Last week I filled in for the lone circuit court judge for Grant and Harney counties. Burns is the county seat of Harney County.
Previously known for the bird haven Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, the area is now also known for the armed occupation of that refuge.
My first stop was John Day in Grant County. The night before my arrival, occupation leaders traveling to a community meeting in John Day were arrested and LaVoy Finicum, the well-known spokesman for the occupiers, was killed.
There’s one road between John Day and Burns: Highway 395. It’s remote. For over 60 miles there are no connecting roads. There are just driveways, some really long driveways, to ranches, residences and public parks. It’s on Highway 395 that occupation leaders were arrested and Finicum was shot. As a result of the shooting investigation, the road was closed for over 24 hours.
The road had been open for just a few hours as I traveled it on my way to Burns. As dusk approached, about 19 miles outside of Burns, I saw the flashing overhead lights of several state police vehicles. I took my state identification tag out of my pocket and placed it on the passenger seat. The tag expired last October. It’s not clear what good I thought it would do me. Having it ready seemed appropriate at the time.
There were about eight state police vehicles parked on the road. Like a construction site, there was a person on each end of the work zone directing traffic. One officer walked through the snow working a metal detector. I was waved through. My expired identification was never checked.
After arriving in Burns I headed straight to the courthouse. The front door was locked. A sign on the door directed people to a side door. The area near that door was blocked with cement barriers and fencing. A temporary floodlight illuminated the area. A half of a dozen well-armed officers from a variety of agencies milled around the side door entrance. Law enforcement agencies from around the state have been assisting the small, overwhelmed, Harney County Sheriff’s Office.
An FBI press conference was scheduled to start in a few minutes. I asked an officer where the conference was taking place. “In that building down there,” he said pointing down the hill. “I don’t remember what they call it.” He, like me, wasn’t from Burns.
The building turned out to be the chamber of commerce office. Not knowing whether the meeting was open to the public, I headed toward the front door. A couple of large officers guarded the door.
“I thought that was Judge Crowley,” said one. The speaker was Deputy Joel Carmody of the Hood River County Sheriff’s Office (HRCSO). With him was HRCSO Deputy Kyle Cozad. We shook hands. It felt reassuring to know the people guarding the door.
The conference was open to the public. Most of the 200 people in the room were from the press.
There was a significant law enforcement presence. That became more apparent once you realized that the tired looking athletic men with closely cropped hair standing along the walls in plain clothes were FBI agents.
I found one of the last open seats. Next to me was a reporter from Al Jazeera.
She and her companion reporter had arrived the night before from New York City.
Seated across from me was an occupier supporter wearing a ball cap identifying him as an Oath Keeper.
Oath Keepers pledge “to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” Their interpretation of the constitution is unique.
I contemplated the moment: the HRCSO over 250 miles from home, Al Jazeera, an Oath Keeper, the FBI and me, all in the Chamber of Commerce meeting room in Burns, Oregon. This was not a life experience previously anticipated.
There was tension in the air as members of the press sharing a common audio feed agitated over the sound level.
Before the conference started there were several sound checks. It felt like a concert was about to get under way.
There was also tension over what message would be delivered. No one in the audience knew. The odds on favorite was that the end of the occupation would be announced.
Greg Bretzing, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI in Oregon, took the podium.
After quickly dispelling rumors that the occupation was over, Bretzing moved to the main purpose of the conference.
He announced that we would be seeing a video of the stop of the two vehicles of occupation leaders heading to John Day and the shooting of Finicum.
The crowd drew a collective breath. This was not expected.
After we watched the video, unlike other recent press conferences, questions were taken from the audience.
Since no one asked and I wanted to know, I asked, “Why did law enforcement act then and not earlier?” The answer was that law enforcement knew the leaders would all be together, away from the refuge.
The occupiers had posted their travel plans on social media.
A little over 20 minutes after it started the press conference came to an end. Reporters poked away at laptops. Camera crews hastened to break down equipment.
With over a hundred media members there I wondered, “Who are you going to scoop?”
The next day when I arrived at the courthouse members of the court’s staff were at the window watching for me. I was allowed to enter the front door.
A member of the staff gave me a tour of the court’s portion of the courthouse.
In the back of the courtroom a mounted buck elk head with a twelve point rack hangs high on the wall, a majestic symbol of the ruralness of the area. It is the only elk head I have ever seen in a courtroom.
The mount, a product of an illegal hunt, was forfeited to the state over 20 years ago.
While in Burns I spoke with a couple of dozen people about the occupation, the shooting and the effect on the community. Those people are predominately members of the judicial system, lawyers and members of law enforcement.
They are not necessarily representative of the general community.
They have been living their work lives at ground zero in the town of Burns: the courthouse.
One person, who was cut off from her home when Highway 395 was closed, was truly scared. Mostly people expressed that they are tired, very tired, of the everyday stress.
Many of them looked tired, the type of slack-faced, swollen-eye tired you see in people who have been under stress for a long time.
What many from afar find intriguing, those who live there find wearying. They just want it to end.