Federal prosecutors next week will seek a nearly 31/2-year sentence for Oregon refuge occupier Ryan Payne, the longest prison term yet for a defendant convicted in the armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
They described Payne as a central figure who helped orchestrate the armed occupation of the federal wildlife sanctuary, described by Assistant U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Barrow as “one of the most extensive criminal activities in Oregon history.”
Payne repeatedly tried to persuade Harney County ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond not to surrender in January 2016 to complete five-year prison sentences for setting fire to public land. He also pressured Sheriff Dave Ward to intervene to prevent the Hammonds’ return to prison, prosecutors say.
The government submitted to the court a 91-page exhibit of recordings from weekly board meetings of the militia network Payne co-founded, Operation Mutual Defense, held in October, November and December 2015, the months preceding the refuge seizure. The board spoke of potential missions, including targeting radical Islam, intervening in the resettling of refugees in Montana and elsewhere, and attempting to free a federal prisoner by staging a “dynamic entry” into a prison by shielding militiamen within protesters.
On Nov. 5, 2015, Payne told fellow board members, “I believe what we’re about to discuss is very likely to be … the next big event that’s going to go on.”
Payne shared how he met with Susie Hammond, Dwight’s wife, and gave the Hammonds a choice: “The decision that, that you guys have to make is whether you’re going to watch as we defend your liberties, or you’re going to stand with us as we defend your liberties … regardless, it’s looking like we’re gonna defend your liberties, whether you want it or not.”
While the mutual defense board formally voted on Nov. 29, 2015, not to send militia to Harney County unless the Hammonds asked for help, Payne headed to Burns and acted with Ammon Bundy and other supporters to try to encourage a “public uprising” of local Harney County residents.
“One thing that the Bundy Ranch taught me was that an event like that brings together the leaders. The leaders are the ones who show up,” he said.
Payne had previously served as “militia coordinator” for the Bundy family in April 2014 to help thwart the court-ordered federal roundup of cattle belonging to Cliven Bundy for his failure to renew a grazing permit and pay grazing fees and fines for two decades. The federal prosecution of Payne in Nevada was dismissed with prejudice last month because of prosecutors’ misconduct.
Lisa Hay, Oregon’s federal public defender, will push for a two-year sentence for Payne, now 34 years old. She argues anything more would be out of line with other defendants’ punishments, which range from probation to a 21-month sentence given last week to Jason Patrick.
Although Payne accepts his leadership role and recognizes his possession of firearms at the refuge was intimidating and perceived as threatening, his intent was not to cause chaos or harm but to protect the refuge occupiers, Hay wrote.
She has provided the judge with opinions from a psychologist that Payne suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from his two tours of combat duty in Iraq with the U.S. Army and from a sociologist who found Payne has “evolved in his thinking” while in custody for nearly two years and is amenable to treatment. Hay has also submitted an apology letter from Payne.
In the letter, he recognizes the court’s authority, describes what he has lost as a result of his actions as well as “his dismay at the dishonor and tarnish to his integrity that he has brought upon himself,” Hay wrote in her sentencing memo.
“He will tell the Court during the sentencing proceeding that he does not intend to engage in acts of political activism or public demonstrations any more, and has plans for helping others in Montana,” Hay wrote.
Payne was in the first convoy of cars that arrived at the refuge on Jan. 2, 2016, and used his Facebook account to try to recruit others to the refuge. Payne was in charge of defense, organized occupiers for guard duty, trained others in military tactics and helped lead target shooting practices.
He was arrested on Jan. 26, 2016. Payne was seated as a front passenger in occupation spokesman Robert “LaVoy” Finicum’s truck when the FBI and state police stopped the vehicle on U.S. 395 as the occupation leaders were driving to a community meeting in John Day. Payne stepped from the truck and surrendered. After his arrest, he told authorities he wasn’t violating the law because he believed the federal government couldn’t lawfully own land, according to the government’s memo.
On July 19, 2016, he pleaded guilty to conspiring to impede federal workers at the refuge through intimidation, threat or force. Three months later, Payne attempted to withdraw his plea but the court denied his motion.
“The occupation did not occur in a vacuum,” wrote Barrow, the assistant U.S. attorney. “Instead, it followed a series of events deliberately planned as armed confrontations with the federal government. Defendant Payne was an integral part of this effort. He formed two groups that were dedicated to promoting such conflicts. A significant sentence is necessary to deter defendant and others from engaging in similar criminal conduct and to protect the public.”
U.S. District Judge Anna J. Brown will sentence Payne at 10 a.m. on Tuesday.
— Maxine Bernstein