PORTLAND, Ore (CN) — Late on Nov. 2, Ammon Bundy was in bed in his Idaho home when got the text message that sparked the January occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge: A ranching family in Oregon needed his help.
Bundy testified Tuesday in the federal conspiracy case against him that he wanted to help Dwight and Steven Hammond, two Oregon ranchers who went to jail Jan. 4 to serve the balance of their mandatory minimum sentences for setting fires on the federal property where they grazed their cattle.
"At that moment, it's hard to describe, but this overwhelming feeling that it was my duty to get involved and try and protect his family," Bundy told the jury.
Dressed in blue jail scrubs, his pocket Constitution poking out of his shirt pocket, Bundy said he wanted to help the father and son avoid the plight that he claimed his own family has suffered at the hands of a federal government too quick to "come down upon" ranchers.
"My dad and brothers are in jail right now," Bundy tearfully told the jury. "It's wrong. It's wrong!"
Bundy's father Cliven faces federal charges of his own in Nevada, over the 2014 standoff with the Bureau of Land Management over its court-mandated seizure of his cattle. Cliven owes over $1 million in grazing fees. Ammon and his brother Ryan also face charges in that case.
Cliven Bundy had tried to interest Ammon in the Hammonds' plight. But Ammon resisted, according to testimony.
"I told him I can't fight another path," Ammon Bundy said Tuesday. "We're just trying to keep our family together."
But something about that late-night text message changed his mind.
"At that moment, it's hard to describe, but it was this overwhelming feeling that it was my duty to get involved and try and protect this family," Ammon Bundy said.
"That's why I left my family, my orchard," he said. "That's why I spoke in every place I had the opportunity to speak in. That's why I went to Harney County."
Ammon Bundy is a natural orator. His conviction in his beliefs, his slow, even cadence and his soft-spoken eloquence may play well for the jury.
But his beliefs don't address the charges against him — that he conspired to keep federal employees at the refuge from working, and that he carried guns in a federal facility where firearms are banned.
Ammon Bundy will continue his testimony Wednesday, first finishing up questions from his lawyer Marcus Mumford, and then under cross-examination by Assistant U.S. Attorney Ethan Knight.
It will be for the jury to decide whether Ammon's tearful, impassioned testimony helps or hinders his case.
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