Key Charge Dropped in Upcoming Trial of Nevada Ranchers

A key charge on weapons was recently dropped from the charges that were filed against Nevada ranchers Cliven Bundy, his sons, and several of their supporters over their protest in 2014. So far, the case has been split into three separate trials, set to start soon in Las Vegas. AFP will continue to follow this case as it evolves throughout the summer.

By Mark Anderson

LAS VEGAS, Nev.—A federal judge in a pretrial hearing on Feb. 2 dismissed the third count, related to firearms, in the 16-count indictment against rancher Cliven Bundy and 17 others stemming from their April 2014 resistance of a crackdown carried out by federal agents in Bunkerville, located in southern Nevada.

The “standoff” happened when federal agents unsuccessfully tried to seize Bundy’s cattle following a decades-long dispute that, according to the government, was over unpaid grazing fees. The event is widely seen as a collision of two worldviews—emblematic of Western landowners’ longtime efforts to resist and turn back what they see as heavy-handed federal micro-management of vast stretches of Western lands.

While the Las Vegas Review Journal online called U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro’s decision to drop count three as a “minor victory” for the men “accused of organizing a mass assault on law enforcement,” other observers have insisted that federal agents, especially those from the Bureau of Land Management, were the actual assailants.

Judge Navarro ruled to drop that count amid requests by the defense for several of the charges contained in the federal indictment to be dismissed, according to the Journal.

Paralegal Tatum Wehr, assistant to Bret Whipple, attorney for Cliven Bundy, told this AFP writer Feb. 3 that Navarro’s decision applies to all the defendants awaiting trial. That was seconded by Roger Roots, an astute Montanan who’s a legal adviser to both Cliven Bundy and his son, Ryan.

Roots explained to AFP in a phone interview that, while the dropped count has to do with the alleged use of a gun to “impede” federal officers, the three other similar gun counts that weren’t dropped allege the use of a gun to “assault,” “threaten,” and “interfere” with federal officers. In his view, those are just three ways of saying the same basic thing and that such wording is a deliberate way for the feds to get something to stick.

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Roots added that a motion to dismiss the case was filed on Feb. 2.

“That will be ruled on in a couple weeks. Unless that succeeds, this thing is definitely going to trial,” he said, adding, “This case is a big exposure for these guys. We’re talking high stakes.”

According to Roots, the three remaining gun counts carry mandatory minimum sentences of several years each under what he described as an “evil” statute [USC 18, Sect. 924 (c)]. It carries stiff sentences (especially for second offenses) and mandates that the sentences be served consecutively, instead of the usual concurrent approach. The defendants could be looking at 25 years to life, depending on how many counts stick, as Roots understands it.

Roots also said the federal government has been withholding critically important evidence from the defense, amid severe moral and ethical breaches and enormously wasteful and improper spending of tax dollars during the standoff by BLM agent Dan Love, a key figure in this saga.

And with Love’s testimony being the only thing the grand jury heard in the Bundy case before issuing its indictment—meaning that the grand jury’s inherent right to do its own investigation was never exercised—the federal case evidently is far weaker than many people assume.

An insightful overview of Love’s behavior concerning the Bunkerville standoff and related matters can be heard here in an interview with Brianna Bundy, wife of defendant Mel Bundy, conducted by KSDZ-FM “The Twister” in Nebraska.

“They [BLM agents] laugh and joke about shooting women, shooting children, and dogs and horses,” Brianna told KSDZ, referring to evidence in the form of body-cam footage evidently being withheld from public knowledge. Love is accused of egging other agents on to aggressively view Cliven Bundy and his supporters as an allegedly mortal threat. The discovery process could bring this matter to light, but that has yet to happen.

Navarro’s ruling stems from a 2015 Supreme Court decision that addressed how those accused of being violent criminals are prosecuted. The high court’s majority, in Johnson v. United States, invalidated the “residual clause” criminal statute, striking it down as unconstitutionally vague. The clause allowed federal prosecutors broad discretion in arguing to a judge what sorts of crimes constitute violent felonies, which carry mandatory minimum sentences.

Prosecutors late last year decided to try the case in three separate trials. Jury selection begins in the first case on Feb. 6 in Las Vegas.  This trial of “lesser offenders” was moved up, while the second and third more high-profile trials are expected to start in mid-to-latter April and in the summer, respectively.

According to the court’s schedule, there will be a 30-day break after the end of the first trial before starting the second tier consisting of key defendants Cliven Bundy, his sons Ammon and Ryan Bundy, Ryan Payne, and Internet-radio journalist Pete Santilli. These men were acquitted in the Oregon trial regarding their participation in civil disobedience to protest federal land policies and other matters at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge that ended in early 2015, only to be kept in custody and transferred to Nevada for another trial.

After another approximately 30-day break at the second trial’s end, tier three will commence, involving Cliven’s sons Mel and Dave Bundy, along with Joseph O’Shaughnessy, Brian Cavalier, Jason Woods, and Micah McGuire.

Mark Anderson is AFP’s roving editor.