BURNS, Oregon — Ammon Bundy’s band of Oregon militiamen include anti-government wingnuts who have fought the feds on behalf of ranchers before, and one activist whose anti-Muslim rhetoric sparked warnings from the FBI.
On Saturday, armed extremists seized buildings at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge—300 miles southeast of Portland—to protest prison time for Dwight and Steven Hammond, father-and-son ranchers convicted of arson for torching more than 100 acres of federal land, allegedly to cover up poaching.
The occupiers are led by Ammon Bundy, the son of Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher whose 2014 standoff with the feds made national headlines. The elder Bundy was fighting the Bureau of Land Management, which came to seize his “trespass cattle” that were grazing on public land. Right-wing militias rushed to defend Cliven, and authorities eventually retreated.
Now some of the same anti-government provocateurs are heeding the call to head to Oregon, where Ammon and about 20 others split from a peaceful demonstration on Saturday and drove 30 miles to the wildlife refuge’s headquarters, which were closed for the holidays.
The militiamen took up posts on the snow-covered desert to protest what they call the federal government’s illegal ownership of Harney County land, which they believe should belong to local ranchers.
“I didn’t come here to shoot. I came here to die,” one militiaman told Oregon Public Broadcasting reporter Amanda Peacher. The camouflage-clad man would only identify himself as “Captain Moroni,” Peacher said in a tweet.
While it appeared police didn’t take the bait, the men nonetheless stood guard at a tower typically used to watch for range fires, The Oregonian reported.
Les Zaitz, a reporter for The Oregonian, estimated about 20 people were stationed at the refuge’s bunkhouse—where women were cooking lunch—as well as at the work building and fire tower. In tweets, he described the scene as “calm, quiet, [and] no signs of damage.”
As the story unfolded Sunday, and the militants released online videos, national news and social media spectators feared violence—and observers challenged news outlets for describing the armed occupation as “peaceful.”
Not everyone in rural Oregon was happy to see the militia. Signs reading, “No Bundy Caliphate—Take your Hate Somewhere Else!” and “Protect the Blue—Militia Go Home” were posted on roads heading into Burns. Haney County schools, which were scheduled to reopen on Monday, will be closed all week because of the protest, authorities said.
At the refuge, men bundled in winter jackets and hunting camouflage milled about the parking lot, and a parked pickup truck blocked the gate. Several men, some strapped with knives and sidearms, refused to speak to a Daily Beast reporter at the scene.
While most participants appeared friendly and harmless, a few have reputations within hate groups such as the Three Percenters and the Oath Keepers, The Daily Beast has learned.
On Sunday afternoon, federal officials told Portland’s KOIN 6 that the FBI would work with local law enforcement to end the takeover.
The Harney County sheriff’s office released a statement Sunday vowing to keep citizens safe.
“These men came to Harney County claiming to be part of militia groups supporting local ranchers, when in reality these men had alternative motives to attempt to overthrow the county and federal government in hopes to spark a movement across the United States,” Sheriff David Ward said, according to OPB.
Ammon Bundy said his motley crew planned to stay there indefinitely, KOIN 6 reported.
“We’re planning on staying here for years, absolutely,” Bundy told KOIN 6. “This is not a decision we’ve made at the last minute.”
Indeed, Jon Ritzheimer, a former Marine and Arizona militia activist, released a teary-eyed YouTube video days before the event, on Dec. 31, asking his children to be good while he was gone, before railing against “the oppression and tyranny” in Oregon.
“Your daddy swore an oath… to protect and defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic, and that’s why he couldn’t be with you on Christmas,” Ritzheimer said. “That’s why I can’t be with you on New Year’s.
“I am 100 percent willing to lay my life down, to fight against tyranny in this country,” Ritzheimer later said in the video, in which he’s sitting behind the wheel of a truck.
The Iraq War veteran concluded: “No matter what happens, no matter what lies are pushed out, just know that I stood for something. Don’t let it be in vain.”
A fellow extremist posted a video of Ritzheimer at the refuge, where he claimed to be “armed with the Constitution and a camera.”
“We will not fire unless fired upon, but we will stand and defend the Constitution,” Ritzheimer said.
In May 2015, Ritzheimer organized an anti-Muslim protest at a Phoenix mosque that drew 250 people, many of them armed, and invited them to draw cartoons of the prophet Muhammad following the Garland, Texas shooting.
After the Dallas-area attack, Ritzheimer began walking near the mosque waving an American flag and wearing a “Fuck Islam” T-shirt. He also tried raising $10 million on GoFundMe last summer, after claiming his life was being threatened because of his protests and that his family had to go into hiding. (The donation site came down as soon as the media spotted it.)
In October 2015, the bigot helped spur more than 20 anti-Muslim protests across the country called the “Global Rally for Humanity.
One month later, the FBI issued a warning to local authorities about Ritzheimer after he published a video of himself brandishing a gun and claiming he was heading to Hancock, New York, to confront a Muslim group.
Ritzheimer was targeting Muslims of America, publisher of the The Islamic Post, which had called the Marine an “American Taliban,” the New York Daily News reported.
“Fuck you Muslims. We’re gonna stop at virtually every mosque along the way, flip them off and tell them to get fucked,” Ritzheimer says before brandishing his weapon.
The hate-mongerer is affiliated with the Three Percenters militia group, which takes its name from the mythical statistic that only 3 percent of American colonists supposedly fought in the war for independence.
Other right-wing activists descending on Oregon include Blaine Cooper, who at a 2013 town hall event told Sen. John McCain he’d have him arrested and tried for treason over his support of intervention in Syria.
Ryan Payne, an Army vet who claimed to organize militia snipers to target federal agents during Cliven Bundy’s Nevada standoff, was also present.
Payne once told the Missoula Independent he took charge “as a kind of on-the-ground commander.”
“We locked them down,” Payne said of the BLM agents. “We had counter-sniper positions on their sniper positions. We had at least one guy—sometimes two guys—per BLM agent in there. So, it was a complete tactical superiority… If they made one wrong move, every single BLM agent in that camp would’ve died.”
Brand Thornton, a political activist from Las Vegas who is now at the wildlife refuge, told The Daily Beast he was a member of the Southern Nevada Militia, which on its Facebook claims not to identify with racist, violent, or anti-government groups.
Thornton said he’s tried getting the word out about the Hammonds’ alleged plight for months. The weekend’s mission is “not haphazard at all; it’s very, very calculated,” he said.
“Whatever it takes,” Thornton told The Daily Beast. “I think we’re going to be here for at least two months, and possibly six months, that’s what I’m figuring. There’s a lot we got to do, we got a lot of education, educating people.”
Meanwhile, Arizona rancher LaVoy Finicum, Cliven Bundy’s neighbor across the border who participated in the 2014 Bundy ranch standoff, told a reporter on Sunday that he’ll stay in Oregon “until the Constitution is upheld.”
The cowboy-hat enthusiast, who like Cliven apparently refuses to pay grazing fees to the government, told The Daily Beast he “came up here just to support the Hammond family” because the Bundys did.
“When the Bundys came here, I said, ‘Well, I rode with them once, I’ll ride with them again,’” Finicum told The Daily Beast.
“It’s atrocious what they’ve done,” he said. “How can you throw them in prison for something that happened 11 years ago. They served their prison time, and now they get thrown back in jail for the same thing again. That’s unconscionable.
“Let me be very clear, this is to be peaceful,” Finicum said. “We have no intent of pointing a gun at anybody, and why would they come and point a gun at us?
“These are just some rock buildings. This isn’t about the buildings, this is about issues, this is about ideas, it’s about the Constitution. If [we] weren’t [armed], they’d roll in here and taze us all and zip-tie us and be done by supper time.”
The Hammonds said they’d turn themselves in for their prison terms on Monday. The father, who has already served three months, and the son, who’s served a year in prison, said they lit the fires to reduce invasive plants and to protect their land from wildfires. Meanwhile prosecutors said that the duo set the fires to cover up their deer-poaching on federal lands.
In October, a judge ruled their prison terms were too short under federal law and ordered them to return to the clink for about four years.
Still, the Hammond family appeared to distance themselves from the militia antics. Dwight Hammond’s wife, Susan, told OPB, “I don’t even know what ‘occupying the refuge’ means.
“I don’t really know the purpose of the guys who are out there,” she said. “I kind of understand where they come from, as far as their priorities in life.”