KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A northeast Kansas woman has taken seven of her children to Oregon to perform for the armed occupiers who seized control of a federal wildlife refuge earlier this month.
Odalis Sharp, of Auburn, Kansas, appears with the children on a video taken Saturday at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, a bird sanctuary in the eastern part of the state.
“We’re here to sing for the Lord,” Sharp tells the anti-government militants. “This is a very worthwhile cause, and we just hope to make a difference and we hope to just be able to bless the hearts of the people through the songs.”
But critics say taking children to such an event is dangerous and irresponsible.
“You have these impressionable youth that are interacting with these extremists, and they look up to them as some sort of folk heroes when in reality they’re criminals,” said Daryl Johnson, a former senior analyst with the Department of Homeland Security. “What type of example is that setting? It’s raising the next generation of extremists.”
The Kansas City Star reached a woman on a cellphone Monday who said she was Odalis Sharp, but the call was disconnected after the reporter identified herself and Sharp did not respond to subsequent calls and messages. In an April 2014 newspaper article, she said her children ranged in age from 4 to 17.
Sharp, a single parent who has been involved in a child welfare case, says on the video taken Saturday that someone from Montana had contacted her about a month ago to discuss the possibility of the family coming to Oregon and that she started praying about it.
Auburn is in Shawnee County, about 78 miles west of Kansas City. The shortest driving route from Auburn to the refuge is about 1,500 miles.
It’s unclear whether the family has left the refuge.
On the video, Sharp family members are introduced by one of the occupiers, Pete Santilli, who has an online radio talk show and has been airing live programs during the standoff that are later archived on YouTube.
“We were all born with the gift of music,” says a girl who identifies herself as Emmelina. “We’ve been singing for all of our lives.” She said there are 10 children in the family, but “three of us aren’t here right now.”
The talented family sings numerous religious and patriotic songs while standing under a picnic shelter at the refuge. Among the selections:
“Amazing Grace,” “Mary Did You Know?” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
They also play musical instruments, which they use in an upbeat rendition of “This Land Is Your Land.”
This isn’t their first foray into a potentially volatile situation.
“The Singing Sharps” spent several days at the Bundy Ranch in Nevada in 2014, performing for armed anti-government activists who were in a standoff with federal authorities on the property of rancher Cliven Bundy. The government said Bundy owed $1 million for years of grazing his cattle on federal land. The standoff ended peacefully, but authorities were criticized for not prosecuting those involved and not collecting the fees.
Bundy’s son, Ammon, is now the leader of the Oregon siege, which began Jan. 2 and stems from a case involving two ranchers in Harney County.
A father and son, the Hammonds served time for setting fire to public land, were released and then sent back to prison this month after a judge ruled they hadn’t served enough time. The militants who took over the refuge say they won’t back down until the government relinquishes the refuge to the people and the two ranchers are released from prison.
The issue of children at the standoff has become contentious, with some critics accusing the occupiers of using the youth as protection from authorities. And two of the more vocal militants say that state child welfare agencies have removed children from their homes since the siege began in an effort to pressure them to surrender.
Johnson said the presence of children adds a complicated dimension to the conflict.
“If you’re the authorities and you’re planning to do a roundup, you’re going to be a little more hesitant because these kids are around,” he said. “And in the case of the Branch Davidians at Waco and at the standoff at Ruby Ridge, the extremists actually used the children as human shields.”
David Kierst Jr., a former Jackson County Family Court commissioner, said taking children to an armed standoff “raises some serious questions about common sense.”
He added, however, that “I’m not sure there’s much to get excited about if they’re there for the weekend or a couple of days.” It becomes a different story, he said, “if they start to stay longer or end up on the picket line or marching around and getting more involved in it.”
Kierst said children in such situations unknowingly serve as repellent against law enforcement.
“If I’m those guys, I’m perfectly willing to have the more children out there that I can get,” he said, “because that means the feds will stay farther away.”
The Oath Keepers, a “patriot” group that has been closely monitoring the standoff, said in an update on its website Monday that “there are probably in the range of 20-30 occupiers still at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, including children.”
The report said that the atmosphere at the refuge was peaceful and that the armed occupiers posed no danger.
“Local authorities and media continue to not only be very critical of the Refuge occupation, but play up unjustified fears,” it said.
Like others at the standoff, Odalis Sharp has a history with state child welfare officials.
In 2011, the Kansas Department for Children and Families removed her oldest child — then 15 — from the home and placed him in foster care after it said it had substantiated reports that Sharp had abused and neglected him. Sharp filed a petition for judicial review in 2012, asking the district court to overturn the finding. When the court did not, she filed an appeal. The appellate court, in an opinion filed in October, sided with the lower courts.
Sharp said in testimony at a 2014 legislative committee hearing that her son had run away from home after becoming unhappy with “the right, wholesome and pure path in which I was leading him, in which God was leading us.”
She accused the child welfare agency of stealing her son because of false abuse allegations. The system corrupted him, she told legislators, and he ended up “in all kinds of trouble.”
An author who has tracked anti-government extremists for two decades said all the comings and goings of such colorful characters at the standoff — including one Idaho man who is a sumo wrestling champion and challenged New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to a battle — make the situation an easy target for humor. But it’s no laughing matter, said J.J. MacNab, a fellow at George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security.
MacNab noted that on Saturday, the Sharp children were standing at the refuge in the midst of a verbal confrontation that escalated into a near fight between the occupiers and a group of environmentalists who have been picketing the Bundy faction.
The children can be seen on the video watching intently as tensions rise when Santilli accuses a picketer of being an undercover FBI agent. A few minutes later, the children resume their spots under a picnic shelter and begin belting out, “Sing hosanna to the king of kings.”
The bizarre scene wasn’t lost on MacNab.
“These Bundy confrontations may resemble a traveling circus — family singers, a sumo wrestler, a barker who keeps the audience engaged,”
she said. “But characterizing them that way distracts from the very dangerous threat they pose.”