Rick Bowmer / AP
Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016 | 2 a.m.
It might have looked spontaneous, but the takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge this month was part of a plan Ammon Bundy and a trusted associate developed largely in secret over the past two months. Bundy, the son of controversial Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, and Ryan Payne, a militia leader from Montana, came to believe that an armed occupation was the only way to bring enough attention to a pair of local ranchers heading to prison and change the underlying problem: federal land ownership.
Even as a wider network of anti-government groups and residents rejected taking action stronger than holding a public rally, Bundy and Payne privately strategized an occupation they felt was necessary to spread their message.
Dozens of interviews with Bundy, Payne, their supporters and federal officials show how the leaders worked parallel tracks. They encouraged local organizers to plan a peaceful rally to back the ranchers — Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son, Steven Hammond — while they scoped out potential sites for a takeover.
Bundy and Payne were calculating and charismatic. The Hammonds’ plight hit at the heart of their belief system. As Payne cased several federal offices in Burns and visited the refuge on multiple occasions, Bundy spent his time interviewing the Hammonds and pulling court files associated with their case.
Their presence in Burns, and the growing support for the Hammonds online, rattled the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service enough that it began making safety arrangements for its 17 employees at the refuge — a horseshoe-shaped bird sanctuary that surrounds the Hammonds’ ranch. A photo of Payne was posted in a refuge building for workers to be on the lookout.
But still no one appeared to know specifically about a planned occupation — not the FBI, not Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward, not the Hammond rally organizers.
In keeping their plan shrouded, Bundy and Payne risked losing the support they had galvanized during the 2014 standoff with federal officials near the Bundy family ranch in Nevada.
In the hours after the Malheur refuge takeover, rally organizers claimed they had been double-crossed.
Now, the operation has taken on the sheen of success. Some lawmakers are coming out in support of the occupiers’ message, even if they believe their tactics were wrong. And the same Hammond supporters frustrated by the deception have tempered their anger and taken up posts at the refuge.
Ammon Bundy and others in the loosely organized patriot movement had been searching for compelling stories of federal overreach ever since the standoff over grazing fees in Nevada had placed Cliven Bundy in the national spotlight.
The Bundys were widely seen as victorious at the “Battle of Bunkerville.” Ammon Bundy and his supporters were looking to use that platform to highlight other personal stories of injustice and bring their interpretation of the Constitution and the proper role of the federal government to a broader audience.
The Hammonds were just the ticket.
The Burns-area ranchers were found guilty of arson in 2012 after fires they set to reduce harm from wildfires and invasive plants damaged federal land. The trial followed years of friction with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management over water and grazing rights.
The convictions were punishable by a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which followed the Oklahoma City bombing and other deadly acts of domestic terrorism. But the judge vastly reduced the Hammonds’ sentence, saying he didn’t believe the ranchers deserved to be lumped in with terrorists.
Oregon’s U.S. attorney then successfully appealed the sentences. A judge ordered the Hammonds to serve their full terms.
Bundy and Payne were outraged.
On Nov. 3, Bundy blogged about the Hammonds’ plight with a direct message for government officials.
“We warn federal agencies, federal judges and all government officials that follow federal oppressive examples that the people are in unrest because of these types of actions,” Bundy wrote.
Dwight Hammond Jr., his wife, Susie, and his son, Steven, met with Bundy, Payne and a dozen or so members of sympathetic groups from Oregon and Idaho in mid-November. The meeting took place at the Hammonds’ home in Burns.
The Hammonds told their story, and the group discussed proposals on how Bundy and the others could help.
The plan favored by many who attended the meeting was inspired by Bunkerville. They wanted to protect the Hammonds from being taken back into custody by forming a human circle around their home. But the Hammonds, attendees said, ultimately declined the help. At most, they preferred a more community-centered rally.
Among the proponents of a more decisive strategy was Payne, who earned the Bundy family’s trust by coordinating the militia response during the standoff in Nevada.
Payne also is the founder of a communication network of militias and sympathetic people called Operation Mutual Defense. He and four others on the network’s board held weekly conference calls, current and former members said. Payne regularly updated the group on his travels to Oregon to meet with the Hammonds.
After the Hammonds declined Bundy and Payne’s help, the Operation Mutual Defense board voted 4-1 to do nothing more, said Gary Hunt, a board member from Northern California. Hunt said the majority opinion was, “if we’re not invited, we have no business doing something.”
Tim Foley, who represented an Arizona group on the Operation Mutual Defense board, said he resigned after the vote. He said he feared continuing to associate with Payne, who he believed was planning a more aggressive act.
“Ryan said, ‘I’m going to do it on my own,’” said Foley, who thought it was wrong to take the decision out of the Hammond family’s hands.
“You’re creating another form of tyranny,” Foley said he told Payne.
Payne told The Oregonian that his takeaway from the elder Hammond after a series of conversations was that the family didn’t want any action to be about them.
“He wanted an effort to be made to free all people,” Payne said.
Occupying a federal facility would allow Payne to both highlight the Hammonds’ story and address the “economic warfare” he believed the federal government’s ownership of significant lands in Harney County inflicted on its citizens.
“You can’t do that work from a rally,” Payne said he realized in November. “It takes more time.”
The only task, he said, was to settle on a place to occupy.
Law enforcement wary
In addition to talking daily to the Hammonds in November, Bundy, Payne and other supporters of the family spent hours talking with Sheriff Ward in person and over the phone, said B.J. Soper, an organizer from Redmond.
The sheriff heard the complaints about how the Hammond case had been handled and supported a peaceful protest, Soper said. But Ward said he never heard any talk about an occupation of the Malheur refuge “or any other facility,” according to his office.
Other Oregon organizers met for more than two hours with the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the Hammonds.
“Law enforcement — local, state and federal — knew that outsiders had moved into the Burns area in October,” according to a statement issued Monday by a spokeswoman representing a combined law enforcement response team.
“We knew there was the potential that their activity could cross the line into criminal behavior,” the statement continued, “but there was no specific information that they were intending to occupy the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge or any other facility in Harney County.”
Refuge employees reported to law enforcement that Payne and three other men were scoping out the refuge. They knew Payne’s face because his picture hung on the wall at the refuge. Asked where the picture came from, U.S. Fish & Wildlife spokesman Jason Holm said he couldn’t comment on “aspects of an ongoing law enforcement investigation.”
Payne used a refuge bathroom one day and took time to look around, according to sources close to the investigation. The men parked outside over a series of days watching who came and went from the refuge, Holm said.
“I know they watch me,” Payne said recently of the FBI. “I watch them, too.”
Payne declined to say when occupying the wildlife refuge became his and Bundy’s top plan.
Bundy posted a letter online to Sheriff Ward on Nov. 13, urging him to protect the Hammonds from federal action. To outsiders, the communication may have seemed a publicity stunt. But to patriot and anti-government groups that share Bundy’s interpretation of the Constitution, the letter launched an official process.
The groups disavow federal authority, placing the power in local law enforcement. The letter to Ward was a key part of a series of procedures that Bundy and his supporters follow.
Bundy continued to post more letters online. Experts say those messages likely raised red flags for law enforcement that the groups’ discussions were intensifying.
Bundy and Payne tried to get to know a growing number of residents. Bundy visited Burns several times and held at least two town hall-style meetings at the county fairgrounds where he shared his views on the federal government and how the Hammonds had been treated.
“We tried to lay out other prudent methods but we could see after discussions over and over with the community that this had to be done,” Bundy said.
He kept the circles of people he told about the emerging plan small.
“I worried about sharing it with the wrong people,” he said.
Payne was in charge of operations and Bundy was the communicator. They were in sync, Bundy said.
“We understand history. We are unified,” Bundy said. “We don’t have to question each other or try to educate each other.”
By late November, the Hammonds pulled back from Bundy and Payne.
Both Bundy and Payne said the communication stopped because the family felt threatened by federal authorities. The ranchers feared their home would be raided and they would be sent back to prison early, Bundy wrote in a Nov. 21 blog post. Bundy announced the development in a video. He choked up recalling how Dwight Hammond’s wife, Susie, had grown so close to him that she’d once ended a phone call saying she loved him.
Larry Matasar, one of the Hammonds’ three attorneys, wouldn’t confirm the FBI called his clients. Bundy told The Oregonian that he learned FBI agents also discouraged two county commissioners from continuing to talk to him.
“The FBI was intimidating people,” Bundy said. “We had been working with the sheriff and the commissioners, and that stopped. The FBI told them not to respond.”
Payne said he moved to Oregon in early December in part to try to prevent federal authorities from taking the Hammonds into custody early. He said he was primarily trying to gauge local views on the federal government. But he was also conducting surveillance, with the idea of an occupation in mind.
On Dec. 11, Bundy posted an online petition of sorts — called a “notice of redress of grievance” — and tens of thousands of people from across the country signed it, tossing their support behind the Hammonds.
But the sheriff failed to acknowledge the call to action, said Bundy and other organizers. Under their belief system, they said, that meant the responsibility to protect the Hammonds and other county residents fell to them.
Still, with the Hammonds out, other militants began to get cold feet. Rally organizers — mostly from Oregon, Idaho and Washington — continued to solidify plans for the protest, which they felt best honored the Hammonds’ wishes.
Bundy also received a cool reception to the idea of an occupation from the Harney County Committee of Safety. The group of Burns community leaders had formed earlier under the direction of rally organizers.
Bundy told the group several days before the rally that he could call up militia for an occupation if necessary, said Tim Smith, a committee member.
“Ammon explained how they had the ability to back us up,” Smith said. “But we had decided that was not the way we wanted to go.”
As the Hammonds’ Jan. 4 deadline to return to prison loomed, rally organizers’ intent was to show the father and son and their families that they weren’t alone.
“America really needed to hear their story regardless of the court process,” said Jeff Roberts, an organizer from the Grants Pass area. “They’re not terrorists, they’re ranching families in rural Oregon.”
Organizers planned a half-mile march from the Safeway store in Burns, past the sheriff’s office and courthouse, to Dwight Hammond’s home in town and back to the store.
Soper, the organizer from Redmond, said he spoke regularly with the Safeway manager, who agreed to stock extra flowers for supporters to buy and give to the Hammonds.
On Dec. 30 — three days before the Jan. 2 rally — federal employees were nearing the end of their workday at the wildlife refuge when management told them to go home early.
And for their safety, their boss said, they weren’t to return to the refuge until instructed.
“That was based on the culmination of our intel,” said Fish & Wildlife spokesman Holm, “and the start of the holiday weekend.”
Holm wouldn’t elaborate.
Payne said he felt driven by his military oath to defend the Constitution by making a bold move despite the Hammonds’ decision to distance the family.
“There had been serious constitutional violations here,” Payne said. “They feared for their lives. You have to still defend the people from tyranny.”
He took to the online airwaves Dec. 31 to explain how he thought the federal government would react.
“When they take the actual folks who have turned their lives into public service and declare them as terrorists, we now know how they plan to deal with us, which is they are not going to negotiate with us,” Payne said on camera. “They are going to use force.”
Payne made the comments to Pete Santilli, a self-styled journalist and promoter of the occupiers’ agenda. He had met Payne in 2014 at the Bundy ranch.
The interview was titled “Operation Hammond Ranch @ Burns, Oregon Will Be Historic.”
As Payne and Bundy’s rhetoric grew more intense online, some Harney County residents were getting nervous that the Saturday rally would turn violent. Organizers said they held a final meeting on New Year’s Day to ease their concerns.
About 60 residents and organizers, including Payne, attended the meeting at the fairgrounds.
But Bundy wasn’t there.
Bundy later told The Oregonian that instead he had met up elsewhere with ranchers, loggers and miners, hoping to recruit them. Afterward, residents described a meeting where Bundy introduced his idea to occupy the refuge.
Some attendees told friends and family later that they thought Bundy’s proposal was meant as a joke. They declined to join up.
After the two meetings, Bundy, Payne and others met several more times. Increasingly, rally organizers said it became clear Bundy and Payne supported an occupation and that they identified the target: the wildlife refuge, an 187,000-acre reserve sits 30 miles outside of town.
Soper, the organizer from Redmond, said despite talk of an occupation, he remained convinced the rally was the plan. He went to shovel snow from the sidewalk around Safeway.
The next day, Soper was surprised by the turnout. The Safeway manager called him two hours before the rally to say hundreds of people were already in the parking lot.
By noon, about 300 people had turned out to back the Hammonds. The parade was peaceful.
Then, when the crowd was supposed to head toward a final phase at the fairgrounds, Roberts and Soper saw Bundy on a snowbank, calling on attendees to join him in taking a harder stand.
They were headed to the refuge, he told attendees. Soper and other local organizers were furious.
He wasn’t alone.
“Everybody was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me; I came up here for a rally,’” said Melvin Lee, an Arizona resident who had driven up.
“A lot of people were angry because they didn’t get that intel,” Lee said. “If they would have told us that, we wouldn’t have shown up for that. We wouldn’t have driven 3,000 miles.”
Sheriff Ward immediately told the occupiers to “Go home” — a message underscored by hundreds of county residents who showed up for a community meeting last Wednesday, two days after the Hammonds had reported to a federal prison.
But Bundy refused to decamp, saying occupiers wouldn’t leave until the federal refuge lands are in local control and the Hammonds are released.
Now, many who criticized Bundy and Payne’s takeover have begun to voice support, even admiration, for the amount of attention the occupation has brought to the underlying grievances. Occupiers have received increasing local support and supplies and gained international headlines. U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., delivered an emotional shout-out on the House floor.
That was part of Bundy’s plan all along.
“We wanted to show the community that we were committed, that we were putting ourselves on the line and would stand hard,” he said. “We knew we had to gain the confidence of the community and we knew it would take several days, a week or so, for the community to work through it.
“It happened quicker than we anticipated.”