Federal prosecutors, citing a lack of evidence, dropped the charges against Internet radio personality Peter “Pete” T. Santilli Jr., stemming from his presence at the early-2016 demonstration at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, but they slapped new even more absurd charges on him related to his coverage of the protest at Cliven Bundy’s ranch in 2014.
By Mark Anderson
Pete Santilli’s dismissal came on the eve of his Oregon trial, AFP has since learned that he was transferred Sept. 13 from a holding cell in Portland, Ore. to Nevada, where he’s facing much more serious federal charges for his allegedly confrontational role in the April 2014 standoff between elder rancher Cliven Bundy and federal land-regulators.
A Multnomah County Sheriff’s Department official confirmed that Santilli had been jailed there in Portland, under federal custody, since May 19. The Oregon Federal Marshals Service office then confirmed his transfer by marshals to Nevada.
The approximately week-long Nevada standoff did not result in a shoot-out and saw federal officials back off—prompting many to believe that the Oregon crackdown nearly two years later was payback for the event in Nevada. Citizens from across the nation, some of them armed, had trekked to Bunkerville, Nev. to stand with the Bundy family.
The family is known for taking strong issue with the manner in which grazing lands and other federal properties are micro-managed—some say woefully mismanaged—by a distant bureaucracy, often to the detriment of local ranchers and other property owners.
The federal government, which contends that the elder Bundy had for years refused to pay the required fees when his cattle grazed on federal lands, claims its action was limited to impounding and transferring Bundy’s cattle since those fees remained unpaid. When Cliven and company refused to allow that removal to happen, the standoff ensued.
According to The Oregonian newspaper, Santilli, an Ohio native who most recently lived in California, reportedly opposed, beforehand, the Bundy siblings’ idea to occupy the Malheur refuge’s building as a platform for protesting the re-sentencing of Oregon ranchers Steve Hammond and his father, Dwight Hammond The two Hammonds had been charged with arson, though the Hammonds maintain they simply set “backfires” to try and subdue a larger fire on federal lands.
The apparent reason that Santilli kept a live camera-feed running at the Oregon site nonstop was to broadcast the plight of the ranchers to the world and hopefully generate more public support for their situation. While some feel his presence probably helped prevent a massacre from taking place, there’s been speculation that the authorities may have exploited his broadcasts to get “intel” on the Oregon occupiers.
So while federal prosecutors eventually deemed Santilli’s Oregon actions to be basically journalistic in nature, and therefore not in league with those the government is trying in court for the events in Oregon, the authorities claim that Santilli stepped well outside journalistic bounds in Nevada.
The 16-count federal indictment regarding Nevada smacks of legal overkill. Santilli, a non-rancher who maintains he visited the Nevada standoff only as a journalistic observer (starting a couple days after the standoff began), is accused of the very same crimes that Cliven E. Bundy, Ryan C. Bundy, Ammon E. Bundy, and Ryan W. Payne allegedly committed there.
The counts against these five men (the indictment repeats some counts separately, bringing the total to 16) are: “Conspiracy to commit an offense against the U.S.,” “conspiracy to impede or injure a federal officer,” “use and carry of a firearm in relation to a crime of violence,” “assault on a federal officer,” “threatening a federal law enforcement officer,” “obstruction of the due administration of justice,” “interference with interstate commerce by extortion,” and “interstate travel in aid of extortion.”
The government even goes so far as to allege that Santilli drove an ATV to physically block BLM vehicles and recruited gunmen to the ranch via his Internet broadcasts, amid a litany of other allegations. The 51-page indictment uses the words “conspiracy” and “conspirators” umpteen times, in a world where we’re told that real conspiracies are all but non-existent.
One key thing to watch for, as Nevada legal proceedings against Santilli and the others advance, is whether any legal precedents are set that would encumber the work of independent journalists in the future, especially those covering controversial or potentially volatile events.
The federal Oregon trial, in which brothers Ryan and Ammon Bundy and five of their followers are defendants, is underway in Portland.
Santilli and the other four named in the 16-count Nevada indictment, along with 12 others who’ve been indicted, reportedly will face trial in Las Vegas in February.
Mark Anderson is AFP’s roving editor.