Ore. standoff shows FBI's 'low-burn' strategy
A peaceful resolution to the 41-day standoff, that resulted in one death, signaled victory for FBI's patient approach
By Rebecca Boone and Martha Bellisle
BURNS, Ore. — The last four armed occupiers of an Oregon wildlife refuge shouted, argued and raved for all the world to hear. But in the end, they surrendered without a shot being fired, leaving behind a vandalized federal property that authorities will spend weeks combing for evidence, explosives and damage before it can reopen to the public.
The peaceful resolution to the standoff, which had lasted 41 days and resulted in one death, signaled a victory for the FBI's patient, "low burn" approach to the trespassers, and reflected lessons federal agents have learned since bloody standoffs at Waco, Texas, and Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in the 1990s.
"This was beautifully executed," said Brian Levin, a criminal justice professor at California State University, San Bernardino. "This siege and the way it was handled will go down in law enforcement textbooks."
The holdouts were the last remnants of a larger group that seized the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on Jan. 2, demanding the U.S. turn over the land to locals and release two ranchers imprisoned for setting fires, in a controversy that exposed simmering anger over the government's control of vast expanses of Western land.
The group's leaders, including Ammon Bundy, were arrested Jan. 26 during a traffic stop along the snowy highway to the town of John Day, where they were due to appear at a community forum. Authorities said one man, Robert "LaVoy" Finicum, reached toward a pistol inside his jacket pocket, and police shot him dead.
Most of the occupiers fled the refuge. Four stayed behind, saying they feared they would be arrested if they left: 27-year-old David Fry, of Blanchester, Ohio; Jeff Banta, 46, of Elko, Nevada; and married couple Sean Anderson, 48, and Sandy Anderson, 47, of Riggins, Idaho.
On Wednesday night, the FBI tightened its ring around the holdouts, surrounding their encampment with armored vehicles — while also arresting one of their heroes, Ammon Bundy's father, Cliven Bundy, as he arrived in Oregon to support them. The elder Bundy appeared in federal court Thursday in Portland to hear the charges against him, all of which stem from a 2014 confrontation with federal authorities at his ranch in Nevada.
As the standoff entered its final hours, the occupiers' panic and their negotiation with FBI agents could be heard live online, broadcast by a sympathizer of the occupiers who established phone contact with them. Their communication with two prominent supporters, the Rev. Franklin Graham and Nevada lawmaker Michele Fiore, who traveled to the wildlife refuge to help persuade them to surrender, seemed to provide an outlet valve for the increasing pressure from federal agents, and the FBI credited the two with helping end the standoff peaceably.
The Andersons and Banta surrendered first on Thursday. Fry initially refused to join them.
"I'm making sure I'm not coming out of here alive," he said at one point, threatening to kill himself. "Liberty or death, I take that stance."
But after ranting for a while, he too gave up, saying he was having one more cookie and one more cigarette, and asking others to join him in saying "hallelujah."
Nearby residents were relieved.
"I just posted hallelujah on my Facebook," said Julie Weikel, who lives next to the nature preserve. "And I think that says it all. I am so glad this is over."
Federal authorities in six states also arrested seven other people accused of being involved in the occupation. At least 25 people have now been indicted on federal charges of conspiracy to impede employees at the wildlife refuge from performing their duties.
The refuge, a haven for many species of migratory waterfowl, will remain closed to the public for weeks, said Greg Bretzing, the agent in charge of the FBI's Portland division. Bomb squads planned to sweep buildings for explosives, and specialists must try to determine whether the occupiers damaged any artifacts or burial grounds sacred to the Burns Paiute Tribe — with an eye toward uncovering any violations of the Native American Graves and Repatriation Protection Act and the Archeological Resources Protection Act, he said.
Video posted online showed the occupiers operating a backhoe, exploring buildings at the site and criticizing the way tribal artifacts were stored there. The last four occupiers had been living in a rough encampment on refuge grounds.
The elder Bundy is accused of leading supporters who pointed military-style weapons at federal agents trying to enforce a court order to round up Bundy cattle from federal rangeland. The charges include conspiracy, assault on a federal officer, obstruction of justice and weapons charges.
Federal authorities have not said why they chose to arrest the 69-year-old now. They may have feared Bundy's presence would draw sympathizers to defend the last remaining occupiers.
Like the others arrested, the four final occupiers are charged with conspiracy to impede federal employees, a felony that would cost them their right to carry guns if convicted. But that may not be the end of their legal trouble, said Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School. She expected prosecutors to also bring charges such as theft of government resources or threatening federal officials.
"If they can convict them of a felony, they can disarm them," she said. "Given what has happened here, I can understand why that would be a priority."
Copyright 2016 The Associated Press