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With everything at stake, tensions high as Bundy affair grinds toward trial

John L. Smith
John L. Smith

Their school backpacks, doll, and Dr. Seuss book scattered on a bench in the hallway near Courtroom 7C Thursday morning at the Lloyd D. George Federal Courthouse, the bright voices of Ryan Bundy’s eight children danced above the droning din of adult conversation.

Bursting with the kind of energy grownups can only envy, the kids chattered and scurried around as the crowd of reporters and defense supporters formed a line outside U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro’s courtroom.

Although the kids’ attention was scattered, the events of the day were sure to be indelible. A federal judge would decide whether circumstances had changed enough to enable her to release their father from detention before a proceeding that could send him to prison for the rest of his life.

The trial of Bunkerville rancher Cliven Bundy, sons Ryan and Ammon, and militia coordinator Ryan Payne has drawn national attention in the news media and American political arena. The charges stemming from an armed standoff with federal law enforcement officers assigned to secure a court-ordered impoundment of Bundy cattle after his refusal to pay grazing fees for two decades has put a spotlight on the contentious issue of the control of federal public lands in the West.

Thanks to a social-media blitz, literally a call to arms, there were plenty of rifle-toting militia associates in the crowd of hundreds on April 12, 2014 in Toquop Wash. Thanks to what some of those present have called a miracle, no shots were fired. Faced with an increasing likelihood of bloodshed, Bureau of Land Management and National Parks Service officers packed up and departed the scene.

Bundy and his sons and followers declared victory that day, but the cheering of the crowd has long subsided. The 71-year-old rancher has spent the last 22 months in detention following his 2016 indictment. Several of his sons have also been behind bars awaiting trial, their pleas for pretrial release rejected by the court.

Thursday marked the final dice roll for the defense before trial, which after multiple delays is scheduled to begin Tuesday morning and could last up to four months. With 16 charges and more than a century of potential prison time -- the four violence-related felonies alone carry 20-year sentences to be served consecutively -- the indictment throws everything but an anvil at the defendants. The collective weight of the unproven charges was so heavy, in fact, that they all but tied the judge’s hands.

Any hope Navarro would loosen the government’s grip was fleeting. Cliven Bundy attorney Bret Whipple argued that the failure of two previous juries to convict on the conspiracy charges made it unlikely that a third time would be a charm for the government. The judge disagreed, citing Bundy's leadership role in the alleged crime.

The attorney also failed to impress upon the judge that his client deserved to be released because of his age and medical condition. Bundy has lost weight and several teeth because of gum disease during his incarceration. Whipple told the court Bundy calls himself “an old cow” and said that if one of the rancher’s steers had lost that many teeth, he'd haul it off the range.

"At the rate we're going, in three months he might not have any left," Whipple said.

At the rate they’re going, a lack of teeth may be the least of Cliven Bundy’s concerns.

The disappointment of the elder Bundy’s failure to win relief was palpable in the gallery. Shiree Bundy Cox, Cliven Bundy’s eldest daughter, shouted, “Gloria Navarro, you are an evil, cold-hearted woman.”

Rising to make her exit, Bundy Cox saw the approach of courtroom security officers. “I don’t care, touch me if you want,” she said, then shouted over her shoulder, “You are a liar! I love you, dad!”

Before courtroom personnel could close the door, she yelled, “Don’t touch me. I’ll sue your ass if you touch me.”

Order was quickly restored, but the elder Bundy’s rejection set the stage for further disappointment for the defense. Attorneys for Payne, who led the militia organizing group called Operation Mutual Aid that resulted in dozens of armed men -- some in full military combat gear -- coming to the protest, couldn’t convincingly argue that much about the allegations contained in the indictment had changed. Payne hadn’t exactly helped himself by giving an interview to a Montana newspaper after the standoff in which he detailed the militia plan to focus weapons on federal law enforcement while also blending into the crowd.

Although Ammon Bundy won a round on Thursday when the judge set aside time Monday morning to hear more arguments for and against his pretrial detention, it’s hard to fathom his circumstance is much different than his father’s. There’s little doubt he questions the federal government’s jurisdiction in the case, which will make it difficult for the judge to trust that whatever release conditions are crafted by federal employees will be followed.

That left Ryan Bundy, who is representing himself in the trial of his life. A contractor by trade, he spoke of liberty and his lack of a felony conviction despite a list of arrests stretching to 1994. When he argued that being in transit to and from detention approximately 10 hours a day prevented him from properly preparing for court, he seemed to impress the judge.

But then Assistant U.S. Attorney Dan Schiess illustrated what he called Bundy’s refusal to acknowledge authority in “a pattern that has been going on for decades.” Bundy once refused to pay to enter Zion National Park in Southern Utah, shouting about a lack of federal jurisdiction. He argued with a police officer during a traffic stop over the handgun on the front seat of his pickup, saying, “I have a right to keep and bear arms,” neglecting to acknowledge the cop had the right to secure the area in the course of duty.

And on it went. Schiess told Navarro that in recent months while in detention Bundy had been written up a dozen times for refusing to follow rules and orders, making it unlikely he’d follow the court’s rules of a release.

Bundy countered that he refused to be treated like a criminal and a slave.

“Liberty is a precious thing,” he said. “Being told what to do and pushed around like I’m a dog is egregious. ... We are not violent men, but we get tired of this kind of treatment.”

His liberty, it would appear, is growing more precious by the day.

When the time came, Bundy called for his wife and children to stand. As she’s done before, Navarro commented on his beautiful family and the difficulty of the decision before her. The judge was clearly moved, but not swayed.

“This has been punishment,” Ryan Bundy said. “It’s been very hard on me. It’s been very hard on my family.”

And the real hard times are only beginning.


John L. Smith is a longtime Las Vegas journalist and author. Email him at [email protected]. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith.

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