Sheriff: One of Ore. standoff protesters has murder conviction
Sheriff's officials are familiar with the man because they've talked to him about whether he can possess a firearm
By Rebecca Woolington
PORTLAND, Ore. — One of the protesters taking part in the armed occupation at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is a 68-year-old former woodworker and, according to court records and authorities, a convicted killer.
Neil Sigurd Wampler drove to Oregon from his home on the California coast earlier this month to join those protesting the arson convictions of father and son ranchers outside Burns.
In August 1977, Wampler, who was 29, was convicted of second-degree murder in the killing of his father, Forey Edward Wampler, in Lake County, California, according to the district attorney's office there and police reports.
During an interview with The Oregonian/OregonLive, Wampler denied he is the same man.
But his unusual name and date of birth matched court and prison records. A commander at the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Office also confirmed that the man at the refuge is a convicted murderer he knows as Neil Wampler in California, said Tony Cipolla, a sheriff's office spokesman. The commander identified him by watching a YouTube video of Wampler speaking from Oregon, Cipolla said.
Sheriff's officials are familiar with Wampler, who lives in the California county, because they've talked to him about whether he can possess a firearm, Cipolla said.
The Oregonian/OregonLive has published several short profiles of the protesters who took over the refuge Jan. 2. Wampler's felony is the most serious criminal conviction among the militants profiled so far.
During the past two and a half weeks, as the militants have settled into the refuge, there have been moments of tension. Residents have claimed to have been intimidated by some of the protesters and one was arrested last Friday and accused of stealing a refuge truck.
Occupation leader Ammon Bundy and spokesman Robert "LaVoy" Finicum both have said they weren't familiar with Wampler or his past.
"I don't know him," Finicum said. "Never heard of him."
But Wampler was a ubiquitous presence at the start of the occupation, often seen roaming the compound and talking to reporters.
He said he drove to Oregon from his home near San Luis Obispo after seeing an online call for people to support the cause in Burns.
California and federal law generally prohibit felons from possessing firearms. Wampler told The Oregonian that he can legally possess a gun. Cipolla, the San Luis Obispo Sheriff's Office spokesman, said Wampler cannot have a gun because of his murder conviction.
Wampler said about 75 percent of protesters at the refuge are armed. Asked if he was armed, he replied, "Oh yes," but wouldn't identify his weapon or say whether it was a gun.
Wampler was accused of killing his 62-year-old father who was asleep in bed at his Lower Lake, Calif., residence, according to police reports and newspaper stories from the time. Wampler had been staying at his father's home for eight days before the killing and had a troubled relationship with him, according to police reports.
Wampler was accused of hitting his father in the head with an eye bolt – a 16-inch rod -- which police found on his father's body, news and police reports say. Wampler left the residence, walked a few miles, hitchhiked and wound up at a liquor store, where he became upset and told an employee to call the sheriff's office, police reports say.
"I have killed my father," he told a deputy over the phone, according to the reports.
He pleaded not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity to a murder charge in court, and a judge ordered two psychiatrists to evaluate him, news stories say. The stories say Wampler was initially charged with first-degree murder.
During a change of plea hearing in July 1977, Wampler told the court that he and his father were drinking and his father insulted Wampler's girlfriend, according to a news story. His girlfriend, who also had been staying with Wampler and his father, told police the father had ordered her to leave, according to reports.
On Aug. 8, 1977, Wampler was convicted of second-degree murder after pleading guilty, according to the Lake County District Attorney's Office in California. Wampler was sentenced to serve five years to life in prison, said Dana Simas, a California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokeswoman. He was released from prison July 11, 1981, on parole, Simas said, and his parole supervision ended the following July.
Public records list Wampler as a current resident of Los Osos, Calif.
Wampler has been outspoken about gun rights. In 2013, he wrote a letter to the editor in The San Luis Obispo Tribune commending the local sheriff's stance "against any federal infringement of our Second Amendment rights..." In the letter, he wrote, "We gun owners in San Luis Obispo owe a big thank you" to the sheriff.
Since arriving at the refuge, Wampler said, he has served as a camp cook. He made the trip because he has been concerned about the federal government "encroaching" on the rights of states and citizens.
From inside the Burns compound, Wampler appeared in a wearing a State of Jefferson hat, referencing the state once proposed as a union of rural southern Oregon and northern California counties.
Asked why he came to Burns, Wampler replies on camera, "I am here to support my compadres in this effort against federal overreach."
Wampler also attended the standoff with federal authorities at the Nevada ranch of Cliven Bundy in 2014 and was at the Sugar Pine Mine confrontation last year in southern Oregon.
The Las Vegas Review-Journal quoted him saying at the Bundy ranch standoff, "I myself am willing to be shot and killed for constitutional rights and principles."
The story said Wampler was a member of the Oath Keepers, a self-described nonpartisan group of veterans and current and former police officers sworn to uphold the U.S. Constitution, but he told The Oregonian/OregonLive he is not. Nancy Larned, who serves as a contact for the Oath Keepers of California, said Wampler is not a member, but declined to say whether he had been in the past.
Wampler said he headed to Bundy ranch after seeing a video online of federal agents using a stun gun on protesters there.
"That got me moving," he said.
Wampler also came to Oregon last spring as part of a protest involving armed protesters challenging the federal government at Sugar Pine Mine in Josephine County.
In the YouTube video, Wampler makes note of how peaceful participants have been at other armed demonstrations. He said no one has been injured or killed by gunfire and no one has fired any shots because they were mad. He said the group plans to be peaceful at the refuge as well.
"We are peaceful people, I certainly am," he says. "And the only circumstance, the last extremity, I think that any gunshots would be fired is if the federalists tried to root us out of here. They would find out then, that we are not playing. We're not gonna give an inch. And I say that very seriously."
Copyright 2016 The Oregonian