Anti-government extremists are awaiting trial for their armed takeover of an Oregon nature preserve -- but the local sheriff said the gun-toting outsiders started causing trouble from the moment they arrived, about two months earlier.
Sheriff David Ward took over law enforcement duties in Harney County on Jan. 2, 2015 -- one year to the day when armed militants led by Ammon Bundy began occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Preserve as part of a broader campaign to roll back federal control of public lands.
Ward recounted his experience with the militants, many of whom are now jailed on a variety of felony counts in connection with the 41-day standoff, during a podcast interview with an eastern Washington sheriff, reported The Spokesman-Review.
“I’m sorry, folks -- they’re not patriots, they’re thugs,” said Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich. “They are, in fact, the true tyranny.”
Ward knew little about Bundy, who's now charged along with other family members in connection with an armed standoff in 2014 at his father's Nevada ranch, until the Utah mechanic and other militants showed up in Burns and demanded a meeting Nov. 5 with the sheriff.
“It made me a little nervous about why these guys were in my community,” Ward said.
Bundy and Ryan Payne, an Army veteran from Montana, said they'd come to protest the prison sentencing of two local ranchers who set fire on public land as part of their own ongoing dispute with federal authorities.
Ward said the out-of-staters demanded that the sheriff go along with their plans to challenge the feds -- or else.
Bundy came back Nov. 19 with 10 other men, most of them armed, and the militants posted other armed men outside Ward's office.
The sheriff again told the militants that he would not support their plans because he said his duties included enforcement of court orders -- which called for ranchers Dwight Hammond Jr. and Steven Hammond to return to prison to finish serving their sentences.
Ward said the militants and their supporters then flooded his emergency dispatch center with so many complaints that dispatchers were unable to take 911 calls from locals, and he said the harassment didn't stop there.
More and more militants and their supporters started arriving after Thanksgiving -- including Blaine Cooper and Jon Ritzheimer.
They followed Ward, his deputies and their family members around and drove slowly past their homes, and they bothered residents who put up signs or social media posts criticizing the outsiders.
Bundy and some local supporters set up a "committee of safety," which was apparently intended to serve as a shadow government, and talked about arresting public officials who failed to support their armed demonstration.
Ward said Cooper, who carried a lengthy felon record from Arizona, and Ritzheimer, a retired Marine who organized anti-Muslim rallies, stalked him and his family as they went Christmas shopping.
Ward, who served as an Army medic during combat overseas, said he didn't like that so many of the militants lied about their military service, and he's still upset that they put innocent civilians in danger.
“It was a very trying time,” Ward said. “I looked over my shoulder during that time more than I did in Afghanistan and Somalia.”
Knezovich said the anti-government militants' actions were appalling.
“True patriots don’t do that to other Americans,” he said.