A special agent with the elite FBI Hostage Rescue Team has been indicted and accused of trying to cover up the firing of gunshots during an encounter with a member of an armed group who occupied an Oregon wildlife refuge last year.
The indictment – filed last week and made public Wednesday – does not accuse Special Agent W. Joseph Astarita of shooting the occupier, but it is a public black eye for the FBI group, which the bureau has described as unparalleled in its law enforcement capabilities.
At the height of the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which stretched on for weeks at the bird sanctuary in southeastern Oregon, authorities pulled over some of the group’s leaders as they traveled on a snowy highway toward a meeting on Jan. 26, 2016.
FBI agents and Oregon State Police troopers swarmed the group, and one of the occupiers – Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, a 54-year-old rancher who acted as the group’s spokesman – tried to drive away at high speed.
After nearly hitting an agent, Finicum veered off the road and into a snowy bank. He walked toward an officer, appearing to reach for his jacket, where officials say he was carrying a loaded 9mm handgun. State troopers opened fire and struck Finicum three times in the back, killing him.
Weeks later, authorities said they had deemed the shooting justified because the troopers feared for their lives. That same day, Oregon officials and the Justice Department’s inspector general announced that they were investigating the actions of FBI agents during the encounter.
Deschutes County Sheriff Shane Nelson said at a March 2016 news conference that investigators found a bullet hole on the roof of Finicum’s car that could not be accounted for based on the shots troopers fired. Nelson said they came to determine that an FBI agent fired that shot.
On Wednesday afternoon, Astarita – in a dark gray pinstriped suit and a red and navy striped tie – stood in magistrate court before Judge Janice Stewart. Astarita was next to a federal defender, who entered a not guilty plea on all counts. A week-long jury trial was set to begin Aug. 29; Astarita is not being held in custody.
When Astarita appeared in court, one apparent supporter of Finicum was in the front row, a tattoo of Finicum’s cattle brand on her right wrist.
In the five-count indictment filed under seal last week in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon and unsealed by a judge on Wednesday, Astarita is described as an HRT member assigned to the wildlife standoff.
The indictment said Astarita “falsely stated he had not fired his weapon during the attempted arrest of Robert LaVoy Finicum, when he knew then and there that he had fired his weapon.” He is described as firing two shots during the encounter.
According to the indictment, Astarita made a false statement to three different supervisory special agents, all of whom are identified only by initials for security reasons. The indictment also charges Astarita with two counts of obstruction of justice for allegedly misleading Oregon State Police officers about the two rounds.
An FBI spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Finicum was shot more than three weeks into a standoff at the Malheur refuge, a remote bird sanctuary nearly six hours from the state’s largest city. People had come from around the country to participate in what they described as a protest of the federal government’s ownership of western lands.
After law enforcement officers pulled over Finicum’s truck – along with another carrying the occupation’s leader, Ammon Bundy – Finicum screamed at them from his vehicle.
“Right there. Put a bullet through it,” he yelled, pointing to his forehead, according to a video made another member of the group filmed on her cellphone from the back seat of his truck. “Go ahead, put the bullet through me! . . . You want my blood on your hands?”
Finicum hit the gas, speeding toward another roadblock, and he veered to avoid hitting it. Plowing into a snowbank, Finicum climbed out of the truck with his hands raised. Inside the vehicle, the video captured two bullets shattering a window and piercing the roof of the truck.
“Go ahead and shoot me!” Finicum yelled as he stumbled into the snow. “You’re gonna have to shoot me!”
In the interior left pocket of his denim coat was a 9mm Ruger pistol with a bullet in the chamber. As he yelled at officers to shoot him, drone footage from above captured Finicum appearing to gesture toward his coat before he was killed.
The FBI, seeking to dispel questions about Finicum’s death in January 2016, quickly released video showing the shooting. As word spread, occupiers remaining at the refuge cried foul, describing it as a murder. With their leaders imprisoned, the occupation dwindled to a small, well-armed group of four who called Finicum’s death an assassination and remained at the refuge until early February.
Finicum’s legacy remained on display during the trial last fall of seven people charged with crimes stemming from the occupation. Supporters inside the Portland courtroom and on the green park lawns outside wore T-shirts and flew flags bearing Finicum’s cattle brand; they held signs that read “Justice for LaVoy.”
His name became something of a symbol for those beyond the occupying group, said Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League
“His brand has become a symbol used by anti-government extremists,” Pitcavage said. “You might see it in their rear window or an avatar on social media. There’s no doubt that they’ve made him into a martyr.”
Even before Finicum’s death, the HRT had played a role in disastrous incidents – including the raids at Ruby Ridge in Idaho and Waco, Texas – that were invoked by occupiers at the refuge. Some FBI officials had also mentioned those same incidents, saying that with memories of those bloody episodes in mind, they deliberately allowed the Oregon occupation to continue for weeks.
Pitcavage said that even though Finicum’s death was very different than what occurred at Ruby Ridge or Waco, extremists would still use it “for propaganda purposes.” He said the HRT member appeared to have made a human mistake. But Kenneth Medenbach, one of the seven occupiers acquitted of all charges in the trial last fall, disagreed.
“I think they were trying to kill everybody in the truck,” he said Wednesday. “If they were trying to scare them they could have shot out their tires. . . . I think they were trying to kill LaVoy before he got out of the truck.”
He also wondered if Finicum came to the refuge knowing he might die.
“We all have an appointed time to die,” Medenbach said. “And I think he maybe knew that’s what was coming up on him.”
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Leah Sottile, Mark Berman