LAS VEGAS (AP) — Trial was postponed at the last minute Tuesday for Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, two of his sons and a co-defendant accused of leading an armed uprising against government agents in 2014, amid questions about whether federal prosecutors in Las Vegas turned over complete evidence records to defense teams.
In a stunning turn just before a newly empaneled jury began hearing openings, Chief U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro pushed the start date back to Nov. 14 and set a rapid briefing schedule around hearings Wednesday and Monday.
The central question is whether recordings or written notes show what an FBI agent in a command post trailer observed with a camera placed on a hilltop to monitor activities at the Bundy ranch ahead of the April 2014 standoff that stopped a roundup of Bundy cattle from what is now Gold Butte National Monument.
Prosecutors plan to tell the jury that Bundy, now 71, his adult sons Ryan and Ammon Bundy, and co-defendant Ryan Payne of Anaconda, Montana, conspired to enlist a self-styled militia to defy government authority at the point of a gun.
Defense attorneys say the men didn’t conspire with anyone, didn’t wield weapons and didn’t threaten anybody.
Mary Hinson, the chief area National Park Service ranger, acknowledged during questioning in an evidentiary hearing last Friday that video from the camera was fed to a monitor in an incident command post trailer she shared with officials in charge of a court-ordered federal round-up of Bundy cattle, including then-U.S. Bureau of Land Management supervisor Daniel Love.
Hinson denied on the witness stand knowing if any written records had been shredded when federal Bureau of Land Management agents and contract cowboys withdrew following the standoff.
Defense teams have complained that they never received notes or computer records that Love may have kept about heading what federal officials termed a cattle impoundment operation.
The judge also agreed, despite objections from Acting U.S. Attorney Steven Myhre, to hold a hearing Thursday to decide whether the Bundys and Payne should be released from jail during trial.
“It’s possible a halfway-house setting could be devised,” the judge said, while also recalling that the four men refused to enter pleas and said they didn’t recognize federal government authority.
Myhre said magistrate judges determined following their arrests in early 2016 in Oregon that each of the men was a danger to the community and a risk to not follow court orders or return for hearing dates.
The prosecutor also noted that Payne pleaded guilty in Portland, Oregon, to felony conspiracy to prevent federal employees from doing their jobs by occupying a federal wildlife preserve in eastern Oregon.
Payne and Ryan and Ammon Bundy were accused of leading the six-week occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Cliven Bundy never went to the refuge, but was arrested when he arrived in Portland to visit his sons in jail on charges stemming from the Nevada standoff.
A federal court jury in Portland refused to convict the Bundy brothers, and Payne is now fighting to withdraw his Portland plea that is expected to get him a sentence of more than three years in prison.
Ryan Bundy, who is serving as his own lawyer in the Las Vegas case, complained Tuesday that he has had trouble preparing for trial and filing documents while detained in federal custody in jails in rural Pahrump, Nevada, and a local lockup in Henderson, outside Las Vegas.
The men each face 15 felony charges, including conspiracy, assault and threats against federal officers, firearms counts, obstruction and extortion. Stacked together, convictions on all charges carry the possibility of more than 170 years in prison.