CNN reporter mischaracterizes the arson crimes of Oregon ranchers

CNN Oregon occupation report
CNN reporter Paul Vercammen (on the right) reports from the federal building break-in and occupation in Oregon, 12:21 p.m. PST, January 4, 2015. Screen grab from CNN.

In a live report today at 12:21 p.m. PST from the scene of the federal building break in and armed occupation at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, 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 Dwight Hammond, Jr., and his son, Steven Hammond:

[the protesters occupying the buildings] all do agree that the Hammonds should not be facing these indictment charges, going to prison again for arson on their own property.

First, they are not facing “indictment charges”. The two were convicted in federal court and given sentences well below the mandatory minimum sentence required by U.S. law. 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.

Below is how the U.S. Attorney described one of the cases for which the Hammonds were convicted by a jury, the 2001 Hardie-Hammond Fire in the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Area:

Dwight Lincoln Hammond, Jr., 73, and his son, Steven Dwight Hammond, 46, both residents of Diamond, Oregon in Harney County, were sentenced to five years in prison by Chief U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken for arsons they committed on federal lands.


Witnesses at trial, including a relative of the Hammonds, testified the arson occurred shortly after Steven Hammond and his hunting party illegally slaughtered several deer on BLM property.  Jurors were told that Steven Hammond handed out “Strike Anywhere” matches with instructions that they be lit and dropped on the ground because they were going to “light up the whole country on fire.”  One witness testified that he barely escaped the eight to ten foot high flames caused by the arson.  The fire consumed 139 acres of public land and destroyed all evidence of the game violations…

In his live report on CNN Mr. Vercammen appeared to be sympathetic to the causes of the protesters and the convicted arsonists, providing only their side of the issues, while failing to give a balanced and objective description of the facts.

And then there is the text headline in the lower-third of CNN’s report: “Armed activists prepared to stay, defend themselves”.  DEFEND THEMSELVES? From what? Bearing weapons, they seized property belonging to all of the citizens of the United States and intend to give it to someone else.

Just before reporter Vercammen provided his live, one-sided evaluation of the occupation, Ammon Bundy gave a news conference at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Mr. Bundy, who was involved along other members of his family in a similar armed dispute with the Bureau of Land Management in Nevada in 2014, spent much of his time in front of the cameras discussing the Hammonds legal situation and his opinion that the federal government is unfairly harrassing them.

(UPDATE: On January 5, 2016 we researched and assembled the facts about about the Hammonds over the last 20 years.)

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

18 thoughts on “CNN reporter mischaracterizes the arson crimes of Oregon ranchers”

  1. They started a back burn to save their ranch. Wouldn’t you do the same? Please note that the Hammonds are not supportive of the protesters occupying federal property.

  2. Thanks Brian. This 21-page document is extremely useful and explains in great detail why the Hammond men were charged with nine crimes, including conspiracy, use of fire to damage property of the U.S., and tampering with a witness. There is nothing in this document that infers the Hammonds lit the fires as backfires to protect their property.

    In case the document disappears from the site, I placed a copy on the Wildfire Today site for safe keeping. Note that it’s a large file — 1.1 Mb.

  3. To be clear of terminology; CNN misused the term “indictment charges.” An indictment is a finding by a grand jury that there was probable cause that a crime was committed and that the prosecutor can file charges with the court to take the matter to trial. In this case, the crime had already gone to trial and a jury found for conviction.
    The issue in this case was the sentencing – the court was more lenient, but federal sentencing guidelines were not met. Professional journalism is a thing of the past.

  4. They also started a fire two years before that one (1999), in which 90 acres of federal land burned, after which they were warned about any future violations. They were apparently never punished for the deer poaching or either fire. Nothing happened until 2010, and then it took five years from there, with appeals of the original District Court decision, all the way to the Supreme Court with a request for writ of certeriori regarding the re-sentencing, which was denied.

    I was willing to listen to possible reasonable arguments, but after reading the court documents, etc realized they don’t have any. And they also appear to want nothing to do with the Bundys at this point.

  5. It seems that the Hammonds have have a long history of problems with the land management agencies over their grazing practices, including making death threats against federal employees. Here’s a 1994 article about them from High Country News.


    By the way, for anyone interested in this, check out John N. Maclean on facebook. He’s having a real party over there with this topic, repeatedly citing Gabbert’s site in the fray. Good in-depth discussion, which you likely won’t get anytime soon from other media sources.

  7. It’s good to know the real side of the story on several fronts. Thank you everyone for the info and the links provided. Too bad the media and the various other rumor mills that churn about lead us to a situation like this in our country. Here’s hoping it doesn’t lead to people getting hurt…. And thank you Mr. Gabbert for having this website to provide us with these stories and the ability to provide comments. I always look forward to the stories here.

  8. That PDF file is amazing. Thanks.

    Poachers and arsonists … and some of the STUPIDEST yahoos I’ve ever read about.

  9. What’s the evidence for the poaching accusation?

    Why were they not charged with poaching?

  10. There were four witnesses that confirmed the poaching. More information is in our very detailed Timeline article. Complicating the prosecution for the poaching was the fact that the fire the Hammonds ignited burned the deer.

    It is unknown if the deer that were reported to have been “crippled” were still alive when they burned.

  11. Thank you for posting this, @Bill Gabbert. I’m trying to make sense of this whole debacle, and this helps very much! There’s so much spin everywhere that I can’t tell which way the wind blows anymore, but this is a refreshing, well-reasoned account. Is there a source for your quote from the US Attorney where witnesses for the trial described the fires as being lit to cover up poaching?

  12. The hammonds lit 2 fires several years apart. One was set on their own land to burn off the invasive junipers, which were also on BLM land. The fire burned 139 acres of federal land in addition to their own.

    The second fire was lit as a backfire. It burned 1 acre of federal land.

    BLM, USFS and other agenies light controlled burns that get out of hand all of the time. Where is your outrage over that?

    Tell me how is lighting a grass fire going to cover up poaching? All it would do is scorch the carcasses and the smoke would bring attention. Coyotes and buzzards would make short work of a deer carcass anyway.

    I like how the story has gone from allegations of one deer being poached to several. Tell me how the prosecutor could make a trumped up arson charge stick, but not a deer poaching charge?

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