Officer Tells of Refuge Occupier’s Death Threat

     PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) — A Harney County Sheriff’s lieutenant testified Wednesday that Ammon Bundy’s right-hand man told him he should remove Sheriff Dave Ward from office using “any means necessary, including death.”
     The development came on the first day of testimony in the trial of seven defendants charged for their roles in the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
     Ward spent most of the day on the witness stand, detailing the threats made by Ammon Bundy and his followers in the months leading up to the January occupation.
     Bundy and followers including Ryan Payne, who has since pleaded guilty to the conspiracy charge faced by all defendants in the case, visited Ward several times before taking over the refuge on Jan. 2.
     Ward said the group told him they would create “civil unrest” by bringing in “thousands” to do his job for him if he didn’t keep two local ranchers out of federal custody.
     Steve and Dwight Hammond were scheduled to report to prison to serve the balance of their mandatory minimum sentences for lighting two fires on the federal land where they graze their cattle.
     After the meetings, Ward said he researched the incident at Cliven Bundy’s Bunkerville, Nevada, ranch, where Cliven’s sons Ammon and Ryan Bundy led a standoff against the Bureau of Land Management employees sent to seize Cliven Bundy’s cattle after he refused to pay more than $1 million in fees for grazing on public land.
     “I looked into Bunkerville, and it scared the hell out of me,” Ward said, adding that Ammon Bundy was proud of the Bunkerville incident.
     “Mr. Bundy told me Bunkerville was a great victory,” Ward said.
     Marcus Mumford, Ammon Bundy’s attorney, tried to cast doubt on Ward’s claim that his client made any threats. He repeatedly asked Ward if he felt comfortable speaking with Ammon and whether the man was respectful in his interactions with Ward. He pressed Ward about whether he actually felt threatened by Ammon.
     “I don’t think Mr. Bundy is going to be hiding in my closet at night,” Ward told the jury. “I don’t feel threatened by him personally, no. The threat I perceived was that they would bring people to town and try to overpower or overthrow my authority as sheriff,” Ward said.
     It turned out he had an additional reason to believe that.
     Late in the afternoon, Ward’s second-in-command took the stand. Lt. Brian Needham told the jury about another meeting between himself Payne, who pleaded guilty on July 19 to conspiracy to prevent federal employees from doing their jobs by using threats, intimidation or force.
     The plea deal was a surprise, since Payne was Bundy’s right-hand man during the occupation, appearing beside him during important meetings and often seeming to steer Bundy back on message.
     But the deal made more sense in light of Needham’s testimony.
     Needham said Payne came to the Harney County Sheriff’s Office on Dec. 7, requesting a meeting with Ward. Since Ward wasn’t around, Needham met with Payne himself.
     Payne asked Needham if he believed in the U.S. Constitution. When Needham said yes, Payne told him to wrest control of the sheriff’s office from Ward.
     “He said I needed to remove Ward from office and take over because Ward is an unconstitutional sheriff,” Needham told the jury. “He said I should use any means necessary, including death.”
     Needham said he demurred, telling Payne he wouldn’t remove Ward and wouldn’t do anything illegal. He let Payne leave and called Ward to tell him about the meeting. Needham and Ward later reported the incident to the FBI.
     Under his plea agreement, Payne will likely face a sentence of between 3 ½ and 4 ½ years. But U.S. Judge Anna J. Brown will have the final say.
     Testimony will continue Thursday morning with the government questioning Chad Karges, manager of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

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