Patient strategy pays off for FBI in ending Oregon standoff

People protesting the FBI action and in support of the armed occupiers of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge stand outside a roadblock near Burns, Ore., Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016. The last four occupiers of a national wildlife refuge in eastern Oregon surrendered Thursday. The holdouts were the last remnants of a larger group that seized the wildlife refuge nearly six weeks ago, demanding that the government turn over the land to locals and release two ranchers imprisoned for setting fires. (AP Photo/Rebecca Boone)

BURNS, Ore. (AP) — The last four armed occupiers of an Oregon wildlife refuge surrendered without a shot being fired, signaling a victory for the FBI’s patient approach and reflecting lessons that agents have learned since past bloody standoffs.

The peaceful resolution leaves authorities to spend weeks combing Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for evidence, explosives and damage before it can reopen to the public. The standoff lasted 41 days and resulted in one death last month, a departure from bloodshed at standoffs in Waco, Texas, and Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in the 1990s.

“This siege and the way it was handled will go down in law enforcement textbooks,” said Brian Levin, a criminal justice professor at California State University, San Bernardino.

The holdouts were the last remnants of a larger group that seized the property on Jan. 2, demanding the U.S. turn over public lands to locals and exposing simmering anger over the government’s control of vast expanses of Western range.

The group’s leaders, including Ammon Bundy, were arrested Jan. 26 during a traffic stop along a snowy highway as they headed to a community forum. Police also shot and killed Arizona rancher Robert “LaVoy” Finicum after they said he reached for a gun.

The FBI released video showing Finicum fleeing from police in his truck, getting out with his hands up, then reaching toward his jacket pocket. Authorities have not given further information about the shooting, pending an investigation expected to take several weeks.

Most occupiers fled the refuge after the arrests and Finicum’s death. Four stayed behind, saying they feared they would be taken into custody if they left: David Fry, 27, of Blanchester, Ohio; Jeff Banta, 46, of Elko, Nevada; and married couple Sean Anderson, 48, and Sandy Anderson, 47, of Riggins, Idaho.

The FBI had kept its distance but tightened its ring around the holdouts Wednesday night, surrounding their encampment with armored vehicles. Authorities also arrested one of their heroes, Bundy’s father, Cliven Bundy, as he arrived in Oregon to support them.

The elder Bundy appeared in federal court Thursday in Portland to hear the charges against him, all of which stem from a 2014 confrontation with federal authorities at his ranch in Nevada. He is accused of leading supporters who pointed military-style weapons at federal agents trying to enforce a court order to round up Bundy cattle from federal rangeland.

Federal authorities have not said why they chose to arrest the 69-year-old now. They may have feared Bundy’s presence would draw sympathizers to defend the last remaining occupiers.

As the standoff entered its final hours, the occupiers’ panic and their negotiation with FBI agents could be heard live online, broadcast by a sympathizer who established phone contact with them.

Their communication with two prominent supporters, the Rev. Franklin Graham and Nevada lawmaker Michele Fiore, who traveled to the refuge to help persuade them to surrender, seemed to provide an outlet for the increasing pressure from federal agents. The FBI credited the two with helping end the standoff peacefully.

The Andersons and Banta surrendered first Thursday. Fry initially refused to join them.

“I’m making sure I’m not coming out of here alive,” he said at one point, threatening to kill himself. “Liberty or death, I take that stance.”

But after ranting for a while, he too gave up, saying he was having one more cookie and one more cigarette and asking others to join him in saying, “Hallelujah.”

Nearby residents were relieved.

“I just posted hallelujah on my Facebook,” said Julie Weikel, who lives next to the preserve. “And I think that says it all. I am so glad this is over.”

Federal authorities in six states also arrested seven other people accused of being involved in the occupation. At least 25 people have now been indicted on federal charges of conspiracy to impede employees at the refuge from performing their duties.

The preserve, a haven for many species of migratory waterfowl, will remain closed to the public for weeks, said Greg Bretzing, the agent in charge of the FBI’s Portland division. Bomb squads planned to sweep buildings, and specialists will try to determine whether the occupiers damaged any artifacts or burial grounds sacred to the Burns Paiute Tribe, he said.

Video posted online showed the occupiers operating a backhoe, exploring buildings at the site and criticizing the way tribal artifacts were stored there. The four holdouts had been living in a rough encampment on the grounds.

They are charged with the same conspiracy count, a felony that would cost them their right to carry guns if convicted. But prosecutors could also bring charges such as theft of government resources or threatening federal officials, said Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School.

“If they can convict them of a felony, they can disarm them,” she said. “Given what has happened here, I can understand why that would be a priority.”

___

Bellisle reported from Seattle. Associated Press writers Gene Johnson in Seattle, Terrence Petty in Portland, Oregon, Ken Ritter in Las Vegas, Samantha Shotzbarger in Phoenix and videographer Manuel Valdes in Burns contributed to this report.

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