Activist Pleads Guilty to Role in Refuge Takeover

     PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) — Anti-Islam activist Jon Ritzheimer pleaded guilty Monday to one charge related to the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge this past January.
     Ritzheimer, a 32-year-old former Marine who organized an armed anti-Muslim protest outside of a Phoenix mosque in May 2015, admitted Monday to being part of the advance crew that initially secured the wildlife refuge on Jan. 2.
     The activist pleaded guilty to conspiracy to use force, intimidation or threats to keep federal employees from doing their jobs. In exchange, the government agreed to dismiss the two other charges against him: carrying a gun in a federal facility in the commission of a crime and theft of government property. Ritzheimer allegedly stole surveillance cameras set up at the refuge by the FBI.
     Ritzheimer told U.S. District Judge Anna J. Brown that his crew had split off from a protest in Burns, Oregon, over the resentencing of local ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond.
     “On Jan. 2, I learned of a plan to take the protest to the next level,” Ritzheimer told Brown.
     The father and son were set to go to prison two days later to serve the balance of a mandatory minimum sentence for lighting two fires on government land where they had grazing permits.
     In a YouTube video in early January, Ritzheimer outlined his belief that “government overreach” was responsible for the Hammonds’ return to prison.
     “It’s real simple, Dwight,” Ritzheimer said in the video. “Do you want to die in prison, labeled as a terrorist by these oppressors? Or do you want to die out here with us, as a free man? I want to die a free man.”
     Ritzheimer admitted Monday that his armed crew cleared each building at the refuge, set up a perimeter and notified occupation leader Ammon Bundy that the refuge was secured, Ritzheimer told Brown.
     Ritzheimer said he also used his truck to block the entrance to the refuge and camped nearby for several days before moving down into the refuge itself.
     And he organized guard duty during the 41-day protest, according to charging documents read aloud in court by U.S. Attorney Craig Gabriel.
     “I can see how my actions there would be intimidating and I did forcibly occupy the refuge. So I plead guilty to it,” Ritzheimer said.
     During the occupation, Ritzheimer was especially vocal about his commitment to the principles espoused by Ammon Bundy. He memorably announced his beliefs in a January YouTube video addressed to his two daughters, who were three and five at the time.
     “Your daddy swore an oath,” Ritzheimer said, waving his pocket-sized Constitution in the camera. “He swore an oath to protect and defend the Constitution. Against all enemies, foreign and domestic. And that’s why he couldn’t be with you on Christmas. That’s why I can’t be with you on New Years.”
     Asked after Monday’s hearing why he decided to plead guilty, Ritzheimer again pointed to his values.
     “Marines believe in integrity,” Ritzheimer said. “I may not believe in the constitutionality of the law, but I swore to uphold it.”
     The conspiracy charge carries a maximum sentence of six years in prison. But Gabriel said the government would recommend a sentence of 2 1/2 years, and would consider reducing it further based on Ritzheimer’s military service as a Marine.
     A sentencing hearing is scheduled for May 9. Until then, Ritzheimer will remain under supervised released at home in Arizona.

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