PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — “Where do you live?” attorney Marcus Mumford asked Ammon Bundy on the witness stand Tuesday afternoon.
“I live at Multnomah County Jail, right across the street, in a maximum security unit,” Bundy replied.
His response differed from those made by other witnesses and fellow occupiers who call cities like Burns, Oregon and Las Vegas, Nevada home.
Unlike them, Bundy has spent 8 1/2 months away from his wife, his 6 children, his apple orchard and his true home in Emmett, Idaho.
But as jurors saw in court Tuesday, the father, rancher and business owner didn’t make his decision to travel to Harney County lightly. An emotional Bundy said he hadn’t even heard of the Hammond family until summer 2015.
“I told him I couldn’t get involved,” Bundy said he explained to his father, Cliven. “We’re doing the best we can to keep our family from going to prison.”
Cliven called his son that summer to talk about the Oregon ranchers who were being sent back to prison for arson on federal land, a crime they had already served time for. Dwight Hammond, 73, and Steven, 46, said they started the fire to stop invasive plants from growing on their grazing fields, but the flames spread to federal land.
Bundy assured his father he knew nothing of the matter.
After receiving little information about the Hammonds’ predicament, Bundy had a harsh realization: With tears in his eyes, he told the jury he was “afraid that what [was] happening to them… [was] the same thing that happened” to his family.
He was referring to the 2014 standoff outside his family’s Bunkerville, Nevada ranch when he said he was subjected to a “tremendous amount of abuse” on behalf of federal authorities who allegedly impounded and shot at his family’s cattle, captured his brother and established a military-style base on their land.
The confrontation developed from a 20-year legal battle between Cliven and the Bureau of Land Management over unpaid grazing fees on federal land, which the Bundy family has occupied for over 100 years and claims ancestral rights to.
“Their actions were way out of line,” Bundy said. “Way out of line.”
On November 2, 2015, Bundy received a message that contained an article about the Hammonds. After reading it he became overwhelmed and said he started to feel it was his “duty” to try to protect them.
“I tried to suppress that feeling, say, ‘It’s not my responsibility,'” the father of 6 said. But the issue continued to press on him.
Bundy stayed up all night researching the Hammonds and found more parallels between the families’ situations. Once he learned enough, he felt compelled to write; He said he asked the Lord for help clearing his mind and finding the right words.
“They came,” he said, and by the end of the night he crafted a letter that he emailed to government officials, other ranching families, Bunkerville supporters and thousands of other people across the nation.
Bundy explained he sent the letter because he wanted people to be aware of the Hammonds’ situation so the same thing wouldn’t happen again.
“After what we experienced in 2014, and the threats we got from the government after that saying, ‘This isn’t over,’ we felt we had to protect our family and keep people informed,” Bundy said.
His email generated a lot of buzz and people began calling, writing and sending him more details. He then decided he needed to see the Hammonds in person.
“Maybe they antagonized this, maybe they deserved this,” Bundy speculated. Regardless, he said he needed to speak with them face-to-face in order to find out.
He arrived in Burns on November 5, 2015 and met Steve Hammond out at his ranch. He didn’t say it at the time, but after their meeting Bundy felt he was supposed to help the family “in some way, somehow.”
“I began to understand that [Steve] was pretty tired of fighting and he was pretty broke, emotionally,” Bundy said.
He stayed at a hotel in Burns that night and arranged to meet Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward and Dwight and Susan Hammond the next day.
Jurors were shown video clips of Bundy describing the Hammonds as “wonderful people” who “love ranching” and “love their neighbors.”
Despite their visits, the Hammonds soon distanced themselves from Bundy.
In a letter to Sheriff Ward, the family’s lawyer wrote, “Neither Ammon Bundy nor anyone within his group/organization speak for the Hammond Family.”
Bundy alleged the federal government threatened to “bring misery” to the Hammonds if they continued communicating with him. Dwight was “extremely afraid,” Bundy said, explaining that he feared for his and his family’s lives.
“This is much bigger than the Hammonds,” Bundy said about his quest to bring awareness to what he called injustices carried out by the federal government. “It’s for my children, grandchildren… Everything comes from the Earth and if [the government] can get control of the resources, they can get control of the people.”
Bundy described federal government officials as modern day conquerers who understand the power they can have over populations by claiming resources, which is exactly what he believes is being done to ranching families across the country.
“We need to wake up,” he told the court.
Bundy and 6 other defendants are accused of conspiring to impede federal workers from doing their jobs at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, not far from the Hammonds’ Harney County ranch, through threats, intimidation or force.
They were all part of the group that took over the wildlife refuge after Dwight and Steve Hammond reported to prison to finish serving their sentences on January 2.
Bundy and several others were arrested along Hwy 395 on January 26.
Ammon Bundy will continue his testimony in federal court Wednesday