Trial opened Thursday in Las Vegas for six people accused of illegally wielding weapons to block a federal roundup of cattle near states’ rights advocate Cliven Bundy’s ranch nearly three years ago.
Prosecutors told the U.S. District Court jury the six men deserve prison for what could amount to the rest of their lives for conspiring with Bundy in what their indictment characterizes as “a massive armed assault against federal law enforcement officers.”
Prosecutor Steven Myhre cast the defendants as willing participants in Cliven Bundy’s plan to retrieve cattle that had been corralled by the federal agents and contract cowboys.
“Their intent was to make the BLM back down and get those cattle,” Myhre said. They succeeded, he said, “at the end of a rifle barrel. These defendants willingly and knowingly supplied that rifle barrel.”
Prosecutors showed photos of each man with rifles at the scene.
Defense attorneys, though, said their clients are law-abiding citizens who protested government heavy-handedness and are now jailed for exercising their constitutional free speech and weapon rights.
“This case, folks, is about standing up for what you believe. Nothing more and nothing less,” lawyer Richard Tanasi told the jury.
Todd Engel of Idaho, who is serving as his own attorney, told jurors he arrived in Nevada hours before the standoff didn’t plan what he would do with anyone.
He acknowledged being armed with a military-style assault weapon and fatigues he called “my scary clothes” but said he never threatened the federal agents. “We didn’t go near them. We didn’t assault them. We were just standing around.”
The six are the first of 19 defendants to stand trial after being arrested and jailed a year ago. Two pleaded guilty to reduced charges. The other 17, including Bundy and four of his sons, have pleaded not guilty.
“They didn’t really care about cattle and Cliven Bundy and grazing fees,” said Jess Marchese, attorney for Eric Parker, who traveled from Idaho to the Bundy ranch with friends and current trial co-defendants Orville Scott Drexler and Steven Stewart.
Also standing trial: Engel, Gregory Burleson from Phoenix, and Richard Lovelien of Westville, Oklahoma.
Marchese said the men were alarmed by skirmishes involving armed federal agents with dogs and Bundy family members including Cliven Bundy’s 57-year-old sister and two sons. They were protesting after the federal Bureau of Land Management closed a vast range half the size of the state of Delaware to collect Bundy’s cattle — and set up people corrals well away from the activity designated by agents as safe protest areas.
The midday April 12, 2014, standoff was tense. But no shots were fired. Bundy backers held commanding positions bearing military-style AR-15 and AK-47 weapons against heavily-armed federal agents in a dry wash below. Hundreds of unarmed men, women and children were in the possible crossfire.
The government said Bundy owed more than $1.1 million in unpaid grazing fees and penalties and ignored federal court orders to get his cattle off public rangeland near his ranch outside Bunkerville, 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas.
The victory of self-styled militia over federal rangers spread like a shock wave across vast rangelands in Western states where the federal government owns most of the land and ranchers chafe at grazing restrictions.
The current trial is expected to take up to 10 weeks and serve as a preview for trial in May for Cliven Bundy, sons Ryan and Ammon Bundy and two other accused leaders of the conspiracy.
Trial for the other six co-defendants is expected in August.