LAS VEGAS—Things have taken a sharp, rather unexpected turn regarding the Bundy trial in the U.S. District Court in Las Vegas, Nevada. For one thing, internet-radio personality Pete Santilli—one of the defendants in the trial phase that had been set to begin with jury selection on Oct. 10—“pled guilty today (Friday, Oct. 6) and was released pending sentencing,” his attorney, Chris Rasmussen of Las Vegas, confirmed for AFP by phone about 4:30 p.m. Eastern time that day.
Notably, that phase involves the federal government trying cattleman Cliven Bundy, his sons Ammon and Ryan, Ryan Payne. Due to his plea arrangement, Santilli, of course, is no longer involved in this phase.
Two other defendants, O. Scott. Drexler and Eric Parker, who are being retried for a third time from earlier proceedings, will join the others in this second of three planned trials. The other thing is that both the prosecution and defense sought and secured yet another delay in this complicated trial, fearing that the highly emotional aftermath of the recent deadly shooting—during a country music concert outside Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino along the renowned Las Vegas strip—would adversely impact the attitude and opinions of jurors for the time being.
As of this writing, the Oct. 10 date for jury selection will be changed to on, or around, Oct. 30 and could be subject to change again, given the bumpy track record of this multiple-defendant trial—which the federal government has been largely losing so far. Santilli, who shot extended livestream video footage at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge building in eastern Oregon—prompting critics to allege that his “journalistic” coverage enabled the government to more closely monitor the ranchers who occupied the abandoned building to protest onerous federal land controls—was jailed for his role in that affair.
Although later cleared of Oregon-related charges, he was kept behind bars and transferred to Nevada to stand trial because also took part in the spring 2014 Bunkerville, Nevada “standoff” that saw Cliven Bundy, his sons and other supporters gather to protest the policies and conduct of the BLM and other federal agencies—which, in the spring of 2014, unsuccessfully attempted to confiscate Cliven’s cattle over a grazing-fee dispute.
Regarding Nevada, Santilli pled guilty to a felony count of obstruction of justice, based on the government’s assertion that he used his own vehicle to impede the movement of a BLM truck during the attempted cattle impoundment.
Interestingly, Rasmussen believes the government may willing to consider the prison time that Santilli has already served—behind bars since Jan. 26, 2016—as sufficient punishment for that felony charge. But a reading of the plea memo shared with AFP by Rasmussen shows that the government reserves the right to impose a longer prison term, possibly six years, when Santilli is sentenced, probably in January. Meanwhile, two pending defense motions—one to exclude Oregon-related evidence in the government’s Nevada case against Santilli, and another to challenge the government’s claim that Santilli could not excuse his Nevada actions because of his journalistic background—are now moot, Rasmussen added.
According to court documentation, Santilli’s acceptance of pleading guilty to this single felony-obstruction charge requires, under penalty of perjury, that he accept the following government-sourced statements as “true and correct,” regarding the “standoff” in southern Nevada: “Beginning on or around March 28, 2014, federal law enforcement officers from the United States Department of Interior, Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service were engaged in the official duties of executing federal court orders to remove and impound cattle trespassing upon federal public lands in and around Bunkerville, Nevada, the cattle belonging to Cliven Bundy, a local rancher.
“Defendant Santilli knew that Cliven Bundy and his sons, Ammon, Dave, Mel, and Ryan, (collectively, “the Bundys”), and others associated with them, planned to thwart, impede and interfere with impoundment operations.
“On April 9, 2014, Defendant Santilli used force to prevent officers from discharging their duties by using his vehicle to block BLM law enforcement officers and civilian employees as they were performing their duties related to the impoundment. “Defendant Santilli drove his vehicle straight toward a BLM law enforcement officer’s vehicle, preventing the officer and the rest of the convoy behind him from being able to move forward.
“The officer ordered Defendant Santilli to move out of the way but Defendant Santilli continued to block the convoy’s path. Defendant Santilli finally reversed his vehicle out of the path of the convoy only after the officer repeated the command several times.
“By using force to block the convoy, Defendant Santilli allowed others to surround the convoy and threaten the occupants of the vehicles by force violence and fear, inducing the officers to leave the place where their duties were required to be performed. “Defendant Santilli acknowledges that all of the above took place within the State and Federal District of Nevada.”
The maximum penalty for “Conspiracy to Impede or Injure a Federal Officer,” as this count against Santilli is formally named under 18 U.S.C. § 372, is six years imprisonment, a fine of $250,000, or both. But the plea memo shows that Santilli owes no restitution under this charge, nor will there be forfeiture of his assets—provided he meets the strict terms of his supervised release until he’s sentenced.
He must remain crime-free regarding federal, state and local laws, is restricted from any significant travel, and among other things must avoid any known association with anyone who’s breaking any law. Nor can Santilli possess a gun or any other item deemed by the government as a weapon. Just failing to show up for a hearing or some other procedural matter would result in this deal being dissolved.