Things could have ended much worse.
That’s how beleaguered federal prosecutors now sum up the tense, armed 2014 standoff at Bunkerville, Nevada, between federal agents and the family and supporters of rogue antigovernment rancher Cliven Bundy.
The government’s assessment came in a just-filed sentencing recommendation for Peter T. Santilli Jr., a self-styled conservative internet talk show host who became a central “Tier 1” defendant in the Bunkerville prosecution, along with Bundy’s sons Ryan and Ammon Bundy and their associate Ryan Payne.
Santilli was among 19 defendants indicted for various crimes related to the “massive armed assault against federal law enforcement officers” that occurred near the Bundy Ranch at Bunkerville in April 2014.
Charges against the three Bundys and Payne were dismissed earlier this year by U.S. District Court Judge Gloria Navarro, who ruled that prosecutors had botched the criminal case by failing to turn over certain government documents to defense attorneys.
Santilli also was among defendants, including Ammon and Ryan Bundy, who were indicted for their roles in the 2016 illegal 41-day occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon.
But federal prosecutors in Oregon chose to drop the charges against Santilli on the eve of his trial in September 2016.
Then last October, just before the trial of co-defendants Cliven Bundy and the others was to begin, Santilli pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Las Vegas to a federal charge of conspiring to impede and interfere with federal agents at the Bunkerville standoff.
As part of his plea agreement, federal prosecutors agreed to dismiss 22 other federal charges lodged against Santilli in a February 2016 superseding indictment related to the events two years earlier at Bunkerville.
After pleading guilty, Santilli was released from jail on bond and, presumably, could have been called as a witness at the trial of his Bundy ranch associates.
His attorney argued in court filing that Santilli was merely using audio and video equipment at Bunkerville and “his actions blocked the pathway of government vehicles exiting the area,” leading to his guilty plea.
At a sentencing hearing on Tuesday, Judge Navarro said Santilli’s actions at the antigovernment standoff were “reckless,” but she followed the recommendation in the plea agreement and sentenced him to the 21 months in prison he has already served and two years of supervised release.
Santilli, who lives in Cincinnati, chose not to address the court. But outside the courthouse, the 52-year-old felon told the Las Vegas Review-Journal, “I’m really glad to just put this chapter behind me and move forward.”
His attorney argued in a court filing that Santilli merely was using audio and video equipment at Bunkerville and “his actions blocked the pathway of government vehicles exiting the area,” leading to his guilty plea.
Federal prosecutors agreed to stand by their year-old plea bargain with Santilli, and not recommend any additional jail time.
“But the government disagrees with the defendant’s watered-down version of his involvement in the offense,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel R. Schiess said in a sentencing memorandum.
Santilli’s “diluted version omits that he intentionally used force to help the Bundys interfere with the BLM cattle impoundment,” the federal prosecutor wrote.
While posing as a radio journalist at the standoff, Santilli “permitted Bundy followers to violently surround and confront” federal Bureau of Land Management agents, the federal prosecutor said.
At one point, Santilli’s brief blockade allowed another Bundy supporter to pick up a large rock he apparently intended to throw at the federal agents.
The court document says a “cool-headed officer … grabbed the person’s cocked arm and hand holding the rock. Things could have ended much worse.”