District Judge Anna J. Brown of Oregon.

The convictions stem from the 41-day illegal occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon in early 2016 by armed members of various militia and antigovernment groups, led by Ammon and Ryan Bundy.

The judge entered her verdicts last week based on evidence supported during a recent felony jury trial as well as additional evidence. Each misdemeanor conviction can bring a maximum of six months in prison. Sentencing hearings are set for May

The judge said in her 40-page ruling that the illegal occupation, beginning with “military-style armed sweeps” of buildings at the reserve and armed blockades of its entrances, essentially barred federal workers from working at the facility. 

The armed occupiers “knew they were not authorized to occupy and to exercise control over the property as they did,” the judge said in her ruling.

“If any [refuge] employee or unsympathetic federal official had sought entry at the entrance to the MNWR headquarters compound during the occupation, it is highly

improbable that the occupiers would have permitted them to enter the premises,” the judge said.

“Those who occupied the [refuge] exercised control in varying degrees over most buildings in [its] headquarters compound, and they used many of the buildings as sleeping, meeting, and living quarters or as offices,” the judge said.

Defense attorneys had argued that the defendants shouldn’t be found guilty of trespassing because they were occupying a publicly owned facility and weren’t formally told they were trespassing.

But the judge noted the occupiers had argued they were taking “adverse possession” of the federal facility, hoping to strip it from federal control and “government over-reach.”

“In light of the extrajudicial nature of the occupation, service of a formal notice of trespass on those occupying the MNWR would have been a meaningless action and would have created an unreasonable risk of unnecessarily enflaming a volatile situation involving numerous armed individuals,” the judge ruled.

Patrick, described by the judge as a “leader of the occupation from its inception” on Jan. 2, 2016, was also found guilty of destruction and removal of government property, a charge related to cutting and destroying a barbed-wire perimeter fence at the 188,000-acre refuge.

Patrick, 44, of Bonaire, Georgia remained at the federal wildlife sanctuary near Burns, Oregon from Jan. 2, when the illegal occupation began, through Jan. 27, 2016, when he and others were arrested as they attempted to leave following the fatal shooting of occupier Robert Lavoy Finicum, the judge ruled.

Thorn, 32, of Marysville, Washington was found not guilty on a second charge of tampering with government-owned vehicles and equipment. Arrested on Jan. 27 when he attempted to leave, Thorn was a “member of an armed security team” at the refuge, who “performed guard duty at [entrance] blockades” and kept lookout in a watchtower, the judge ruled.

The tampering with vehicle and equipment charge brought against Ryan and Ehmer was related to their operation of a government-owned, heavy-equipment excavator used to dig a large trench near the refuge headquarters.  The trench-digging caused an estimated $108,000 in damages. 

Ryan and Ehmer weren’t charged under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act because prosecutors believed they would have difficulty proving the men knew the site had archaeological significance.  But the government is expected to seek restitution from the defendants at forthcoming hearings before the judge.

Ehmer, 46, of Irrigon, Oregon was found not guilty on a second charge of removal of property related to the alleged theft of a maroon pouch containing checks belonging to the Friends of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, government-owned credit cards and gasoline cards, a government identification card and cash.

The pouch was found under the seat of his truck at the time of his arrest.

The judge ruled that federal prosecutors did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt whether the cash within the pouch belonged to the government, to the non-profit Friends of the Malheur  or represented donations made to the occupiers.

Ehmer, arrested as he attempted to leave the refuge on Jan. 27, was described by the judge as another  “security team” member who performed armed guard duty at the main entrance blockade … and kept lookout in the fire watchtower.”

Ryan, the judge said, “was inspired by viewing online videos and other postings of Ammon Bundy before and during the occupation.”

On Jan. 15 Ryan, 28, traveled from his home in Plains, Montana to the refuge with his father, brother, and a family friend. Once there he decided not to return to Plains and became a “member of an armed security team” at the refuge until he left Jan. 28 and was arrested.

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