LAS VEGAS (CN) — A federal jury Thursday heard opening statements in the felony trial of the first six defendants in the armed standoff between Cliven Bundy and his supporters and federal agents who tried to seize his cattle in April 2014.
Each side portrayed the other as the aggressor as the trial began. The first six of 17 defendants to go to trial are Richard Lovelien, Todd Engel, Gregory Burleson, Eric Parker, O. Scott Drexler and Steven Stewart. They, and all the other defendants, could face up to 80 years in prison on up to 15 felony charges.
Cliven Bundy also faces a $3 million fine for unpaid grazing fees and penalties for interfering with the Bureau of Land Management. Bundy will go to trial 30 days after this trial concludes.
All defendants are accused of using firearms and threats of violence to prevent the BLM from seizing 400 cattle that Bundy had grazed for years on federal land without paying grazing fees, about 90 miles northeast of Las Vegas. The armed standoff came to a head on April 12, 2014. The BLM then decided to release the cattle it had rounded up, to de-escalate the situation.
On the first day of trial Thursday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Myhre portrayed the six defendants as gunmen ready to kill to stop the BLM from enforcing a court order to take 400 head of illegally grazing cattle.
"These men were gunmen to get the BLM to back down," Myhre said. "Their goal was to show force."
Myhre showed the jury photos of each defendant, mostly dressed in military garb and armed with military-style semi-automatic rifles.
Some were lying in prone positions on overpasses, with their rifles aimed through gaps in the concrete sides. Others were in a wash or hiding near a tree in tactical positions.
Myhre said none of the six defendants knew Bundy, lived in Nevada or had any interest in the cattle being rounded up.
He said they showed up to be gunmen and intimidate the BLM.
"These were taxpayer lands, and he was a freeloader," Myhre said of Bundy.
Myhre said Bundy ignored a 1988 court order to remove his cattle from federal lands, and the BLM in 2013 won a federal lawsuit that ordered Bundy to remove his cattle or the BLM would do it for him.
He said the six defendants responded to Bundy's calls for support to stop the BLM from confiscating his cattle.
After an impassioned plea by Bundy, Myhre says the six defendants, and others, stopped being "Bundy supporters and became Bundy followers."
Bundy "got what he wanted at the end of a gun barrel, and these defendants provided that barrel," Myhre said during his 45-minute opening statement.
Representing Stewart, Las Vegas attorney Richard Tanasi, told the jury the BLM was the aggressor, trampling upon the First and Second Amendment rights of law-abiding protestors.
"Protest is a sacred First Amendment right," Tanasi said.
Instead of protecting that right, Tanasi said "militarized, armed BLM agents" violated it and other rights by attacking a grandmother and using a Taser on one of Bundy's sons in the days before the standoff.
Tanasi likened the efforts of Stewart et al. to famous protests of the past, including the Boston Tea Party, women’s struggle for voting rights, and the civil rights struggle led by Martin Luther King Jr.
"He is a peaceful person willing to stand up for what he believes in," Tanasi said of Stewart. "This case is about standing up for your beliefs."
Bundy and his followers say they believe the federal government has no right to control federal land.
Engel, representing himself, called himself a peaceful protestor who was recovering from spinal fusion surgery when he learned of the fight between Bundy and the BLM. He said he did not know Bundy or any of his family or supporters, but decided to go to Nevada to support the rancher against the BLM.
After arriving in Nevada, Engel said, he saw a large BLM agent body slam a grandmother to the ground — the same woman referred to by Tanasi.
He said BLM agents used a Taser on one of Bundy's sons for standing near a BLM vehicle.
Sometime after noon on that April 12, Engel said, local law enforcement told him and others that the BLM had backed down and was leaving, so he thought the incident was over.
Instead, Engel said an "army" of BLM agents arrived, armed with automatic firearms and wearing body armor, and aimed their firearms at protestors.
One of those aimed at was him, Engel said, due to his wearing "scary clothing" and carrying a military-style rifle.
Another protestor with binoculars told Engel several BLM agents had their rifles aimed at him, and that he would be shot if anything happened.
Engel said he borrowed the protestor's binoculars and looked.
"I could not believe how many people were pointing guns at me," Engel said.
Although he admitted being armed and wearing "scary clothing," Engel said he acted as a peacemaker by working with the Nevada Highway Patrol to try to get the situation under control and calm down protestors.
Other defense statements portrayed the BLM as aggressors against peaceful protestors exercising their civil rights against an oppressive BLM.
U.S. District Judge Gloria M. Navarro is presiding over the trial, which is scheduled Mondays through Thursdays until its conclusion.
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