SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — Months before their takeover of a national wildlife refuge became an international fascination, an armed group of ranchers made its presence known in the surrounding Oregon community, following around the sheriff, his deputies and their families and intimidating those who publicly disagreed with them, Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward said.
The federal government has charged 26 people with the 41-day-long occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge this winter in a protest over land policy.
The group's leader Ammon Bundy first requested a meeting with Ward on Nov. 5, Ward told Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich during a podcast Tuesday.
Bundy and fellow protester Ryan Payne were already talking about doing more than just protesting the prison sentence of the two local ranchers, Dwight L. Hammond Jr. and Steven D. Hammond, who were charged with twice setting fire to government land. Bundy and Payne wanted Ward to prevent federal officials from taking the Hammonds into custody.
"It was made pretty clear to me that if I went along with their agenda, everything would be all right," Ward said. "There was a lot of ultimatums and saber rattling."
On Nov. 19, Bundy was back for a second meeting, this time accompanied by 10 other men, most of them armed. There were also armed men outside the building, making the sheriff vastly outnumbered in his own office.
Ward said he made it clear that his job included enforcing the orders of the court. Soon his dispatch center was flooded with so many phone calls complaining about his stance that it was essentially shut down.
More strangers began arriving in town. Some followed the sheriff, his deputies and their family members, Ward said.
People who put up signs or Facebook pages against the Bundys were harassed and at least one person fled town in fear for his safety, Ward said.
Blaine Cooper and Jon Ritzheimer, who would become central figures in the standoff, followed Ward and his family as they went Christmas shopping, Ward said. Others followed them in the grocery store, and Payne once complained to Ward that Ward's mother had threatened him, Ward said.
"I understand she's a scary woman," he said. "She's 74 years old, has a pacemaker and is 5 feet 3 inches tall."
Ammon Bundy faces a variety of charges from the Oregon standoff and from a 2014 armed standoff in Nevada in a long-running dispute over management of public lands. He has pleaded not guilty to some charges and refused to enter pleas in others. He remains in federal custody.
Bundy's spokesman, Shawn Vincent, did not have an immediate comment Wednesday on Ward's allegations.
During the standoff, Ward said, his primary concern was keeping innocent civilians out of the line of fire.
The area is slowly getting back to normal, Ward said, but locals still get nervous every time they see a car with out-of-state license plates.
Ward was in Spokane on Tuesday at the invitation of the FBI to talk with local law enforcement officials about his experiences during the takeover.
Information from: The Spokesman-Review, http://www.spokesman.com