The leaders of the armed occupation of a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon have been captured, but the remaining occupiers have only become more determined.
On Tuesday, Oregon State Police and the FBI laid a roadblock north of Burns, where they knew that at least Ammon and Ryan Bundy would be passing through for a meeting with residents. It was the perfect place to set a trap: the stretch of canyon the road passes through has no cellphone reception for about an hour and it’s nearly impossible to turn around in.
The Bundy group, riding in two vehicles, was stopped. At some point, LaVoy Finicum, one of the leaders of the refuge occupiers, got out of a vehicle and was shot to death by police. Ryan Bundy, brother of Ammon, was shot in the arm. The Bundys were arrested on charges of conspiracy to obstruct federal agents, along with Shawna Cox, Bryan Cavalier, and Ryan Payne.
At the same time in nearby Burns, livestreamer and self-appointed Bundy spokesman Pete Santilli was arrested. John Ritzheimer, who was occupying the refuge and had become one of its most prominent spokesmen, turned himself in on the same charges while on a visit home to Arizona.
It appears the Bundy clan knew arrest or worse was becoming more inevitable when Ammon’s deputies started going home to say goodbye to their families. Ritzheimer was in Arizona and said he was planning to see his wife and children before heading back north. At least two refuge occupants have traveled to Utah and back already.
Back in Oregon, the arrests have only escalated tensions.
Brandon Curtiss, president of the Idaho Three Percenter militia that has patrolled Burns and provided security for the occupiers at the refuge, said no one’s leaving.
“We’re still going to maintain our same position, the community has asked us to stay, and we’re trying to be there the best we can for support and to continue our investigation,” Curtiss told The Daily Beast on Wednesday morning.
In fact, a clarion call has gone out from Oregon to militia groups and they’re heeding it. Locals told The Daily Beast they saw truckloads of new faces coming in overnight.
“I didn’t pick this day, Mom,” says one of the occupiers on a call home that was livestreamed online. “I believe God has this plan. I love you.”
If you’ve ever wanted to know what love of country taken to an extreme sounds like, turn on one of the livestreams and hear people talk about what they think they’re sacrificing and why.
The plan is less providential than it is tactical. Plenty of supplies (food and ammo) have been brought to the refuge since the takeover on Jan. 2. Unless the feds come onto the compound to evict the occupants, this could feasibly go on for a few months.
They knew it was coming eventually, of course. People laugh at the militia dudes, but plenty are ex-military and know exactly how to handle tactics in this situation, where you might lose command at any time. And they’ve had weeks to talk it over.
In case of Ammon’s arrest, whomever he’d left in charge would be in charge. Since Ammon was arrested with four top deputies, everyone is simply going to carry out the plan that was made for this eventuality.
Blaine Cooper was that guy. He’s been with the Bundys at least since Cliven’s standoff in Nevada in 2014. He’s a member of an Arizona militia and has called for the impeachment of John McCain. After the arrests, law enforcement asked the remaining occupiers to leave so Cooper reportedly had his children with him and therefore complied.
The new likely leader on the refuge, Jason Patrick, is a jocular man who wears a shiny badge on his belt declaring him deputized by the Second Amendment. He’s loosely affiliated with a lot of groups, but doesn’t seem to belong to one in particular. He’s just in charge, and has been given evidence that the FBI is willing to kill him and everyone with him.
David Fry, who is usually found working on websites and video editing, is spending his morning at the refuge wrapped in a blanket, clutching a rifle with brightly colored Confederate flags on it. Fry staves off the boredom of watch trying to identify shell casings. He isn’t a weapons guy, but someone’s given him one anyway.
“You usually get to choose what kind of weapons you get in video games,” he says. Today on the refuge, militants are constructing firebreaks and digging ditches around their perimeter.
They speak about LaVoy’s family, and their own. Everyone understands that the stakes have just become a bit heavier. It’s not a question of when anymore, it’s a question of how. Finicum is missing from his usual places on the refuge and everyone notices. Finicum, 55, was a leader and spokesperson for the Bundys and those associated with them. He was everywhere in the refuge, bringing food or being what he considered to be generally helpful. When I left the refuge he shook my hand and thanked me for coming down personally to the place to report instead of just watching CNN.
“I don’t care what kind of story you write,” he told me, “just so long as it’s fair.”
The shooting death of Finicum sent a wave of myriad reaction through locals. Some have taken to gleeful reactions, some are sad it came to this. Kristie Potter-Davis, a rancher who lives near Malheur and had therefore been acquainted with Finicum, asked someone to tone it down on Facebook because she’d just lost a friend.
“I’ve just lost an enemy, so shut up,” came the quick rejoinder.
Nobody in the refuge would have believed that Finicum would fire the first shot, but nobody that’s ever spoken to him could doubt that he was determined not to be arrested. Ammon Bundy told his wife on the phone, people wrote on Facebook, that Finicum was lying prone with his hands extended when he was killed. Other reports have him charging at police. It’s impossible to know what really happened.
In the end, the arrests and killing changed nothing. The FBI created a martyr for militiamen nationwide and turned Ammon and Ryan Bundy into heroes for the sort of people who are so alienated and angry they think that armed resistance is the only remaining option. Those people will, if given enough time, make their way to Malheur.
It could have been called an occupation before, strictly speaking. Now there’s no doubt it’s a standoff. The only thing in question is whether more people will die.