Cliven Bundy, on horseback at center, in 2016
Felicia Fonseca / AP
A judge on Wednesday declared a mistrial in the case of a group of Nevada ranchers who faced charges for their role in an armed standoff with federal agents in 2014.
The four men standing trial in Las Vegas — Cliven Bundy, his two sons, Ammon and Ryan, and longtime supporter Ryan Payne — were key figures in two separate armed standoffs that helped embolden an anti-federal government movement in the US.
From left, Cliven Bundy and his sons Ammon Bundy and Ryan Bundy and co-defendant Ryan Payne.
They had faced charges of conspiracy to commit offenses against the US, impeding or injuring a federal officer, threatening federal officials, and multiple weapons charges. But the prosecution's case was dealt a huge blow when 17-page letter by an investigator with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was leaked earlier this year. The letter accused top supervisors at the agency of mocking the Bundy family, playing a role in increasing tensions during the armed confrontation with agents, and possibly withholding exculpatory evidence for the trial.
Special Agent Larry C. Wooten also alleged in his letter that acting Nevada US Attorney Steven Myhre adopted “an attitude of 'don't ask, don't tell' in reference to BLM Law Enforcement Supervisory Misconduct that was of a substantive, exculpatory and incredible biased nature.”
Supporters and critics of the Bundys demonstrate at the federal courthouse in Las Vegas.
John Locher / AP
US District Judge Gloria Navarro had raised the possibility of a mistrial after pointing out that prosecutors failed to meet evidence deadlines at least seven times. And on Wednesday, she followed through, reportedly telling the court that a mistrial “is the most suitable and only remedy.”
The judge asked attorneys to file arguments on Dec. 29 over whether prosecutors should be allowed to refile charges in the case.
It was the second defeat for federal prosecutors in the Nevada case after a jury acquitted four other men — Ricky Lovelien, Steven Stewart, Scott Drexler, and Eric Parker — of all or most of the charges the had faced for their roles in the same standoff.
Seeds for the standoff in Bunkerville, Nevada, were planted after the US Fish and Wildlife Service listed the desert tortoise as an endangered species in 1989, prompting the BLM to designate hundreds of thousands of acres near Bundy's ranch to protect the tortoise.
The BLM purchased grazing rights from ranchers affected by the plan, effectively giving the agency the authority to manage and regulate use of the land, including grazing, through permits.
Grazing fees have long been a contentious topic between ranchers and federal regulators, but Bundy took a hard stance and refused to sell his rights or pay the fees. Over the years, his continual use of the land for grazing built up to more than $1 million in fees.
Bundy argued his family had been using the land for generations and he and other ranchers accused the federal government of a “land grab.”
In August 2013, a court ordered Bundy to remove his cattle from public lands.
The next year, dozens of supporters headed to Bundy's ranch as officials began to round up the family's cattle for trespassing, setting the stage for a standoff that attracted national attention.
A man from New Hampshire sits with a group of self-described militia members camping on Cliven Bundy’s ranch near Bunkerville, Nevada, in 2014.
Ken Ritter / AP
After hundreds of armed civilians rallied to the Bundy's side, though, federal agents were forced to retreat, emboldening the family and a network of militias that led to another standoff at a wildlife refuge in Oregon over a similar land management dispute.
After a march through the small town protesting that case, Bundy urged supporters to head to the 187,000-acre Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and take over the compound.
The standoff lasted 41 days and ended with the arrest of Cliven, Ammon, and Ryan Bundy. During the arrests, officers shot and killed Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, who was close with the Bundys and acted as a spokesman for the group.
Many of the Bundys supporters, including President Trump's longtime associate Roger Stone, believe the men are political prisoners of an overreaching government and have called for their release. Others see the family and their actions as the spark for a growing militia and anti-government movement eager for confrontation with federal officials.
Speaking to a reporter outside court on Wednesday, Angie Bundy, Ryan's wife, said that despite the long legal battle, she felt some progress was being made in the family's ongoing dispute with the federal government.
“We got more truth out today,” she told a reporter for the Oregonian. “We’re making progress and that is worth the time.”