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September 23, 2014

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The world through militia eyes

Domestic terrorists? Heroes? Who are the armed men who invaded Nevada?

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STEVE MARCUS

Alex Bieniecki shows his “We The People” tattoo at a camp near Bunkerville Tuesday, April 15, 2014.

BLM-Bundy Standoff: April 12, 2014

Photos of the April 12, 2014 stand-off between the Bureau of Land Management and supporters of rancher Cliven Bundy near Bunkerville, Nevada. The BLM eventually called off their roundup of Bundy cattle citing safety concerns. Courtesy of Shannon Bushman. Launch slideshow »

Future Uncertain in Bundy-BLM Dispute

Cliven Bundy, right, talks with militia-type volunteers at the family ranch near Bunkerville Sunday, April 13, 2014. Volunteers include Scott Woods, left, of West Virginia, Christian Yingling, center, of Pennsylvania, and Jay LeDuc, background right, of Payson, Ariz. Launch slideshow »

Cliven Bundy Supporters

Reid Hendricks of Camden, Tenn., and Jim (no last name provided) of Las Vegas take up a position on a hill by Cliven Bundy's ranch near Bunkerville on Tuesday, April 15, 2014. Hendricks is a former Marine (honorably discharged) and has worked as a police officer and a high school history teacher, he said. Launch slideshow »

THE WACO SIEGE

The Branch Davidians, a sect of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, were led by David Koresh and lived on a ranch in Elk, Texas, near Waco. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms suspected the group of weapons violations, obtained a warrant and raided the ranch. A gunfight resulted in 10 deaths and led to the FBI’s involvement, which set off a 51-day standoff culminating in a fire that killed 76 men, women and children, including Koresh. After this incident, militias started springing up in defiance of what they viewed as government overreach.

Four ways the government made it worse

The government had a clear-cut case. Cliven Bundy had been violating federal law for more than 20 years, as determined by judges in federal District Court and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Even Bundy’s fellow ranchers in the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association opted not to come to Bundy’s side in his dispute with the feds, saying “the matter is between Mr. Bundy and the federal courts.” But a series of government gaffes branded the BLM as overly aggressive and secretive, enraged protesters and turned Bundy into a more sympathetic figure.

• Too much firepower: The BLM needed trucks and trailers to remove cattle. But did it need the Tasers, guns and dogs? “They came across initially with a heavy-handed approach,” said Bob Abbey, former BLM director from 2009 to 2012. “When you start adding weapons, it has the potential to escalate the situation and get out of control.” A pair of videos of confrontations between Bundy family members and government authorities went viral and galvanized the protesters: One showed one of Bundy’s sons being shot with a stun gun, the other showed Bundy’s sister being knocked to the ground.

• First Amendment corrals: In establishing “First Amendment Areas” — a term that seemed to contradict itself — the BLM restricted protests to specific areas and offended protesters.

• Flames fanned: Gov. Brian Sandoval, a former judge known for caution, issued an unusually terse statement critical of the BLM. He said the move to create First Amendment Areas “tramples upon Nevadans’ fundamental rights under the U.S. Constitution.” Sandoval’s statement quickly made national headlines.

• No comment: Bundy and his supporters launched a PR campaign of news conferences, social media outreach and cable news interviews against backdrops of red, white and blue bunting. But the BLM ran tightly controlled teleconferences with reporters and refused all interview requests after the roundup, making it appear they were acting covertly.

Groups at the scene

• Oath Keepers: An association of current and former military personnel, police officers and first responders who pledge to “defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” but list 10 specific orders they will not obey, such as “any order to force American citizens into any form of detention camps under any pretext.”

• Operation Mutual Aid: A coalition of militia members from several states.

• Three Percenter Club: A sovereign-rights group whose name derives from an often-quoted statistic — that 3 percent of the American people fought for liberty at any given time during the American war for independence.

• The 9-12 Project of New Hampshire: A group dedicated to “taking back control of our country.” The project’s principles include: “I work hard for what I have and I will share it with who I want to. Government cannot force me to be charitable.”

BUNKERVILLE — A GMC pickup motors across a bridge over the Virgin River, kicking up a cloud of desert.

The door swings open. This is my ticket inside the militia that’s become rancher Cliven Bundy’s fighting brigade.

Brandon Rapolla, a 39-year-old concrete mixer from Oregon, steers the truck toward the militia camp that’s assembled to support Bundy’s battle with the Bureau of Land Management.

There’s an assault rifle propped between Rapolla’s knees. A .338 Magnum rifle, designed to take down big game at a distance the length of three football fields or more, rests within arm’s reach on the back seat under a ghillie suit that’s used by snipers to blend with the brush. Next to my left leg, on the console, there’s a 7-inch Marine-issued knife.

Rapolla is prepared for a war with his government. His guns, he says, aren’t just a show of force. Not knowing what to expect when he rolled into town, he says he was ready to die — and, if he must, shoot a federal agent.

“Our pistols are shooting through my f****** window if there’s a roadblock, then we’re f****** getting out,” he said. “We’re gonna go to wherever the guns are blazing. We’re not gonna walk to a f****** bloody (battlefield).”

In a brief rant from his truck bed, Rapolla used the F-bomb seven times to describe his anxiety and adrenaline he felt driving into Bunkerville.

As they arrived in Nevada, Rapolla and fellow militia members said they were convinced the BLM was bent on wiping out Bundy and his family. Not just rounding up cattle that have been illegally grazing public land for more than two decades, prompting court rulings that led federal authorities to attempt to seize the cattle in the first place. Not just crippling their business by trucking those cows somewhere else and possibly selling them.

No. In their view, the government’s goal was to exterminate the Bundys. As several militia members put it, they came to the Bundy ranch to prevent another Waco — the 1993 standoff between federal agents and David Koresh that left 76 men, women and children dead. That incident helped spawn the modern militia, which is not an official force but a collection of armed citizens who believe the government is out to destroy the nation and enslave the American people.

So they came to the desert to protect Bundy. They brought heavy weaponry — including a .50-caliber rifle that fires the same bullets that World War II fighter planes used to down enemy aircraft. They brought night-vision goggles. They brought their beliefs — some would call them delusions — that they are the last true patriots, fighting an oppressive government.

These are the extremists in what they say is a campaign to preserve American freedom and fight the federal bullies. Bundy’s fight provided the airtime for their message.

“They don’t believe in the power of a democratically elected government,” said David Bennett, a history professor at Syracuse University who studies political extremism in America. “That’s clearly an extreme position. It’s confronting all government in the name of some view of individual rights that aren’t recognized in law or society other than these individuals.”

And they’re prepared to shoot those they perceive as their enemies if they feel it’s necessary.

ONE MILITIAMAN’S TALE

We turn down the first road after the riverside bridge and up pops the militia camp in the distance. Two flags whip in the wind.

The American stars and stripes flap on one pole. The other flag warns, “Don’t Tread on Me.” Below the symbols is a blue tent jokingly dubbed the “USO” — a cheeky reference to the famed luxury camps built to entertain military troops during combat. The closer we inch toward the tent, the more clearly I see the cache of weapons surrounding it.

The centerpiece? The .50-caliber long-range rifle.

Welcome to the camp of Jerry DeLemus, who drove 41 hours from his home in New Hampshire with his friend and son to defend Bunkerville.

The 59-year-old Marine Corps veteran does not claim ties to a specific militia, but he’s the leader in these parts, in charge of the unorganized militiamen who have trickled in from as far as North Dakota, Oregon and Pennsylvania to support Bundy.

He shares a camp with a cast of characters that could’ve been ripped from a gritty Western novel.

There’s Dale Potter, a militia organizer with the North Dakota Defense Force. A wiry man sporting camo fatigues with a Midwestern drawl and ponytail, he quit his job as a commercial truck driver to descend on the Bundy ranch. The 39-year-old self-proclaimed patriot said he plans to stay in Bunkerville as long as it takes for the BLM to give up for good.

“We’re all here for the long haul, if the BLM wants to drag this out six months, 12 months, two years,” he said. "If they want to end it tomorrow, we’re here until the population feels safe enough for us to leave.”

Then there’s Alex Bieniecki, a 32-year-old New Hampshire native and member of the Oath Keepers, who left his girlfriend and daughter behind for Bunkerville.

He claims he’s not anti-government, pointing to his tattoo-covered arms and neck. Across his throat, in old script, reads the first few words of United States Constitution:

“WE THE PEOPLE.”

“I know what happened at Waco. I know what happened at Ruby Ridge. I know what happened at all the other false flag murder events,” Bieniecki said. “I know that if we weren’t here, they’d probably already be dead.”

The threat of another Waco propelled most of the militiamen to Southern Nevada.

DeLemus learned about Cliven Bundy on the Internet, reading the Drudge Report. He then watched the YouTube videos showing BLM agents using a stun gun to subdue the rancher’s son and knock his sister to the ground.

The sights fired him up, and made him feel he had to race to the desert.

“You feel an obligation as an American,” DeLemus said, standing near his tent, wearing a water-filled hydration pack, full Army fatigues and loaded sidearm. “You’ve got an American family who is rightfully on property their family paid the grazing rights on over a hundred and some odd years ago and our government comes in and decides they want to change the rules on that, break the law, really, by changing those rules after a contract’s been signed with their great-great-grandfather — I believe it was — and then run them out? And then use force on their family? And then put the full weight of the American government on them? Shame on them.”

Moved by the story, he gave Bundy a call. The rancher answered, and DeLemus asked how he could help.

“ ‘Well, Jerry, really what I need is bodies,’ ” Bundy said, according to DeLemus. “ ‘I need people to come and support us.’”

Then DeLemus made a promise: “I’ll be there.”

He wasn’t the only one. On a personal family blog set up to document Bundy’s battle, the rancher put out a request in an April 6 post:

YOU HAVE BEEN ASKING WHAT YOU CAN DO! AND NOW ITS TIME!!!!!!

“They have my cattle and now (they) have one of my boys,” the post reads. “Range war begins tomorrow at Bundy ranch at 9:30 a.m. Bring your signs and horses, and plan to stay as long as you can.”

So DeLemus loaded his truck with guns and ammo — much of which he would not describe in detail — and called his best friend, who asked, “When are we leaving?”

By 5:30 a.m. the next day — a Thursday — DeLemus was picking up his friend and son to race across the country to meet at Bundy’s rustic retreat. Coffee and 5-Hour Energy drinks soon stopped working, and the veteran relied on adrenaline and dispatches from his son in the backseat to get him through the drive. En route, they stopped on a patch of Utah desert to test their gun sights before rolling to Bundy’s ranch.

Unwilling to deal with the hassle of authorities inspecting their truck for illegal weapons — and De-Lemus promises all his weapons are legal — the group timed the trip to make it to the ranch long before dawn.

He visited the Bundys’ house bearing a gift: a bottle of maple syrup from back home. Bundy’s wife, Carol, invited the visitor to breakfast and made pancakes so she could use the syrup right away.

“I got a little taste of home,” DeLemus said. “She gave me some pomegranate jelly she made, and a hug.”

BUNDY’S ENTOURAGE

It’s a minute past 1 p.m., and the small group of supporters is waiting for Bundy.

Stacked with what seemed like endless requests for interviews with national news networks, Cliven Bundy eventually decided he would speak to local media just once a day.

A month ago, Bundy was simply the 68-year-old Mormon rancher with 14 kids who thumbs his nose at the government. He was the lawbreaking cattleman who has refused to pay the government a dime in fees — totaling $1 million — for the past two decades because his ancestors settled the land in the 1870s.

The showdown in Bunkerville has turned Bundy into a modern-day folk hero of the American West, an underdog cowboy with a fighting chance against the big guy. He’s shared his story with millions of TV viewers, making appearances on morning talk shows, with hosts like Sean Hannity of Fox News.

He’s become a celebrity to some, complete with an entourage of tattooed militiamen.

That much is clear when a truck pulls up. Bundy rides in the back like a dignitary. When he steps out, he’s surrounded by a cadre of militiamen that look like secret servicemen.

The entourage wears earpieces attached to radios tucked in back pockets. One bodyguard has tattoos of empty bullet casings covering his left arm. Another bodyguard would make an NFL lineman look small. The most official-looking guard wears Army fatigues and has a sidearm pistol strapped to his hip. He’s a white man, like virtually all of the militia members on Bundy’s property.

Bundy’s son Ammon — the son shot by the federal agents with a stun gun — wore an eye-catching shirt designed by an unknown supporter who sent the family a box of them. Across the back it read:

BUNDY RANCH FREEDOM FIGHTERS

THE BATTLE OF BUNKERVILLE

Between the two phrases, the designer stamped a steer head brand using the letters V and O, which stands for “Victory Over Oppression.”

During the short news conference, I asked Bundy how long he would need the support of the militia. That’s when Ammon stepped in and defined militia as “a volunteer army of citizens.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, in a public speech two days later, called the armed group something different. He defined them as “domestic terrorists,” which would put them in the same category as the brothers who detonated the Boston Marathon bombs and engaged in gun battles with police almost exactly a year before the standoff at the ranch. The militiamen’s political viewpoints are far different. Their willingness to resort to violence for a cause is the same.

Whatever the group at Bundy’s ranch may be called, Bundy told supporters they would be there as long as it takes until this fight is over.

What is their ultimate goal?

“State sovereignty,” said John O’Neil, who traveled from Kalispell, Mont. “Limited government. It’s not just the Bundys. We’re all being oppressed.”

THE STANDOFF

O’Neil won’t soon forget the showdown in Bunkerville.

He not only taped most of it on his video camera, but it’s a memory indelibly branded in his mind. He’s moved to tears describing the defining standoff that ended in a temporary victory for the Bundy family and their supporters.

After hearing about the Bundys’ battle with the BLM on the news, the 74-year-old self-proclaimed patriot made the 16-hour drive to the desert from Kalispell. He had no idea what to expect.

By the afternoon of Saturday, April 12, he says, he wasn’t sure he’d survive past dinnertime.

Around 1 p.m., orders filtered down to the some 1,000 supporters and militiamen who had gathered over the past week to support Bundy: “Go get the cattle,” O’Neil remembers hearing.

So that’s what they did. Gathered at a protest camp on the west side of the Virgin River, the large group — many of them armed with guns, many of them women and children — traveled northeast toward the Toquop Wash. An Arizona sheriff commented that the supporters strategically placed the women and children at the front of the line to make it difficult for armed agents to open fire.

There, just north of Interstate 15, the BLM had set up their compound. There was a corral fence to keep the rounded-up cattle.

“We didn’t know exactly where we going,” O’Neil said. “There were hundreds of cars lined up along the side of the road.”

O’Neil called his wife and said his goodbyes.

When the group got to the two interstate bridges, militiamen took to high ground on the southbound bridge, pointing their guns into the wash, just in case a firefight broke out. Below the other bridge, BLM agents in full tactical gear had rifles pointed at as many as 1,000 supporters standing in protest, according to eyewitness accounts.

O’Neil remembers the supporters — including himself — kneeling in prayer. Then the group inched forward, toward BLM personnel and Bundy’s seized cattle.

Later, several of those at the scene would say the situation was so tense that any loud noise — a car backfiring, say — might have touched off a bloodbath. There’s no question among those who saw it: The militia members at the scene would have used their guns on the government agents if a fight had broken out.

The supporters marched toward the armed agents, until the agents made another announcement: The cattle round-up had been cancelled.

The agency has issued one statement about the standoff:

“This afternoon, demonstrators gathered at the area where personnel and cattle were located. Due to escalating tensions, the cattle have been released from the enclosures in order to avoid violence and help restore order.”

An hour and a half later, the BLM was packed up and gone.

That’s when an order came down from the Bundys: Be silent and back up — because cattle spook. So the supporters backed up into the dirt and gathered on both bridges.

Then Bundy’s sister walked up to the corral, O’Neil said, and opened it.

The first cow came through. Then another. Then a stream of them, large and small.

Bundy won the battle, but the war is far from over.

SOMETHING WITH A BADGE THIS WAY COMES

It’s just before 4 p.m. the Tuesday after the standoff, and Frank Dysthe catches something in his rifle’s sights.

Even after the BLM’s submission, the militiamen are weary, ready for anything and harboring a skeptical relief.

He’s tracking the unsuspecting target across the Virgin River: a white car rolling down the road.

“Got a white vehicle across the river,” he says, catching the attention of a militiaman who pulls a pair of binoculars to his eyes.

A few seconds of study pass, and the militiaman offers his take.

“That’s a white Charger with tinted windows and custom mag wheels,” said the man, who would not share his name. “That ain’t no cop.”

Then a report floats into camp from the south: The cops are heading this way.

“About 15 squad cars,” DeLemus says. “It’ll take them about 15 minutes to get here.”

The camp comes alive. Militiamen hop on their radios, checking positions, the specter of the enemy spooking them into action. DeLemus remains the voice of reason, reminding the men there have been many false alarms over the past few days. But he hops in his truck anyway to alert the Bundy family of what might be coming.

Down a winding dirt road behind the militia camp, about half a mile off the main drag, guards armed with shotguns and rifles stand watch in front of a green and yellow sign reading: BUNDY MELONS.

There’s a set of chairs in front of the sign, a makeshift table crowded with cigarette packs, water bottles — and pistols.

Just after 4:30 p.m. a Metro Police SUV pulls up. DeLemus arrives next, talking to the officer through open windows.

I can’t make out what they’re saying, so I wait for the official word from DeLemus.

After about 15 minutes and a talk with Bundy’s black-haired bodyguard, the officer leaves and Jerry drives up. It was a false alarm. A good friend of Bundy’s, the officer has lived in the area for years and wanted to let him know one of his steers got loose in the road.

I shake hands with DeLemus and thank him for the hospitality.

Two militiamen decked out in camouflage vests and helmets walk out of Bundy’s ranch with their long-range rifles in hand. They head to higher ground, scaling the side of a mountain.

From their perch, their mission is to keep a lookout for their government through the sights of their rifles.

Ryan Frank contributed to this story.

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