Las Vegas trial to begin for rancher Cliven Bundy and sons

Cliven Bundy, lead defendant in a case stemming from a 2014 standoff with federal agents and the 71-year-old patriarch of a family with roots in the southeastern Nevada desert since the state was founded more than 150 years ago, won’t let his lawyer buy him a suit for trial.

Instead of the standard slacks, button-down shirt and tie that incarcerated male defendants often don while facing a jury, the recalcitrant rancher plans to wear a jail-issued blue jumpsuit and orange flip-flops when he faces potential jurors for the first time on Monday morning.

“He is so principled that he’s going to do what he’s going to do, which is tell the truth and tell it as he sees it, and he’s not worried about the consequences, other than the people around him,” his lawyer, Bret Whipple, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal last week. “He refuses to put on civilian clothing because it would be misleading the jury, because he is who he is.”

Bundy, his two sons Ryan and Ammon and independent militia leader Ryan Payne have been locked up without bail in a federal holding facility for nearly two years. They face the potential of decades behind bars if convicted of conspiracy and other charges related to the armed standoff.

Their trial could extend as late as February, with more than 40 witnesses expected to testify.

The first two trials ended with several acquittals and a pair of convictions, leading three defendants to cut plea deals with prosecutors.

But Cliven Bundy refuses to negotiate with government lawyers. In September, he tried to fire Whipple, who was retained, and a judge would not allow Bundy to represent himself, even though Ryan Bundy remains his own attorney.

“He looks forward to the opportunity to show the public that there’s no evidence of wrongdoing, and the only thing he did was a peaceful protest,” Whipple said.

He would not say whether his client plans to testify.

Prosecutors have alleged that the Bundys conspired with libertarian protesters to thwart the federal government’s roundup of roughly 1,000 cows from public land. The family and its supporters argue that the Bureau of Land Management should not control what happens on the property.

Whether Ammon Bundy, listed as the third of 19 defendants charged in the standoff, even shows up to court is another question. He has refused to appear for various pretrial hearings because of a personal and religious objection to strip searches at the federal holding facility in Pahrump, his attorneys have said.

In response, U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro ordered “no routine strip searches or cavity searches” for Ammon and Ryan Bundy, along with Payne, and had them transferred to a detention center in Henderson for trial.

Still, Ammon Bundy could testify in his defense, said one of his lawyers, Dan Hill.

Allegations of destroyed evidence

As trial for the four men the government considers most culpable moves into jury selection this week, a motion to dismiss the charges because of allegations of destroyed evidence continues to hang over the case.

The focus of the defense team’s effort is Dan Love, a controversial former BLM special agent who led the cattle roundup outside Mesquite in 2014.

Ammon Bundy’s attorney filed the motion in October 2016 based on photographs of bags that contained shredded papers, arguing that BLM agents or workers tried to destroy evidence during the Bunkerville standoff.

The government has argued that the papers that were shredded at the BLM command post were documents that contained sensitive law enforcement information as well as personal identifying information, like Social Security numbers. Those documents, they argued, are required by policy to be destroyed.

Navarro originally denied the motion. But after a report was released by the Office of the Inspector General in August that accused Love of mishandling evidence and of other misdeeds while he was the BLM’s special agent in charge for both Nevada and Utah, the judge allowed the renewed motion to move forward.

Love testified last week, saying he gave the order to evacuate the command post on April 12, 2014. He said he wanted everything from within the BLM trailers removed so that no sensitive information would fall into the possession of an “armed, hostile group of individuals.”

“Everything that could be removed, I wanted it gone,” Love testified.

The hearing is scheduled to continue on Friday.

Defendants ‘need some resolution’

It will be the third trial for defendants charged in the standoff. In August, Steven Stewart of Idaho and Ricky Lovelien of Montana were acquitted during a retrial in which Scott Drexler and Eric Parker, both Idaho residents, were acquitted of a majority of the charges they faced.

Last week, Parker and Drexler each pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of obstruction of a court order.

During the hearing, both defendants admitted that they were on the overpass bridge overlooking Interstate 15 on April 12, 2014, while armed with rifles, which “presented a show of force to the officers,” and intentionally interfered with the court order.

Both had driven to the rural Clark County town to support rancher Cliven Bundy, who federal authorities allege conspired to thwart the government’s roundup of cattle they said were grazing illegally on federal land.

Meanwhile, federal public defenders representing Payne have said that the trial falls too close to the Oct. 1 mass shooting on the Strip.

Navarro postponed the start of the trial earlier this month, but those connected to the case have said she appeared inclined to reject a request for another delay, though the judge could question jurors about the shooting that left 58 concertgoers dead and hundreds more injured.

Cliven Bundy’s attorney said he would not ask to prolong the start of trial.

“The massacre was horrible,” Whipple said. “But I completely differentiate between the massacre and any tie to what happened at the Bunkerville operation.”

And his client is ready to move forward.

“These guys want to get the hell out of custody,” Whipple said. “They need some resolution.”

Contact David Ferrara at dferrara@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-1039. Follow @randompoker on Twitter. Contact Colton Lochhead at clochhead@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4638. Follow @ColtonLochhead on Twitter.

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