On the eve of his trial, federal prosecutors in Oregon have dropped the conspiracy indictment against Peter Santilli, a self-described independent broadcaster who was present during the 41-day occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County.
On eve of trial, fed. prosecutors seek to dismiss conspiracy charge against Youtuber who broadcast Oregon Occupiers. https://t.co/mUMoGisnwN
— Gabriel Malor (@gabrielmalor) September 7, 2016
Santilli, 51, was the lone person of eight defendants set for trial this month who never stayed overnight at the federal wildlife refuge in eastern Oregon, and his attorney argued that much of the material he broadcast on his YouTube channel was protected speech under the First Amendment.
In a motion filed late Tuesday afternoon, federal prosecutors urged the court to dismiss the indictment, citing U.S. District Judge Anna J. Brown’s ruling last week that limited the evidence they could present against Santelli.
For example, the judge ruled, prosecutors cannot present evidence of Santilli haranguing counter-protesters at the refuge or badgering traditional news media in an attempt to dispute Santilli’s defense that he was simply acting as a member of the press documenting the refuge takeover.
“Based upon this Court’s pretrial evidentiary rulings excluding evidence against Santilli, the government has decided that the interests of justice do not support further pursuit of these charges against Santilli,” according to a motion signed by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Ethan Knight, Craig Gabriel and Geoffrey Barrow.
U.S. District Judge Anna J. Brown accepted the motion to dismiss the indictment.
Santilli, also facing indictment stemming from the April 2014 armed standoff with federal officers near Bunkerville, Nevada, will remain in custody but be transferred to Nevada to face charges in that case.
Santilli’s court-appointed attorney Thomas Coan, said he got word late Tuesday afternoon that the U.S. Department of Justice had approved prosecutors’ request to dismiss the federal indictment against his client. Coan, who was told the dismissal of the case was a possibility on Friday, shared the news with Santilli about 4 p.m., at the end of Tuesday’s pretrial conference hearing.
“He was tearfully happy,” Coan said. “He started crying. He feels vindicated. He’s very, very happy and relieved.”
Coan hugged Santilli’s girlfriend, Deb Jordan, as both emerged from the pretrial conference Tuesday afternoon.
Several of the co-defendants only learned through the electronic filing of the government’s motion after Tuesday’s pretrial hearing that Santilli would not be joining them for jury selection Wednesday.
Prosecutors had argued up until Tuesday that Santilli had used his online show to issue a “call to action” to encourage more people to participate in the refuge takeover and to bring their firearms.
Coan had depicted Santilli, of Cincinnati, Ohio, as a “shock-jock” journalist whose words were taken out of context by the government and who did not intend to take over the refuge because he spent his nights at the Silver Spur Motel in Burns. Santilli isn’t violent, the lawyer had argued, and is being punished for exercising his First Amendment right to free speech and his bravado.
Coan said he had been pushing for a dismissal of the case for weeks.
“Pete had an innocent, lawful intent when he was out there,” Coan said. “I was able to persuade prosecutors of that by last week.”
Coan said he had evidence that Santilli was surprised by the move to take over the refuge on Jan. 2 following a protest against the return to federal prison of Harney County ranchers Dwight Hammond Jr. and Steve Hammond. Coan also said he had evidence that Santilli didn’t agree with the refuge takeover, and attempted an “intervention” at the Burns fairgrounds to persuade others not to participate.
At one point, Santilli noticed the security detail assigned to him for the Hammonds’ protest on Jan. 2 suddenly left him, according to Coan. When Santilli inquired why, he learned from Idaho “3 Percenter” Brandon Curtis of the refuge takeover plan. Curtis further advised Santilli not to go along with it, Coan said.
“He was mad about what happened. He felt like he was taken advantage of. He also didn’t want to abandon these guys. He didn’t want to leave the unfolding story either,” Coan said of his client.
Ammon Bundy, in a statement from jail posted on the Bundy Ranch Facebook page late Tuesday, said he was pleased for Santilli. Ammon Bundy said the government’s decision to dismiss the case against Santilli indicated their prayers are being answered.
Santilli faces more serious charges in Nevada, where he faces a 16-count indictment. He is accused of conspiring to assault federal officers, threatening officers, obstructing justice, extorting officers, and using and brandishing a firearm in relation to a crime of violence stemming from the armed standoff outside the Bundy ranch near Bunkerville.
The government alleges Santilli recruited gunmen to the ranch, helped lead an assault on U.S. Bureau of Land Management officers trying to roundup cattle on federal land, conducted reconnaissance of hotels where federal officers were staying and delivered an ultimatum to the land bureau’s agent in charge to leave the impound site.