Two members of the Wasco County Sheriff’s Office went to Harney County yesterday as part of a mutual aid request to help contend with an armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
Chief Deputy Lane Magill and Sgt. Chris McNeel went to the remote county in southeastern Oregon at the request of Harney County Sheriff David Ward, “to ensure safety of his residents in the Burns area,” Magill said by text this morning. “We are providing general patrol to let the citizens know they are safe.”
Burns is the county seat and about 30 miles northwest of the wildlife refuge, where about 20 militia occupied the refuge’s empty headquarters compound Saturday evening.
Before he was called to help in Harney County, Magill said, “We don’t have any information or intelligence to believe there is anything in the plans or in the works for Wasco County at this time,” Magill said.
Magill said if a similar situation arose in Wasco County involving a takeover of federal property, “we’re probably going to let the federal government take most of the lead on that because it falls under their responsibility to take care of those lands.”
Magill said he personally knows Ward, the first-term sheriff in Harney County, the site of the siege, and said he has a good head on his shoulders and plenty of common sense.
“He really wants to have a positive solution to this situation. I do know that. He’s not a reactionary sheriff.”
Militants took over the group of buildings in Harney County on Saturday following a rally in nearby Burns in support of two ranchers, a father and son, who turned themselves in to federal prison Monday to serve sentences for arson.
Dwight Hammond Jr., 73, and his son, Steven Hammond, 46, were convicted in 2012 at a federal jury trial in Pendleton of two arsons, in 2001 and 2006, and sentenced to three months and one year, respectively.
They served that time, but federal officials took the rare step of appealing their sentences, arguing they did not follow the five-year mandatory minimum term for the crime.
A federal judge in October agreed, and sentenced them both to complete the full five-year term, but allowed them to report to prison after the holidays.
The arson charges against the Hammonds were brought under a federal antiterrorism law, which has also spurred controversy from supporters who believe they were being treated as terrorists.
The militants, whose most vocal members hail from Nevada and Arizona, say they are prepared to occupy the headquarters for years. They took over Saturday night when no federal personnel were present. They said they gained entry when they found “a stack of keys” to the buildings, according to the Oregonian.
Their goal is to return the land to local control, and close the wildlife refuge “forever,” according to the Oregonian. The militants contend the federal government does not have the constitutional authority to own the property, or nearby grazing lands.
Police were not present during the Saturday rally and have not shown any presence around the occupied headquarters, though a police command center was established Monday in Burns.
The Hammonds argued the 2001 fire, which burned 139 federal acres, was to control invasive species; prosecutors said it was to hide illegal poaching of deer.
The 2006 fire was a back burn to protect winter feed from a lightning-started wildfire. It burned only one federal acre, according to media reports.
Prosecutors said the 2006 fire was set by Steve Hammond, who they said knew there was a burn ban and knew part-time firefighters were camping uphill from the fire he set. The fire crew boss spotted the fire, which was set at night, and moved the crew.
Supporters of the Hammonds say the re-sentencing constitutes double jeopardy and is unconstitutional and unfair.
The militant group, estimated at 20 in size, including some women, is led by Ammon Bundy, whose father, Cliven Bundy, led a 2014 standoff in Nevada.
The Hammonds have said through their attorney that the Bundys do not speak for them and they did not want their support.
Ammon Bundy said in a YouTube clip that the Hammonds were warned away from talking to him by federal officials who threatened that the father and son could be sent to a worse federal prison if they kept talking to Bundy.
Bundy also intimated in the clip that he was directed by God to initiate the takeover of the wildlife refuge headquarters.
Magill pays close attention to activities of “hate” groups and others opposing government actions by monitoring the website of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The website shows 784 of these groups in the United States, six of them in Oregon.
Magill said of his reaction to the takeover, “I’m not real surprised that something like this happened, based on” the Bundy Ranch standoff in 2014.