LAS VEGAS (AP) — Two defendants have pleaded guilty to lesser charges to avoid a third trial and the possibility of more time in federal custody for bearing assault-style weapons during a 2014 confrontation with federal agents near a ranch owned by Nevada cattleman and states’ rights figure Cliven Bundy.
Attorneys for Eric Parker and Scott Drexler noted Tuesday the two men had already spent about 18 months in custody before they were released in August after a jury acquitted them of most charges but failed to reach verdicts on four felony counts against Parker and two against Drexler.
Their plea deals narrow the focus of an upcoming trial for Bundy, two adult sons and a close associate. They are accused of leading a conspiracy to enlist a self-styled militia to prevent federal Bureau of Land Management agents from enforcing court orders to remove Bundy cattle from desert rangeland in what is now Gold Butte National Monument.
Parker, 34, of Hailey, Idaho, and Drexler, 47, of Challis, Idaho, won’t face additional time behind bars because of their guilty pleas Monday in U.S. District Court in Las Vegas to one charge of obstruction of a court order, a misdemeanor, that could carry a possible sentence of one year in federal prison. Each initially faced 11 charges and twice stood trial on 10.
“Any time you’re looking at 11 felony charges and life in prison and you walk out with a misdemeanor and probation is a win,” said attorney Jess Marchese, who represents Parker.
Parker and Drexler were photographed during the standoff on a high Interstate 15 freeway overpass near Bunkerville pointing rifles through concrete sidewall barriers toward heavily armed federal agents in a dry riverbed below. The agents were guarding corrals of rounded-up cattle and facing hundreds of flag-waving unarmed men, women and children.
Cliven Bundy says he doesn’t recognize federal authority over public land where he said his family grazed cattle since the early 1900s. His dispute echoes a nearly half-century fight over public lands involving ranchers in Nevada and the West, where the federal government controls vast expanses of land.
Marchese and Todd Leventhal, attorney for Drexler, said the main remaining question for Chief U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro at sentencing Feb. 2 will be the length of time their clients will serve on supervised release. It could be one to five years.
“He’s not a felon,” Leventhal said of his client. “He’s not going to have to do any more time. It’s a misdemeanor.”
The pleas came with jury selection due to start next week for Bundy, his sons Ammon and Ryan Bundy, and co-defendant Ryan Payne. Each faces 15 felony charges carrying possible sentences totaling more than 170 years in prison.
The focus on their case has shifted — and the start was postponed for three weeks — after the Oct. 1 Las Vegas Strip shooting that left 58 people dead and nearly 550 other people injured at a country music festival before the gunman also killed himself.
“I think everybody realizes after the shooting here in Las Vegas that juries aren’t going to have an appetite to hear about gunmen,” said Chris Rasmussen, attorney for Peter Santilli of Cincinnati, a co-defendant who took a plea deal.
Santilli pleaded guilty Oct. 6 to felony conspiracy in a plea agreement that Rasmussen said could have Santilli free from federal custody in January after about two years already served.