The eldest son of a Nevada rancher and states' rights figure told a federal jury on Wednesday he believes protesters and self-styled militia members saved his life when they arrived in April 2014 after government agents used dogs and stun guns against his family members ahead of a gunpoint showdown that ended a cattle roundup.
"We didn't know who they were," Ryan Bundy said of the hundreds of people who answered a family call for support after news reports and internet accounts of family scuffles with agents and contract cowboys collecting cattle from hardscrabble rangeland northeast of Las Vegas.
"Yet here they were, protecting my life," he said. "They were heroes."
Bundy, who is serving as his own lawyer in the trial in Las Vegas, spent more than an hour speaking with a projected image of his wife and eight children on the courtroom screen. He told his family history, declared his belief in states' rights over limited federal government, and professed his love of family, the land, God, Americans, liberty and freedom.
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"My family and I have been charged with some pretty grievous things," he said. "I want to tell you that they're not true and the evidence will show they are not."
Yes, Cliven Bundy stopped paying grazing fees to the government in the 1990s, he said, echoing the family history told a day earlier by his father's lawyer, Bret Whipple. But that was after the U.S. Bureau of Land Management cut nearly in half the allotment of cows the family could turn out to graze in the vast public range surrounding the 160-acre ranch the Mormon family settled more than 140 years ago.
Acting U.S. Attorney Steven Myhre on Tuesday cast 71-year-old Cliven Bundy as the leader of a conspiracy to enlist armed militia members to turn away federal agents trying to enforce federal court orders and remove what authorities termed "trespass cattle" from range including what is now Gold Butte National Monument.
The prosecutor told jurors they'll be asked at the end of the four-month trial to weigh the rule of law against the effect of force and violence "at the end of a gun."
The first government witness called Wednesday was a Bureau of Land Management director, Mary Jo Rugwell, to testify about the decades-long dispute with Cliven Bundy.
Ryan Bundy earlier cast the government as intent on running his family off the land.
"If they become that which will not honor our rights, then they become the criminal," he said. "The government is our servant, not we to them."
Government agents overreached and overreacted, Bundy said, spending untold millions of dollars to close a vast area to the public, designate corral-style "First Amendment Zones" for protesters and devote nearly 200 federal agents and contract cowboys to the cattle roundup.
He denied anyone conspired, coerced, threatened or impeded federal agents.
"We were attacked. Our house was surrounded," Bundy said. "Surveillance cameras on one hill. Snipers aiming at the house."
Bundy choked with emotion as he recalled people like co-defendant Ryan Payne, head of a self-styled militia group, arriving from Montana in response to a family call for help.
"They saved my life," Bundy said, "for before they were there, I had a sniper pointing at me."
Payne's lawyer, Ryan Norwood, described Payne as a U.S. Army veteran who lost four good friends during two deployments in Iraq who felt compelled after seeing reports of clashes and arrests of Bundy family members to leave his job as an electrician and his wife and children at home in Anaconda, Montana, and drive to the Bundy ranch.
Norwood said jurors might not agree with his client's views on the law and constitutional rights, but, "Ryan Payne believed people were in danger, and if he didn't do something now it was going to get worse."
Payne never pointed a gun at anyone and remained with Cliven Bundy on the day of the standoff, miles away from the clash point, Norwood said.
"He worked to keep people safe," the attorney said. "Keeping people safe is not a crime."
Attorneys for another Bundy son, Ammon Bundy, told Chief U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro they would wait until after the prosecution evidence has been presented to make an opening statement.
Each defendant faces 15 felony charges including assault and threats against federal officers, obstruction and extortion. Convictions could carry the possibility of more than 170 years in prison.