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Occupiers weigh options on plea deal

SALEM — When Jon Ritzheimer learned that seven fellow occupiers of a national wildlife refuge in Oregon had been acquitted of federal charges last week, he celebrated a thousand miles away.

"I was kind of jumping up and down in the house, singing 'Praise the Lord,'" Ritzheimer said in a telephone interview late Wednesday from his Arizona home.

Ritzheimer pleaded guilty to the same conspiracy charge in a deal with prosecutors two months ago, and he hopes the federal jury's stunning Oct. 27 verdict to acquit key figures in the armed standoff could affect his case.

Ritzheimer said his attorney is talking with prosecutors and withdrawing his guilty plea is a possibility. Lawyers for the 10 other defendants who agreed to plea bargains are having similar discussions, he said.

Seven others face a February trial. Prosecutors are likely considering how to proceed, legal experts say.

They might expect a different outcome in the next trial or they might be more rigorous in jury selection, sweeten plea deals or even go for lesser charges instead, said Tung Yin, a law professor at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland.

"I would expect the government is thinking long and hard how to respond to this very surprising verdict, and what should we do going forward," Yin said.

Those who went to trial beat the odds by winning, but for those who opted for plea deals, the acquittals do not justify a request to withdraw a guilty plea, Yin said.

Kevin Sonoff, spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Portland, said he could not comment because of ongoing litigation.

The armed group seized the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on Jan. 2 and occupied it for 41 days to oppose prison sentences for two local ranchers convicted of setting fires and protest federal control of public lands in the Western U.S.

Ritzheimer said the acquittals "put my faith back into the justice system."

But the leaders of the occupation are still in legal turmoil. Brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy were taken to Nevada this week to face charges stemming from a 2014 armed standoff with federal agents near their father's ranch. Many of those charged in the Oregon occupation also face trial next year in the Nevada case.

Ritzheimer pleaded guilty in August to conspiring to prevent federal employees from doing their jobs at the refuge by threats of force or intimidation. In exchange, prosecutors dropped two other charges. His sentencing is set for May, and prosecutors are recommending 2½ years in prison.

Even before last week's verdicts, occupier Ryan Payne asked to withdraw his guilty plea.

Yin, the law professor, said Payne might have a case because the foundation of his plea bargain was the ability to reach a deal in Nevada on the charges he faces there. But the deal didn't materialize.

Payne's lawyer also noted that when the deal was made, the federal government had not yet revealed it used informants at the refuge, which could have caused him to evaluate the strength of the case differently.

Ritzheimer said he looks forward to seeing the government's response to Payne's motion.

"I am holding up my end of the deal, to continue to demonstrate that I accept responsibility," said Ritzheimer, a U.S. Marine veteran who lives in suburban Phoenix. "If I do change my plea, it'll be an educated decision down the road."

Ritzheimer told AP that he has seen news stories that the acquittals might embolden militias and that government officials are concerned.

"The government, yeah, they should be afraid," Ritzheimer said. "This act of civil disobedience, if you will, I would compare it to the Boston Tea Party. They were engaging in this kind of behavior two years before the revolution."