Cattle rancher Cliven Bundy’s armed stand against the federal government was either an assault on law enforcement by self-described militiamen or a freedom festival led by cowboys at home on the range, depending on who was addressing jurors Thursday in a crowded Las Vegas courtroom.
The April 2014 standoff in Bunkerville followed a five-word order the 70-year-old rancher gave to hundreds of protesters at a morning rally: “Cowboys, go get ‘er done.”
What happened after those remarks was the subject of much contention when the trial of six people charged as Bundy’s co-conspirators opened Thursday in federal court.
In a dramatic opening statement, First Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Myhre gave the jury a vivid description of how the six people on trial complied with Bundy’s request. He said the gunmen assumed tactical positions — on a highway overpass or the high banks of a dried-up wash — in preparation for battle against Bureau of Land Management agents stationed in the sandy ditch below them.
The terrain acted like a funnel, and federal officers who were executing a court order to seize Bundy’s cattle were at the bottom of it, Myrhe said. He showed jurors pictures of the six defendants, armed and wearing tactical gear.
‘TOO MANY GUNS’
He described the BLM agents as cornered and afraid, with nothing but a flimsy metal gate separating them from an angry mob of hundreds of people, dozens of horses and “too many guns to count.”
Protesters did not listen to verbal instructions, and authorities could not use pepper spray for fear of starting a gunfight, Myhre told jurors. Outgunned and outnumbered, the federal officers had no choice but to release the cattle and head home, he said.
Bundy for decades let his cattle roam on hundreds of thousands of acres of federal land. He refused to pay grazing fees or to acknowledge court orders to remove the animals, Myhre said. When BLM agents started cattle impoundment operations, the rancher vowed to stop them at any cost.
“He got what he wanted, and he got it at the end of a rifle barrel,” Myrhe said. “These defendants knowingly and willingly supplied the barrel.”
Defense attorneys countered the government’s description of a planned assault with claims that the standoff resulted from a miscommunication and excessively forceful federal agents.
Bundy’s instructions to protesters — to go retrieve his cattle and “get ‘er done” — came after the local sheriff announced that BLM agents had left town, defense teams argued. They said protesters traveled 5 miles from the rally site to the impoundment site for a ceremonious release of the cattle.
‘FLAGS AND COWBOYS’
“It was festive. It was flags and cowboys,” defendant Todd Engel, an Idaho resident who is representing himself, said in his opening statement. “It doesn’t get more down home than that.”
Jurors’ attention was locked on Engel, who was dressed in a plaid, button-down shirt and spoke in a calm, even tone. Engel said he and others arrived on the Interstate 15 overpass and realized federal authorities were not only still assembled in the ditch, but had their rifles raised and aimed at protesters.
Engel was photographed in a prone position, pointing a rifle through a crack in the jersey barrier. He said he was down in that position for about 10 minutes to rest his back following a recent surgery.
Defense attorney Terrence Jackson, representing Gregory Burleson, said authorities shouted a “mumble jumble” of inaudible instructions at protesters when they arrived. Protesters filled the bridge and also streamed into the low-lying wash near the impoundment site.
“If you ever think of how ants communicated, that’s what happened at this point,” said defense attorney Todd Leventhal, who represents Idaho resident Scott Drexler. “There was no conspiracy. There was no planning. There was no organization at all.”
Defense attorneys showed the jury a photo and two videos that were widely shared online in the days before the standoff. They said online postings, rather than a call from Bundy for militiamen, were the reason their clients traveled to Bunkerville.
The first was a “First Amendment corral in the middle of the desert,” Leventhal said, pointing to a photo of the plastic orange fencing that cordoned off the area limiting where people could protest. Defense attorneys also showed videos of BLM authorities using a stun gun on Bundy’s son and knocking a middle-aged grandmother to the ground.
‘NOTHING TO GAIN’
“At that point, I knew something had to be done,” Engel said. “I had nothing to gain … but I knew somehow I just had to go there.”
Engel said he knew nothing about the Bundy family or the BLM when he and two friends drove 12 hours to Bunkerville.
“I didn’t conspire with anybody because I didn’t know anybody,” he said.
Attorneys for Eric Parker and Richard Lovelin chose not to give opening statements Thursday, but Parker’s lawyer, Jess Marchese, sent a bold statement to jurors by coming to court dressed in a cobalt blue suit with a flashy Uncle Sam tie. Defense attorneys are expected to reference constitutional rights to freely assemble and to bear arms throughout the duration of the trial. The government plans to call its first witness Monday.
Prosecutors characterize the six men standing trial as the “least culpable” among 17 co-conspirators facing trial on extortion, assault, threats and other charges. Engel, Lovelin, Burleson, Parker, Drexler and Steven Stewart have tried to distance themselves from the Bundy family in an effort to convince jurors that they were not part of a conspiracy.
The remaining defendants, including Bundy, will be tried in two subsequent trials.