LAS VEGAS — Trial opens Tuesday in Las Vegas for Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, two of his sons and a co-defendant accused of leading an armed standoff in 2014 against government agents in a decades-long cattle grazing dispute.
Prosecutors will tell a jury that the 71-year-old Bundy, sons Ryan and Ammon Bundy, and co-defendant Ryan Payne of Anaconda, Montana, conspired to enlist a self-styled militia to defy government authority at the point of a gun.
Defense attorneys say the men didn’t conspire with anyone, didn’t wield weapons and didn’t threaten anybody.
The standoff near Bunkerville, Nevada, about 80 miles (128 kilometers) northeast of Las Vegas, was an iconic moment in a decadeslong turf battle about federal control of vast rangelands in the Western U.S.
The men are accused of calling for a “range war” to stop government enforcement of lawful court orders to round up Bundy cows for failure to pay federal grazing fees and penalties.
The Bundys and Payne have been jailed since early 2016 as a danger to the community and at risk to not follow court orders or return for hearing dates.
The defendants have been attending court wearing red jail scrubs, to protest their nearly two-year detention without trial. Ryan Bundy is serving as his own lawyer.
Each man refused to enter a plea, saying he didn’t recognize the authority of the government. A magistrate judge entered not-guilty pleas for the men, who are expected to testify.
Bundy argues that his family has used the same public range for more than a century and the land belongs to the state, not the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
Acting U.S. Attorney Steven Myhre argues that the federal agency was enforcing lawful court orders to remove Bundy cows from what is now Gold Butte National Monument after the rancher racked up more than $1.1 million in unpaid fees and penalties.
Bundy’s lawyer, Bret Whipple, says Bundy was willing to pay his fees, and even tried to send a check in March 1994 to Clark County. It was returned with a letter saying the payment should go to the federal government.
Federal prosecutors in Nevada have twice failed to win full convictions at trial of men who had guns during the tense confrontation involving hundreds of protesters who stopped government agents from rounding up Bundy’s cattle.
Defense attorneys cast the standoff as a peaceful protest, with no shots fired and no one injured before overreaching government officials abandoned the cattle roundup and went home.
The men each face 15 felony charges, including conspiracy, assault and threats against federal officers, firearms counts, obstruction and extortion. Stacked together, convictions on all charges carry the possibility of more than 170 years in prison.