LAS VEGAS — A judge has set a trio of trials for 17 men accused of conspiring together in an armed standoff against federal agents near Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy’s property in April 2014.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Peggy Leen, in a ruling on Monday, reversed the order proposed by federal prosecutors who wanted to try Bundy, sons Ammon and Ryan Bundy, and two other defendants first. Instead, they’ll go last.
The judge set trial to begin Feb. 6 for six defendants who the government has characterized as “followers and gunmen” and least responsible for planning the tense showdown that blocked a federal Bureau of Land Management round-up of Bundy cattle from public land.
“It made no sense to keep the least culpable in custody the longest,” Todd Leventhal, attorney for Orville Scott Drexler, said Tuesday. Drexler is in the Feb. 6 group, with co-defendants Gregory Burleson, Todd Engel, Ricky Lovelien, Eric Parker and Steven Stewart.
Leventhal said he thought the judge may have been swayed by a request from Cliven Bundy, through his attorney Bret Whipple, to let other defendants stand trial first so they could return to their families.
Jury summonses have gone out saying trial could take up to five months. Meanwhile, the defendants remain in federal custody in southern Nevada.
Thirty days after the first trial ends, six alleged “mid-level” standoff leaders and organizers will stand trial, Leen decided. They are Bundy sons Dave and Mel Bundy, Brian Cavalier, Micah McGuire, Joseph O’Shaughnessy and Jason Woods.
The judge said that 30 days after that trial ends, proceedings will begin for Cliven, Ammon and Ryan Bundy, and co-defendants Peter Santilli and Ryan Payne.
Federal prosecutors allege the Bundy family patriarch, now 70, and his two sons led the conspiracy, obstruction, weapon, threat and assault offenses against federal officers.
Santilli’s lawyer, Chris Rasmussen, said his client wanted to be tried first and will challenge Leen’s order.
Bundy and family members maintain that the federal government has no authority in the public land near the Bunkerville-area ranch where he grazes cattle.
The dispute has roots in a nearly half-century fight over grazing policies in Nevada and the West, where the U.S. government controls vast expanses of property.
No one was hurt, and no shots were fired in the standoff about 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas.
But images of Bundy backers with assault rifles forcing federal agents to retreat have become iconic in the battle over states’ rights and federal authority.
The dispute has gained momentum with bloggers protesting federal agency decisions to designate protected areas for endangered species and set aside tracts for mining, wind farms and natural gas exploration.
Nineteen defendants were originally charged in the Bunkerville case. Two have pleaded guilty to conspiracy and other charges, while maintaining they weren’t physically present for the standoff. Their plea deals call for sentences of six years in federal prison.
Ammon and Ryan Bundy were among seven defendants acquitted by a U.S. District Court jury in Portland, Oregon, of conspiracy and other charges stemming from a 41-day occupation earlier this year of federal wildlife refuge.
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