By Jennifer Jenks
Late Friday night, June 22, a jury in Pendleton convicted Harney County ranchers Dwight Lincoln Hammond Jr., 70, and his son Steven Dwight Hammond, 43, both residents of Diamond, of committing arson on federal lands. U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan presided over the trial and will later schedule sentencing, likely to occur in September 2012. Both defendants face a five-year mandatory minimum prison sentence, a maximum fine of $250,000, and restitution.
The Hammonds were originally indicted on 19 counts by a grand jury in June 2010, but a superseding indictment filed last year reduced the counts to nine. The Hammonds pled not guilty to all charges. The trial was scheduled to take place in Eugene, but the location was later changed to Pendleton after the attorney for the Hammonds argued they would receive a fairer trial there.
The verdict came after a two-week trial and involved allegations that the Hammonds, owners of Hammond Ranches Inc., set a series of fires on lands managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), on which the Hammonds had grazing rights leased to them for their cattle operation. It was alleged that the Hammonds set the fires to reduce the growth of juniper trees and sagebrush, and accelerate the growth of rangeland grasses used for cattle feed.
“Fires intentionally set on public lands endanger firefighters and the public,” stated United States Attorney Amanda Marshall. “The verdict sends an important message to those who think that they are above the law. We applaud the jury in Pendleton for doing the right thing based upon the evidence presented.”
The jury convicted both of the Hammonds of using fire to destroy federal property for a 2001 arson known as the Hardie-Hammond Fire, located in the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Area. These were federal lands that the Hammonds had grazing rights leased to them at the time by the BLM.
Steven Dwight Hammond was additionally convicted of a 2006 arson known as the Krumbo Butte Fire located in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Area.
The jury acquitted, and the government dismissed, allegations that the Hammonds conspired and set two other fires in 2006.
“This verdict against BLM grazing permittees in Eastern Oregon brings justice and closure to a very long episode that started more than 10 years ago with landowners setting fires, putting BLM firefighters in harm’s way. The BLM cares deeply about the health and safety of our employees and will stand up for them when they are threatened or harmed,” said acting Oregon/Washington BLM State Director Mike Mottice.
The Hammonds declined to comment on the verdict.
The case was investigated by the BLM and prosecuted by assistant U.S. attorneys Frank Papagni and AnneMarie Sgarlata.