With the break-in and occupation by armed protesters of the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon grabbing national attention it’s a good time to take a detailed look at what actually happened over the last 22 years that led up to this incident.
Some of the protesters appearing in front of news cameras repeatedly refer to the arrest, convictions, and sentencing of Dwight Hammond, Jr., and his son, Steven Hammond who set fires on Bureau of Land Management property not far from the Wildlife Refuge.
In addition to raising cattle on their own property, the Hammonds paid a small fee for their cattle to graze on BLM land. In 2015 the rate was $1.69 per animal per month. There is no charge for calves. If they were paying open market rates instead of taxpayer subsidized rates it would cost them about 12 times as much.
There is a lot of misinformation being thrown around about why or if the Hammonds lit fires on public land. An example occurred on January 4 when CNN reporter Paul Vercammen mischaracterized the crimes committed by the two ranchers that triggered the protests and federal property take over. Mr. Vercammen, in explaining what led to the occupation, described the actions of the Hammonds as “arson on their own property”, when in fact on at least two occasions they illegally set fires on public land administered by the BLM.
Below is the timeline that we have developed from court documents, information provided by U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesperson Gerri Badden, and other sources provided by some of our loyal readers.
You will find that on two occasions, in 2001 and 2006, the Hammonds set fires that endangered wildland firefighters, forcing them to take evasive action when their safety was compromised. In one case they conscripted a 13-year old to help ignite a fire who was too successful. He found himself surrounded by flames and fearing for his life. A group of three hunters, whose location was known to the Hammonds, were also threatened by one of the fires and had to hurriedly evacuate the area without having time to pack up the equipment at their campsite. The Hammonds also had several previous run-ins with the legal system that until now have not been general knowledge.
1994, August 5 — Dwight and Steven Hammond were arrested and spent two nights in custody. Federal employees of the Malheur National Wildlife refuge were attempting to build a fence on refuge property to keep the Hammonds’ cattle from trespassing on federal land. (There is some dispute about this exact date, but court records show that it occurred on August 5, 1994.)
From High Country News:
On the day the fence was to be built, the crew and refuge officials arrived to find Hammond had parked his Caterpillar scraper squarely on the boundary line and disabled it, removing the battery and draining fuel lines. When a tow truck arrived to move it, Dwight Hammond showed up, leaped to the controls of the scraper and hit a lever that lowered the bucket, narrowly missing another special agent. Meanwhile, said [Special Agent Earl M.] Kisler, Steve Hammond shouted obscenities at federal officials. Neither Hammond resisted arrest.
The original charge was a felony, “Forcibly impede, intimidate and interfere with federal officers engaged in the performance of their official duties”.
The High Country News reported that many sources applied a great deal of pressure on the BLM and the Secretary of the Interior, protesting the arrests. Some employees received phone calls and death threats at their homes.
1994, August 15 — The charges were reduced to a misdemeanor for both Steven and Dwight Hammond, to “Interfering with Government Employees and Private Parties”.
1997, July 16 — the “Interfering” cases were dismissed by the U.S. Attorney’s office.
1999 — Steven was arrested and convicted for interfering with lawful users of public lands. On Oct. 9, 1999, he interfered with a lawful hunt being conducted by a hunting guide and his party. On March 9, 2000, he was sentenced to 3 years of probation.
2001, September 30 — Hardie-Hammond Fire.
According to testimony from a commercial hunting guide, his two clients, and Dusty Hammond the grandson to Dwight Hammond and nephew to Steven Hammond, their family and friends were hunting when shots were fired from the group into a herd of deer on BLM land. The guide said four bucks were crippled, but the Hammond hunting party did not track or collect any deer.
Later, Steven, with Dwight at his side, handed out boxes of matches to everyone in the party including 13-year old Dusty. Their instructions were to “light up the whole country on fire”. They went off in different directions and began igniting fires, but Dusty was by himself, following a path pointed out by Steven. He was at first unsuccessful in getting the vegetation to ignite, but after Steven showed him how to use several of the “strike anywhere” matches together, he was creating eight to ten-foot flames which at one point surrounded and entrapped him causing him to fear for his life — “I thought I was going to get burned up”, he said. The fires were lit along the line between their property and public land, and spread onto public land.
Gerri Badden, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s office, said the motive for setting the fires was to cover up the illegal slaughter of the deer which was witnessed by the hunting guide, the guide’s two hunters, and was affirmed by Dusty.
Two hours after igniting the fires Steven called the BLM to report that they were going to burn invasive species.
The hunting guide saw that the fire was moving toward their camp and was concerned about his safety and that of his two clients from Utah. The three of them evacuated from the area without even taking the time to break down and remove their equipment at the camp. As they drove away they were able to see the flames of the fire in the area they had left. Testimony in the trial indicated that the Hammonds were aware of the location of the guide and his clients before lighting the fires since they flew their airplane over the area earlier that morning.
Later in the day Dwight and Steven took to the sky again in their airplane to examine the burnt area, telling Dusty they were going to check to see if the fire got rid of the juniper, which is an invasive species that robs water from grasses grazed by cattle.
Dusty said that when the Hammond hunting party returned to the house after setting the fires, “Dwight told me to keep my mouth shut, that nobody needed to know about the fire”. Eight years later 21-year old Dusty told investigators why he waited so long to speak up about the arson, saying that if Steven heard he provided information he would come to Dusty’s front door and kill him.
The writers of the sentencing report said the setting of the fires created a “conscious or reckless risk of death or serious bodily injury” to individuals including Dusty Hammond. The fires burned 139 acres of federal land.
2004 — Steven allegedly “sandpapered” off the chest of Dusty Hammond, then age 16, two initials he had tattooed on himself. Steven was charged with Criminal Mistreatment, but the charges were dismissed in 2005 when he entered into a diversion program.
A police report about the incident was introduced in the 2012 trial as evidence along with photos after the Hammonds referred to themselves as “dedicated family men who are highly regarded in their community”.
2006, August 17 — Steven told a BLM employee that he and Dwight had been setting fires in the area for years. Steven also said to not be surprised if more fires appeared after the next lightning storm in the area.
(Note from Bill: a resident who lives in a forested area told me that he has used lightning storms as cover for lighting fires. He assumed that one more fire, if several were started in the county, would not be looked at closely by investigators.)
2006, August 21 — A lightning storm hit the Steens Mountain area and ignited several fires, including the Krumbo Butte Fire. Dwight encountered the same BLM employee he had talked with on August 17 who was assigned to suppress the fire, telling him he wished the fires were larger.
2006, August 22 — A firefighter assigned to the Krumbo Butte Fire with his crew that was spending the night on a hill saw three small fires below their location. The fire behavior and calm winds at the time made it very unlikely that they could have been spot fires started from embers generated by the main fire. When the three fires grew together he worried that the new fire could run up the hill endangering the crew. Concerned there was an active arsonist in the area, he moved the crew to a safer location.
2006, August 23 — Steven admitted to one of the firefighters that he set the fires the previous night “to provide feed for his cattle”, according to the BLM report about the Hammonds’ grazing permit. The report also goes into much detail about suspicious fires that started that day in an area near where Steven and Dwight were seen in the general vicinity of the main fire, the Krumbo Butte Fire. These new ignitions compromised the safety of firefighters nearby, some of whom were forced to retreat from the area. They were given advice and led to safety via radio by an orbiting Air Attack. Again, this occurred in a location that virtually ruled out ignition caused by embers from the main fire; one was three miles away.
Dwight had disappeared into the vegetation but when he was spotted by a firefighter who told him to stop, fled, but he eventually stopped.
Later a fire investigator determined that seven fires were intentionally set.
According to the U.S. Attorney’s office, Hammonds’ motive for setting the fires was to protect their winter feed. Steven ignited the fires during a county wide burn ban and while a “red flag warning” was in effect, without notice or permission and while knowing BLM contract firefighters were in the area.
2006, August 24 — Steven was arrested for questioning about the suspicious fires.
2011 — Steven was convicted of unsworn falsification in state court for forging a landowner’s preference hunting form.
2012, June 21 — After a trial over arson charges, the jury found Dwight and Steven Hammond guilty of the 2001 arson and Steven Hammond of the 2006 arson, and not guilty of other arson charges. While the jury was deliberating on the remaining charges, the Hammonds negotiated a settlement with the government which resulted in acceptance of the guilty verdicts, the dismissal of the remaining charges, and a promise from the government not to recommend a sentence greater than the mandatory minimum of 5 years. The Hammonds acknowledged in open court that they knew the mandatory minimum prison term they were facing was 5 years.
2012, October 25 — The sentencing report prepared by the U.S. Probation Office recommend a 78-month prison sentence for Steven Hammond and a 63-month prison sentence for Dwight Hammond. The government kept its promise and asked for the minimum mandated by law, five years. The government argued the Hammonds were “arsonists,” not “terrorists.”
2012, October 30 — Dwight was given 12 months in prison and Steven received 3 months.
The U.S. Attorney appealed the sentences, since they did not conform to federal sentencing laws, and the appeals court imposed the required five year sentence. The Hammonds appealed that revised sentence all the way to the Supreme Court and lost in March, 2015.
2013, January 4 — The Hammonds began serving their prison time. Dwight was released in March, 2013 and Steven in January, 2014.
2014, February 14 — The BLM denied the renewal of the Hammonds’ grazing permit, citing the arson convictions and other issues.
2014, December 4 — A civil suit related to the arson brought against the Hammonds by the federal government was settled, with Dwight and Steven agreeing to pay $200,000 each. If they had to sell their property in order to make the payments, under the agreement the government had first right of refusal. However the two payments of $200,000 were received, and there was no sale of property.
2015, October 7 — A federal judge re-sentenced the Hammonds to five years. They were scheduled to return to prison January 4, 2016.