BURNS – The evening was supposed to be a prelude to Christmas for a local pastor and his family, but now more than three weeks later, they keep their curtains closed, doors locked and a sharp lookout for the strangers who haunted their holidays that night.
Fear of the militants occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and roaming the communities of Burns and Hines sits like a heavy winter fog over the area.
More than a dozen local residents have reported to authorities that they were harassed in the weeks leading up to the occupation and in the days since. Different trucks, SUVs and other vehicles — most with out-of-state licenses — have followed the residents.
Four of the people who filed reports agreed to share their accounts with The Oregonian/OregonLive only if their names and identifying information were withheld because they feared further harassment. Law enforcement sources confirmed each had reported the episodes.
Jason Patrick of the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, the self-styled militia at the refuge, said Tuesday the group had no role in any intimidation.
“It’s never been us,” he said. “It would serve no purpose.”
Police and community members say the menacing is real and has been going on for weeks.
The pastor, who has lived in the Burns area nine years, told of returning home after attending a Christmas party about a week before the holiday. He parked and went inside, then went outside again because he forgot to roll up the window in his truck, he said in an interview.
That’s when he noticed a pickup turning slowly onto the street. The truck caught his attention, he said, because it matched the description he had heard of a pickup that had followed the sheriff’s parents a few days earlier.
The pickup with two men drove slowly past him.
“They yelled something out the window at me,” the pastor said. “I couldn’t make it out.”
As he walked along the pathway in front of his house, the pickup kept pace with him before driving off.
Inside, he locked the doors and drew the blinds. He told his wife what happened, trying not to alarm their two children.
“That was a sleepless night,” he said.
“There’s no doubt in my mind,” he said. “I felt they were seeking me out.”
The pastor said he has been publicly vocal in opposing the occupation and the tactics of the militants before the occupation. He instantly stopped any social media activity because of the nighttime encounter.
“I don’t want to have to see these guys again,” he said. “I thought if these guys know where I live, that’s not going to be healthy for the safety of my family.”
Several days later, a pickup he was told was associated with the militants drove slowly by his office in Burns, he said.
Fear overtook him, he said. “I had to make some decisions for myself and for my family,” opting to take his family out of town for several days.
The family is now back home, holding evening discussions and reading Bible passages, he said. One recent night, he turned to his school-age son and told him, “It’s your turn.” The passage the young boy selected: “God has a unique way in dealing with an unhealthy king.”
“That’s how we have been trying to get through this,” he said.
On Monday, his son returned with other students to school.
“He was scared to go to school,” the pastor said. “His fear was that someone dressed like a police officer would come into his classroom and hurt people. He didn’t want to see people hurt.”
The wife of a local police officer described setting up trail cameras, typically used to remotely
photograph wildlife, to record motorists stopping in their driveway in the Burns area.
They did so four days after Christmas after seeing numerous “out of the ordinary” turnaround tire tracks in their driveway.
The camera recorded at least four vehicles parking at the entry to their driveway, which is at the end of a street.
“They would sit there for anywhere from 10 minutes to 40 minutes,” she said. “They didn’t get out. There were no footprints.”
She said she and her husband were leaving home last Saturday when they passed a pickup they believed was associated with the militants. It was on the road leading to their home.
She hasn’t been able to identify the drivers, she said, but she has shared photos of cars and pickups with license plate numbers from Idaho, Arizona and Montana. Militants from those states have been active in the refuge occupation.
Police wouldn’t disclose to The Oregonian/OregonLive who owns the vehicles.
Even though she’s a police officer’s wife, the mother of two and native of the area said she’s afraid.
“Every gun in the house is loaded,” she said. “I’ve never felt like I need to carry a gun in my life.”
A Burns High School student, the son of another local police officer, said that in mid-December he noticed a pickup following him home from school. He noticed the truck in his rearview mirror after he left the school parking lot. He made two turns to get to his home and the pickup stayed behind him. It passed as he pulled off the road to park.
“They looked at me,” he said. “I didn’t think anything of it” at the time.
Not long after, the same pickup followed him out of a service station about 10 p.m., he said. The teenager said he grew alarmed almost immediately.
“I tried to speed up. They seemed to speed up with me,” he said. “I felt they might shoot out my back windows and get at me.”
He tried to shake the followers by jumping the street curb and driving through a city park. The pickup kept pace with him, following on an adjacent street. The truck followed him on back streets to Hines Middle School. “I made a lot of turns and I lost him,” he said.
In mid-December, another student from the high school was heading home about 7:30 p.m. from an exercise class downtown when she noticed an SUV behind her. It turned when she did onto a street leading to her house, keeping its distance and moving slower than traffic.
“They were creeping behind me,” she said. When she hit the intersection where her house sits, the SUV was still there and she “freaked,” she said.
She reversed course and headed to the high school, where she knew people were attending a music program.
“I was thinking, ‘Don’t stop.'”
The SUV followed her until she turned onto a back driveway to the school. She saw the SUV drive to the front of the school and then head back toward downtown Burns, but at a slow pace as if it were looking for her, she said.
She called a friend, who escorted her home.
“When I got home, I was shaking and crying.”
She slept with a baseball bat beside her that night.
The wife of a local U.S. Bureau of Land Management employee recounted an episode last Friday when her husband was driving to work.
As they traveled down Burns’ main artery, her husband told her, “I think we’re being followed.”
They turned onto a side street. “They just turned with us,” her husband reported.
“I was scared,” she said.
The pickup then moved to a parallel street after more turns. When the couple stopped at an intersection, the pickup drove past them going in the opposite direction.
“The driver just turned (in his seat), smiled and waved at us,” she said. “When they drove by and waved, then I was mad.”
Refuge employees, who work for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, haven’t on the job since before New Year’s Day but have been intimidated nonetheless, officials said.
“Unknown individuals from outside our community have driven past slowly or idled in front of their homes, observing the residents and their activities,” Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward said in a news release. Refuge employees are being confronted with questions about their status as federal employees, he said.
“Many of these confrontations are taking place as their employees are grocery shopping, running errands with their families and trying to lead their day-to-day lives,” the sheriff’s statement said.
A key refuge employee last week was escorted out of the area by law enforcement, apparently over concerns militants had accessed employee work files. His departure was so abrupt that he asked a neighboring rancher to look out for his cattle for him. The friend hauled the cattle back to his own ranch for tending.