Federal Agents Told to STAND DOWN in Bunkerville
LAS VEGAS — Law-enforcement officers were ordered by the federal special agent in charge to cease “all operations” hours before an armed standoff at a Nevada ranch reached its tension-filled zenith in 2014.
But they did not. Three law-enforcement officers testified in federal court Thursday that they maintained their positions throughout the night and into the next day, anticipating a bloody gunfight at Bundy Ranch.
None of the officers explained in court why they were ordered to engage anti-government protesters — and open fire with less than lethal weapons — after being told at least twice to stand down, abandon their efforts to round up private cattle on federal land and leave.
This was one of the first times law-enforcement officials have publicly acknowledged the government orders to back down, drawing attention to a little-known detail about the high-profile confrontation.
The six-day standoff reached a climax on April 12, 2014, as hundreds of protesters formed a line across a wash near Interstate 15 about 80 miles north of Las Vegas. Armed men took up positions on the overpass, sighting their rifles at federal agents below.
“All operations had ceased? All operations were done?” Las Vegas lawyer Richard Tanasi asked McBride on cross-examination. “Despite that operations were over, despite your requests to fall back, your requests were being denied?”
Tanasi represents Steven Stewart, one of six defendants charged with conspiracy, extortion, assault and obstruction for taking up arms to stop the Bureau of Land Management from seizing cattle owned by rancher Cliven Bundy.
The six men, from Arizona, Idaho and Oklahoma, are the first of 17 defendants to go on trial on charges stemming from the Bundy Ranch standoff. Although federal prosecutors designated them as the “least culpable,” the defendants face identical charges and could spend the rest of their lives in prison if convicted.
April 11 order: Pack up and leave
Federal authorities testified Thursday about an April 11 briefing to cease operations.
They said Dan Love, BLM special agent in charge of operations, said authorities were going to release Bundy’s cattle, pack up and leave the wash. They said a news release signaling the standoff was over would be sent out the next day.
Instead, the situation intensified through the night. National Parks police officers and rangers, who served on a regional operations team called to the Bundy Ranch, testified that they believed an attack was imminent.
McBride said supervisors ordered her team to take up defensive positions through the night and prepare for an attack on the incident command post that never came.
The next day, on April 12, supervisors ordered her to advance with three team members and fire non-lethal gas and pepper spray at protesters.
She said they approached the line of 100 protesters in the wash in a tactical “stack formation.” McBride was in the lead behind a ballistic shield, followed by an officer armed with a gun loaded with pepper rounds, a third carrying a gas-canister launcher and a rifleman for protection.
“The four of us were given OK (to fire),” McBride said, adding that they disregarded the order because they feared the pop of the gas rounds would be mistaken for gunfire and spark a shooting war.
“While we were standing there in the stack, we discussed it,” she said. “We would have shots fired against us.”
She said her team twice requested permission to fall back and her supervisor denied their request.
Thursday wrapped up the second week of testimony by government witnesses in one of the West’s most high-profile land-use cases.
For decades, the BLM repeatedly ordered rancher Cliven Bundy to remove his cattle from federal lands and in 2014 obtained a court order to seize his cattle as payment for more than $1 million in unpaid grazing fees.
Bundy issued a social-media battle cry. Hundreds of supporters, including members of several militia groups, streamed to the ranch from several Western states, including Nevada, Arizona, Idaho and Oklahoma.
Prosecutors counter that the protesters are lawbreakers who illegally pointed weapons at law-enforcement officers and conspired to block a lawful court order.
The defendants argue that conduct by reckless government agents led to the standoff. They said federal agents incited the violence against people exercising their constitutionally protected rights to assemble and bear arms.
The trial expected to continue for weeks