Oregon standoff: Grant County sheriff urges release of Hammonds

January 25, 2016 in News by RBN

Oregon Live | Les Zaitz

UPDATE: Sheriff Glenn Palmer said in an email his meetings with militants didn’t include Ammon Bundy, leader of the occupation.

BURNS – Leaders of the armed protesters holding the national bird sanctuary on Tuesday plan to push their anti-government agenda in Grant County, whose sheriff recommends the government give in to two of their key demands.

Sheriff Glenn Palmer said in a statement to The Oregonian/OregonLive that “the government is going to have to concede something” to end the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

He said freeing a father-son ranching team from prison “would be a start. Sending the FBI home would be a start.” He referred to the FBI’s lead role in ending the refuge occupation.

“I just pray to God that cooler heads prevail and that no one gets killed,” Palmer said.

The sheriff’s endorsement of the militants’ demands stunned law enforcement officials, most of whom would not publicly discuss the matter.

Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe, who has been helping in Burns, said Palmer’s position “doesn’t help the cause. If anything, it hampers the effort to end this.”

The Grant County community may not know the protesters are coming back. The advertising promoting Tuesday’s meeting makes no mention of Ammon Bundy or other occupation leaders. The meeting is set for 6 p.m. at the John Day Senior Center. Promotions urge local citizens to attend to learn about the Constitution and consider forming a Committee of Safety.

Such a committee was a key instrument used by Bundy to marshal local credibility in Harney County. Six citizens, including four ranchers, are now on the Harney County Committee of Safety, working closely with the refuge occupiers to unwind federal involvement in the county.

But LaVoy Finicum, an Arizona rancher who often speaks for the refuge occupiers, said that Ammon Bundy, his brother, and Ryan Payne planned to attend the John Day meeting. Finicum said he would attend too.

Finicum said he expected Bundy and the others to put on the same presentation they gave two weeks ago in the small Harney County community of Crane. There, attendees got lectures on the Constitution and reasons why local ranchers should renounce their federal grazing privileges.

Tad Houpt, the local businessman organizing the John Day meeting, didn’t return four telephone messages or respond to written questions about the developments.

He organized the first known foray into Grant County by the militants on Jan. 12.

Ryan Payne and Jon Ritzheimer, two leaders of the occupation, attended a lunch in John Day with about 10 local residents. Palmer was called to the lunch, but said he didn’t know ahead of time who was there.

He stayed for the lunch and then joined the group when it adjourned to meet in private at a nearby business.

Ritzheimer said that as the meeting ended, Palmer pulled out his pocket version of the U.S. Constitution.

He had the two militants autograph it, Ritzheimer said.

“We shared similar ideas about where we’re at” in the country, Payne said.

“The sheriff has a practical plan for helping unravel the federal government,” Payne said. He said the militants didn’t ask Palmer to provide sanctuary or any other help to the protesters. He said when Palmer asked if he should visit the occupiers at the refuge, he advised the sheriff he would have to do so independently of his public role since he wouldn’t have authority in Harney County.

Jim Sproul, a Grant County businessman who attended the meeting, said the protesters were “clean, nice, very informative.”

“What I took away from it is they’re no militants,” Sproul said. “They’re not terrorists. I think they are very patriotic.”

Two days or so after that lunch, Payne returned for a second meeting with Palmer. Other law enforcement officials said Ammon Bundy also met with Palmer, but the sheriff said in an email on Monday that “I never met with Ammon Bundy.”

County Judge Scott Myers said he was aware of the second meeting but Palmer has shared no details.

“I have no idea whatever what they’ve discussed,” Myers said.

Wolfe, president of the Oregon State Sheriffs Association, said the state’s other sheriffs are concerned with Palmer’s conduct. He said he asked Palmer for details about the meetings.

“All I’ve been told is they just wanted to talk to him,” Wolfe said. “He’s not shared any other details with us at all.”

Palmer declined interview requests and answered only a handful of more than two dozen written questions.

“I am not hiding anything,” he said in an email.

Palmer said in an email that he got a text message from Ammon Bundy around Jan. 10 asking him to come to the refuge. Palmer didn’t address how the militant had the sheriff’s cell phone number. Palmer said he advised Bundy he couldn’t make such a trip without clearance from David Ward, the Harney County sheriff. Palmer said he was advised not to go.

While he wouldn’t provide details of his subsequent meetings with the militants, Palmer said, “There are no and never has been any public safety concerns that would indicate that these people put our community at risk or in jeopardy.”

In Harney County, the protesters in November and December pressed Ward to create a sanctuary to stop the imprisonment of ranchers Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son Steven. They returned to federal prison Jan. 4 to finish sentences for arson convictions. The militants insisted Ward had a constitutional duty to protect the Hammonds from what they considered unlawful imprisonment.

Bundy and his men are likely to find a receptive audience in Grant County and with Palmer. County residents have grown increasingly restive about the slow pace of restoring logging on the Malhuer National Forest and have bristled at plans to close forest service roads.

Palmer is aligned with the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, a national nonprofit which interprets the constitution to severely limit federal government powers. Palmer was the association’s first “Constitutional Sheriff of the Year” in 2011 and now serves on its advisory board.

He often speaks critically of the federal government, particularly the U.S. Forest Service, which is a major land owner in his county.

“The only thing that is out of control is the federal government,” Palmer said in a 2011 speech in California to a group considering constitutional issues.

“I am not a public employee. I am a public servant,” said Palmer.

He warned the audience that federal authorities were eroding water, mining and other resource rights.

“Don’t let them take them from you,” he said. “Stand up and defend for what you believe in.”

Palmer ended a joint policing agreement with the Forest Service because it wouldn’t submit to his authority.

“They have no constitutional authority” to perform police functions in Grant County, he said.

More recently, Palmer crafted a local plan that he believed mandated how the Forest Service could manage its lands. He said he needed local input to ensure he could protect the public and stop federal acts such as closing forest roads.

But the county’s attorney said Palmer misread the law and the Constitution.

“There is no authority in the U.S. Constitution, Forest Service legislation or the [management] rule that afford any priority to the sheriff’s plan,” attorney Ron Yockim wrote to county commissioners last October.

— Les Zaitz