Imprisoned Oregon ranchers left out of Obama clemency binge

Two weeks ago, Susie Hammond read about the 78 people pardoned by President Barack Obama and the 153 sentences he commuted, a record number of clemency acts granted by a U.S. president in a single day. 

“Well, that’s really neat that he did that, but he missed a few,” she said. “I kept hoping he would have some compassion. But it’s no surprise. I don’t have any faith in our current government.”

Oregon occupation a year later: Ranch family at center of debate was ‘scared to death’

BURNS — A knock on the front door awakened Susie Hammond at the break of dawn. 

She struggled out of bed, hobbled by an aching right hip, and limped to the front of her small house in downtown Burns. Whoever it was, she thought, must be someone she knew because of the early hour. 

As she neared the door, all she could see was a large shadowy figure blocking the light that usually streamed through its glass panes. She unlocked the bolt and opened the door to find two men standing on the stoop. 

“Susan?” one of them said. “My name is Ammon Bundy.” 

So began Hammond’s passage from 75-year-old matriarch of an eastern Oregon ranching clan to reluctant symbol of the rural West’s revolt against federal ownership of vast resource-rich rangeland. 

The Hammond name became a mantra for Bundy as he moved into Oregon and seized the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge last winter in a 41-day takeover that captivated the nation with its cowboy ringleaders, armed followers and impassioned protest message. 

Bundy often invoked the story of Hammond’s husband, Dwight Jr., and their youngest son Steven, convicted of setting fires on public lands and ordered back to prison to serve out five-year sentences. He saw their prosecution as the perfect example of federal authority run amok. 

Susie Hammond wasn’t equally enamored of Ammon Bundy. 

Her family didn’t invite his attention and didn’t want it, she said in her first extensive interview since Bundy launched the surprise occupation on Jan. 2 — about two months after he first appeared at the Hammonds’ front door. 

She worked to keep her distance, shunning Bundy’s requests that her family publicly stand with him as throngs of militants descended on Harney County and set neighbor against neighbor in a fierce debate over control of public land — all under the eye of FBI agents who set up a command center at the tiny Burns Municipal Airport. 

The Hammonds had their own troubles to handle without picking a fight with the very people who controlled their future, she said. 

Yet over the past year, Susie Hammond has changed. She’s come to appreciate Bundy’s stand and populist politicking, if not his push to draw her family into his cause. She recognizes that his family’s fight over cattle grazing rights in Nevada has parallels to her own family’s conflict. She’s tracked Bundy’s arrest, trial and acquittal from afar. 

Ammon Bundy has a way of “worming his way into your psyche” as she put it. 

“If he’s trying to make a point with you, he’s got all day. He’ll explain it to you until the cows come home,” she said. “When you see what the government does to people when they get them cornered out in the desert, then you can have a little bit of sympathy for their way of thinking and you can understand them better. We’ve been there. I could see some similarities, and I developed a different attitude.” 

Hammond lives alone, forced to leave the ranch she called home for half a century to be closer to doctors and the hospital as she recovers from hip surgery. 

A tall, thin woman with short-cropped white hair, she had expected at this age to retire with her husband, turn management of the ranch over to the next generation and spend the rest of her years on the family’s far-flung property. Now, she wonders if their legacy and livelihood will survive. 

While her ailments and the absence of her husband and son have dimmed her spirit, they haven’t dulled her feistiness. Her distaste for the federal government remains as sharp as ever and she’s not shy about sharing her thoughts, often throwing in some choice words to make her point. 

Fed up with the criminal justice system, the Hammonds look to the executive branch to grant them mercy. Late last month, Dwight Hammond Jr.’s lawyer filed a clemency petition to reduce his federal sentence. His son’s petition is expected to follow soon.

***

“What are you doing here?” Susie Hammond asked as she let Ammon Bundy into her home on the cold, dark morning of Nov. 5, 2015. 

Dwight and Steven Hammond were gone, moving cattle from the ranch to a feedlot in Idaho to prepare for their scheduled return to prison in two months. 

Susie Hammond knew about Bundy only from what she had read in newspapers about him and his father, Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, and their showdown with federal rangers in Bunkerville, Nevada. 

As Ammon Bundy took a seat in her living room, he handed her a letter and a business card with his name on it. He told her he’d driven the night before from his home in Emmett, Idaho, had “prayed about this all night” and wanted to hand-deliver his proposal. 

Hammond sat on a brown leather recliner, her back to the living room window. Bundy grabbed a chair to her right. His friend, Ryan Payne, sat to her left, a pistol on his waistband.

Hammond quietly read the letter: “From: The Bundy Family. To: Aware Citizens and Government Officials.” 

“Our hearts and prayers go out to the Hammond family with deep empathy,” it started, and went on to describe the “magnitude of the injustice dealt” to the Hammonds by their lengthy sentences. It called on government officials to drop all charges against the Harney County ranchers and warned that putting them back behind bars “will spawn serious civil unrest.”

Ammon Bundy was a surprise visitor to the Hammonds’ house in Burns in November 2015.
Mark Graves Oregonian photo

Bundy wanted the father and son to refuse to return to federal prison in January. 

“I told him I’m not the person you should be talking to,” Hammond recalled. But she knew her husband and son weren’t interested in the idea. “They already decided which road they were going down.” 

In stark contrast to Bundy who has chased the spotlight, Dwight Hammond is a quiet, private man. 

He had already served three months in prison and Steven Hammond had served a year. But a judge had resentenced them after prosecutors successfully appealed the lighter terms in favor of the mandatory minimum of five years for arson. 

The two had resolved to report to prison without fanfare and shield their family from further controversy, Susie Hammond said. 

“That’s been our mode of operation forever. Don’t draw the light. And Ammon’s mode of operation is shine the light on it,” she said. “We didn’t want to be mixed up in another big fight with the government. We’d been fighting the government for a long time.” 

*** 

After he dropped in on Susie Hammond, Bundy went to work pleading the family’s case. He flooded the Harney County Sheriff’s Office with emails and met with the sheriff, urging him to step in to keep her husband and son out of prison. 

He planned a large march through Burns and urged supporters to take a “hard stand” against the government. 

Bundy created enough of a stir that the lawyer for Hammond Ranches Inc. sent a letter to Sheriff Dave Ward, assuring him that the Hammonds would turn themselves in as promised on Jan. 4. 

“I have received information that Ammon Bundy has communicated with you or your office about the Hammond Family, and specifically about Dwight Hammond and Steven Hammond,” attorney W. Alan Schroeder wrote in an email Dec. 11, 2015. “I write to clarify that neither Ammon Bundy nor anyone within this group/organization speak for the Hammond Family, Dwight Hammond or Steven Hammond.” 

Susie and Dwight Hammond were aware of the march planned for them on Jan. 2. 

But Susie Hammond said the prospect terrified them. They weren’t sure who to trust. 

“I mean we were scared to death,” she said. “It was very overwhelming. There was militia running around. There’s cops running around. There’s FBI running around and you didn’t know who’s the enemy, who’s the friend. The whole town was upside down.”

Protesters march along Court Avenue in Burns on Saturday, Jan. 2, 2016, to show their support for the Hammond family.
Les Zaitz Oregonian photo

A crowd of about 300 people paraded to their home. Dwight Hammond stepped out briefly to talk to Ammon Bundy. They shared a prayer and Susie Hammond accepted a bouquet of flowers. 

That night, Bundy and about 20 supporters seized the Malheur refuge. Word of the takeover got back to the Hammonds about 8 o’clock that evening. 

Susie Hammond said Bundy hadn’t shared his plan with them beforehand. 

“There’s nothing about it that makes sense,” she recalled thinking. “We thought the whole thing was nuts.” 

The next morning, father and son flew to California, to report to federal prison at Terminal Island in San Pedro. 

There was no farewell party. They were determined to follow through on their plans and hoped that getting out of Burns also would tamp down the tumult they were caught up in. 

“If they were the focus of all this ruckus, if they removed themselves, they thought it might put the fire out,” she said. “They didn’t go to jail because they wanted to go to jail. They went to jail because they thought this was the least disruptive way to get out of here and make the fire go away.” 

Of course, that didn’t end up working. 

*** 

Left behind was Susie Hammond. 

Curious about what was happening at the refuge as the occupation entered its first week, then second and finally its sixth week, she received regular reports from friends and neighbors. 

“I wanted to know what was going on, but I didn’t want to be part of it,” she said. “I couldn’t afford to be part of it. I wasn’t in physical shape to be part of it.”

Oregon Standoff timeline: 41 days of the Malheur Refuge occupation

The armed protest began Jan. 2 and ended Feb. 11 with the surrender of four holdouts to FBI agents. 

In early April, she underwent hip replacement surgery. As she was recovering, she suffered a complication, a piece of her right hip bone broke off. She was hospitalized overnight but doctors decided to let the bone heal on its own, hoping to put off another surgery. 

Now she uses a wheelchair to get around the house, sometimes struggling to maneuver the chair through tight corners. Mementos from her family’s long ranching history fill the place: a bronze calf greets visitors in the entry, a rifle hangs above the living room window, cowboy ropes are draped on a mantel in the dining area and the latest editions of Range magazine grace a living room table. 

“Log it, graze it, burn it,” reads a bumper sticker plastered on the refrigerator in her small kitchen. 

Her daughter-in-law, Earlyna Hammond, married to Steven, remains at the ranch. 

A black metal silhouette of a cowboy riding a horse behind three black cows and a calf greets visitors to Hammond Ranches, reached by a long gravel road about 50 miles southeast of Burns. The property abuts the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, with an expansive view of the fault-block Steens Mountain and surrounding wilderness. 

Susie and Dwight Hammond bought their ranch in 1964. They moved from Northern California, raised three boys, and acquired more land over time. All three sons have worked on the ranch, but their youngest, Steven, and his family have remained in recent years. 

Hammond Ranches Inc. has operated on a combination of private and public land — 12,872 acres of deeded territory and another 26,421 acres on grazing allotments before the federal government curtailed its permits. 

Letter from prison

Dwight Hammond Jr. sent a letter to The Oregonian/OregonLive from federal prison saying he’s aware some people in Burns and Harney County believe Ammon Bundy exploited his family, but he doesn’t feel that way.

He said he understands Bundy’s frustration with the government and his desire to come to Burns.

Hammond reiterated what he said on the day that Bundy’s march of support stopped at his house on Jan. 2.

“It’s not about the Hammonds at all,” he said. Instead, it’s about “the trashing of personal property rights.”

The family breeds its own cows with its own bulls, tends to the birth of the calves in the spring, moves the herd through pastures in the spring and summer, grows its own hay and sends the majority of the calves to market in the fall. The family hired a ranch manager to tend to the business while Dwight Hammond and Steven Hammond are away. 

Earlyna Hammond tries to bring the children — two sons and a daughter — to visit their father on birthdays and holidays, recently returning from a pre-Christmas visit, but Susie Hammond has gone to the prison only once. 

Her September trip — a four-hour drive to Boise and then a flight to Los Angeles — proved too difficult. She had a hard time seeing them in such a setting. 

The men, used to the wide open spaces of the high desert, live in a barracks-style building and share a bunk. Steven Hammond, who has the top bed, does carpentry work in a prison wood shop; his dad has grounds-keeping duties. Susie Hammond’s niece in the Los Angeles area visits them most often. 

“It’s just cement and water and razor wire. I went down once. I’m not going again. I can’t do anything about it,” Susie Hammond said, her voice trailing off. “I just have to hope that the good Lord will keep them safe.” 

She paused, then added, “I think Dwight thinks his working life is over.” 

*** 

Susie Hammond talks to her husband almost every night, but shares little, not wanting to worry him. 

She has longtime friends who check on her daily; oldest son Rusty Hammond, 52, of Lake County, isn’t too far and talks to her once or twice a day. He talks by phone to his father. 

Rusty Hammond said his father and brother are coping in what he calls their “gray bar motel,” with “a little bit of God and what choice do they have.” 

Unlike his mother, Rusty Hammond supported the Bundys from the start. He marched with the protesters in Burns and sent food to the refuge occupiers. He was called as a witness by the Bundy defense at their trial, testifying that his father was threatened by the government for his contact with Ammon Bundy. 

“Without the Bundys and their bunch,” Rusty Hammond said, “you wouldn’t know the name of Hammond.”

Oregon Rep. Greg Walden takes the BLM to the Woodshed

Susie Hammond closely tracked the Bundy trial in Portland. 

She hoped it would help people learn about her family’s battle with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, “where people who didn’t live in Burns, Oregon would see what’s going on way out here in the weeds.” 

The trial offered a window into the obstacles ranchers face, she said. Arrogant federal bureaucracies that brush aside local voices, break promises and ignore or impose rules because they can. 

“Bundy helped draw attention to these problems,” she said. “I was hoping something positive was going to come out of this that would make it possible for private property owners and public administration to be able to get along and be productive.” 

That hasn’t happened, she acknowledged. 

Hammond Ranches is in the middle of appealing the land bureau’s refusal in 2014 to renew the company’s 10-year grazing permit. 

When Hammond saw an online post Oct. 27 that a jury had acquitted Bundy, his brother, Ryan, and the five co-defendants on conspiracy and weapons charges, she immediately checked with her oldest son. 

“I had to call somebody and ask them if I was crazy, if I heard that right,” she said. Then the phone didn’t stop ringing, she said.

Oregon protesters found not guilty

She doesn’t believe what the Bundys did was a crime. They didn’t do much harm to a refuge that’s “frozen over” and not very busy in the winter anyway, she said. But she didn’t expect the criminal justice system to agree. 

“They were not guilty of anything except for being human beings who wanted to be free and who wanted to shine the light on some really bad stuff going on in Harney County, Oregon,” she said. “It seemed to me like the wrong people were on trial. The government should have been on trial.” 

She wonders how the Bundys will fare in their federal conspiracy case pending in Nevada. 

“The government never lets go of you,” she said. 

Still, she’s thankful the Bundys are no longer in the county and the national glare has moved off Burns. 

The occupation left behind a still-shuttered refuge headquarters and visitors center, an exodus of refuge workers and a county still locked in an economic downturn. 

She has no idea how the Portland verdict may affect her husband. But she expects the changing political climate led by President-elect Donald Trump can only help. 

*** 

A quote about executive pardons from Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Paper 74 leads off Dwight Hammond’s 215-page clemency petition: 

“The criminal code of every country partakes so much of necessary severity, that without an easy access to exceptions in favor of unfortunate guilt, justice would wear a countenance too sanguinary and cruel.” 

Attorney Kendra Matthews asked for mercy for Hammond, citing his “high character,” longtime service to his community, the “unfortunate severity of his punishment,” his trial judge’s support and his family situation. 

Hammond is asking the president to to reduce his sentence, either totally or partially, though it wouldn’t change his conviction. A petition for son Steven is expected but hasn’t been filed yet. 

Letters of support for the elder Hammond described good deeds done for his neighbors, his children and grandchildren’s schools, the county’s 4H and FFA clubs and many others in need. They spoke of his sincerity, decency, his humility and the respect for him in Harney County – a man who dressed up as Santa Claus for schoolkids and what one friend described as “a real life John Wayne.”

Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward facilitated a community meeting at the Burns fairground, on Jan. 6, 2016. Beth Nakamura Oregonian photo

Even Sheriff Dave Ward, who hadn’t backed the family publicly before or during the occupation much to Susie Hammond’s still-raw anger, wrote a letter. 

Ward said he couldn’t stand in the way of a lawful order by a federal judge but “personally felt the initial prison sentences … and the monetary penalties imposed covered the debt owed to society.” 

“I did not want to see them return to prison,” the sheriff wrote. 

By the end of this year, Dwight Hammond, now 74, will have served a year and three months in prison for a single ranch fire in 2001, his lawyer noted. 

Hammond set a prescribed burn on about 300 acres of his own land that then traveled onto Bureau of Land Management property and burned an additional 139 acres, his lawyer wrote. He said he was trying to fend off invasive species. 

Prosecutors argued the fire also was to cover up illegal deer poaching and got out of control, placing firefighters who had to be airlifted out of the area in grave danger. 

“They lit this fire to cover up their crimes,” said Amanda Marshall, Oregon’s U.S. attorney when the conviction and appeal occurred. 

The federal pursuit followed years of permit violations by the ranchers and fires set, and they never accepted responsibility, Marshall said. Steven Hammond was convicted of arson for two fires. 

Her office appealed the lighter sentences because she said the trial judge didn’t have discretion to depart from a mandatory minimum sentence. The Hammonds could have faced less than a year in prison under a plea offer they declined, she said. 

“I don’t have anything but grave compassion for Mrs. Hammond and the situation she’s in,” Marshall said, “but I think the situation was caused by the conduct of her husband and son.” 

Dwight Hammond’s lawyer pointed out in the petition that he and his son faced other sanctions. They paid $400,000 to settle a civil suit brought by the government and are having a hard time sustaining the cattle operation because of the grazing permit denial. The ranch recently lost the first stage of the appeal – a request to put the permit denial on hold while they argued the case.

Ammon Bundy and supporters often invoked the names and prison sentences of Harney County ranchers Dwight Hammond Jr. and son Steven Hammond as examples of what they said was “overreach” by the federal government.
Mark Graves Oregonian photo

“The disproportionate penalty in comparison to the conduct underlying Dwight Hammond’s conviction is, indeed, deeply troubling,” Matthews wrote. “A clemency would not only serve as a balm to the community’s angst about these sentences, but, very practically, give the Hammonds a real chance to keep their ranch afloat.” 

Then Dwight Hammond made his own emotional plea for release. 

Not for him. 

For his wife. 

Susie Hammond, the love of his life, runs the show. She’s always taken care of him, their sons and now seven grandchildren, he said. 

“For 55 years, she has been there for me in every way possible,” he said. “And now, when, for the first time in our marriage, she needs me to be there for her, I am not.” 

“I am fine. I can handle anything that is put in front of me,” he said. “But I am supposed to be there for my wife. It is her turn. It is incomprehensible to me that I am not.” 

They’re not young, he noted and wrote about her physical setbacks. He knows his wife has friends to look out for her, but she wants to remain independent. 

“So at the most fundamental level,” he said, “I am seeking commutation of my sentence so that I can return home to take care of my wife.” 

“I live in fear that one of us will pass before we are reunited.”  

*** 

Two weeks ago, Susie Hammond read about the 78 people pardoned by President Barack Obama and the 153 sentences he commuted, a record number of clemency acts granted by a U.S. president in a single day. 

“Well, that’s really neat that he did that, but he missed a few,” she said. “I kept hoping he would have some compassion. But it’s no surprise. I don’t have any faith in our current government.”

Dwight Hammond Jr. on Jan. 2, 2016, at his Burns house.
Les Zaitz Oregonian photo

If her husband serves out his full sentence, she’ll be 79 when he gets out. “I always think worse case scenario so I won’t be disappointed,” she said. 

But she does hold onto a glimmer of hope that her husband and son may have a better chance with the new administration. She’s counting the days until the inauguration. 

“We hope we got the paperwork done in a timely fashion so we could be first on the list next time,” she said. “You have to go through the process. Maybe it will happen … who knows.” 

As for Bundy, Susie Hammond chuckles when she looks back at how she once viewed his heavy focus on prayer with a bit of unease. 

She would welcome any sort of intervention – divine or otherwise. 

“He’s always praying and, at the start, you don’t take it seriously,” she said. “But after awhile you’re thinking, he’s got a direct line to somebody I need to know better.”

Maxine Bernstein

The Oregonian

Free Range Report

5 comments

  • Pamela Thompson

    I stand with the Hammonds and the Bundy’s! They are in my prayers always! As are all peoples under persecution from this tyrannical government!

  • Anthony Rizzuto

    I pray they will all be pardoned by the next president who looks to me as a man who loves his country , and will see that good Americans not terrorists were unjustly jailed here, as a New York City resident I stand with all these fine folks who have been terrorized by a tyrannical government, may god watch over them and their family’s

  • Freya's Whimsy

    The occupiers of the Malheur Refuge are criminals.

  • Janice E. Winters

    I agree with the these people. Mrs Hammond should not be punished. My prayers are with them.

  • Kelly Cazee

    Down with Big Gov ~ Down with Tyranny ~ Down with Abuse of Power

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