Militiamen, ranchers in showdown for soul of Burns
Backround on the family
The strangers carrying the whisper of danger arrived in the vast territory of the Harney Basin just before the holidays.
Ammon Bundy once helped his father repulse the government in an armed showdown on a Nevada desert. He was Tasered for his effort.
Ryan Payne, an electrician from Montana, joined that same standoff and boasted of organizing civilians into sniper squads that drew a bead on federal agents.
And not long ago, Jon Ritzheimer worried the FBI with his threatening rants against Muslims in Arizona and elsewhere, according to press reports.
Now, the men say, they are in Burns to help Dwight and Steven Hammond.
The Hammonds are father and son ranchers, due to report to federal prison on Monday. They were convicted in 2012 of arson for lighting public land on fire adjacent to their ranch land south of Burns. They have been imprisoned once and must return for an additional term after federal appellate judges said they had been illegally sentenced the first time.
Self-styled patriots and militiamen gathering in Burns don't want that to happen, declaring the Hammonds' imprisonment illegal under the U.S. Constitution.
They have latched on to the Hammonds as their latest cause to stand against the federal government.
"I am here now trying to empower and motivate the people of this community to take a stand against tyranny and show them that I will gladly stand with them," Ritzheimer said.
The Hammonds don't want to be part of the outsiders' cause, and neither do many in Harney County.
But that hasn't stopped the strangers from summoning help from militia groups across the country. They are vague about their intention and their plans, unsettling the community and putting law enforcement on edge. The militia plan a rally and a parade on Saturday, circling the county courthouse that houses the sheriff's office.
The militia members have been insisting that Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward create a sanctuary so the Hammonds will be immune from surrendering. Ward met with the militiamen and rejected that demand. The militia has since labeled him an "enemy of the people." Ward said he has received emailed death threats among thousands of messages from across the country regarding the Hammonds.
Two weeks ago, Bundy and Payne roused 60 or so local citizens to their cause at a community meeting. They rented the Memorial Building at the fairgrounds for the night. They taped themselves lecturing the locals on their rights, on the Constitution, and on their duty to protect themselves.
The Harney County situation is the second time this year Oregon has been the national rallying point for militias. Last spring, miners fighting with the Bureau of Land Management over paperwork outside Medford found themselves enveloped with militia defenders. Militia members eventually left – but only after claiming they beat back the government. An administrative law judge temporarily stopped BLM action against the miners.
But the activists carrying pocket editions of the Constitution with them to Harney County are better known for the spectacle in Nevada in spring 2014.
The BLM was the bogeyman there too.
Militiamen by the hundreds flowed to Nevada that year to help rancher Cliven Bundy. The BLM was corralling his cattle that it said were trespassing on public land. The agency said Bundy hadn't paid grazing fees for 20 years, amassing more than $1 million in bills.
Payne, an Army veteran, came to the rancher's defense. In later interviews, Payne said he was the "militia adviser" to Bundy. Payne helped array armed civilians against the federal agents.
"We had counter-sniper positions on their sniper positions. We had at least one guy—sometimes two guys—per BLM agent in there," Payne told a Montana weekly, the Independent. "If they made one wrong move, every single BLM agent in that camp would've died."
Ammon Bundy, Cliven Bundy's third son, was there too.
As the nation watched, the BLM called off the cattle collection and withdrew in the face of the armed militia. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups across the country, said in a 2014 report on the Bundy standoff that the government's retreat empowered the militiamen.
Ryan Lenz with the law center was on the ground in Nevada and later interviewed Payne for the report. Lenz said the Harney County development isn't surprising.
"What's happening is very much what everyone feared would happen in the aftermath of the Bundy standoff," Lenz said. "The rule of law was suspended with the barrel of a gun."
Aiding the Hammonds
Bundy and Payne say they met with both Dwight and Susan Hammond at their home in November. Bundy said he helped the ranchers move cows one day.
The Hammonds initially accepted the militia's offer of help to avoid prison, Bundy said. But the Hammonds changed their minds after being warned by federal prosecutors to stop communicating with the militia, Bundy wrote in a blog post.
The Hammonds declined interview requests and didn't respond to written questions about their dealings with the militiamen. A Boise lawyer representing the Hammonds said in a letter to the sheriff that Bundy didn't speak for the ranchers and that they intended to surrender as required.
Document: Hammond attorney letter
Bundy and Payne and their associates are persisting, though. They explain in deliberate, calm tones their reasoning.
The federal government claims title to most of the land in Harney County, the ninth largest county in the United States. Bundy and Payne maintain that Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17 of the U.S. Constitution limits what the federal government can own, and that the government's claim to much of Harney County violates that limit. The federal government consequently has no authority to prosecute the Hammonds.
Bundy and Payne, who said he has moved to Harney County, have pressed the matter on several fronts. They have insisted that Ward, the sheriff, protect the Hammonds. They have written other elected officials in the county and in Oregon asserting the same demand.
Some residents have shown interest in the group's cause.
Locals voted seven of their own onto a new Harney County Committee of Safety, including ranchers, a retired fire chief, and a tax preparer.
Payne and Bundy said the committee would decide how to address the Hammond conflict. But Bundy quickly created a website for the group and drafted a sharply-worded letter to the sheriff for the committee to issue.
Citizens on the committee said they authorized none of it.
Chris Briels, Burns fire chief for 24 years, said he was intrigued by the constitutional arguments raised by Payne and Bundy. But he said he also felt pushed too hard by Bundy to act. Briels said he is no anarchist.
The militia, Briels said, "seems like a bunch of people ready to shoot. I don't want that in my county."
Melodi Molt, a rancher and former president of Oregon CattleWomen, joined Briels on the new committee. She's troubled by what's happened to the Hammonds – but also worried about what her community faces with the outsiders.
"We're not from the militia," said Molt. "We're not going to come in with guns and overthrow the government."
The state's largest agriculture associations have vigorously defended the Hammonds since they were charged but want no part of the brewing militia action.
"I don't think people lining up in front of them with weapons or any kind of threats are going to help the Hammonds at all," said Barry Bushue, Oregon Farm Bureau president.
Billy Williams, Oregon's U.S. attorney, has also weighed in. In a lengthy statement to the Burns Times-Herald, Williams explained why the Hammonds were prosecuted. He then warned: "Any criminal behavior contemplated by those who may object to the court's mandate that harms someone will not be tolerated and will result in serious consequences."
Document: Statement by U.S. Attorney Billy Williams
Payne and Bundy say it's up to local residents what happens next. If the locals decide to declare the county a sanctuary for the Hammonds, the militia is ready.
"We're sending the message: We will protect you," Payne said.
Such talk rattles the community, as has conduct locals blame on the strangers.
A Utah man tied to Bundy and Payne disrupted a state court session, insisting the judge empanel a special grand jury to investigate the Hammond matter. Federal employees report they have been followed around town and to their homes. Payne said no one in his group has followed federal employees. But he acknowledged knocking on the front door of a home featuring a handmade "Go Home Bundys" sign. Payne said he wanted to understand the homeowner's concerns.
Signs on street poles pronounce, "Militia go home!"
Others reply: "You are the militia."
One episode in particular has upset the community.
The sheriff said three militiamen and one woman, one with a gun strapped to his hip, engaged his 74-year-old mother and 78-year-old father at a yard sale being held at the American Legion. When the men criticized the sheriff, his mother bristled, and said she didn't need their protection from the government.
Later, the men showed up at the sheriff's office to complain about the exchange involving his mother.
She had, they said, threatened them.