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"A cookie and one more cigarette": the strange, sad end of the Oregon standoff

Protesters near the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge during the standoff.
Protesters near the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge during the standoff.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

The 40-day standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge came to a tense, disturbing end on Thursday, as supporters of the Oregon militants pleaded with a confused, ranting 27-year-old not to kill himself while more than 32,000 people listened in real time on a YouTube live stream.

Three of the remaining militants surrendered to the FBI as planned on Thursday morning. But David Fry, a 27-year-old Ohio resident, refused to leave the federal building they had occupied, staying on the phone with activists in a rambling, hour-long conversation about wanting to die — for the cause of the militants or for no cause at all.

After a tense, anguished hour, Fry walked out, asking only that those outside the cabin shout, "Hallelujah!"

"Slow down, keep your hands up," could be heard on the background in the live stream. Then: "Put your hands behind your back," as the standoff officially ended with the arrest of the last person occupying the federal building.

Fry, who was not active in the militia movement before he came to Burns, Oregon, had originally said that he would not leave the cabin until his demands were met.

"Christ died at 33. He died for what he believed in," Fry said at one point. "He didn't just go along and try to live a selfish life. … The tree of liberty must be watered with the blood of tyrants and patriots."

His grievances were incoherent, ranging from rants about abortion in America to drone strikes to marijuana to the protests after Trayvon Martin's death. He said Obama was a traitor and that he didn't want to pay his taxes. He complained about preferential treatment for jailed Wall Street bankers and said he was afraid of being raped in prison.

As the conversation went on, he veered further into conspiracy, saying the government was "chemically mutating people" and talking about UFOs and the government suppressing inventions.

For nearly an hour, KrisAnne Hall, a Tea Party activist, and Gavin Seim, who ran the YouTube stream of the standoff, tried to talk him down with references to Christianity. Fry, a Messianic Jew, was unmoved by their arguments, and the activists became audibly frustrated.

"I cannot help you if you don't walk out," Hall said at one point. "You have to make the choice. What are you going to do? There's nothing else that I can do for you."

Finally, Fry stopped talking to Hall and Seim and began talking to an FBI negotiator. Within a few minutes, the situation was resolved.

"They're going to at least say a hallelujah," Fry said jubilantly, saying he was going to "get a cookie and one more cigarette" before surrendering with an "alrighty then."

The FBI wanted to avoid creating martyrs

The modern militia movement was born in the standoffs at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, where federal agents killed the wife and son of right-wing activist Randy Weaver, and Waco, Texas, where the Branch Davidian cult set fires that killed 80 people, including 22 children, as the FBI aggressively tear-gassed their compound.

Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh cited Ruby Ridge and Waco as his motivations in 1996, and public opinion began to turn against the FBI's actions.

The FBI developed a new strategy of "infinite patience": waiting out militia standoffs rather than creating martyrs, even if they killed people who wanted to die.

The Oregon standoff included one death at the hands of federal agents: LaVoy Finicum, an unofficial spokesman, was killed by police when they arrested militia leaders January 26.

A video released of the shooting shows him reaching toward a pocket where he had a handgun. Finicum had repeatedly said he was willing to die for the cause.