Rancher Cliven Bundy must be held accountable, Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie said Thursday.
But, the sheriff added, the federal agency trying to do it must reconsider its methods in order to prevent the bloodshed that was so narrowly avoided in April.
Gillespie, speaking to a Review-Journal editorial board, minced no words when recounting the mistakes made in the days and weeks before an April 12 standoff between armed protesters and the Bureau of Land Management on Bundy’s Bunkerville cattle ranch, about 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas.
The sheriff harshly criticized Bundy and said his family committed “serious errors” when BLM officers tried to round up more than 500 of the rancher’s cattle. Bundy, who believes the public land is his to use, hasn’t paid his federal grazing fees for 20 years and ignored a federal court order to remove the cattle.
Gillespie said he spoke to Bundy many times in the months before the roundup. He said he made it clear to Bundy that, if his family was going to protest, it must be peaceful.
But Bundy crossed the line when he allowed his supporters, many of whom were armed militia members, onto his property to aim guns at police, the sheriff said.
“If you step over that line, there are consequences to those actions. And I believe they stepped over that line. No doubt about it,” Gillespie said. “They need to be held accountable for it.”
No charges have been filed, but the FBI continues to investigate.
Gillespie said the BLM deserves blame for escalating the situation, ignoring his advice, dismissing his warnings and even lying about their operation.
He asked BLM officials to have town hall meetings regarding the roundup, but those never happened. And although officials told him they had a place to move Bundy’s cattle, Gillespie later discovered that wasn’t true.
“There was no place to take them to,” he said.
After a confrontational meeting with Bundy’s children a few weeks before the roundup, Gillespie said he was concerned. When family is involved, emotions can boil over.
“I came back from that saying, ‘This is not the time to do this,’” he said. “They said, ‘We do this all the time. We know what we’re doing. We hear what you’re saying, but we’re moving forward.’ ”
But early in the BLM operation, after a video of Bundy’s son being stunned with a Taser went viral on the Internet, militia members and other protesters flocked to the ranch. Gillespie said the BLM underestimated the pushback.
Bundy wasn’t a hardened criminal, Gillespie said; he was a rancher who stopped paying his fees, and that’s not worth risking violence.
“You’ll have a hard time convincing me that one person’s drop of blood is worth any one of those cows,” he said.
Gillespie said he was proud of his officers for de-escalating the situation, but that didn’t stop Bundy from later criticizing Gillespie for not disarming and removing the federal officers from his land.
Metro would be struck by tragedy just two months later, when two officers were ambushed and executed by Jerad and Amanda Miller, a married couple that had visited Bundy’s ranch.
But Gillespie said he doesn’t believe Bundy’s vitriol toward him inspired the couple to attack officers.
“I can’t totally discount that, but today, based on what I know, do I believe that was a reason the Millers did what they did?” he asked. “No. I don’t believe that to be the case.”
Gillespie said he will work with the BLM in any future operation at the ranch, and although he hasn’t spoken to Bundy since April, he’d be willing to talk to him.
His officers are still policing Bunkerville, and Gillespie is still speaking with community leaders. The topic of the Bundy ranch has “died down” considerably, he said.
“I can’t say it’s business as usual up there,” he said. “I don’t think it’s ever going to be until this situation is totally resolved, in some way or manner.”
Contact reporter Mike Blasky at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @blasky on Twitter.