How did an armed takeover of a federal nature reserve in Oregon come about? It dates back to when Eastern Oregon father-son ranchers, Dwight Hammond and his son Steve, were convicted of lighting fires on federal land.
The Hammond Ranch story began in 1991, when Steven Hammond started a fire on his own land for noxious weed control. The fire escaped and burned an acre of BLM land that was leased by the Hammond family for cattle grazing.
Then in 2001, the Hammonds started another fire on their property that ran off the Hammond land and consumed 139 acres of BLM acreage, also leased by the Hammond Ranch.
In 2006, the Hammond family set a back fire to stop a lightning-caused wildfire. The back fire burned about an acre of public land.
Dwight Hammond and his son, Steve, were taken to federal court for the 2001 fire. Steve was also charged for the 2006 back fire. The father and son were tried and convicted under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, created by Congress in response to the Oklahoma City bombing. Under the Act’s minimum sentencing requirements, both Hammonds faced a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison. U.S. Attorney Amanda Marshall stated: “The verdict sends an important message to those who think that they are above the law.”
But in the October, 2012 sentencing, U.S. District Judge Michael R. Hogan reduced Dwight’s sentence to three months and Steve Hammonds sentence to one year, based on his belief that such a harsh sentence was not what Congress intended in creating the statute. “It just would not be – would not meet any idea I have of justice, proportionality,” Judge Hogan stated.
The men completed their sentences and repaid about $400,000 in damages to the government.
However in early 2014, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals determined that now-retired U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan illegally sentenced the Hammonds to terms below the five-year minimum.
“A minimum sentence mandated by statute is not a suggestion that courts have discretion to disregard,” Judge Stephen J. Murphy III wrote in the opinion. The panel sent the case back to the district court for another sentence.
In October of 2015, U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken re-sentenced the Hammonds to five years in prison, giving Dwight L. Hammond, 73, and his son Steven D. Hammond, 46, until Jan. 4 to self-surrender to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.