Robert Anglen , The Republic | azcentral.com Published 12:08 p.m. MT April 18, 2017
Verdict expected on first six defendants; Cliven Bundy and sons will be tried next.
BUNKERVILLE, Nev. — Carol Bundy sits alone in the living room of her family's home, restlessly awaiting word that a federal jury is ready to render its verdict on the fate of "the custom and culture of the West; the cowboy way of life."
Outside the front window, a sprinkler splashes water onto a small square of grass. Inside, a washing machine with worn bearings grinds through another load.
It's hard to imagine this pastoral setting, past the concrete walkway and on the other side of a wagon-wheel entry gate, as the staging ground of what nearly became the 21st century's first range war.
Three years ago this month, more than 400 ranchers, militia members and protesters from every state in the union congregated in front of this modest house off a dirt road in one of Nevada's remote desert corners.
Hundreds brought guns, others brought signs. They came in answer to a social-media call to arms, to mount a show of force against federal agents who had court orders to seize Cliven Bundy's cattle from federal lands, where the family has grazed them for more than a hundred years.
The standoff lasted six days before the agents, outnumbered and flanked by gunmen in a dusty wash about seven miles from the ranch house, abandoned their mission and released 300 head of cattle from a makeshift pen beneath Interstate 15.
This was where the West was won again, protesters proclaimed. No shots were fired and no arrests were made. Then.
But the government came back last year. Seventeen protesters, including Cliven Bundy and four of his sons, were arrested on conspiracy and weapons charges. They have been held in a Nevada correctional facility without bail for more than a year.
Carol Bundy, in an interview with The Republic, said her husband, sons and others are really being tried for making federal authorities look bad and forcing them to back down in the face of a citizen uprising.
"When we made our stand in 2014, we embarrassed the federal government," the 63-year-old mother of 14 told The Arizona Republic. "I say we embarrassed the federal government because they came with force and we said, 'No. Because we have a Constitutional right to stand and we are going to stand.' "
She said federal prosecutors are using the court to mount their own show of force and make an example of those who exercised their First Amendment rights to peaceably assemble and their Second Amendment rights to bear arms.
As prosecutors in federal court last week delivered closing arguments against the first six defendants in the Bundy Ranch standoff, Carol Bundy and several others stood up and walked out of the courtroom.
"We walked out during (the lead prosecutor's) speech because he was telling the jury we have no Constitutional rights," she said. "We the people have rights."
Prosecutors described the defendants as thugs who took the law into their own hands in an armed assault on agents from the Bureau of Land Management.
None of the Bundys are on trial yet. The six defendants, from Arizona, Idaho and Oklahoma, are the first of 17 to be tried in three separate trials based on levels of culpability.
Although the six men are considered the least culpable, militia members and government protesters who answered Bundy's call, all 17 face identical charges. All could spend the rest of their lives in prison if convicted.
Defendants in the second trial, including Cliven Bundy and his sons Ammon and Ryan Bundy, are considered leaders of the standoff.
Carol Bundy said she doesn't know the six men on trial. But she said every day since their trial began on Feb. 6, she and others have held a prayer vigil for them on the street outside the courthouse.
She said the outcome of this first trial will likely signal how it will end for her husband and sons.
"My husband will be 71 in a couple of weeks. I might never get to see him again," she said.
History of a fight
Carol Bundy said she believes in the jury system, but the jury in this case has been prevented from learning the truth. She said U.S. District Court Judge Gloria Navarro made sure the jury didn't learn the history of Bundy's dispute with the federal government.
Navarro also did not allow defendants to use the First and Second Amendments as a defense in the case and advised potential witnesses willing to testify in the cases that they could be subject to arrest if they admitted wrongdoing in support of the Bundys. Carol called it a threat.
"We weren't there to break the law," she said. "We weren't there to have anybody get hurt," she said. "The price of freedom isn't free. We felt what we did was right. We still feel that way."
The Bundy family dispute with the federal government is rooted in land, water and grazing rights going back more than 150 years.
Carol Bundy said her family doesn't recognize the right of the federal government to own or regulate public land where the family has been grazing cattle since the 1800s.
She said her family has purchased and inherited valuable "livestock water rights" issued and owned by the state of Nevada. These rights allow the Bundys to graze their cattle on public lands.
"We don't claim to own the land, only to use it to run cattle," Carol Bundy said, challenging the federal government's right to claim ownership of public land. "We believe the state of Nevada is a sovereign state."
She said the family has established water systems and for years has been a good steward of public lands. She said the land where the family's 500 head of cattle roam has always been considered free range.
About 20 years ago, however, she said, the Bureau of Land Management sought to enforce a new contract and demanded fees for grazing rights that put many ranch families out of business. She said her husband refused to sign the contract.
She said Cliven refused to pay the BLM and years ago sent the grazing fees to Clark County, which they recognize as a valid legal authority. But the checks were returned.
The feds meanwhile continued to rack up interest and fees while Bundy sought redress in court. He lost.
The BLM repeatedly ordered 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.
Carol Bundy said BLM agents showed up armed and aggressive. She claims they killed cattle, threatened her relatives with arrest. A pregnant woman who protested was thrown to the ground. Her son was shocked with a stun gun three times.
"This wasn't really happening in our country, in America, this couldn't really be happening," she said. "They came in like vigilantes. They came in and tore out water structures that had been there for hundreds of years. They killed my cattle, they terrorized the people of the town. They were just totally out of control."
Federal prosecutors argued in court the case isn't about the First or Second Amendments; that the Constitution doesn't give people the right to threaten federal officers or prevent them from doing their jobs.
They said the Bundy's dispute with the BLM was adjudicated and the court issued a lawful order to roundup the cattle. When ranchers and the militia made the decision to force the release of the cattle, they broke the law.
Acting Nevada U.S. Attorney Steven Myhre, who led the prosecution's team, said there was nothing noble about the behavior of Bundy and his supporters.
"It makes them vigilantes. It makes them into people who took the law into their own hands."
Carol Bundy said after her son was arrested, the family turned to right wing and militia websites for help in making a stand.
"Our way of life was being threatened," she said. "This is the custom and culture of the West."
She said the response from people was overwhelming.
"I was totally surprised," she said. "I am a little grandma. That lives on a little tiny farm in little tiny Bunkerville, Nevada. We didn't expect this."
The standoff was hailed as a victory by militia members. Ammon and Ryan Bundy cited their success at Bundy Ranch in their run-up to the siege of an Oregon wildlife refuge in 2016, also in protest of BLM policies. An Oregon federal jury acquitted Ammon, Ryan and five others in October.
Carol Bundy said the Nevada standoff was a peaceful protest about government overreach in the West. And she said the protest proved a citizens' movement could make the government do what years of court cases could not: back down.
"It's going to end when the American people get fed up and say we own the government," she said. "This is what America was founded on."
In court, the government has argued otherwise. BLM agents abandoned the roundup because they were afraid they were going to die, Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicholas Dickinson said. He said Bundy and his militia "used the barrel of a gun to force those officers to leave federal land."
The jury, which began deliberations Thursday, is working through 37 pages of instructions.
Jurors must decide if the defendants were part of a criminal conspiracy who sought to impede and injure federal officers.
They also must determine if the men are guilty of assault and threatening federal officers, carrying or using a firearm in a crime of violence, obstruction of justice, interference with interstate transportation, extortion and other crimes.
"Up in Oregon, when my sons got not guilty up there, they came back down and said, 'Oh, they've learned a lot.' I just looked at them and said, 'So did we... We've learned a lot, too.' "
That confidence hasn't helped Carol get a good night's sleep in the last two months. And with the verdict in the first trial imminent, she is more restless than usual.
"I believe in the jury system. I believe my family will be home soon," she said. "When you stand with truth and righteousness, you stand with God."