Remaining Oregon Protesters Warn of 'Armageddon,' But Leader Urges Them to Go Home

A day after the arrest of armed occupiers of a national wildlife refuge turned deadly, authorities surrounded the isolated outpost as a final band of holdouts broadcast vows to fight to the death.
by | January 28, 2016 AT 11:50 AM

By Matt Pearce, Nigel Duara and William Yardley

A day after the arrest of armed occupiers of a national wildlife refuge turned deadly, authorities surrounded the isolated outpost as a final band of holdouts broadcast vows to fight to the death.

"There are no laws in this United States now! This is a free-for-all Armageddon!" a heavyset man holding a rifle yelled into a camera transmitting from the refuge Wednesday. He urged others to join those at the protest site, adding that if "they stop you from getting here, kill them!"

The dramatic claims from within the compound came even as authorities promised free passage to anyone who left peacefully.

Wednesday afternoon, one of the group's recently arrested leaders, Ammon Bundy, urged the remaining occupiers to "stand down," leave the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and "go home and hug your families."

"This fight is ours for now _ in the courts," Bundy said in a statement read by his attorney outside the federal courthouse in Portland, where Bundy and several other defendants made their initial court appearances Wednesday afternoon. "Please go home."

Bundy and other leaders of the group were arrested Tuesday after a traffic stop on a highway north of this rural town in eastern Oregon. One, Robert "LaVoy" Finicum, an Arizona rancher who had insisted this week that he would die before returning the refuge to federal control, was shot and killed during the confrontation.

At a news conference Wednesday, federal officials provided no details about the incident, citing the ongoing investigation. Gregory T. Bretzing, special agent in charge of Portland's FBI division, called the law enforcement operations "a very deliberate and measured response." A pair of unverified videos from a man and a woman who said they were traveling with the protesters when they were arrested said that Finicum was shot after he sped away from officers during the traffic stop.

Even as many weary residents expressed hope that the arrests would speed the end of the standoff, it was also clear that neither they nor law enforcement had wanted it to end violently.

"This has been tearing our community apart," Harney County Sheriff David Ward said of the armed protest during a news conference in Burns, where he urged "everybody in this illegal occupation to move on."

"There doesn't have to be bloodshed in our community," Ward said. "We have issues with the way things are going in our government; we have a responsibility as citizens to act on those in an appropriate manner. We don't arm up and rebel. ... This can't happen anymore. This can't happen in America."

Bundy, 40, and his brother, Ryan Bundy, were among a small group that took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on Jan. 2, saying they were protesting federal land management policies in general but also the prison sentences of two local ranchers who set fires that spread to federal land.

A federal complaint unsealed Wednesday at the arraignment of the Bundys and five others in U.S. District Court in Portland accused the defendants of using threats, intimidation or force to stop federal officers from doing their duty.

The complaint alleges a pattern of intimidation by some of the defendants in the Burns area in the weeks before the occupation.

One employee of the federal Bureau of Land Management said Jon Ritzheimer, an anti-Muslim activist involved in the occupation, and another man accosted her in a grocery store for wearing a BLM shirt.

"When she turned around, the second individual shouted, 'You're BLM, you're BLM,' at her," FBI Agent Katherine Armstrong wrote in the affidavit.

"That person further stated to (the BLM employee) that they know what car she drives and would follow her home. He also stated he was going to burn (her) house down."

A week later, a white truck with a Confederate flag sticker in the rear window tailgated her and flashed its lights.

Meanwhile, the standoff continued.

On Wednesday morning, law enforcement blocked roads around the refuge, where armed protesters were still operating heavy machinery and refusing to leave, according to an activist's online live stream from the surrounded site.

A group in contact with the occupiers, calling itself the Pacific Patriots Network, urged supporters to "stand by" as it urged peace and gathered more information about what was happening.

Activist Jason Patrick told Oregon Public Radio that about seven to 12 occupiers remained at the refuge.

The Tuesday arrests came as the Bundys and others were traveling to a community meeting north of Burns.

"Law enforcement agencies put a lot of work into doing the best tactical plan they could to take these guys down peacefully," Ward said.

Gunfire broke out when the FBI and Oregon State Police intercepted the group on a rural stretch of U.S. Highway 395 about halfway between the refuge and the town of John Day.

"It was planned in an area that would minimize injury to others and to law enforcement," said a law enforcement official who requested anonymity to discuss an incident that was under investigation.

Details of what happened on the highway were scant. Officials would only say that shots were fired.

Ryan Bundy, 43, of Bunkerville, Nev., was shot in the arm, and the 55-year-old Finicum was killed, his daughter and Nevada state Assemblywoman Michele Fiore said.

The void of official information about the incident has been filled by unverified videos circulating widely on social media among occupation supporters.

A man named Mark McConnell, who is identified as Ammon Bundy's security guard, posted a video on Facebook early Wednesday in which he said that he was driving one of the group's vehicles and that Finicum had been driving the other.

McConnell said that after officials detained him and the other passengers in his vehicle, including Ammon Bundy, Finicum sped away with Ryan Bundy, Shawna Cox, 59, and "an 18-year-old girl" riding with him.

"LaVoy is very passionate about this ... about what we're doing here. ... But he took off," said McConnell, who said he was released after two hours of interrogation. He said he was not among the original occupiers.

"Don't put speculation, don't put nonsense out there," McConnell said, scolding Facebook commenters who were not at the scene. "Get to business, we have work to do here, all right. Let's not let LaVoy's death be in vain."

(Yardley reported from Burns, Pearce from Los Angeles and Duara from Phoenix.)

(c)2016 Los Angeles Times