Oregon sheriff David Ward was the first witness to testify Wednesday in the high-profile Bundy trial now underway with Judge Anna Brown.
The Bundy brothers and a group of armed supporters took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on January 2, in a protest against the federal government. Their protest was due to the imprisonment of Dwight and Steve Hammond, who were locked up on arson charges for burning pastureland that got onto government property.
The Bundys maintained that the federal authorities have no right to own or regulate public lands.
Ward testified that he is still facing fallout in his community over Bundys’ occupation of the refuge. He said it tore apart his community, and stated that Ammon Bundy and his supporters threatened to “overthrow” him and promised “civil unrest” if he did not intervene in the Hammond case.
During the occupation, Ward told reporters that the Bundys were “leading dangerous militia groups in an attempt to overthrow the government”, and within days he said he and his family were getting death threats.
Ward did clarify that he never felt physically threatened by Ammon and never saw him carrying a gun.
During the first week of the 41-day standoff, Sheriff Ward met with Ammon Bundy on a road outside the refuge and offered to escort him and all the protesters out of Oregon, but they declined the offer.
Ward also said he met with Ammon and another protester, Ryan Payne, last November, and they threatened “civil unrest” if he did not intervene to stop the Hammonds from going to prison, and told him “We can’t control what they may or may not do.”
“I was told that my responsibility was to prevent them from going to prison,” Ward said. “If I didn’t do those things, they would bring thousands of people to town to do my job.”
Ward referred to the Bundy’s standoff with the BLM in 2014 and said, “The thought of that happening in my community scared the hell out of me.”
According to The Guardian, Judge Anna Brown told the jury that the sentencing of the Hammonds was final – and that the sheriff had no legal way to fight it. “The Hammonds had their process … A sheriff does not have the authority to change that.”
In more damaging testimony, the prosecution brought out emails written in 2015 that defendant Neil Wampler had sent to Ward, threatening that if Ward did not support the Hammonds, “the county would be invaded by some of the most determined and organized – and armed – citizens alive in this country today”. In another message, Wampler wrote: “WE AIN’T PLAYIN.”
Brian Needham, a lieutenant in the sheriff’s office, also testified that one of the occupation leaders, Ryan Payne, told him in a meeting that he should consider killing Ward, his boss, and replacing him. Payne allegedly told him he “should use any means necessary [to remove Ward] … including death”.
Ammon Bundy’s lawyer, Marcus Mumford, asked Sheriff Ward if he believed the federal government had the authority to regulate public land in Oregon.
Ward became exasperated, reported The Guardian, saying “I’m not understanding your question. Did I investigate the federal government? … There’s 200 years of case law that shows that they can own … land.”
Large crowds gathered at the trial Wednesday, including Bundy relatives and supporters, as well as those who opposed their occupation of the refuge. Some activists carried signs that said, “Ranchers’ Lives Matter,” and one lone protester held a poster that read, “No guns or explosions in our wildlife refuge.”
Ammon Bundy’s wife, Lisa, said she was disappointed by Ward’s actions and testimony. “He has more power than any federal official did, and he put all the power in their hands, which made me think he didn’t want to deal with it,” she said. “So why is he in that office? I would love for him to speak the truth … and not what he was told to say.”
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