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Oregon Sheriff Tells Militia Occupiers To Go Home As Ranchers Surrender

Anti-government protesters occupying federal land in Oregon contend two ranchers are being retaliated against as part of a government land grab.

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BURNS, Oregon — An Oregon sheriff had a message Monday for the anti-government activists occupying a federal refuge facility in his jurisdiction: Go home.

"The Hammonds have turned themselves in, it's time to leave our community, go home to your families, and end this peacefully," Harney County Sheriff David M. Ward said at a news conference.

Dwight and Steve Hammond, two Oregon ranchers who were recently sentenced to five years in prison for arson, turned themselves into federal custody in San Pedro, California, earlier in the day.

Steve & Dwight Hammond surrender

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The surrender came hours after anti-government activists who are occupying a wildlife refuge in rural Oregon in protest of the federal case held a news conference blasting the Hammonds' treatment.

Addressing reporters at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, Ammon Bundy, the leader of the occupation, said the group believes the federal government had "gone beyond the boundaries of the Constitution" and pushed "people into poverty" by denying private ranchers full use of public lands.

"We have a lot of work to do to unwind the unconstitutional land transactions and unwind the land claims that the federal government has on these lands," Bundy said, adding that the group has chosen to call itself Citizens for Constitutional Freedom.

Other activists said they intended to facilitate the return of the "hundreds of ranchers" who once worked in what is now federal land. LaBoy Finimuc, who identified himself as a rancher from Arizona, told reporters that he and the rest of the occupiers believe they have authority to do so because the federal officials who oversee the use of public lands were not elected by the people.

"We are not making demands," Finimuc said. "We are here to work. These buildings here, they belong to Harney County, they belong to the state of Oregon. These are public lands. We've come here to restore these ranches. We would love to see the hundreds of ranchers who've lost their land return to their land."

Although it was protests in support of the Hammonds that drew many of the groups to Burns, it was not clear whether the family supported the actions of the groups.

Dwight and Steve Hammond have been largely silent on the takeover of the refuge, and Ammon Bundy said during the press conference he hasn't spoken with the family for months.

Susan Hammond, Dwight Hammond's wife, told BuzzFeed News she was not sure if the groups' actions had helped her husband and son's cause.

"I don't know," she told BuzzFeed News from her home, about a 30 minute drive from the refuge. "I don't even know what's going on up there."

She wouldn't say if she supported their actions.

"I don't even know what they're doing up there," she said.

Ward added at his own news conference that various law enforcement agencies had been called in to provide assistance, but in his statement, did no elaborate on what would happen if the occupiers didn't leave.

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Ward also reached out to the Oregon State Sheriff's Association and asked that neighboring agencies assist his department to increase patrols in his jurisdiction.

The announcement of added patrols to the community came as the group entered its third night occupying the federal refuge.

The added patrols would be focusing in Burns and Hines communities, he said.

"They're here to help us maintain a safe and secure environemnetwhile we work through the issues at hand," Ward said in a video message to residents.

Bundy — the son of a Nevada rancher who became notorious in 2014 after he led an armed standoff against federal law-enforcement — also said the anti-government activists are seeking to help the Hammonds after a federal court determined they had burned 130 acres of federal land in an effort to hide illegal activities. Bundy, though, said the family had been persecuted because they refused to sell their land to the federal government.

"This effort started by understanding that a ranching family in Harney County has been put under duress by several federal agencies," Bundy told reporters. "Those agencies have desired for many years to acquire their ranch, and the Hammond family has refused to sell it, because they want to pass their ranch on to their children and grandchildren."

Attorneys for the Hammond family did not immediately respond to several messages seeking comment on Bundy's allegations. In the past, the family has publicly distanced themselves from Bundy and the rest of the activists occupying the wildlife refuge.

Bundy said he had not spoken to the family in several days, but that they were still in communication through "alternative means."

Other activists who spoke at Monday's press conference laid out what they said was their legal plan to help the Hammonds.

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Shawna Cox, who identified herself only as "an individual, a patriot, an American, said that the group has filed a "legal notice" with local lawmakers, prosecutors, and law-enforcement agencies requesting an evidentiary hearing on the Hammond case. She also asked that the Hammonds be kept out of prison until the "independent hearing board" concludes its investigation.

"We require you to respond within five days," Cox said of the group's request to local officials for an evidentiary hearing on the Hammond case. "If you don't we will have no choice but to believe that you do not wish to do your duty and are content with acting in negligence. Therefore govern yourselves accordingly."

Cox also said that the anti-government activists have evidence that unnamed "federal agencies" tried to intimidate the Hammonds into selling their land by blocking their access to private wells and "burning private property."

She added that the activists believe the Hammonds were not given due process because there is "no evidence" that the grand jury that indicted them actually participated in the indictment. Cox also said that the U.S. Attorney's office had threatened the Hammonds with a harsher form of detention if they continued to communicate with Bundy.

The office of the U.S. Attorney for the District of Oregon and the Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency that oversees the use of public lands, deferred all question to the FBI. The FBI's Oregon office did not respond to a request for comment.

The FBI is leading the response to the occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. In a statement on Twitter, a spokesperson for the bureau said the agency would not be releasing any information about "the specifics of the law enforcement response" because of safety concerns.

Several of the protesters are believed to be armed. Asked whether law-enforcement officials have been in touch with the protesters, Bundy said that officials have not reached out to the activists directly, but that they have sent messages through intermediaries.

"They don't intend to come upon us," Bundy said of law enforcement.

Bundy is a members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as Mormonism, which has a long and complicated history of clashing with the government. In the past, the rancher has said that he believes God inspired him to try to help the Hammonds.

But on Monday, the Mormon Church condemned the Malheur occupation.

"Church leaders strongly condemn the armed seizure of the facility and are deeply troubled by the reports that those who have seized the facility suggest that they are doing so based on scriptural principles," the Church said in a statement. "We are privileged to live in a nation where conflicts with government or private groups can — and should — be settled using peaceful means, according to the laws of the land."

This is a developing story. Check back here and follow BuzzFeed News on Twitter for more updates.

Salvador Hernandez is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles.

Contact Salvador Hernandez at salvador.hernandez@buzzfeed.com.

Nicolás Medina Mora is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.

Contact Nicolás Medina Mora at nicolas.mora@buzzfeed.com.

Jason Wells is a news editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles.

Contact Jason Wells at jason.wells@buzzfeed.com.

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