Updated 7:01 AM; Posted 7:00 AM
By Maxine Bernstein
“Tell me about this standoff.”
And with that, Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy found a biographer behind bars.
Bundy had invited a fellow inmate to sit down at a table with him. They chatted about farming, raising cattle, growing melons and grandchildren.
Soon, they were walking regular laps together around the inside of a large unit that housed 94 bunk beds between concrete cinderblock walls about 60 miles west of Las Vegas.
And when the time seemed right, inmate Michael Stickler broached the subject of why the Bundy patriarch was in custody at the Southern Nevada Detention Center in Pahrump.
At first Bundy seemed reluctant to talk about the notorious face-off with federal rangers in the desert in 2014, Stickler said. Bundy explained that he didn’t know who he could trust, that the FBI had an undercover agent pose as a journalist and interview his family members on videos that now were being used against him.
But Stickler kept urging the 71-year-old cattleman: “You need to write a book.”
The two eventually shook hands. And now Stickler is preparing to sell a biography about Bundy that offers a glimpse of his life in prison, his surprise at being arrested in Portland last year, his family history and Mormon faith and his two-decade-old battle with the federal government.
Michael Stickler, of northern Nevada, met Cliven Bundy at the Southern Nevada Detention Center earlier this year as Stickler was serving the last two months of a two-and-a-half-year federal prison sentence for theft of public money.
Stickler is self-publishing the book through his company, Vision Group, and promised to contribute proceeds to Bundy’s legal defense, though no formal contract was signed.
Bundy has been in custody for a year and nine months and is about to go on trial, accused of leading a “massive armed assault” in April 2014 that thwarted federal officers from impounding his cattle. Bundy was grazing them on public land near his ranch in defiance of court orders. He owed more than $1 million in fees and fines that he’d refused to pay for years.
He was recently moved to a jail in Henderson, Nevada, to be closer to the federal courthouse in downtown Las Vegas.
‘HE DIDN’T SEE IT COMING AT ALL’
Stickler, who was released in June after serving out the last two months of a 2 1/2-year sentence for theft of public money, described Bundy’s routine when he was at the Pahrump lockup, a transfer center for federal inmates.
Bundy was housed in the same unit with sons Davey and Mel, but sons Ammon and Ryan were held separately, often kept in solitary confinement for rule violations, including refusing to undergo strip searches when taken to and from federal court.
The father and his four sons all face charges in the standoff near Bunkerville. The senior Bundy, Ammon and Ryan Bundy are on trial now. Thirty days after that trial ends, Davey and Mel Bundy are scheduled for trial.
Because of Cliven Bundy’s length of time at the detention center, he snagged a coveted lower bunk bed against the wall. Son Davey’s bunk bed was next to his, and Mel’s was a couple of rows away, Stickler said.
The elder Bundy was among the few early risers. He’d wake up at 5 a.m., and would read the Book of Mormon quietly on his bed.
“Pretty much others left them alone,” Stickler said.
Bundy often spoke with his wife, Carol, on the phone. One time, Stickler recalled, Bundy was talking to his son-in-law, who’s helping out at the family ranch, instructing him how to fix a broken water pipe.
Cliven Bundy told Stickler that he had no worries except for his sons when his plane touched down at Portland International Airport on Feb. 10, 2016.
He had come to visit Ammon and Ryan Bundy, both in jail in downtown Portland after their arrests in the armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon. Cliven Bundy had heard Ryan had been wounded and hoped to see him.
Investigators believe Ryan Bundy has a “metallic object” in his shoulder from when officers fired into occupation spokesman Robert “LaVoy” Finicum’s truck as he sped away from a police stop. Ryan Bundy was in the back seat.
Cliven Bundy got bumped from his first flight and didn’t know why. He was placed on a later flight. FBI agents were waiting for him at the airport.
“He didn’t see it coming at all,” Stickler said. “He had felt like the whole thing in Bunkerville had passed.”
‘LOOK WHAT I STARTED’
Earlier this spring, when supporters camped outside the Nevada detention center in tents in protest of conditions the Bundys faced inside, Cliven Bundy and Stickler weren’t sure what was going on.
The institution suddenly went into a panic mode, with inmates ordered to keep their TVs off and visits halted for about two weeks. Corrections officers let it be known that the Bundys were at fault for the increased security, Stickler said.
One night, Bundy and Stickler saw fireworks shooting off outside, he said.
“Look what I started,” Cliven Bundy remarked to Stickler. “He said, ‘You know, 20 years ago, I decided to stand up to the federal government. I’m still surprised many people care about this,’ ” Stickler recalled.
Cliven Bundy regularly ate his meals at a table in the unit with Mel and Davey Bundy. Two other inmates would share their food with Cliven Bundy, often making their own dinners from left-over scraps, Top Ramen and meat bought in the commissary.
The detention center, filled with drug smugglers and bank robbers, could get extremely noisy and irritating, Stickler said. Through it all, Cliven Bundy remained calm. “He was even-keeled, and polite and kind to everyone,” he said.
As he shared his personal story, Bundy would draw rudimentary maps or sketches with a pencil and pad to help Stickler understand what he was describing. Though he has little education, he has a tremendous memory, often quoting passages from the Constitution, Stickler said.
When Stickler pressed if he regretted any of what he’s done or would consider a plea deal, Bundy “got a little uppity,” he remembered.
“I raised my sons to be strong and independent and follow the Constitution,” Bundy told him. “Now’s not the time to do otherwise.”
At the same time, Bundy can’t help but worry about the future, especially whether his sons will be able to be fathers again to their children, Stickler said.
Still, Bundy has hope: Stickler said: “He recognizes that if convicted, he could spend the rest of his life in prison. He prays and believes that can’t happen, though. He stands with a conviction that this is much bigger than the Bundys.”
Stickler, 57, of northern Nevada, was in court last week and plans to attend Cliven Bundy’s trial. He knows what it’s like to go to trial. A federal jury found him guilty in March 2014 of theft of public money, ruling he pocketed $200,000 from a $500,000 federal grant awarded to his Faith Based Solutions company in Reno. The money was supposed to be distributed to other nonprofit groups. Stickler’s business taught other nonprofit groups how to apply for federal grants. He also pleaded guilty in a separate federal case for failing to pay taxes, and has a felony conviction from 1993.
He’s completed his book and expects to publish it in December. He said he’s sent pages to Cliven Bundy to read and edit. Carol Bundy confirmed that her husband agreed to let Stickler write his story, but said her husband hadn’t reviewed a final draft.
Stickler, who until now wrote Christian books, plans to ship a copy to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, as well as to President Donald J. Trump.
But Stickler said he won’t be able to send the finished product to Bundy. The jails won’t allow hardcover books behind bars.
— Maxine Bernstein