After an exchange of gunfire Tuesday that left one man dead and another injured, the two brothers who orchestrated the armed occupation of a remote central Oregon wildlife refuge were taken into custody while traveling outside the area, along with six of their followers.
Then, early Wednesday the government shut down the area, initiating what authorities called a “containment” with checkpoints and promising to arrest any unauthorized people attempting to travel into the refuge.
The stated purpose, according to a statement from the FBI and Oregon State Police was “to better ensure the safety of community members and law enforcement.” Earlier they had asked people to leave the area, but there was little sign that the occupiers left behind had done so, setting up the possibility of some sort of police action later in the day.
The Oregonian said that a convoy of police rigs, passenger cars and armored vehicles was seen driving south on Oregon 205, past the turn-off for the refuge. Other convoys were also reported in the area.
The Tuesday encounter with police on a frozen stretch of highway north of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, where a small cast of gun-toting, cowboy hat and camouflage-wearing anti-government activists had been camped out for weeks, was a dramatic break in the the tense, three-week standoff with local and federal authorities - at least, for leaders Ammon and Ryan Bundy.
Other participants in the siege remained at the refuge, even as they received word that their de facto spokesperson, LaVoy Finicum, had been killed in the confrontation with police and that eight other occupiers were either arrested or turned themselves in.
Gary Hunt, a board member of a militia network known as Operation Mutual Defense who arrived Sunday from California to support the occupiers, told the Oregonian that those still in the compound “have decided they’re going to hold their ground.” But there is some confusion about who is leading the occupation now that Ammon Bundy is under arrest, he added.
The standoff in Oregon has aroused passion and controversy across the country, in part because the government took little action to stop it, reportedly fearing a repeat of the heavy loss of life when federal agents broke up a siege at a Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, in 1993, resulting in the deaths of four federal officers and 82 civilians.
So the stalemate persisted. Then, on Tuesday afternoon, the Bundys and several other occupiers reportedly left the refuge to attend a community meeting 100 miles away in John Day, Ore. About halfway to their destination, they were ordered to stop by the FBI and Oregon State Police.
Authorities did not describe what happened next, though the Oregonian reported that Ryan Bundy and Finicum resisted orders to surrender. Ultimately, gunfire broke out.
The end result was a terse announcement from the FBI in Oregon: Ammon Bundy, 40, of Emmett, Idaho; Ryan Bundy, 43, of Bunkerville, Nev.; Brian Cavalier, 44, of Bunkerville, Nev.; Shawna Cox, 59, of Kanab, Utah and Ryan Payne, 32, of Anaconda, Mont. had been arrested and faced federal felony charges of conspiracy to impede officers. A sixth person, who authorities did not name, had died in the encounter.
Arianna Finicum Brown, the daughter of LaVoy Finicum, told the Oregonian Tuesday that her father was the man killed during the exchange of gunfire.
“My dad was such a good, good man, through and through,” Brown told the Oregon paper. “He would never ever want to hurt somebody, but he does believe in defending freedom and he knew the risks involved.”
In addition, multiple sources told the Washington Post that Ryan Bundy was shot in the arm during the arrest. The FBI statement said that one individual had been injured during the shooting and was treated at a local hospital before being taken into police custody.
The initial arrests, around 4:25 local time, seemed to set off a chain reaction. About an hour and a half after the first encounter, Oregon State Police apprehended Joseph Donald O’Shaughnessy, a 45-year-old occupier from Cottonwood, Ariz. known as “Captain,” during a separate event in Burns. Soon after that, Peter Santilli - a 50-year-old from Cincinnati known for his live streams of refuge events - was also arrested in Burns, which is the Harney County seat.
Meanwhile in Peoria, Ariz., Jon Eric Ritzheimer, 32, turned himself into the local police department. Ritzheimer, an outspoken participant in the takeover, was also wanted on a federal conspiracy charge.
But Jason Patrick, an occupier who remained at the Malheur refuge Tuesday night, told The Washington Post that the arrests don’t change his group’s demands. He wouldn’t say how many people remain at the refuge, or who else was with him, but said they don’t plan to pick up and leave because of the day’s events.
“Right now, we’re doing fine,” he told The Post by phone. “We’re just trying to figure out how a dead cowboy equals peaceful resolution.”
Patrick and another occupier both told The Post that Finicum was the man who died. And on Tuesday night, the Facebook page for Bundy Ranch - the site of a confrontation between the Bundy brothers’ father, Cliven, and the Bureau of Land Management in 2014 - posted a statement condemning what they described as Finicum’s “murder.”
The 54-year-old rancher from Cane Beds, Ariz., had previously told NBC News that he’d rather die than be arrested. Wednesday his followers were portraying him as a martyr “who stood for your children’s liberty.”
Finicum was a prominent public figure and something of a spokesperson for the occupiers at the Malheur Refuge - a remote expanse of windswept wetland known mostly as a mecca for birders before it became the site of the latest showdown over land use, government overreach, community and the Constitution.
Talking to The Washington Post in mid-January, Finicum explained that the armed group planned to remain at the wildlife refuge, which is operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, until all 187,000 acres of it were “returned” to Harney County and private ownership.
“It needs to be very clear that these buildings will never, ever return to the federal government,” he said at the time, a white cowboy hat perched atop his head, a Colt .45 pistol holstered at his hip.
The takeover of the Malheur Refuge had begun two weeks earlier, after a Jan. 2 march in Burns to protest the imprisonment of local ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond. The father and son had been convicted of committing arson on public land in 2012, and last fall a federal judge ruled that their sentences had been too lenient and ordered them back to jail.
The Hammonds’ case provoked a heated response in Harney County, and caught the attention of a wide swath of anti-government activists far outside of it. Among the hundreds who flocked to Burns to express their outrage over the decision were Ammon and Ryan Bundy. The brothers knew a thing or two about land disputes - their father, Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, was at the center of an armed confrontation with the Bureau of Land Management over grazing fees back in 2014.
After the rally, Ammon Bundy, a 40-year-old from Idaho, issued an impassioned call to arms to his fellow protesters.
“Those who want to go take hard stand,” he declared, according to people in attendance, “get in your trucks and follow me!”
A small splinter group drove to the refuge, located about 30 miles south of Burns, and a rotating cast of occupiers have remained holed up there ever since.
The group, which comprises anti-government activists from around the country, have been living and holding meetings in the vacant Malheur Refuge headquarters. Oregon Democratic Gov. Kate Brown said the occupiers’ presence there cost taxpayers some half a million dollars. They were also accused of destroying government property and harassing law enforcement and Burns residents.
Meanwhile, a wide-ranging debate has raged nationally over the causes of the occupation, the nature of its participants, the role of government, the purpose of public land, the appropriate response to an armed takeover of a federal building and the meaning of the word “terrorist.”
But at the center of it all is a long-running conflict over land use in the West, where huge swaths of the landscape are publicly owned.
“We’re out here because the people have been abused long enough, their lands and their resources have been taken from them to the point that it is putting them literally into poverty,” Ammon Bundy, clad in a brown rancher hat and thick flannel coat, told reporters the morning after he and his fellow occupiers moved into the Malheur headquarters. He announced that the occupiers aimed to help ranchers, loggers and others who wanted to use the previously protected land, which the Bundys believe should never have been controlled by the federal government in the first place.
“We will be here as a unified body of people that understand the principles of the Constitution,” he said.
In Oregon, more than half the land in the state is federally controlled. The government issues permits for grazing, mining and logging - major sources of income in the rural part of the state where the Malheur Refuge sits. But it also lays down environmental regulations and restrictions to protect wildlife, threatening the livelihoods of actual people, some in Oregon say.
“What people in Western states are dealing with is the destruction of their way of life,” B.J. Soper, a father of four from Bend, Ore. who was once a professional rodeo rider, told The Post in early January. “When frustration builds up, people lash out.”
The rally in defense of the Hammonds was largely the outcome of that frustration. But even people who had attended the march were dismayed by the Bundy brother’s next move.
“It’s anarchy … What we have here is old-style thinking, that might is right,” said Len Vohs, who was mayor of Burns from 2008 to 2010. Pointing out that the Bundys and most other occupiers weren’t even from Burns, he added, “the majority of us support the Hammonds, but we don’t need outsiders telling us what to do.”
On Jan. 4, two days into the Malheur takeover, the Hammonds turned themselves into federal custody without incident. In a news conference that afternoon, Harney County Sheriff David Ward told the occupiers it was time to leave.
“To the people at the wildlife refuge: You said you were here to help the citizens of Harney County. That help ended when a peaceful protest became an armed occupation,” he said. “The Hammonds have turned themselves in. It’s time for you to leave our community, go home to your families and end this peacefully.”
Criticism of the takeover made for strange bedfellows: Oregon’s Democratic governor, conservationists and members of the Paiute tribe (who consider the area of the refuge sacred ancestral land) issued calls to end the occupation of the refuge. But so did a so-called patriot movement known as the “Three Percenters,” which pledges armed resistance to anything that infringes on the Constitution.
The standoff prompted mockery from some corners and sympathy from others. It also sparked a debate about how the occupiers would be treated if they were African American or Muslim, rather than white.
Meanwhile, federal authorities did little to dislodge the Bundys and their followers as the occupation stretched into days and then weeks. On Jan. 4, White House spokesperson Josh Earnest said that the takeover was a “local law enforcement matter,” although the FBI was monitoring the situation.
But Jon Adler, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association foundation, said that Earnest was mistaken.
“We are entrusted with protection of federal buildings,” he told The Post on Jan. 7. “It is primarily our responsibility.”
Some worried that the prolonged success of armed standoffs like those at Malheur and Cliven Bundy’s ranch in 2014 would only encourage further showdowns. Gov. Brown and local officials in Burns demanded to know why U.S. officials hadn’t taken action.
Last Thursday, Brown sent a letter to the FBI Director James Comey and U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch asking them “to end the unlawful occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge as safely and as quickly as possible.”
But federal authorities took a largely hands-off approach, saying they wanted to reach a peaceful resolution. That caution likely reflected concerns that a direct confrontation could end in violence, like those that occurred in Waco, Texas and Ruby Ridge, Idaho in the 1990s.
Last week Bundy began participating in talks with the FBI, according to the Associated Press. But he balked when federal authorities said they wanted to conduct the conversations in private.
It’s not clear how far the talks with the FBI got before the arrests.
Like Ammon and Ryan Bundy, the rest of those arrested Tuesday came from all across the West and as far east as Ohio. Payne, an army veteran from Montana, had participated in Cliven Bundy’s protest in 2014 and drove to Oregon from his home in Montana for the Malheur takeover. Cox, who sometimes spoke on behalf of the occupiers, had come from Utah, while Ritzheimer - a Marine Corps veteran known nationally before the occupation for organizing protests and selling profane t-shirts denouncing Islam - visited from Arizona.
The news of the arrests was met with relief from conservationists and public officials. Oregon Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley applauded the law enforcement response in a statement Tuesday night.
“I am pleased that the FBI has listened to the concerns of the local community and responded to the illegal activity occurring in Harney County by outside extremists,” he said in a statement. “The leaders of this group are now in custody and I hope that the remaining individuals occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge will peacefully surrender so this community can begin to heal the deep wounds that this illegal activity has created over the last month.”