Ammon Bundy, leader of the armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, has gone from counting the days of the occupation to counting the days behind bars.
Thursday marked his 37th day in a single cell at Portland’s downtown jail on federal conspiracy charges.
“It’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life,” said Bundy, his hair cut short and wearing the standard blue jail smock over a pink T-shirt in a visiting room of the Multnomah County Detention Center. “But I don’t regret what we did because I knew it was right.”
Bundy led a group of protesters in seizing the bird sanctuary Jan. 2 in Harney County to protest federal control over public land. He was arrested Jan. 26 along with other key occupation figures on their way to a community meeting 100 miles away.
Bundy said he misses his wife and six children in Idaho — three daughters and three sons ages 1 to 13 — and struggles to maintain contact with them through letters and phone calls.
To pass the time, he takes inspiration from the jailhouse words of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. about the importance of civil disobedience, reads passages from Scripture, keeps a journal and tries to respond to the more than 220 people who have sent him letters since his arrest. He also runs in place and does jumping jacks in his 7-by-12-foot cell to keep in shape.
During an hourlong interview with The Oregonian/OregonLive, the 40-year-old spoke about the surprise of his arrest, his father’s influence on his beliefs, the police shooting of occupation spokesman Robert “LaVoy” Finicum and his future.
He said he had gone to Burns to rally behind two local ranchers who were returning to prison for burning federal land and even his wife didn’t know he was planning to end up at the wildlife refuge.
“I began to look at what we can do to make a stand, to make a point, demonstrate that this is not OK, much like many others have done in our history,” he said. “We needed to make a lot of noise to get people to understand what is happening.”
He’s satisfied that the occupation drew national attention to his cause.
He doesn’t feel responsible for Finicum’s death or his 24 co-defendants who also face federal indictment, he said.
“Everyone made their own decision,” Bundy said. “We’re all adults.”
Bundy said he knew his arrest was a real possibility, but he was surprised when the FBI and state police moved in while they were traveling to John Day to meet with residents there.
“We were headed with weapons of laptops, projectors and PA systems and they attacked us – literally ambushed us with a standing army,” Bundy said. “Yeah, we were surprised because we were going peacefully to a community meeting. We were legally moving about the country peacefully the way that people should be able to do.”
He never considered not surrendering to officers at that point. “Why wouldn’t we?” he asked.
Bundy, riding in a Jeep with three others, gave up immediately, while Finicum drove off before crashing into a snowbank. Finicum got out of the truck with his hands up, but reached at least twice into his jacket where he had a loaded handgun before state police shot and killed him, the FBI said.
Bundy said Finicum probably drove off because officers shot at his truck before another occupation leader, Ryan Payne, stepped out of the pickup and surrendered. “When they were stopped and complying, the government shot at them,” he said.
Co-defendant Shawna Cox, who was in the truck with Finicum, also said in an interview with The Oregonian/OregonLive that someone shot at the pickup when it first stopped. A video released by the FBI isn’t clear about whether any round, lethal or nonlethal, was fired then.
Bundy called Finicum’s shooting “egregious” and said police “should be ashamed of it.”
While Bundy’s older brother, Ryan Bundy, 43, and their father, Cliven Bundy, are being held in the same jail, they have no contact at all, he said.
He described his father’s arrest as he stepped off a plane in Portland as “vindictive.” Cliven Bundy, 69, faces federal charges for the 2014 standoff near his Nevada ranch when armed militants confronted federal rangers in a dispute over grazing fees. His dad had flown all over the country since 2014 and was never bothered before now, he said.
“I’m grateful for him teaching me to do what is right, no matter what the consequences are,” Ammon Bundy said.
He hung his head and talked softly when he described how hard it is being away from his wife and children.
“We are in here locked away and our families are trying to survive, and they’re struggling out there especially when we were the primary breadwinners,” he said. “My babies are at home. My beautiful wife is at home. Everything is at risk right now for us, as far as our income, our house. But we have to ask ourselves – was it worth it? I believe it was.”
He wakes up and reads Scripture and each night at 5:30 p.m, he calls his family. They discuss the passages they read that day — a family tradition. The calls can’t exceed 15 minutes.
“We were not and have never been ashamed of what we did,” Bundy said.
He holds out hope that his side of the story will prevail in court.
“We went into a public building and we did a demonstration,” he said. “I believe that this will be recognized for what it is and we will be able to go home to our families. It will take us some time.”