Internet-radio host Pete Santilli’s surprising plea bargain could impact the other defendants’ cases in the ongoing Bundy proceedings, given his agreement with the prosecution’s description of events near Bunkerville when the BLM attempted to take Cliven Bundy’s cattle in March 2014.
By Mark Anderson
LAS VEGAS—Things have taken two sharp, rather unexpected turns regarding the upcoming trial in the Bundy proceedings in the U.S. District Court in Las Vegas, Nevada. For one thing, Internet-radio personality Pete Santilli—one of the defendants in the next trial, which had been set to begin with jury selection on Oct. 10—“pled guilty today (Friday, Oct. 6) and was released pending sentencing,” his attorney, Chris Rasmussen of Las Vegas, confirmed for AFP by phone about 4:30 p.m. Eastern time that day.
Notably, the next trial involves the federal government trying cattleman Cliven Bundy, his sons Ammon and Ryan, and Ryan Payne. Due to his plea arrangement, Santilli is, of course, no longer involved in this trial. Two other defendants, O. Scott Drexler and Eric Parker, who are being retried on some counts for a third time, will join the others in this second of three planned trials of all the defendants charged in the Bunkerville “standoff.”
The second surprising turn of events is that both the prosecution and defense sought and secured yet another delay in these complicated proceedings, this time due to fear that the highly emotional aftermath of the recent deadly shooting during a country music concert outside Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas would adversely impact the attitudes and opinions of jurors for the time being.
As of this writing, the Oct. 10 date for jury selection has been postponed to on or around Oct. 30 and could be subject to change again, given the bumpy track record of these multiple-defendant trial proceedings—which the federal government has been largely losing so far. Santilli, who shot extended livestream video footage at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge building in eastern Oregon—prompting critics to allege that his “journalistic” coverage enabled the government to more closely monitor the ranchers who occupied the abandoned building in protest of onerous federal land controls—was jailed for his role in that affair.
Although cleared of Oregon-related charges, Santilli was kept behind bars and transferred to Nevada to stand trial because he had also taken part in the spring 2014 Bunkerville, Nev. “standoff.” That peaceful confrontation saw Cliven Bundy, his sons, and other supporters gather to protest the policies and conduct of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and other federal agencies that unsuccessfully attempted to confiscate Bundy’s cattle over a grazing-fee dispute.
Regarding the Nevada events, Santilli pled guilty to a felony count of obstruction of justice, based on the government’s assertion that he used his own vehicle to impede the movement of a BLM truck during the attempted cattle impoundment.
Interestingly, Rasmussen believes the government may be willing to consider the prison time that Santilli has already served—behind bars since Jan. 26, 2016—as sufficient punishment for that felony charge. But a reading of the plea memo shared with AFP by Rasmussen shows that the government reserves the right to impose a longer prison term, possibly six years, when Santilli is sentenced, probably in January. Meanwhile, two pending defense motions—one to exclude Oregon-related evidence in the government’s Nevada case against Santilli, and another to challenge the government’s claim that Santilli could not excuse his Nevada actions because of his journalistic background—are now moot, Rasmussen added.
According to court documentation, Santilli’s acceptance of pleading guilty to this single felony-obstruction charge requires, under penalty of perjury, that he accept the following government-sourced statements as “true and correct,” regarding the “standoff” in southern Nevada:
“Beginning on or around March 28, 2014, federal law enforcement officers from the United States Department of Interior, Bureau of Land Management, and National Park Service were engaged in the official duties of executing federal court orders to remove and impound cattle trespassing upon federal public lands in and around Bunkerville, Nevada, the cattle belonging to Cliven Bundy, a local rancher.
“Defendant Santilli knew that Cliven Bundy and his sons, Ammon, Dave, Mel, and Ryan, (collectively, ‘the Bundys’), and others associated with them, planned to thwart, impede and interfere with impoundment operations.
“On April 9, 2014, Defendant Santilli used force to prevent officers from discharging their duties by using his vehicle to block BLM law enforcement officers and civilian employees as they were performing their duties related to the impoundment. Defendant Santilli drove his vehicle straight toward a BLM law enforcement officer’s vehicle, preventing the officer and the rest of the convoy behind him from being able to move forward.
“The officer ordered Defendant Santilli to move out of the way but Defendant Santilli continued to block the convoy’s path. Defendant Santilli finally reversed his vehicle out of the path of the convoy only after the officer repeated the command several times.
“By using force to block the convoy, Defendant Santilli allowed others to surround the convoy and threaten the occupants of the vehicles by force of violence and fear, inducing the officers to leave the place where their duties were required to be performed.
“Defendant Santilli acknowledges that all of the above took place within the State and Federal District of Nevada.”
The maximum penalty for “Conspiracy to Impede or Injure a Federal Officer,” the formal name of this count against Santilli under 18 U.S.C. § 372, is six years’ imprisonment, a fine of $250,000, or both. But the plea memo shows that Santilli owes no restitution under this charge, nor will he be required to forfeit any of his assets—provided he meets the strict terms of his supervised release until he’s sentenced.
He must not violate any federal, state, or local laws, is restricted from any significant travel, and among other things must avoid any known association with anyone who’s breaking any law. Nor can Santilli possess a gun or any other item deemed a weapon by the government. Failing to show up for a hearing or other procedural matter would also result in this deal being dissolved.
Mark Anderson is a longtime newsman now working as the roving editor for AFP. Email him at [email protected].