Ldeader of a group of armed protesters Ammon Bundy (L) greets occupier Duane Ehmer and his horse Hellboy at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
Jim Urquhart / Reuters
Two men were convicted Friday for conspiring to take over an Oregon wildlife refuge last year, setting off a tense, monthlong standoff that became a focal point in the debate over western lands and a growing anti-government militia movement.
Two other men were cleared of conspiracy, but convicted on lesser charges.
Jason Patrick and Darryl Thorn were found guilty of conspiracy to impede federal workers from doing their job at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, while Duane Ehmer and Jake Ryan were found guilty of depredation of federal property for using an excavator to dig two trenches on the protected land.
The armed occupants took over the refuge in January 2016 to protest the arrest of an Oregon rancher and his son. The leaders of the standoff included the sons of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, whose family has been central in a growing militia movement opposed to the federal ownership of vast expanses of land.
Although leaders of the standoff were acquitted of federal charges in October, the convictions on Friday — delivered in US District Court in Portland after three days of deliberations — provided some measure of redemption for federal officials who lost the earlier trial.
Thorn was also convicted of carrying a firearm into a federal facility.
The debate over western lands has garnered the attention of not just ranchers but a growing militia movement that officials feared was growing larger and more brazen as a result of tense standoffs in Nevada and Oregon.
Federal prosecutors argued in this second trial of the occupation that, even if there was no formal argument between the occupiers, evidence showed the four defendants — Jason Patrick, Darryl Thorn, Jake Ryan, and Duane Ehmer — were part of a conspiracy to keep federal workers from doing their jobs at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
During the trial, prosecutors tried to convince jurors that the armed occupation was a planned, coordinated event, not an impromptu protest the defendants had tried to portray.
“At its core, this case is about four defendants who went too far,” Assistant US Attorney Ethan Knight told jurors during closing arguments Tuesday, The Oregonian reported.
Much like the previous case, prosecutors relied heavily on social media posts created by members of the occupation during the standoff, which included Facebook updates and videos from the refuge.
Uncredited / AP
But defense attorneys argued there was no agreement or conspiracy to takeover the refuge, or to keep employees from the US Fish and Wildlife Service to go to work at the Malheur refuge, a similar argument that was made at the first trial.
And despite the heavy presence of weapons, security outposts, and what appeared to be military-like tactics from the occupiers, defense attorneys argued their clients never threatened federal employees.
Prosecutors argued that Patrick was one of the central figures in organizing the armed takeover, pointing out his early involvement in meetings in the small town of Burns.
During the trial, workers of the refuge testified that they were afraid to go to work when they knew that supporters of Ammon and Ryan Bundy, sons of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, were in the town.
The Bundy family was involved in another standoff in Nevada in 2014 in which militia members and their supporters faced off with federal agents at gun point. Fearing a similarly tense standoff, federal workers said they didn't go to work and, in some cases, left town in fear, according to The Oregonian.
Ammon and Ryan Bundy, as well as their father, still face federal charges in Nevada for the 2014 occupation.
A demonstrator outside the Oregon State Capitol.
The Washington Post / Getty Images
The Oregon occupation began to come to a close on Jan. 26, 2016, when state and federal officials tried to take some of the leaders of the occupation into custody, leading to a high-speed pursuit in a winding road.
The operation led to a shootout with state police, where one of the leaders, LaVoy Finicum, was killed. The last holdouts of the occupation surrendered to federal agents in February.
The acquittal of the first seven defendants was a crushing blow to federal officials looking to stem a growing militia movement that has tied itself tightly with the western lands movement.
Attorneys for the defendants in this case, though, tried to paint their clients as secondary figures in what they said was a protest, not a violent action.
An attorney for Thorn said his client was a “grunt” or a “pawn” in the incident, and that he was not involved in any planning of the operation.
Prosecutors argued that defendants Ryan and Ehmer damaged federal property by using heavy equipment to dig trenches at the refuge.
Patrick, Thorn, Ryan and Ehmer are also facing misdemeanor charges in the case, including trespassing. The misdemeanor charges were added in December, two months after the government lost their case against the leaders of the occupation, The Oregonian reported.
Defense attorneys argued that the trespass regulation for federal property was vague and that the government did not prove the defendants had seen the signs in the refuge prohibiting it.
They also said that a US Fish and Wildlife Service truck that was used by the defendants did not have any decals identifying that it belonged to the government.