LAS VEGAS — Tensions have subsided and the crowds of armed militia around rancher Cliven Bundy have largely dispersed, but the situation is far from resolved.

Federal officials are exploring their legal options, and Metro Police confirm that an investigation is ongoing. What has not been made public is just how close things came to an all-out gun battle. Some of those who were on the front lines spoke exclusively to the I-Team’s George Knapp.

When the Bureau of Land Management mobilized to go after Bundy’s cattle two years ago, they did so under an administrative order. This time, it was considered a criminal matter, and the I-Team has learned that order went all the way to the White House for approval.

When it became apparent that things were not going well in Bunkerville and hundreds of armed Bundy supporters were on the scene, Metro found itself right in the middle, a very dangerous place to be.
“We didn’t show any fear that day, but I can tell you, we all thought in the back of our minds, we all thought it was going to be our last day on earth, if it went bad,” said Sgt. Tom Jenkins of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.
He is more familiar with the craziness of the Las Vegas Strip, which is where he and his squad usually work to keep the peace. But when things began to turn ugly in Bunkerville earlier this month, two squads of patrol officers, along with a SWAT unit, were dispatched to the scene.
“We were told, we’re going to go down there and we’re going to get between the BLM and the protesters. We were going, okay, we’ve been there before, but as we were driving up, it was like a movie set. It didn’t look real; people in the back of pickup trucks with rifles and shotguns,” Jenkins said. “It was hard to grasp that at the beginning.”

Approximately 30 Metro officers stood between a crowd of 400 heavily armed, self- described militia and the federal employees who had gathered a few hundred head of  Bundy’s cattle. As the crowd swelled and tempers flared, many in the crowd tried to goad the police, hurling taunts and insults.

“They had no respect for authority. Everything that you can think of to call a human being, animals, everything,” Jenkins said.

One person in the crowd even asked Jenkins if he was ready to die.
“I don’t know his name. He was wearing a Pittsburgh Steelers jersey. I’ll never forget that,” he said.

Shuttling back and forth between the Bundy forces and BLM was Assistant Sheriff Joe Lombardo, who’d been left in charge by Sheriff Doug Gillespie. He was trying to keep everyone calm.

“The bottom line is, bloodshed over cattle, unacceptable. Nobody wanted to go in that direction,” Lombardo said.

But the police were to learn, some in the crowd did want to go in that direction. Even Lombardo was on the receiving end.

“It was a scary point in itself. They were in my face yelling profanities and pointing weapons. The Bundy son himself, that I was negotiating with, Dave, he did not do that, but all the associated people around him did do that,” Lombardo said.

Metro officers deal with large crowds all the time, but nothing like this. The crowd included former military men and ex-cops, people with various motives, their fingers poised just above the triggers of powerful weapons. With so much firepower in so many hands, a small incident could have set off a bloodbath and left nearly two dozen officers dead.

Assist. Sheriff Joe Lombardo:“We were outgunned, outmanned and there would not have been a good result from it.”
I-Team reporter George Knapp: “A lot of scenarios could have played out that would have left a lot of dead officers.”
Assist. Sheriff Joe Lombardo: “If you just have a backfire, somebody pops a firecracker, then it’s over. We’re done. We are going to lose that battle that day.”

Metro pointedly did not allow officers to put on helmets or protective gear for fear it might be seen as a provocation. At the urging of Cliven Bundy, the crowd moved toward the BLM compound. Rhetoric grew more heated, and guns were pointed at officers. 

One Bundy supporter summed it up, “Had to happen sometime, might as well happen now, right?”

“Some of them, there’s no doubt from talking to me, want it, to get a chance that day to fire upon a police officer or authority period. I don’t think it mattered if it was BLM or us,” Jenkins said.

As the crowd closed in on the BLM compound, and tensions approached critical mass, Lombardo made the call to release the cattle and diffuse the situation.

“Sometimes in public safety, it is hard to back down. We are not trained to operate that way, but they took the better route, and it was the right way to go,” Lombardo said. “It’s all about lives. I mean, what is the better route to go? To be right or to be effective? “

If one tiny mistake had been made, the community might be attending funerals for slain police officers, law enforcement officials said. Dozens of people could have been killed if shooting had broken out.

The I-Team has learned that those who were involved in threatening the lives of officers are not off the hook, even if it takes a year or more to resolve.