It’s been more than a year since the feds walked away from a showdown with Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy over grazing fees, and so far no federal charges have come against the rogue rancher or any of his armed associates. As a result, many of the same men who stood with Bundy then have become emboldened and have redirected their antics at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon where an unknown number of militiamen remain today.
But experts say those militiamen shouldn’t count on being let off the legal hook so easy. The evidence in this case, experts say, is mounting and regardless of the individual charges, holding armed squatters accountable is a matter of messaging and conviction at this point that the federal government cannot afford to cave on.
“The case in Nevada involved cows roaming on public lands … Let’s just call that one level of wrong,” said Paul Charlton, a former U.S. attorney in Arizona, told TPM. This incident, Charlton says is a whole new level of criminal.
“There are prosecutors who could do this kind of case in their sleep,” Charlton said.
Ammon Bundy – Cliven’s son and the de facto leader of this disjointed group of militiamen — led the group of men who stormed the unoccupied federal wildlife refuge Jan. 2. In the days since, he and others allegedly used federal government heavy equipment to destroy government fences. He’s proudly appeared on video defending his involvement. Other men at the compound have announced they are rummaging through government documents to “expose” employee abuses against the people. And one Ohio man David Fry has videotaped himself using a Linux flash drive to access government computers. There are also some reports that men associated with the standoff had been intimidating refuge workers and others in the community in the weeks leading up to the incident.
Some of the armed protesters’ actions have been so blatant that law enforcement had little choice but to take action. In a comical move Friday, for example, some of men drove government-issued vehicles into town to buy groceries at the Safeway. One of the men, Kenneth Medenbach, 62, was arrested for unlawful use of a vehicle on the spot.
Evidence abounds, in other words, but authorities have been very deliberate about not provoking a confrontation that might risk escalating the situation.
Troy Eid, a former U.S. attorney in Colorado, warns that charges at this point are secondary to avoiding a violent confrontation like Waco or Ruby Ridge.
“There is no question there has been a violation of several different federal statutes based on what I have heard, but it is important to avoid loss of life or injuries,” Eid told TPM.
Charlton echoed Eid’s caution: “None of these crimes are worthy of people dying over, and that is why the government has been staying at a distance. “
The Guardian reported last week that all and all some of the men at Malheur Wildlife Refuge may have done enough damage so far to qualify for up to 10 years in prison and thousands in legal penalties. The Guardian reported that if someone “’knowingly converts to his use’ property of the federal government, that person could face a fine and a prison sentence of up to 10 years if the value of the property is greater than $1,000.” The Guardian also cites another statute that applies to sites like Malheur “that willful property destruction at protected sanctuaries could yield a six-month prison sentence.”
The refuge is also home to artifacts belonging to a local tribe, which may raise the severity of the occupation even further.
Experts agree that the longer the authorities wait, the more shenanigans the militiamen may engage in and the more evidence they may leave behind making it easier for officials to build a solid case against them once the standoff diffuses.
But regardless of outcome, David Hayes, a former assistant secretary for the Department of Interior, told TPM that the most important thing is to actually bring charges.
“A delay is no one’s friend here,” Hayes says. “I don’t know what these folks will respond to, but I do think it is unfortunate that the DOJ has moved so slowly on the Cliven Bundy situation. It is important to send a message that armed confrontations and armed occupations of federal lands are not acceptable.”