By Maxine Bernstein | The Oregonian/OregonLive updated March 06, 2017 at 6:27 PM
Bruce “B.J.” Soper, a founding member of the Pacific Patriots Network, testified Monday that he heard Ammon Bundy propose taking over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in a hard stand during a brief meeting in a Burns home on Dec. 29, 2015.
But in contrast to refuge occupier Blaine Cooper’s testimony for the government, Soper said no logistics were discussed. He said Jason Patrick, Jon Ritzheimer, Ryan Payne and others were present but they never talked about how Bundy planned to accomplish the takeover. There was no discussion about refuge employees and no final decision was made during the 10- to 15-minute meeting, Soper said.
During cross-examination, Soper acknowledged he opposed the refuge occupation. He had helped plan the Jan. 2, 2016 rally in Burns to support Harney County ranchers Dwight Hammond Jr. and son Steven Hammond, who were set to return to federal prison to serve out five-year sentences for setting fire to public land.
Prosecutors read Facebook messages Soper had posted after the Burns rally, criticizing Bundy’s seizure of the refuge. In one, Soper accused Bundy and supporters of taking advantage of Harney County and hijacking “what turned out to be a great and peaceful action,” referring to the rally and march in Burns.
Soper, as well as Cooper’s father Stanley Hicks Sr. who followed on the witness stand, were among the last defense witnesses called Monday in the second Oregon standoff trial of four defendants, Jason Patrick, Duane Ehmer, Jake Ryan and Darryl Thorn.
Both Soper and Hicks were called to discredit Cooper, an occupier who has pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy and testified for the government in the case in the hope of reducing his sentence.
Hicks said his son never suffered any abuse at his hands as Cooper had told jurors late last month. Hicks said he had been in contact with his son until the fall of 2015.
“He’s prone to lie when it serves his purpose,” Hicks said of his son.
The four defendants have pleaded not guilty to conspiring to impede federal employees from carrying out their work at the federal wildlife refuge in eastern Oregon. Three of the four are charged with possessing firearms at the federal facility. Two are accused of building trenches on the site and also charged with depredation of government property.
The defense is expected to wrap up Tuesday morning. Prosecutors plan to call two refuge employees during rebuttal: manager Chad Karges and fish biologist Linda Beck. They’ll be able to testify about any fears they had that may have influenced their decisions not to return to work during the 41-day occupation of the federal wildlife sanctuary.
Jeff Banta and Sandra Anderson, two occupiers who were acquitted of all charges following a five-week trial last fall, also took the witness stand Monday for the defense.
Former Nevada Assemblywoman Michele Fiore, who testified in the first trial of Bundy and six co-defendants, waved to jurors yet again as she walked to the witness stand. She was admonished several times by the judge to simply answer the questions, not volunteer information or her testimony would be scrapped. As she walked out, she waved to jurors and spectators in the courtroom gallery and then loudly blurted out, “Bye your Honor,” before exiting the courtroom.
Banta spoke of FBI informant Fabio Minoggio and how in late January 2016, Minoggio, posing as an occupier, led military-style training for the Bravo security team at the refuge. Minoggio told Bravo members, of which Banta was one, to meet him at the refuge boat launch, Banta said.
Minoggio, according to Banta, conducted scenario-type training, teaching occupiers how to pull a motorist from a vehicle to interrogate them at gunpoint. On his way to the boat launch area, Banta said he drove over a rope attached to a fire hose. Once he reached the site and got out, Minoggio “tells us we’re all dead,” Banta recounted.
“He proceeded to train us how to use a fire hose to disable a vehicle,” Banta explained.
Banta, who had no prior military experience, also testified that Minoggio led the Bravo security group in target shooting. He had the men walk in formation and fire at targets, but at times, “he’d discharge his firearm behind us,” Banta said. He’d fire straight up into the air or into the ground, Banta said. During the training, Banta said he fired three to five rounds.
“He was basically kind of seeing how we reacted under pressure,” Banta said.
Under cross-examination by Assistant U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Barrow, Banta admitted he lied to people at the refuge, telling them he was a reality TV star.
“That isn’t true, isn’t it?” Barrow asked.
“No?” Banta responded with sarcasm. “OK.”
As Sandra Anderson was called in and walked up to the witness stand, her husband Sean Anderson stood for her in the courtroom gallery at the back of the room. Both were set to join the four defendants on trial but accepted plea deals days before jury selection. They were among the last four holdouts at the refuge before their surrender on Feb. 11, 2016.
Anderson testified that she, her husband and others remaining at the refuge after Jan. 26, 2016 – the day Bundy was arrested and police fatally shot occupation spokesman Robert “LaVoy” Finicum – there was some talk about building trenches.
Defense lawyer Jesse Merrithew, who represents Ryan who is accused of using a refuge excavator to dig a trench on the property, asked what purpose the trenches served.
Anderson said it was to serve as a defense against possible assault from the FBI. “We needed to slow them down to give us time to prepare our defense,” she said.
What kind of defense did she and others plan against FBI armored vehicles? “Anything we could to stay alive,” she said tearfully.
During cross-examination, Assistant U.S. Attorney Ethan Knight played an audio recording of the Andersons speaking with an FBI crisis negotiator. After the FBI agent told Sean Anderson he’d be charged with interfering with a federal employee and called it a non-violent offense, his wife cut in and said, “Wait a minute. We all have done this. Why is he only getting charged with this?”
Asked about that statement, Sandy Anderson backpedaled, “We were all considered to have done that…We all supposedly had stopped them. That was the accusation.”
Though the defense didn’t come right out and say it, they presented evidence and testimony to suggest that self-proclaimed U.S. Navy Seal Danny Williams, of Burns, was cooperating with the FBI while at the refuge after the Jan. 26, 2016 arrests of the occupation leaders.
Defense investigator Mark Robertson testified that Williams had placed several calls to the FBI from the refuge. One call was played in court in which Williams advised the federal agent there were “a whole lot of copters” flying overhead and making everyone nervous at the refuge. The agent called Williams “Danny” as soon as he heard his voice.
A video taken by defense witness Todd D. Bethell of the night of Jan. 26, 2016 also captured the so-called U.S. Navy seals driving into the refuge. The so-called U.S. Navy Seal tells the men he’s got “13 of my boys coming,” and he did eight years with the Navy Seals.
The occupiers could be heard questioning him on how he was able to get past the FBI perimeter set up that night.
“What do you expect out of a U.S. Navy Seal,” the man replied on the video.
During cross-exam, Bethell admitted to scanning documents at the refuge that were in possession of the occupiers.
Four of the defense witnesses Monday were advised by the government to consult with lawyers before they took the stand due to the potential they’d expose themselves to risk and could incriminate themselves. Those were Soper, Pacific Patriots Network member Brandon Rapolla, Todd D. Bethell and Nicholas Fisher.
In an usual twist, the defense had an investigator read refuge occupier Brand Nu Thornton’s testimony from last fall’s trial to jurors about his participation in the initial sweep of the property on Jan. 2, 2016. Thornton decided not to take the witness stand and not incriminate himself.
The judge told jurors that Thornton was not available to testify and asked them to consider the testimony read by an investigator “as if the witness is here live.”
Thornton was, in fact, in the courtroom at the time, seated in the back of the courtroom gallery.
— Maxine Bernstein