Justice Department prosecutors are having about as much trouble convicting members of the “Bundy gang” as federal agents faced in their failed attempt to round-up cattle during the infamous 2014 standoff at Bunkerville, Nevada.
Charges from that standoff between federal agents and supporters of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy ended when a mistrial was declared Monday in Las Vegas in the first of three-planned criminal trials.
U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro declared the mistrial after the jury announced it was “hopelessly deadlocked” and couldn’t reach a unanimous verdict on guilt or acquittal for six defendants.
The jury, however, did convicted two of the defendants, Gregory P. Burleson and Todd C. Engel, of some of the counts they faced. But prosecutors failed to convince jurors beyond a reasonable doubt that any of the defendants were guilty of either of two conspiracy charges at the core of the case.
Two years after the standoff at Bunkerville, following an exhaustive and expensive investigation by the FBI, a grand jury in February 2016 indicted Cliven Bundy and others for conspiring to commit an offense against the United States and conspiring to impede or injure a federal officer.
Prosecutors have not said if they will seek a re-trial of the six “follower-gunmen,” or proceed with two more planned Las Vegas trials of 11 other defendants, including patriarch Cliven Bundy, who are deemed more culpable as “leaders and organizers” of the standoff.
The setback for the Justice Department in Nevada comes five months after another team of federal prosecutors in Oregon failed to get convictions for two of Bundy’s sons, Ammon and Ryan Bundy, and five others involved in the 2016 takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon—an event regarded as “Bunkerville Part II.”
In the Nevada case, the federal judge, after declaring the mistrial, set a new trial date of June 26, but it’s not clear if that will be for a re-trial of the six initial defendants or the second grouping of other defendants.
Burleson, a former Arizona militia member, was convicted of separate counts of assaulting and threatening a federal officer, interference with interstate commerce by extortion, obstruction of justice, interstate travel in aid of extortion and several firearms counts. He faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 57 years, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported today.
During the standoff, Burleson was photographed holding a rifle above a wash where federal agents were attempting to round-up and impound 400 of Cliven Bundy’s cattle for non-payment of federal grazing fees. Substantially outnumbered by Bundy’s armed supporters, including various militia groups, the federal agents ultimately released the cattle and retreated from Bunkerville.
Months after the standoff, when Burleson was interviewed by undercover FBI agents posing as documentary film makers, he told them he traveled to the Bundy ranch in Nevada with the intent to harm or kill BLM agents.
The jury also convicted Todd Engel of obstruction of justice and interstate travel in aid of extortion. Engel, who acted as his own attorney, faces up to 20 years in prison.
He, too, was photographed holding a firearm in the area above where the cattle impoundment was occurring. The jury was shown a video in which Engel discussed how he and other armed protesters “followed [Cliven] Bundy’s orders to go get his cows from federal officers,” the Las Vegas newspaper reported.
If prosecutors seek a retrial, Burleson and Engel could be retried for the charges against them that weren’t resolved.
The six men grouped together for the first trial were identified as “follower-gunmen” by prosecutors who successfully sought to have the 17 defendants split into three groups for trial-logistical reasons.
After a lengthy and intensive investigation by the FBI, the defendants were indicted on charges they conspired to block federal government agents from carrying out a court order to impound Bundy’s cattle grazing on public lands.
The second group of defendants, including Cliven Bundy’s sons Mel and Dave Bundy, were tentatively scheduled to stand trial beginning June 5, but that date apparently has been vacated. Cliven Bundy and his others son, Ryan and Ammon, will be in the last grouping to stand trial in late summer or early fall.
The first trial began Feb. 9 with prosecutors telling the jury the six defendants conspired with the Bundys in a “massive armed assault against federal law enforcement officers.
“Their intent was to make the BLM back down and get those cattle,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Myhre told the jury at the opening of the trial. “They succeeded at the end of a rifle barrel. These defendants willingly and knowingly supplied that rifle barrel.”
During the trial, prosecutors called a string of law enforcement officials who testified how they were substantially outnumbered and felt endangered by Bundy’s heavily armed followers, including members of assorted militia groups.
The federal agents “were forced to don body armor and assume military formation in order to defend themselves against [the] raucous, armed crowd,” the Las Vegas newspaper reported.
The prosecution’s case was built around photographs, video and social media postings showing each of the six defendants holding or pointing weapons at what became known as the Bunkerville standoff. It ended when federal agents abandoned their cattle-roundup plan and left the area.
Prosecutors also introduced videotaped interviews with some of the defendants taken months after the standoff by undercover FBI agents who posed as documentary film makers.
Trial testimony revealed that Burleson was a paid FBI informant from 2012 until an undisclosed date, but information he may have provided was not publicly disclosed. The Las Vegas newspaper reported that Burleson has been an “active member of Arizona militia groups.”
Defense attorneys argued that the defendants— none of whom permanently live in Nevada— traveled to the Bundy Ranch at Bunkerville with firearms solely for self-defense and never intended violence.
The only defendant to take the stand in his own defense was Eric Parker, who was photographed in a prone position on an overpass, pointing his rifle at a crowd below. The photo—widely dubbed as the “Bundy sniper” —went viral on social media during the standoff.
Shown the photo by his defense attorney, Parker testified that he didn’t really care about the roundup of Bundy’s cattle, but showed up on April 11, 2014, to defend Bundy and his followers because he believed constitutional rights were at stake.
“I made a decision,” Parker testified. “I didn’t want to hurt anybody, but I also didn’t want to see those people get hurt in the wash.” the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported.
“They were hurting people,” Parker testified. “I tell my kids that you have to stand up for your neighbor, and you have to be there for each other. And if I don’t do that, then I’m a hypocrite.”
At the end of the prosecution’s case, federal judge Navarro ruled that defense attorneys could not call witnesses to testify about federal authorities’ actions in the days prior to the standoff. Defense attorneys said that ruling “eviscerated their case,” the Las Vegas newspaper reported.