The Bundy boys seized Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, they said, to protest the U.S. government’s mistreatment of two ranchers, father and son Dwight Lincoln Hammond, Jr. and Steven Dwight Hammond. The Federal government, the Bundys claimed, had treated the Hammonds unfairly.
The Hammonds went to trial on two sets of charges.1 One involved a 2001 controlled burn on their property. There was evidence that the Hammonds started the fire to conceal an illegall slaughter a herd of deer. Steven Hammond’s nephew, Dusty Hammond, testified that his uncle told him to start lighting matches and “light the whole countryside on fire.” Dusty also testified that he was “almost burned up in the fire” and had to flee for his life. The Hammonds afterwards claimed they started the fire to stop invasive plants from growing onto their grazing fields. Indisputably, the fire got out of control and burned public rangelands.2
The second set of charges arose out of the 2006 Krumbo Butte fire. That was wildfire, except that the Hammonds ignited an illegal back burn to protect their property. The Hammonds’ back burn fires threatened to trap four BLM firefighters, one of whom later confronted Dwight Hammond at the fire scene after he had moved his crews to avoid the threat. Two days later, according to federal prosecutors, Steven Hammond threatened to frame a BLM employee with arson if he didn’t stop the investigation.
Those are pretty serious charges. The case went to trial in 2012. During a break in jury deliberations, partial verdicts were rendered finding the Hammonds not guilty on two of the charges, but convicting them on two counts of arson on federal land. Let’s be clear about this: the jury had reached a verdict on the arson charges. To avoid the risk of further guilty verdicts on the charges the jury was still deliberating, the Hammonds struck a plea bargain. The remaining four charges – the ones the jury was still deliberating – would be dismissed. The sentences for the two arson convictions would run concurrently. The Hammonds would waive their rights to appeal their convictions. And that at sentencing the prosecution would seek imposition of the mandatory five-year minimum sentences.
That was the deal. It didn’t bind the judge, of course; judges are never bound by plea bargains. The trial judge thought the mandatory five year minimum sentence was too harsh. U.S. District Judge Michael Robert Hogan independently decided that sentences of such a length “would shock the conscience” and would violate the constitutional prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. On his last day on the bench before retiring, October 31, 2012, Hogan instead sentenced Dwight Hammond to three months’ imprisonment and Steven Hammond to a year and a day’s imprisonment, which both men served.
The prosecutors, as they had negotiated in the plea bargain, appealed the judge’s leniency. And the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals – the circuit court that conservatives think is too liberal – agreed that trial judge Hogan had overstepped his authority. It upheld the mandatory-minimum law, writing that “given the seriousness of arson, a five-year sentence is not grossly disproportionate to the offense.” The court vacated the original sentence and remanded for re-sentencing.3 In October 2015, Chief Judge Ann Aiken re-sentenced the pair to five years in prison (with credit for time served), ordering that they return to prison on January 4, 2016.
The Hammonds’ case attracted the attention of Ammon Bundy—a former car fleet manager from Phoenix, Arizona and the son of deadbeat and scofflaw Cliven D. Bundy, the central figure of a standoff with the BLM in 2014—and Ryan Payne. Over the ensuing weeks, Bundy and Payne met for approximately eight hours with Harney County Sheriff David Ward to detail plans for what they described as a peaceful protest in Burns, Oregon. Bundy also requested the sheriff’s office keep federal authorities from taking the Hammonds into custody. Reportedly, Ward said he sympathized with the Hammonds’ plight, but refused Bundy and Payne’s request.
Unbeknownst to Ward, Bundy and Payne were simultaneously planning a takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
On January 2, 2016, an armed group led by Ammon Bundy and his brother Ryan Bundy held a peaceful march in Burns in protest of the Hammonds’ prison sentences. Afterwards, several members of the group, including the Bundy brothers, Payne, Jon Ritzheimer, and armed associates separated from the protest crowd and drove to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, 30 miles south of Burns. The militants settled into the refuge and set up defensive positions.
The Hammonds did not support the Bundys’ armed occupation of the national wildlife refuge. Hammond attorney W. Alan Schroeder wrote that “neither Ammon Bundy nor anyone within his group/organization speak for the Hammond family.”
Both of the Hammonds reported to Federal Correctional Institution, Terminal Island in California on January 4, as ordered by the court.
As the backstory makes clear, the Bundys are opportunists, pursuing their own agenda in disregard of the wishes of the Hammonds. They jeopardized the $15 million a year tourism industry in Harney County, damaged the painfully negotiated agreement among the Feds and the cattle ranchers reached in 2013 and turned Burns into a divisive symbol.
The real villains of the Hammond back story – Congress, for passing an overly broad, overly harsh law, and the U.S. Attorney in Portland for arguably overcharging the Hammonds (even if the jury verdict vindicated the charges) – were never held to account.
Ironically, the Bundy brothers armed occupation of Malheur doomed any chance that a presidential pardon or clemency might spare the Hammonds more prison time.
- Those weren’t the first offenses committed by the Hammonds. In June 1994, the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge manager notified Dwight Hammond that his permit to graze his cattle and grow hay on the refuge was revoked. Two months later, Hammond and his son Steven obstructed the completion of a fence on the refuge boundary to keep their cattle out of the refuge’s marsh and wetland, prompting their arrest by federal agents. According to federal officials, the fence was needed to stop the Hammonds’ cattle from moving onto the refuge after the ranchers had repeatedly violated the terms of their special permit, which limited when they could move their cattle across refuge property. Officials also reported that Dwight Hammond had made death threats against refuge managers in 1986, 1988, 1991, and 1994; and that Steven Hammond also made highly hostile remarks against them. Charges against the Hammonds for these offenses were either never filed or dropped. ↩
- In 1999, Steven Hammond started a fire with the intent of burning off juniper trees and sagebrush, but the fire escaped onto BLM land. The agency reminded Hammond of the required burn permit and that if the fires continued, there would be legal consequences. ↩
- The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the Hammonds’ appeal from the 9th Circuit decision. ↩