Blaine Cooper, one of the first to plead guilty to federal conspiracy in the armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge but the last to be sentenced, told a judge Tuesday that he was sorry he ever got involved because it destroyed his life.
Cooper’s extensive cooperation with the government and his testimony during a second Oregon trial against fellow occupiers has caused him more pain than the crime itself, defense lawyer Krista Shipsey told the court.
Cooper received death threats, his marriage fell apart and he’s unable to care for his children because he’s in financial ruin — unlike his co-defendants who supported one another through crowdfunding, Shipsey said.
“His life has been turned upside down,” she said.
U.S. District Judge Anna J. Brown sentenced Cooper to the time he’s already served in jail and three years of supervised release. She also ordered him to pay $7,000 in restitution.
He served about 20 months in jail since his February 2016 arrest on charges in Oregon and his indictment in Nevada in the April 2014 standoff with federal agents outside the ranch of cattleman Cliven Bundy.
Cooper, 38, of Humboldt, Arizona, has acknowledged that he agreed to cooperate with the government in the hope of reducing an earlier recommended sentence of six years in prison. He also pleaded guilty to federal conspiracy in Nevada and still awaits sentencing there.
Cooper was the last to be sentenced of 18 people who either pleaded guilty or were convicted by a jury in the 41-day refuge occupation in 2016. Prosecutors originally indicted 26 people. Leader Ammon Bundy, his brother Ryan Bundy and five others were acquitted of all charges during a trial. The government dropped a conspiracy case against independent broadcaster Pete Santilli.
Of the 18, 11 pleaded guilty to felony conspiracy and three pleaded guilty to trespass, a misdemeanor. Four were convicted of felonies and misdemeanors at a second trial.
Ryan Payne faced the longest sentence, three years and one month, while those who pleaded guilty to trespass faced the lowest penalty of a year of probation.
“It’s the end of a chapter,” Oregon’s U.S. Attorney Billy J. Williams said after attending Cooper’s sentencing that came two and a half years after the refuge takeover began.
“I firmly believe that our communities and state are stronger because of our shared experience responding to and litigating the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge,” Williams added in a prepared statement released a short time later. “Our message is clear: taking up arms because you don’t like how things are done will never be accepted as a lawful way to protest here in Oregon or elsewhere.”
Cooper, who was in the first wave of occupiers to take over the refuge, was also described as a recruiter, calling men to come to the eastern Oregon refuge with guns and to Bunkerville, Nevada, in April 2014.
Cooper pleaded guilty in the Oregon case in July 2016 and became a government witness at a trial against refuge occupiers Jason Patrick, Darryl Thorn and two other defendants in 2017. He has been on pretrial release since October 2017.
Cooper was “absolutely terrified” to testify in front of a packed courtroom against people he had supported in the occupation who “gave him a sense of purpose,” Shipsey said. Cooper, who was born Stanley Hicks Jr., changed his name in 2006, at age 27, taking his stepfather’s last name.
Shipsey said Cooper met with prosecutors “many, many times,” including two sessions that each lasted more than eight hours.
Cooper stood before the judge and in a soft-spoken voice said, “I wish I could go back” and never have traveled to the Harney County refuge.
It cost a friend his life, he said, referring to occupation spokesman Robert “LaVoy” Finicum. State police fatally shot Finicum after he drove off from a police roadblock, got out of his truck and was seen trying to reach into his jacket. FBI agents and police had moved in to arrest the occupation leaders on U.S. 395 on Jan. 26, 2016.
Cooper said he’s recognized “there are better ways” to make their voices heard.
Cooper’s lawyer tried to argue for only two years of supervised release without a condition that Cooper undergoes a mental health evaluation. He underwent an evaluation four months ago and it was determined he didn’t need treatment, Shipsey said.
But the judge didn’t budge. A package of material about Cooper that his lawyer submitted to the court under seal “warrants concern,” Brown said.
The judge noted that she had received an email that morning with audio attached that purportedly contained “death threats” Cooper made while in custody in Nevada. Brown said she didn’t listen to the audio, was advised not to open it and considered it hearsay.
The judge said she was aware that during the case there was a “lot of bluster coming out of Mr. Cooper, making outlandish statements.”
Shipsey said she didn’t listen to the audio either, but didn’t receive any complaints during Cooper’s custody in Nevada and listened to his recorded jail calls.
After the sentencing, former Bundy supporter Melissa Laughter, who has been an outspoken critic of the defendants, said she sent the email to the judge, suggesting Cooper receive more time behind bars. She provided a copy of the audio and email to The Oregonian/OregonLive.
Laughter said she got the audio from a 2016 Facebook post from a Bundy supporter.
The recorded jail call starts out with Cooper issuing a disclaimer that nothing he says should be considered a threat but that he’s simply “venting animosity and discontent” after learning that Mark McConnell was a government informant. McConnell was driving the Jeep with Ammon Bundy inside when Bundy was arrested.
Cooper blamed McConnell for Finicum’s shooting death, for selling out “your own countrymen,” and suggested McConnell get into a witness protection program.
“At least I will die with honor,” Cooper said on the recording, “This is Blaine Cooper. I’m out. Make this viral.”
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