Marine veteran Oregon refuge occupier: 'I am extremely sorry for this entire mess'
By MAXINE BERNSTEIN | The Oregonian, Portland, Ore. | Published: December 2, 2017
PORTLAND, Oregon (Tribune News Service) — Jon Ritzheimer, a military veteran who led and recruited others to the armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, was sentenced to a year and a day in federal prison and must spend another 12 months in a residential re-entry program, a federal judge ordered Thursday.
Ritzheimer, dressed in a blue suit and tie with a band of military medals from his two tours of Marine Corps Reserve duty in Iraq pinned to his jacket, apologized to the judge and those affected by the 41-day occupation of the federal bird sanctuary in Harney County.
"I did read through the victim reports, and I do believe people were genuinely afraid," he said. "It absolutely was not my intent for anyone to feel that way. ... I am extremely sorry for this entire mess."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Craig Gabriel urged U.S. District Judge Anna J. Brown to sentence Ritzheimer to two years in prison, citing his leadership and "aggravating" role in the occupation.
Defense lawyer Terri Wood countered that prison would not be appropriate for Ritzheimer. She argued that her client has learned his lesson and needs specialized Veteran Affairs treatment for his combat-related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and a minor traumatic brain injury suffered while in the service.
Wood said there was a direct nexus between Ritzheimer's untreated mental health problems from his military service and his participation in the refuge takeover.
"In the winter of 2016, in the high desert terrain of eastern Oregon, decked out in military garb and slinging a rifle, Jon Ritzheimer was a wounded warrior, still at war," Wood wrote in her sentencing memo. The memo seeking either house arrest or a residential re-entry program for Ritzheimer, instead of prison, was included in a thick bound volume of information she provided to the judge.
The judge said she didn't agree that two years in prison was warranted for Ritzheimer, but she also couldn't justify placing him only on probation, considering his role in the occupation. She said she attempted to fashion a "fair balance" and did consider his military service and the "burden" he carries with him due to his combat-related diagnoses.
Ritzheimer likely will get two months off for time already served in jail, plus another two months off his sentence as credit for good time, so he likely won't be behind bars more than eight more months, Brown said.
Ritzheimer, 34, left his family in Arizona in December 2015 and traveled to Harney Carney, where he appeared on video in Marine Corps camouflage, holding an AR-15 rifle, and sought to recruit other "patriots" and "militiamen" to join him to "take a stand."
On Dec. 25, 2015, for example, a video titled, "BREAKING MESSAGE FROM MARINE JON RITZHEIMER! BLM ALERT! featured Ritzheimer railing against "oppression and tyranny taking place in Oregon" and urging others to join him.
He also urged Harney County rancher Dwight Hammond, who was due to turn himself in to prison at the start of 2016 to serve out a five-year federal sentence for setting fire to public land, not to do so, and Ritzheimer offered to serve as his protection. In a video message, Ritzheimer said, "It's real simple Dwight. You want to die in prison labeled as a terrorist by these oppressors? Or do you want to die out here with us, as a free man? I want to die a free man."
Ritzheimer also was in the first convoy of cars who arrived at the refuge on Jan. 2, 2016. They were armed and cleared each building before blocking the front gate and positioning armed guards in the watchtower and entrances. Ritzheimer had a military-style AR-15 during that initial takeover and described himself as "triggerman," according to the prosecutor.
"Thank God there was not an employee there," Gabriel said. " If there had been, your Honor, we could be looking at a different case."
After the occupation, paperwork seized by federal agents showed Ritzheimer was listed as a leader of the infantry squad, constitutional defense forces, and a rapid response team, and that he went by the nickname "Rogue." On Jan. 5, 2016, fearing federal officers were going to raid the refuge, Ritzheimer urged other occupiers to take a "defensive posture." In a subsequent video that went viral, Ritzheimer was angered by hate mail and a package of sex toys sent to the refuge during the occupation, and he was captured angrily knocking them all off a table.
Ritzheimer, in his address to the judge, explained why he remained at the refuge. "I genuinely thought a threat was coming my way. That's the Marine Corps way – you're not going to run. You're going to dig your heels in."
He left the refuge on Jan. 24, 2016, and was arrested in Arizona two days later. On Aug. 15, 2016, Ritzheimer pleaded guilty to a felony charge of federal conspiracy to impede federal workers at the refuge through intimidation, threat or force. He's agreed to pay $10,000 in restitution.
Once he was released from jail, Ritzheimer said he checked himself in to an inpatient treatment facility, and his focus has been on his family, getting healthier and operating his motorcycle repair business called Gremlin Garage.
Ritzheimer's work in a motorcycle repair shop soon after his Iraq combat service seemed to lack much meaning and provoked him into political activism, his lawyer wrote to the court. In May 2015, he planned an anti-Islam protest at a mosque in Phoenix.
At some point in Arizona, he met with a detective and an FBI agent, who were evaluating him to serve as a confidential human source there, Wood wrote. Later, the Hammond case in Oregon "struck a chord" in his pursuit of political activism, his lawyer wrote.
Ritzheimer told the judge he's hopeful something good will come out of this ordeal. "I don't ever want to be on the wrong side of the law again," he said. He said he hopes people hear him "loud and clear" that he doesn't advocate for any bloodshed.
"There needs to be another way, a peaceful way," Ritzheimer said.
Ritzheimer made a brief reference to the bar of colorful military medals he wore on his jacket lapel. "I came here with this stuff on," he said, pausing, overcome with emotion. As he removed the pin of medals and placed them on the defense table before him, he added, "I'm really not proud of it anymore, your honor."
He said he never wants to be a person who is "just following orders" again.
Brown told Ritzheimer no one was contesting his valor and military service. The medals, she said, are intended to recognize his accomplishments, but there's no debate that he carries the burden of his combat and needs continued treatment for it.
"I hope the day comes that you're proud of your medals again," the judge said.
Ritzheimer must start his prison sentence Feb. 15. The judge recommended he serve time at the federal prison near Safford, Arizona, and that he be allowed to continue treatment with Veterans Affairs once he's in the residential re-entry program in Phoenix, Arizona.
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