Oregon refuge occupiers plead not guilty as prosecutors say more people could be charged

Source – The Washington Post

PORTLAND — Less than two weeks after the armed occupation of an Oregon wildlife refuge ended, the FBI says they are done going through to check for explosives and any stragglers who may have stayed behind.

But even as the focus has shifted to the courtroom, with some of the people indicted for the occupation arraigned on Wednesday, authorities say that other people could soon be charged for the weeks-long takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

So far, 25 people have been indicted for the Oregon wildlife occupation — 16 of them earlier this month and another nine not long after. Some of these people have also separately been charged for the armed standoff at Cliven Bundy’s Nevada ranch in 2014.

Early next month, the government is likely to file a superseding indictment “that may add additional charges and defendants,” according to a court filing this week from federal prosecutors. It is also possible additional indictments could follow that based on what investigators find as they process evidence, the filing said.

On Wednesday, eight people already charged with the occupation appeared in a federal courtroom, while others sent representatives in their place.

Each of them entered a plea of not guilty, and then several expressed concern that they were being kept behind bars if they were innocent until proven guilty. One occupier, Ryan Payne, said he has been “led around in chains and shackles everywhere I go.”

Jason Patrick, another occupier, told District Judge Anna J. Brown: “You’re the federal government and you’ll do whatever you want.” The comment drew a shout of “That’s right” from one of the spectators who filled every seat in the court’s benches. The family of Victoria Sharp, who was with some of the occupation’s leaders when they were arrested, sang religious hymns while waiting in the line into the courtroom.

The refuge has been turned back over to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but it won’t reopen just yet, authorities say. First, attorneys for the people who have been charged with the occupation will be able to visit the site.

Federal agents going through the sprawling refuge found explosives, firearms and “significant amounts of human feces,” according to a filing last week from the U.S. attorney for the District of Oregon.

They also found evidence that occupiers had a camping area “adjacent to or on a particularly sensitive cultural site” and cleared trenches and created a road on or near “grounds containing sensitive artifacts,” the filing stated.

Agents trained in dealing with crimes related to art and cultural property were involved in the sweep of the refuge, which is the historical home to the Burns Paiute Tribe. Thousands of tribal artifacts are at the site.

An armed group seized the refuge Jan. 2 in support of two local ranchers convicted of arson; the group went on to say they were fighting the federal government’s management of federal lands. The occupation’s leaders were arrested last month while traveling on a highway outside the refuge, and four holdouts remained for another two weeks before they surrendered to authorities. All told, the siege lasted for 41 days.

During the 12 days that the FBI collected evidence at Malheur, agents recovered computers and other electronic devices and checked through the refuge to make sure no other occupiers hung behind after the final holdoutssurrendered Feb. 11.

In filings this week, the office of Billy J. Williams, the U.S. attorney for Oregon, proposed that the refuge be opened on Thursday and Friday to “defense attorneys and investigators” for the occupiers who have been indicted.

Williams also said authorities would begin restoring the refuge and preparing it to be reopened to the public after the visit from these attorneys.

The attorneys representing some occupiers, though, protested Wednesday in court that they were not being given enough time to view evidence at the refuge.

Lissa Casey, who is defending Ammon Bundy, the occupation’s leader, also pointed out that this plan means attorneys for the occupiers would not be able to return to the refuge later if a new indictment is filed based on evidence found at the refuge,

“I can’t anticipate theoretical issues,” Brown said in response. When Bundy stood to protest, the otherwise affable Judge Brown became stern: “Sit down, sir!” Bundy complied.

Casey also asked to let marshals take Bundy to the refuge so he could personally show his attorneys the relevant evidence at the wildlife refuge. This request was denied.

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