You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Federal agents block off occupied Oregon refuge after leaders arrested, one killed in shootout

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 1/27/2016 Sarah Kaplan, Adam Goldman and Mark Berman

Federal agents on Wednesday sealed off an Oregon wildlife refuge occupied by armed protesters, hours after authorities arrested several members of that group and killed one of the most prominent occupiers.

The frenzy of activity at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County marked a sudden escalation in the ongoing standoff that has simmered for more than three weeks, ever since a small group of men and women took control of a remote facility in southeastern Oregon.

Officials set up checkpoints and roadblocks around the refuge, saying that people who tried to travel inside would be arrested and calling for the armed people remaining there to leave. But they suggested Wednesday that the situation at the refuge would not continue indefinitely and placed blame for the fatal encounter a day earlier on those occupying the refuge.

“They had ample opportunity to leave the refuge peacefully,” FBI Special Agent in Charge Greg Bretzing said at a news conference late Wednesday morning. “And as the FBI and our partners have clearly demonstrated, actions are not without consequences.”

He described the arrests a day earlier as authorities taking “the first steps to bring this occupation to a conclusion,” and said authorities were still working to “empty the refuge of those who continue to illegally occupy” the land. Anyone who wanted to leave could do so, but only after traveling through a checkpoint where they would be identified, Bretzing said.

Local and federal law enforcement officials had called for the occupation on a remote swath of eastern Oregon land previously best known for its bird-watching to end peacefully, and the FBI has called its response was “deliberate and measured.”

However, there have been criticisms of how long it stretched on, with Gov. Kate Brown (D) writing a letter urging federal officials to bring a “swift resolution” to the situation, as well as others questioning if occupiers would have been treated with patience if they were black.

What We Know About The Occupied Federal Building in Oregon

A senior U.S. law enforcement official defended the response, saying the FBI did not want a repeat of bloody sieges in Waco, Tex., and Ruby Ridge. The official said it did not matter who was inside — there was no need to act more hastily because the occupation involved abandoned buildings in an isolated area, no hostages and no one being directly threatened.

“Why would we do that?” the official said Wednesday. “This was a very, very good outcome.”

There had been no visible law enforcement presence around the refuge as the situation stretched on for days and weeks, and occupiers came and went as they pleased, though they said they remained on guard. The group’s leaders had felt comfortable enough to move freely, leaving the refuge’s headquarters to attend meetings with residents and law enforcement officials.

On Tuesday afternoon, with the group’s leaders away from the refuge and traveling on a highway, FBI agents and the Oregon State Police moved to arrest them on federal charges. Five occupiers were arrested on the highway, including Ammon Bundy, the group’s leader. Three other people tied to the situation were later arrested in Oregon and Arizona.

All of the people arrested on the Oregon highway surrendered to authorities except for one man, later identified as LaVoy Finicum, a spokesman for the group who had previously said he would rather die than go to jail. Another official familiar with the encounter said Finicum refused to surrender and he was fatally shot; authorities said Wednesday they were investigating the shooting.

LaVoy Finicum, who said he would rather die than be arrested

“I’m disappointed that a traffic stop yesterday that was supposed to bring peaceful resolution to this ended badly,” Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward said at the news conference. He added: “It didn’t have to happen. We all make choices in life. Sometimes our choices go bad.”

The U.S. law enforcement official said the FBI picked the time and place they would move to arrest Bundy and the other leaders. “We call the shots, not the bad guys,” the official said. The official also said there were “fractures” in the group’s leadership and described the them as “tired from reacting to strange noises at night.”

News of the arrests was met with relief from conservationists and public officials. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) applauded the law enforcement response in a statement Tuesday night.

“I am pleased that the FBI has listened to the concerns of the local community and responded to the illegal activity occurring in Harney County by outside extremists,” he said in a statement. “The leaders of this group are now in custody and I hope that the remaining individuals occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge will peacefully surrender so this community can begin to heal the deep wounds that this illegal activity has created over the last month.”

In a statement, Harney County Judge Steve Grasty said, “I am relieved this situation is coming to an end, however, I am saddened by the loss of life. I hope and pray that those who remain at the refuge will stand down peacefully.”

The standoff began on Jan. 2 when a group, led by Bundy, went to the refuge after a protest over the imprisonment of two local ranchers convicted of committing arson on public lands.

© Provided by WP Company LLC d/b/a The Washington Post

The ranchers’ case provoked a heated response in Harney County, where the refuge is located, and caught the attention of a wide swath of anti-government activists far beyond its borders. Among the hundreds who flocked to Burns, Ore., to express their outrage were Bundy and his brother, Ryan Bundy; a smaller group drove to the refuge, about 30 miles away from Burns, and have remained there ever since.

[Oregon sheriff cheered for calling on occupants to go home]

Bundy and his brother, Ryan, were among those taken into custody on Wednesday. Authorities said that one person was injured during the arrests and was treated at a local hospital before being released into the FBI’s custody; the Oregonian newspaper identified the injured person as Ryan Bundy.

The FBI and Oregon State Police have also not said yet how many shots were fired on the highway, who fired them or officially identified the person who was killed. But occupiers and others identified the person killed as Finicum, who had acted a spokesman for the group.

The Facebook page for Bundy Ranch — the site of a confrontation between the Bundy brothers’ father, Cliven, and the Bureau of Land Management in 2014, that involved Bundy supporters aiming guns at federal agents — posted a statement condemning what they described as Finicum’s “murder.”

Arianna Finicum Brown, the daughter of LaVoy Finicum, the de facto spokesman, told the Oregonian on Tuesday that her father “would never ever want to hurt somebody, but he does believe in defending freedom and he knew the risks involved.”

Jason Patrick, an occupier who remained at the Malheur refuge Tuesday night, said the arrests didn’t change his group’s demands. He and another occupier also told The Post that Finicum was killed.

Patrick wouldn’t say how many people remained at the refuge, or who else was with him, but he said they don’t plan to pick up and leave because of the day’s events.

“Right now, we’re doing fine,” he told The Post by phone. “We’re just trying to figure out how a dead cowboy equals peaceful resolution.”

The 54-year-old rancher from Cane Beds, Ariz., had previously told NBC News that he’d rather die than be arrested. On Wednesday, his followers were portraying him as a martyr “who stood for your children’s liberty.”

Talking to The Post in mid-January, Finicum explained that the armed group planned to remain at the refuge, which is operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, until all 187,000 acres of it were “returned” to Harney County and private ownership.

“It needs to be very clear that these buildings will never, ever return to the federal government,” he said at the time, a white cowboy hat perched atop his head, a Colt .45 pistol holstered at his hip.

The eight people who were arrested Tuesday face federal felony charges of conspiracy to impede officers of the United States from performing their official duties through force, intimidation or threats.

It was unclear if any of the people who were at the 2014 showdown involving the Bundy family would face additional charges stemming from that incident.

The three other people arrested on the highway were Brian Cavalier, 44, of Bunkerville; Shawna Cox, 59, of Kanab, Utah; and Ryan Payne, 32, of Anaconda, Mont. Later Tuesday afternoon, FBI agents in Burns also arrested Joseph Donald O’Shaughnessy, 45, of Cottonwood, Ariz., and Peter Santilli, 50, a Cincinnati man known for livestreaming refuge events.

The Oregon refuge occupied by Bundy is one of the first wildlife sanctuaries in the U.S.

© Provided by WP Company LLC d/b/a The Washington Post Hours later, FBI agents in Phoenix arrested Jon Ritzheimer, 32, who turned himself in to authorities. Unlike some of the other occupiers, who were relatively unknown figures nationally, Ritzheimer was known for his contempt for Muslims and organizing an anti-Muslim protest last year.

Ward, the sheriff, said that the situation in his area had led to intimidation; he told a crowd that his parents, his deputies and their families have been followed, and added that someone flattened his wife’s tires.

The situation has drawn new attention to longstanding frustrations with the federal government’s management of land in the West.

Bundy had said that the occupiers would only leave when the two local ranchers were freed from prison and the land taken away from the federal government.


More From The Washington Post

The Washington Post
The Washington Post
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon