SALT LAKE CITY — A judge has ordered that a Manti man be detained to face federal charges after prosecutors say he briefly armed himself as Ammon Bundy's bodyguard during the occupation of a wildlife reserve in Oregon last month.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Dustin Pead said Tuesday that he was concerned about several element's of 32-year-old Wesley Kjar's participation in the group as it literally and symbolically took a stand against the federal government at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, augmented by the apparent religious undertones motivating their actions.
"He's got a firearm. He's there in tactical gear, including a tactical vest," the judge noted, reviewing a news photo of Kjar with Bundy at the refuge protesting alleged federal overreach into Western rangelands. "He was willing to fight on Mr. Bundy's behalf, and there is concern in the court's mind on that fact."
Pead said he was also concerned about the details of Kjar's arrest. He was arrested in Salt Lake last week driving a trailer carrying rifles, loaded magazines, "hundreds of rounds of ammunition," boots and camouflage clothing.
Kjar's attorney said Tuesday that the guns, ammo and gear were not bound for Oregon, but that Kjar was dropping them off at his Salt Lake residence before loaning the trailer to a friend who was moving.
Ultimately, the judge agreed with prosecutors that Kjar, who quit his job before joining the militants and seems to have only fluid residency in Utah, posed a potential flight risk. He ordered the Manti man to remain in custody and be transferred to Oregon, where is facing a federal charge of conspiracy to impede an officer of the United States from discharging their official duties through the use of force, intimidation or threats.
While his attorney argued that Kjar's involvement in the occupation that began Jan. 2 was brief and that his views quickly evolved to become "a voice of reason" against some of the troubling viewpoints he encountered there, federal prosecutors said the Manti man was committed to the cause, arming himself and vowing to protect the occupation's leadership with his life.
Federal prosecutor Alicia Cook pointed to an article by Reuters reporters who embedded with the Oregon occupiers at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, presenting photos of Kjar, armed and in a tactical vest, alongside resistance leader Ammon Bundy in the office of a federal employee as Kjar and another man raised their weapons toward a closed door when the doorknob rattled.
"At the refuge, he had at least one role, and that was as the self-proclaimed bodyguard of Ammon Bundy," Cook said, noting that Kjar told the reporter he had just met Bundy and was willing to stand between him and a bullet.
Showing the judge the photo of the scene, Cook emphasized, "There was a federal employee who was unable to go to work that day because there were men with guns in her office."
Kjar's involvement with the movement didn't end when he left Oregon five days after that photo was taken, Cook said. When Kjar returned to Utah, he and three others went to the headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints seeking an audience with the First Presidency about the church's statements distancing itself from the occupiers.
Kjar identified himself that day as "Ammon Bundy's right-hand man," who was ready to represent Bundy in the meeting and carry messages back to him, according to Cook.
Kjar's attorney, Spencer Rice, argued that Kjar's motivation that day was to obtain a personal message from church leaders to convince the Bundys to cease the occupation.
After just a few days in Oregon, "(Kjar) realized that something needed to be done or this was going to end badly," Rice said. "He believed a personal message from LDS Church leadership could de-escalate and end this conflict."
Kjar continued his campaign to defuse tensions and fiery rhetoric at the funeral in Kanab honoring LaVoy Finicum, the Arizona rancher who was shot and killed by federal agents toward the end of the Oregon occupation, according to Rice. Following the funeral, Kjar attended a meeting where some advocated for returning to Oregon to end the standoff "in an old-west way."
"Mr. Kjar was not silent," Rice said, explaining that his client had spoken out against violence or retaliation. "He has now become a voice of reason against the way things were handled up there."
Many occupiers fled the refuge after the FBI operation that left Finicum dead and other members of the group in custody. The last holdouts surrendered to authorities on Thursday.
Following the judge's decision, attorney Todd Macfarlane, who represents the Finicum family and attended Kjar's hearing as a possible witness in the case, described his personal trip to Oregon to try to convince Finicum to return home.
"We weren't successful in doing that with LaVoy Finicum and most others, but the bottom line is we were successful in doing that with Wes Kjar," Macfarlane said. "Wes Kjar actually made the choice to leave the refuge with me. He changed course at that point in time."
Macfarlane knew Kjar's family but hadn't met the man before the trip to Oregon, he said. He said he saw the same positive traits in Kjar that he imagines the Bundys recognized.
"He was a good, dependable, hard-working farm boy," Macfarlane said. "He'd been a responsible citizen his whole life; he'd been a state champion wrestler. He's just a good guy. He's the kind of person anyone would want to have as a friend because he's the kind of guy who stands up for other people."
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