A jury in Las Vegas heard competing narratives Thursday about six men accused of illegally wielding weapons to block a federal roundup of cattle near states' rights advocate Cliven Bundy's Nevada ranch in April 2014.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Myhre cast the defendants as insurrectionist lawbreakers — willing gunmen who answered Bundy's call to "do whatever it takes" to prevent federal Bureau of Land Management agents from seizing his cattle in a decades-long dispute over grazing rules and unpaid fees.
Defense attorneys portrayed the men as patriotic citizens and peacemakers — spurred by internet videos of scuffles between federal agents and Bundy family members to travel to the Bundy ranch to protest government heavy-handedness.
"He saw wrong being done to the Bundys," said Terrence Jackson, attorney for Phoenix resident Gregory Burleson. "He carried his weapon. (But) at no time did he point a weapon at anyone. At no time did he participate in any illegal activity."
Burleson and co-defendants Eric Parker, Orville Scott Drexler, Steven Stewart, Todd Engel and Richard Lovelien are the first of 17 defendants to stand trial in the standoff. Each is accused of 10 charges including conspiracy, firearm offenses and assault on a federal officer. Each could face up to 101 years in prison if convicted of all charges.
Myhre opened the trial in U.S. District Court showing photos of each defendant with a rifle in his hands.
The prosecutor characterized them as "the end of a rifle barrel" in a tense standoff between Bundy and the BLM that could have turned tragically deadly with hundreds of unarmed protesters in potential crossfire in a dry river bed.
"It is a crime to use a gun to threaten the life of a federal law enforcement officer," Myhre said.
In the end, no shots were fired, no one was injured and the cows were set free.
The prosecutor said the two dozen government agents at the scene identified more than 20 people with guns in what he called a protest "mob," and on high ground surrounding a corral containing almost 400 head of Bundy cattle near Bunkerville, about 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas.
Engel, who is serving as his own attorney, told jurors he was astonished to find armed, armored and helmeted federal agents with gunsights trained on men, women and children who had prayed and recited the Pledge of Allegiance before gathering amid fluttering flags and cowboys on horseback to free Bundy cattle.
Engel offered a tick-tock timeline that had the standoff lasting almost 90 minutes. He acknowledged he had a military-style assault weapon and wore fatigues he called "my scary clothes." But he said he never threatened federal agents.
Instead, he said he implored Nevada Highway Patrol troopers to help get the government agents to lower their weapons.
Testimony is scheduled to begin Monday and take up to 10 weeks.
The trial will serve as a preview for trial in May for Cliven Bundy, sons Ryan and Ammon Bundy and two other accused leaders of the conspiracy. Trial for another six co-defendants is expected in August.