Blaine Cooper becomes 1st cooperating witness to testify for government in refuge takeover trial

Ammon Bundy called a clandestine meeting around the dining room of their host's home in Burns on Dec. 29, 2015, and directed the five other men attending to leave their cell phones and laptops behind in a separate room. There, Bundy discussed for the first...

Blaine Cooper becomes 1st cooperating witness to testify for government in refuge takeover trial

Ammon Bundy called a clandestine meeting around the dining room of their host's home in Burns on Dec. 29, 2015, and directed the five other men attending to leave their cell phones and laptops behind in a separate room.

There, Bundy discussed for the first time his idea of taking over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, testified occupier Blaine Cooper, called as a government witness on the fifth day of the second Oregon standoff trial.

Cooper's testimony about a Dec. 29 dining-room sit down marked the first time any one has referenced in court a late December 2015 meeting in which there was talk between Bundy and five other men about seizing the federal wildlife refuge before the Jan. 2, 2016 occupation.

During his three hours and forty-minutes on the stand, Cooper also became the first cooperating witness in the case to testify for the government against fellow refuge occupiers. Four defendants are in the midst of trial, charged with conspiring to impede federal employees from carrying out their work at the federal wildlife refuge, through intimidation, threat or force.

During cross-examination, defense lawyers sought to impeach his testimony, by citing multiple contrary statements Cooper made on jail phone calls, including one to his wife on April 5, 2016, saying "I didn't know they were going in there,'' in reference to the refuge.

They also played inflammatory videos Cooper made, including one in which he tore out pages of the Koran, wrapped them in bacon and threw them into an outdoor fire pit, and then shot arrows at the Koran. They pointed out that Cooper, despite being a convicted felon, was seen with an AR-15 rifle at the Bundy Ranch in 2014.  And they elicited testimony that Cooper had spent time in institutions because of behavioral and mental health problems earlier in his life.

Cooper, his hair disheveled, shuffled into the courtroom, his ankles chained together, wearing an ill-fitting, dark-colored suit, and blue-striped dress shirt - a stark contrast to the confident, camouflage-clad, boastful figure he portrayed on his Third Watch Videos that he made and distributed on social media during the refuge occupation.  A deputy U.S. marshal escorted Cooper to the witness stand, and then sat in a folding chair he placed right beside the stand.

Cooper, 37, who has entered guilty pleas to conspiracy to impede federal workers in the Oregon case and guilty pleas in Nevada to conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States and assault on a federal officer, acknowledged he agreed to cooperate with the government in the hope of reducing a recommended six-year prison sentence. Cooper has been described by prosecutors as a recruiter, calling men to come to the Oregon refuge with firearms, and to Bunkerville, Nevada in April 2014 during a standoff with federal agents outside the elder Cliven Bundy's ranch.

He approached the government after his guilty pleas last summer, and signed a Dec. 14, 2016 cooperation agreement, agreeing to turn over some computer hard drives in the Nevada case to prosecutors and testify truthfully at the trial of co-defendants.

Present during the approximately half-hour meeting on Dec. 29, 2015 in the Burns home of Patty Overton were Bundy,  Cooper, Ryan Payne, Jason Patrick, Joseph O'Shaughnessy, Corey Lequieu and B.J Soper, Cooper said. They talked of going in to the federal wildlife refuge with firearms, and if they encountered any refuge staff there, they'd ask them to leave politely. If not, "we'd probably remove them at that point,'' Cooper said.  They spoke of having security checkpoints at the front gates, and discussed logistics, such as food and power at the facility, and what to do if counter protesters came.

The refuge seizure, Cooper said, sprung from frustrations born out of having Bundy's redress of grievance and petitions, distributed through legal avenues, ignored by local, state and federal officials. The grievance called for the sheriff to prevent the return to prison of Harney County ranchers Dwight Hammond Jr. and Steven Hammond, who were set to surrender on Jan. 4, 2016 to serve out mandatory minimum five-year sentences for setting fire to public land.

"The idea was to stay there as long as it took'' to redistrict the refuge land and return it to the people of Harney County, Cooper said.

Everybody in the group favored the takeover except O'Shaughnessy and Soper, Cooper said.  O'Shaughnessy agreed to be a "buffer,'' provide medical support on the outskirts.

"He thought we could go to jail,'' Cooper said.

He remembered Soper "shaking his head.''

" He didn't want to be a part of it,'' Cooper said.

But the consensus "to me was to make sure nobody came in , whether it be the FBI, BLM...''

"And U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service?'' Assistant U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Barrow said.

"And Fish and Wildlife Service,'' Cooper added.

After the Jan. 2, 2016 rally in Burns in support of the Hammonds, Cooper said he returned to Overton's blue house to get into "militia gear,'' including body armor, camouflaged clothing and boots. He said others had assault rifles; he brought a GoPro and camera. As they drove to the refuge, he noticed some law enforcement vehicles, and heard occupier Jon Ritzheimer say, "Somebody let the cat out of the bag.'' But a good omen, he testified, was spotting a bald eagle on the drive to the refuge.

Cooper identified the type of firearms that each of the men who arrived first at the refuge on Jan. 2, 2016 carried in conducting their sweeps of the property. At one point, he stood in the witness stand and showed how the others cleared the refuge building, stretching out his left hand in front of him while making believe he was pointing a rifle in his right hand.

He testified that Patrick had an AR-15 rifle during the initial sweep of the refuge.  According to Cooper, the men would say as they went building to building, "Is anybody in here? The militia is here...Hello?'' Occupier Brand Thornton blew a shofar, a symbol "for battle- that God is with us,'' Cooper testified.

Cooper admitted he cut part of a barbed-wire fence on the refuge boundary during the occupation, saying that was an act of civil disobedience, a symbol that "we were taking the land back for the people.''

Cooper left the night of Jan. 26, first driving with others east out of the refuge until they encountered several law enforcement SUVs. They headed back west and then drove south to Cedar City , Utah, through Nevada, he said.

Barrow asked Cooper why he agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.

Cooper said his tearful phone calls with his daughters convinced him to make amends.

"My little girl Sissy,'' Cooper said. "She cries to me a half hour a day...how she wants her Daddy to come home. She tells me I shouldn't have gone to the refuge, and should come forward and tell the truth.''

When arrested Feb. 11, 2016, defense lawyer Andrew Kohlmetz pointed out that Cooper did admit to an FBI agent who interviewed him that he had carried an AR-15 at the Bundy Ranch in 2014, and also had fired a handgun while wearing a mask in a video filmed outside his Arizona home in front of his family - both while a felon in possession of a firearm.

Cooper said he didn't remember, so Kohlmetz played the recording of the FBI interview.  The agent was heard asking Cooper why he carried those weapons since he's prohibited to do so. Cooper said in the interview, "The Second Amendment says I have the right to bear arms and says it shall not be infringed.''

Cooper, on the stand, denied that he ever possessed a firearm, outside of the Bundy Ranch in 2014, since his felony convictions. "No sir,'' he told Kohlmetz.

Kohlmetz, standby lawyer for defendant Patrick, asked Cooper what his jail experience has been like. Cooper described it as "horrible.''

"Is it true you told folks on the phone while you've been in jail you would do anything to shorten that experience?''

"Yes sir I may have said that,'' he answered.

Kohlmetz elicited testimony that Cooper had applied in 1997 to join the U.S. Marine Corps, but was rejected because of an arrest warrant. In 2006, at the age of 27, he changed his name from Stanley Hicks Jr. to Blaine Cooper. Cooper said he took his stepdad's last name because his father was physically abusive. Kohlmetz asked if Cooper took the name of Jesse Ventura's Blain Cooper character in the movie Predator, and Cooper said he had no idea what the last name of Ventura's character was.

Kohlmetz continued. "You never told this story until today,'' Kohlmetz noted, referring to the Dec. 29, 2016 meeting.

"My attorney had this information from the beginning,'' Cooper said.

But Kohlmetz referenced Cooper's Feb. 11, 2016  interview with an FBI agent, in which he gave conflicting information, noting that occupiers did not make it impossible for refuge employees to return to their work, and could have come in at anytime. "It's not what you said today?'' Kohlmetz noted.

Kohlmetz played an April 5, 2016 jail phone call between Cooper and his wife: "Because phone calls are recorded. I can't say a lot. I can tell you I didn't know they were going in there.''

Kohlmetz, citing another phone call to his wife, said Cooper suggested he was going to destroy computer evidence in the case, and questioned what happened to the video Cooper took of the initial sweep of the refuge.  Cooper said he had his GoPro and a camera, but the memory cards were missing.  Kohlmetz played a video of Cooper from jail, in which he said he "lied under oath'' when pleading guilty in Nevada.

Cooper said, "A lot of people thought that Trump would pardon on.''

Cooper said he had his attorneys tell Ammon Bundy and his brother about his guilty pleas before he entered them in court, because he didn't want to "go behind their back.''

"I thought I had a duty and obligation to let them know that,'' he said, getting emotional. "I love the Bundys very much. They're some of the best friends I have.''

Cooper also wrote to Ammon Bundy before he testified in court Monday for the government.

"I wanted to let you know I decided to do whatever I have to do to get home to my kids,'' Cooper wrote.  He said he couldn't justify sitting in prison for six years, if he could do something to cut that time in half. He also said "God sent me two crappy attorneys,'' who manipulated him into the plea deals.

In court, Cooper said, "I'm not a coward. I spent the last three years out of my life,'' being a hero for the American people. "It's literally sucked the life out of me. Right now I just want to be a hero for my little girls.''

Ammon Bundy's wife Lisa Bundy attended Monday's court hearing, with her sister-in-law Angie Huntington Bundy, Ryan Bundy's wife.  When Cooper took the stand, Lisa Bundy waved to him, and mouthed, "We love you.''

After his testimony, Lisa Bundy said, "I'm so sad that he's lying. He's a pathological liar.''

Bundy said her husband was home with her and their family in Idaho between Christmas 2015 and Dec. 31, 2015, and couldn't have been at the meeting Cooper testified about occurring on Dec. 29, 2015 in Burns.

"He has a good heart, but he has too much crap,'' she said. "How can you believe him after everything we heard today.''

-- Maxine Bernstein

mbernstein@oregonian.com
503-221-8212
@maxoregonian

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