Ammon Bundy predicted that he and his brothers and father would spend the rest of their lives in prison.
“My dad is 70 years old. It’s a death sentence to him,” he said from a cell in Nevada two years ago, awaiting trial on charges of leading an armed uprising against the federal government. “As much as I hope that we are found not guilty and I get to go home to my family, I don’t think it’ll matter.”
But Monday, a federal judge did just that — sent the Bundy men home — dismissing all the charges against them, and ending a long and troubled effort by the government to hold the rebellious ranching family to account.
In a scathing decision, Judge Gloria Navarro accused federal prosecutors of “flagrant misconduct,” throwing out the case with prejudice, which means it cannot be brought again. Navarro had already declared a mistrial in December, having found prosecutors repeatedly withheld evidence that could have been favorable to the Bundys.
“The government’s conduct in this case was indeed outrageous,” Navarro said from the bench. “There has been flagrant misconduct, substantial prejudice and no lesser remedy is sufficient.”
It was a resounding defeat for the government, which had been trying to build a case against the Bundy family ever since they and hundreds of supporters, including armed militia, repelled federal agents in 2014. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) had sent agents to confiscate the family’s cattle after the Bundys had refused for years to stop grazing their cattle on federal land.
Cliven Bundy, the family patriarch who had declared a “range war” against the BLM, emerged from a Las Vegas courthouse on Monday in a sand-colored cowboy hat, boots and a suit jacket, his wife Carol by his side. Calling himself a “political prisoner,” he said, “I came in this courtroom an innocent man and I’m going to leave as an innocent man.”
A 2015 FRONTLINE investigation into the Bundys and their fight against the federal government found that even as federal officials took pains to avoid armed confrontations, they also complicated efforts to hold them accountable.
Nowhere has that been more evident than in Nevada.
“It’s just been a mess from the get-go,” said Michael German, a retired FBI agent and fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice. Prosecutors took two years to bring charges after the uprising at the family ranch near Bunkerville, Nevada, German noted. Then they attempted to bolster their case with an undercover operation in which FBI agents posed as a documentary film crew to secure interviews with the Bundys.
In the meantime, Ammon and Ryan Bundy and several supporters were arrested for staging an armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. They were ultimately acquitted there and returned to Nevada to face conspiracy charges with their father, two other brothers and several supporters.
On its face, the Nevada case seemed daunting. The Bundys had rallied armed militiamen to their aid, and some had pointed weapons at federal agents, forcing them to retreat. In the FBI’s undercover footage, one militia member even suggested he might have been willing to kill federal agents.
But soon, the case began to unravel — over a bag of shredded documents found in a dumpster at the federal staging area for the cattle roundup in 2014.
As they prepared for trial in 2016, Ammon’s attorney, Dan Hill, requested a hearing to discuss the shredded documents, which Hill said were discovered by Ammon Bundy, and accused the government of trying to destroy evidence. “It snowballed from there,” Hill said. The defense began asking more questions, uncovering critical pieces of evidence they said the government failed to disclose.
Among the evidence: information about a FBI surveillance camera overlooking the Bundy ranch and an threat assessments from multiple agencies that said the Bundys were not prone to violence, despite the prosecution’s argument that the men posed a danger to the community. If convicted of the multiple felony charges against them, they all faced decades in prison.
The prosecution’s case was also undermined by a document noting the presence of FBI snipers near the Bundy ranch in the days leading up to the standoff — a fact that the lead prosecutor, Steven Myhre, had repeatedly denied.
“There were not snipers and so forth,” Myhre said in one court hearing.
Navarro repeatedly ordered the prosecution to turn over any potentially exculpatory material. The sniper document was discovered when the FBI revealed a previously undisclosed tactical activity log for SWAT agents — which included two entries for “snipers.”
The document, the government said, had been sitting on a thumb drive in an FBI vehicle for three years. The government argued that since its SWAT team didn’t take any action, the log hadn’t been included in the file prosecutors reviewed, adding in a brief that its exclusion was “at most inadvertent.”
In a statement, the newly appointed U.S. attorney in Nevada, Dayle Elieson, said: “We respect the Court’s ruling and will make a determination about the next appropriate steps.”
After the mistrial ruling in December, an appellate attorney joined the prosecution, as did a team of experts sent by the Justice Department.
The Bundys’ fight began as a land dispute. But it quickly became a rallying cry for so-called patriot groups and anti-government extremists around the country — and the Bundys themselves became heroes of a new movement.
Standing outside the courthouse on Monday, Ammon was asked what he’d say to his supporters. “I hope the message that standing is the right thing, and not being afraid — but also doing it peacefully,” he said. “People need to recognize their rights and stand on them and use them, and then when it comes time to defend them, they need to defend them.”