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Washington County Sheriffs Office sends deputies to Harney County

COURTESY OF THE HARNEY COUNTY SHERIFFS OFFICE - Harney County Sheriff David M. Ward says his community is being held hostage to a national cause. Most people in the county want the protest to end peacefully, Ward says.Sheriffs across Oregon are keeping a close watch on Harney County’s standoff with armed militants, and Washington County is doing its part, with deputies assisting in the far-flung corner of the state.

As the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge stretches into its third week, Oregon sheriffs are lending a hand, providing deputies to patrol the rural Eastern Oregon county.

Washington County has been rotating deputies in and out of Harney County, according to Sgt. Bob Ray, a spokesman with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office.

The two dozen armed militants who took control of the wildlife refuge complex on Jan. 2 call themselves the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom. The group is demanding that refuge land and other federally owned property in the county be turned over to local ranchers. They believe the federal government’s ownership of the land is unconstitutional.

They also want the release of Dwight Hammond Jr. and Steven Hammond, Harney County ranchers who reported to a federal prison Jan. 4 to serve five-year sentences for illegally burning federal grazing land.TRIBUNE PHOTO: ROB KERR - Blain Cooper, 36, and fellow protesters stand in the seized Malheur Nation Refuge complex about 30 miles from Burns. The group wants federal land in Harney County turned over to local ranchers.

Law enforcement agencies dealing with the standoff have kept a low profile and have not moved against the armed group. The FBI is handling the wildlife refuge standoff because the complex is federal property operated by U.S. Fish and Wildlife. Harney County officials are handling the law enforcement response across the county with the help of deputies and police officers from Oregon departments.

“The Washington County Sheriff’s Office received a request for assistance from Harney County Sheriff (David) Ward,” Ray said in a prepared statement. “It is common for Sheriffs to request assistance from other Sheriff’s Offices across the state for special details or unforeseen events. The Washington County Sheriff’s Office is assisting the Harney County Sheriff’s Office, along with other agencies across the state, in limited capacity with their normal operations.

Ray would not say how many deputies have been sent to assist.

“This is a police investigation, and we don’t want everybody to know where all of our resources are,” Ray said.

Multnomah County has sent two deputies to Harney County. Sheriffs Gary Bettencourt of Gilliam County and Matt English of Hood River County are also in Harney County providing support.

Ray said that Washington County deputies are not involved in the standoff investigation. Instead, Ray said, deputies from Washington County are providing general patrol duties for the county, to free up Harney County deputies to focus on the standoff.

So far, authorities have done little to stop the militants. The first arrest in the standoff came last Friday, Jan. 15, when 62-year-old Kenneth W. Medenbach of Crescent was taken into custody by Oregon State Troopers and charged with driving a stolen U.S. Fish and Wildlife van. Medenbach is a member of the group holed up at the refuge and has a history of defying federal officials. He also was part of the 2015 occupation of Bureau of Land Management property near the southern Oregon town of Galice, in the Sugar Pine Mine standoff.

‘Feel the tension’

John Bishop, a retired sheriff and now executive director of the Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association in Salem, said the group is concerned about that possibility as its members focus on helping Harney County.TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Multnomah County Sheriff Dan Staton says he and other sheriffs are keeping an eye on the Harney County standoff in case similar protests spread across the state.

“It is a consideration that we have talked about,” Bishop said. “Whether it is a reality or not, time will tell. But we just want to be prepared.”

Staton’s observations came after he spent two days last week in Central and Eastern Oregon meeting with local officials and talking with residents in Burns and Hines, the two towns about 30 miles from the refuge.

Staton said the standoff has rattled and divided Harney County residents. Many are angry and want the occupying group to leave, with some loudly expressing that during two community meetings. Others support the group and its cause. Many outsiders who support the occupation are staying in Burns.

That tension was evident from the first hours in Burns, Staton said. Residents there are “tired, fed up and frustrated” by the standoff and the outside attention it’s focusing on Harney County, he said.

“When we first got there and drove in, you could feel the tension,” Staton said. “It wasn’t like a normal day. People are scared.”

Sheriff Ward has seen that tension increase in the past couple of months. Militants showed up in early November before taking over the wildlife refuge complex in January. The 42-year-old first-time sheriff said he is concerned for his community’s future, mostly because the county has found itself in the white-hot national spotlight with little relief from the tension.

Safe passage offer has limits

Ward says his Jan. 7 offer of safe passage if the militants decide to leave still stands, but has a limited shelf life as law enforcement patience wears thin. “At this point, if those folks walked out the back door and left, I doubt anybody would stop them,” he said. “I think there could come a point when I could be shouldered out of the process. I’m not going to be able to leave that offer out there forever.”

In one of his first interviews since the standoff began, Ward said Harney County residents are being “held hostage” by militants at the refuge complex and their “national agenda.” The issue has divided the small towns of Burns and Hines, Ward said, and it could take a long time for the communities to heal.

“What’s going on here is unfair to our community,” Ward said. “It’s damaging our way of life. Our community is being held hostage for a list of demands that is really about nationwide issues.

“I fear that we may never be able to get our community back to the place it was just six weeks ago. That innocence is lost. We may never look at a strange face in town again without being suspicious.”

Ward said his deputies have seen an increase in intimidation and harassment of local government employees, including federal workers who live in the area.

Ward said several government employees have reported that they and their families were being followed, that people they didn’t know were sitting in vehicles outside their houses for hours, and that they received threats of unspecified legal action from people associated with the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom.

In some cases, people who support the militants have confronted local government employees in grocery stores or other public places, Ward said.

Ward ties the intimidation to the wildlife refuge standoff. “This stuff wasn’t happening before these folks showed up,” he said.

Shortly after the occupation began, Ward said private information about some federal employees “fell into these people’s hands” through computers at the refuge, and that led to the reported harassment. Sixteen families have moved out of the area because they feared for their safety, Ward said.

“We’re all members of this community, and that isn’t right or fair to these families,” he said.

Ward said his resources are stretched thin by handling those types of calls, and other law enforcement duties in the 10,228-square-mile county.

Staton said sheriffs across the state see the standoff as a “huge learning experience.”

“This is not something we run into every day,” he said. “We’re going to learn something from this at just about every level.”

Ward said he and other law enforcement agencies are working toward a peaceful resolution in hopes that the occupation will end soon and his county can “get back to normal.”

“A majority of people here want those folks to go home peacefully,” he said. “They want the situation to come to an end. They want to get their lives back to normal.

“That doesn’t mean we won’t have to work through a lot of things. We’ve all got concerns about how we’re governed. But we can work that out through the right process. Not this way.”

Reporter Geoff Pursinger contributed to this report.