PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — A jury on Friday convicted two men of conspiracy to impede federal officers during last year's high-profile armed occupation of a wildlife refuge in Oregon in a protest over control of federal lands.
The verdict handed prosecutors some measure of redemption after they failed to convict occupation leaders Ammon and Ryan Bundy and five other occupiers in a trial last fall involving the takeover of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, a federally owned remote bird sanctuary about 290 miles southeast of Portland.
Dozens of people, including some government informants, occupied the refuge from Jan. 2 to Feb. 11, 2016. They were allowed to come and go for several weeks as authorities tried to avoid bloodshed seen in past standoffs at Waco, Texas, and Ruby Ridge, Idaho.
The Bundys and other key figures were arrested in a Jan. 26 traffic stop outside the refuge that ended with police fatally shooting occupation spokesman Robert "LaVoy" Finicum.
In the current trial, Jason Patrick and Darryl Thorn were found guilty of conspiracy and face up to six years in prison. Defendants Duane Ehmer and Jake Ryan were found not guilty of conspiracy but guilty of deprivation of government property.
"Life goes on, I was there at the refuge and I rode my horse on the game refuge," Ehmer said the trial ended. "I'm heading home to go ride my ponies for a couple months and then I'm going to take my mom fishing."
Duane Ehmer, convicted of depredation of federal property: "I rode my pony at the refuge, now I'm a felon."— Dave Northfield (@DNorthfieldKGW) March 10, 2017
The men face sentencing at a later date.
They had faced the same primary charge as the Bundy defendants — conspiring to impede Interior Department employees from doing their jobs at the refuge.
Prosecutors had said any rational person would be impeded from work when someone with a gun is sitting at their desk, as images of the occupiers showed they did during the standoff.
Defense attorneys countered that the occupation was a political protest against federal land policy and the imprisonment of two ranchers. They said there was no talk of disrupting someone's ability to work.
Testimony began Feb. 21 and no defendants took the stand. Ammon Bundy did testify about his motive for the occupation, saying he was "driven" to protest federal control of Western lands after learning that two Oregon ranchers were imprisoned for setting fires on public rangeland.
There was no dispute the group seized the refuge and established armed patrols.
Stung by their defeat in the Bundy trial, prosecutors hired an outside consultant to help with jury selection for the latest trial. Assistant U.S. attorneys Geoffrey Barrow and Ethan Knight emphasized to jurors that a conspiracy doesn't require a formal or written agreement hashed out in secrecy.
"You look to the actions," Knight said in his closing argument.
Most occupiers of the refuge left shortly after Finicum's death, including the four defendants in the current trial, but a few holdouts remained for a few more weeks before surrendering.
Defense lawyers said the men dug trenches at the wildlife refuge for their protection because they feared rumors the FBI might storm the refuge.
Hugs and sadness outside federal courthouse from supporters of four defendants of second Malheur occupation trial. pic.twitter.com/Zukpkm1kbx— Dave Northfield (@DNorthfieldKGW) March 10, 2017
U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokesman Jason Holm said the agency hopes the outcome will provide closure for its employees and the communities they serve.
"We are eager to move forward and continue strengthening the collaborations and positive relationships between our staff and the residents of Harney County cited throughout this trial that make the refuge a model for community-based conservation," Holm said. "Our gratitude goes to the local, state and federal law enforcement officials who supported us throughout this ordeal, and to the tireless efforts of the U.S. Attorney's office."