PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN/AP) — Harney County Sheriff David Ward, the first witness to testify in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation trial, said occupiers warned that his county would be “invaded” if he didn’t protect locals from the federal government.
Sheriff Ward testified that before the 41-day standoff, group leader Ammon Bundy and another man pressured him to protect 2 local ranchers who faced additional prison time for setting fires on federal lands.
“I was told my responsibility was to prevent them from going to prison, and if I didn’t do those things, they would bring hundreds of people to town to do my job for me,” Ward said in court.
The father-and-son ranchers, Dwight and Steven Hammond, distanced themselves from the occupiers and reported to prison 2 days after the standoff began.
Sheriff Ward told jurors Ammon Bundy repeatedly promised to give him evidence that would prove the Hammonds’ innocence, but never did.
During opening statements, occupiers said it was their goal to help local landowners deal with an overreaching federal government that abused their rights for decades.
Sheriff Ward said an email from defendant Neil Wampler warned the sheriff to protect residents from an abusive government or “see your county invaded by the most determined and organized – and armed – citizens alive in this country.”
A second message from Wampler warned: “We ain’t playin!”
The sheriff said he’s no cheerleader for the federal government, but he examined the Hammond case and determined he had no right to defy the U.S. court system.
He explained that Ammon Bundy was his main point of contact among the occupiers, and that most of their interactions were polite, but at times, argumentative.
Sheriff Ward also testified that he allowed a group of occupiers and their supporters to bring their weapons to a meeting to show his leniency.
One man who claims he was in that very meeting told KOIN 6 News he thought Sheriff Ward’s testimony was fair, but not entirely accurate.
“When he talked about whether he allowed guns into his office, there was nothing posted at the door, there was never a conversation about it,” BJ Soper, founder of the Pacific Patriots Network, said. “According to Oregon statutes, you can have a concealed carry in a public building.”
Soper said he was not an occupier, but acted as a mediator.
After months of motions and pretrial hearings, the trial opened Tuesday with the federal government laying out their case and the main defendants, brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy, arguing they never broke the law. The defendents maintain that the takeover was a legitimate peaceful protest of federal land management.
Sheriff Ward said it was “absolutely not a peaceful occupation,” describing gunmen clearing rooms using military-style tactics.
The Bundy brothers, Jeff Banta, Neil Wampler, Kenneth Medenbach, David Fry and Shawna Cox all pleaded not guilty to conspiring to impede federal employees from carrying out their work at the refuge through intimidation, threats or force.
The trial is expected to last until November.
The Associated Press contributed to this report