The FBI and Oregon State Police arrested the leaders of an armed group that has occupied a national wildlife refuge for the past three weeks. The arrests took place during a traffic stop that prompted gunfire – and one death – along an Oregon highway.
Ammon Bundy and his militant group, which included members from as far away as Arizona and Michigan, seized the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on Jan. 2 as part of a long-running dispute over public lands in the West.
The militants, calling themselves Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, came to the frozen high desert of eastern Oregon to decry what it calls onerous federal land restrictions and to object to the prison sentences of two local ranchers convicted of setting fires.
Specifically, the group wants federal lands turned over to local authorities. The U.S. government controls about half of all land in the West.
Recently Ammon Bundy had begun traveling into Grant County to try to drum up more sympathy for his cause. At the time of their arrest, Bundy and his followers were reportedly en route to a community meeting at the senior center in John Day, a Grant County town about 70 miles north of Burns, to address local residents and discuss their views on federal management of public lands.
The confrontation came amid increasing calls for law enforcement to take action against Bundy for the illegal occupation of the wildlife refuge. They previously had taken a hands-off approach, reflecting lessons learned during bloody standoffs at Waco, Texas, and Ruby Ridge, Idaho, during the 1990s.
Many residents of Harney County, where the refuge is located, have been among those demanding that Bundy leave. Many sympathize with his criticism of federal land management policies of public lands but opposed the refuge takeover. They feared violence could erupt.
Those arrested were Ammon Bundy, 40; his brother Ryan Bundy, 43; Brian Cavalier, 44; Shawna Cox, 59; and Ryan Payne, 32, all during a traffic stop on U.S. Highway 395 Tuesday afternoon. Authorities said two others – Joseph Donald O’Shaughnessy, 45, and Peter Santilli, 50 – were arrested separately in Burns, while FBI agents in Arizona arrested another, Jon Eric Ritzheimer, 32. The Bundy brothers are the sons of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who was involved in a high-profile 2014 standoff with the government over grazing rights.
Each of those arrested will face a federal felony charge of conspiracy to impede officers of the United States from discharging their official duties through the use of force, intimidation or threats, authorities said. Authorities released few other details. A news conference with the FBI, local sheriff and others was scheduled for late Wednesday morning.
Oregon State Police confirmed that its troopers were involved in the traffic-stop shooting. One of those arrested, described only as a man, suffered non-life-threatening wounds and was treated at a hospital, the agencies said. Another man “who was a subject of a federal probable cause arrest” was killed, they said. The agencies said they would not release further information about the death, pending identification by the medical examiner.
The Oregonian reported that Arizona rancher Robert Finicum was the person killed, citing the man’s daughter. The 55-year-old was a frequent and public presence at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, often speaking for the group at news conferences.
Arianna Finicum Brown confirmed her father’s death to the paper, saying “he would never ever want to hurt somebody, but he does believe in defending freedom and he knew the risks involved.”
The state police said it would investigate the officer-involved shooting, with help from the Deschutes County Major Incident Team and the Harney County District Attorney’s Office.
“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,” Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley 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.”
It was unclear how many people remain in the buildings at the refuge. Late Tuesday night there was no obvious police presence there and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown asked for “patience as officials continue pursuit of a swift and peaceful resolution.”