Eric Parker, one of the six men on trial starting this week, on a bridge with his weapon during the April 2014 standoff. (Photo: Jim Urquhart/Reuters)
A trial started Thursday for six men facing a handful of charges in connection with an armed standoff with federal agents near Cliven Bundy’s Nevada cattle ranch nearly three years ago.
The “Battle of Bunkerville” was a six-day standoff between several armed ranchers and U.S. Bureau of Land Management officials in April 2014. Bundy, a cattle rancher, refused to pay federal fees for allowing his cows to graze on public lands — a disagreement that began more than two decades ago. When BLM officials showed up to his ranch to round up his cattle as payment for the $1 million in backed fees, Bundy, his sons, and several others launched what prosecutors called “a massive armed assault against federal law enforcement officers.”
“The most immediate threat to the officers came from the bridges where gunmen took sniper positions behind concrete barriers, their assault rifles aimed directly at the officers below,” reads an indictment filed last year.
The standoff, which happened about 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas, ended when BLM officials abandoned the cattle round-up. Not a single shot was fired.
A total of 19 people were arrested and jailed last year in connection with the incident. Two of them pleaded guilty to lesser charges. The other 17, including Bundy and four of his sons, pleaded not guilty, and are charged with conspiracy, assault on a federal officer, obstruction of justice, among several other charges. The trial starting this week is the first of three trials to play out this year.
Federal prosecutors and a judge called the six men in this initial trial the “least culpable,” though they face the same charges as the other 11 people, and could face life in prison.
The six include Oklahoma defendant Richard Lovelien, Arizona defendant Gregory Burleson, and O. Scott Drexler, Todd Engel, Eric Parker and Steven Stewart of Idaho. Las Vegas attorney Shawn Perez is representing Lovelien, and he says all of the defendants in this trial were arrested because of bad luck.
“There were 400 people out there and at least 60 people had guns,” said Perez, according to the Arizona Republic. “But only (19) were arrested.”
Defendants say they were peacefully protesting, and allege federal agents were the ones ratcheting up tension during the standoff. Prosecutors say the Bundys and others were deceitful as they recruited people “for the unlawful purposes of interfering with impoundment operations.” The indictment points to a Facebook post from Blaine Cooper, one of the 19 people charged.
“See where are those Oath Keeper’s I say we go their [sic] armed together and help him fight if there was ever a time to make a stand against the feds now is the time. Good so let’s go there 100 strong loaded to the teeth and shoot all of them that try to take this man’s cows and land,” wrote Cooper on April 6, 2014, just days before the standoff began.
Bundy’s attorneys last week asked for charges to be dismissed after a key government witness in the standoff proceedings was implicated in a report outlining misconduct and ethics violations. A report from the Department of Interior’s Office of the Inspector General doesn’t name the agent, but the defendants’ lawyers say it’s Dan Love. Las Vegas attorney Bret Whipple, Cliven Bundy’s attorney, said Love was the one escalating the standoff.
“Most people up there were for the most part very peaceful,” Whipple said.
The first trial could take more than two months, according to the Associated Press. Cliven Bundy will be tried in May, along with his sons Ryan and Ammon Bundy, as well as two other people. The trial for the six remaining defendants is expected to happen in August.