LAS VEGAS (AP) — A federal jury in Nevada is about to be picked to decide whether a tense standoff pitting armed ranchers and rangers against federal agents over a herd of cattle in a dry river bed amounted to a peaceful expression of free speech and weapon rights, or an insurrection against the U.S. government.
Trial begins Monday in Las Vegas for six men — the first of a trio of proceedings for 17 defendants that will later include Nevada cattleman Cliven Bundy, four of his adult sons and seven other men. Each is facing the equivalent of the rest of his life in prison for the confrontation nearly three years ago.
The courtroom showdown is the latest battle over Western federal land policy dating to the Sagebrush Rebellion in Nevada more than 40 years ago. A jury in Oregon in October acquitted seven people, including two Bundy brothers, of federal conspiracy and weapon charges in an occupation of a federal wildlife refuge.
“They’re not the Bundys,” said Todd Leventhal, attorney for defendant Orville Scott Drexler, one of the six whose case begins Monday. “But realistically, this is a Bundy case. The outcome of this trial affects the other two.”
Although they’ve been characterized as the least culpable “followers and gunmen” among the 19 men arrested a year ago, stakes are high for Drexler, Todd Engel, Eric Parker and Steven Stewart, all of Idaho, Gregory Burleson of Phoenix and Richard Lovelein of Oklahoma.
Two other defendants previously pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges and are expected to be sentenced in coming months to up to six years in prison. They are not expected to testify.
If convicted of all 10 charges, including conspiracy, firearm offenses and assault on a federal officer, each of the six could face up to 101 years in prison.
“This is not an undercard for Mr. Lovelien,” defense attorney Shawn Perez said of his client. “It is the main event.”
The six are accused of bringing guns to the Bundy ranch near Bunkerville, about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, to support Bundy family members against U.S. Bureau of Land Management agents enforcing federal court orders to herd Bundy cows off public rangeland in the scenic Gold Butte area.
Hundreds of supporters were in a dry river bed when the standoff took place, and dozens of self-styled militia members from across the nation remained for months afterward in dusty and windy camps around the Bundy ranch.
At the height of the protests, they blocked roads, gave speeches, flew flags and set up armed checkpoints to protect the rancher who declares that the federal government doesn’t own the land, the people do.
The standoff came to a dramatic end April 12, 2014, with Bundy backers positioned on a high Interstate 15 overpass pointing military-style AR-15 and AK-47 weapons at heavily armed land management agents and contract cowboys herding cattle toward a corral in a dry wash below.
Las Vegas police stood by without interfering, after then-Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie negotiated a stand-down that was to have had the federal agents release the cows and abandon the cattle roundup.
Through a spokeswoman, U.S. Attorney Daniel Bogden and the four prosecutors handling the case declined this week to comment about the evidence or the trial, which is expected to take several weeks.
A Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman, Megan Crandall, also declined to comment.
The government may also have to overcome a potentially damaging new BLM inspector general ethics and conduct report, made public this week.
It said the Salt Lake City-based land management supervisory agent who headed the Bundy cattle roundup misused his position during the 2015 Burning Man festival in northern Nevada, and manipulated a hiring process so a friend could get a bureau job.
Leventhal said he hopes prosecutors show jurors footage collected from many defendants in the months after the standoff by a documentary film crew from a company called Longbow Productions. Attorneys allege the effort was an undercover front for the FBI.
Jury selection is expected to take several days before prosecutors begin outlining the government case.