Prosecutor casts federal agents as victims in ranch standoff

LAS VEGAS (AP) — In the latest chapter of a long-running dispute over Western U.S. land policy, lawyers began closing arguments Wednesday in the trial of six men accused of wielding weapons to stop a round-up cattle from public land near Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy’s property in 2014.

After two months of testimony and a full day of closing arguments, a federal jury is expected to begin deciding questions of guilt and innocence on Thursday.

Jurors heard prosecutor Nicholas Dickinson tell them that even though no shots were fired, federal agents were the victims of a conspiracy and a crime of violence by gunmen supporting Bundy’s call to free his cattle in April 2014.

“These six … use, carry, brandish and even point their weapons at federal law enforcement officers,” prosecutor Nicholas Dickinson said as he began summarizing two months of testimony against defendants Gregory Burleson, Scott Drexler, Todd Engel, Richard Lovelien, Eric Parker and Steven Stewart.

Six defense closing arguments will follow, as the jury gets close to beginning deliberations, perhaps Thursday.

Dickinson showed photos of five of the men with assault-style rifles and Lovelein driving several of them in his pickup truck to the standoff site outside the small town of Bunkerville.

“They were clearly coming to show force,” the prosecutor said, “not with signs, but with guns.”

The tense noontime standoff pitted federal Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service officers against more than 100 Bundy backers in a dry river bed below an arching freeway overpass.

The scene had flag-waving riders on horseback amid unarmed men, women and children in the middle while gunmen took positions facing about 30 heavily armed federal agents near a gate of a corral.

The crowd demanded the release of cows that had been rounded up. The agents insisted that the protesters should disperse.

No shots were fired, the local sheriff finally brokered a truce, and the cows were released. Dickinson said that was Bundy’s plan.

“Fourteen BLM officers testified,” he reminded the jury. “They are victims in this case. They told you about their fears. They’re real people.”

A second federal court trial could start June 5 for Cliven Bundy, his sons Ammon and Ryan Bundy, and two other defendants characterized by prosecutors as leaders of a conspiracy to defy court orders to corral the cows. Trial for another six defendants would follow in the fall.

Defense attorneys say the trial is not about cattle, and that the government has not proved conspiracy, weapon, assault on a federal agent and other charges. If convicted, the six defendants could each face more than 100 years in federal prison.

The prosecution presented 35 witnesses since the trial started in February. Four witnesses testified for the defense, including Parker, a 33-year-old electrician. He was the only defendant to take the stand.

Parker testified that he and Drexler and Stewart drove to southern Nevada from Idaho after seeing social media posts, news reports and cellphone video about scuffles in the days before the standoff between agents with dogs and stun guns and Bundy family members and supporters.

One of Bundy’s sons was arrested during one protest, and another was shocked with a stun gun after agents said he blocked a convoy of vehicles in the round-up. The family patriarch’s 57-year-old sister, Margaret Houston, was knocked to the ground in another confrontation.

Parker said he was incensed by images of a corral set up by the government with signs designating it as a protest area and free speech zone.

“I was not looking for a fight, but I was not going to be bullied into not exercising my First Amendment,” he said.

Parker was famously photographed during the standoff — prone on the pavement of an Interstate 15 overpass, looking with his AK-47 style rifle through a seam in a concrete freeway barrier toward the federal agents below.