The Department of Justice has opened an investigation into the actions of a number of FBI agents who allegedly lied about their involvement in the shooting death of one of the activists that took over a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon, authorities said Tuesday.
LaVoy Finicum, an Arizona rancher who was among the most visible occupiers of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, was killed by Oregon state troopers during a traffic stop on Jan. 26 in what Malheur County District Attorney Dan Norris said was a “justified and necessary” shooting.
Finicum was struck by three bullets, all of which were fired by Oregon state troopers, authorities said. The state troopers also fired three additional rounds that did not hit the activist, who the authorities said was armed and disregarded several orders to surrender.
But those were not the only shots fired in the incident. Speaking at a news conference on Tuesday, Deschutes County Sheriff Shane Nelson said that agents with the FBI's elite Hostage Rescue Team fired two additional shots at Finicum's vehicle.
The FBI agents, however, did not report those gunshots to investigators, Shane said. The sheriff called the federal agent’s actions “concerning.”
Michael Horowitz, the DOJ’s Inspector General, later confirmed his office is conducting an investigation into the FBI agent's conduct. He declined to name the agents or the Oregon State troopers involved in the incident.
In a statement on Tuesday, the Oregon office of the FBI said that “the question of who fired these shots [had] not been resolved.” Spokespeople for the DOJ and the FBI did not respond to requests for clarification on the apparent contradiction between the FBI’s statement and Shane’s comments at the press conference.
The incident that led to Finicum’s death began as a traffic stop devised by FBI agents and Oregon troopers to arrest several key members of the Malheur occupation. The activists, split into two vehicles, were heading to a community meeting in John Day, a small town about 100 miles north of the Malheur Refuge.
Finicum, who was driving one of the cars, ignored police orders to stop. Oregon state troopers then opened fire, striking the truck.
Finicum narrowly missed running over an FBI agent, the authorities said. He then crashed the truck into a snowbank and stepped out of the truck. It was at that moment, the authorities said, that one of the FBI bullets struck the truck’s back passenger window. The other FBI bullet did not hit the truck.
Finicum then disregarded several commands to get on the ground, the authorities said. He repeatedly told police to “go ahead and shoot” him before reaching inside his jacket, where a gun was later found. Oregon state troopers then opened fire on Finicum, striking him three times in the back.
The authorities said on Tuesday that the troopers feared Finicum would attack one of their colleagues, who approached him with a taser.
Jeanette Finicum, the rancher's widow, said in a statement Tuesday that she would "seek justice in a different court," OPB reported.
“I can hardly believe that a team of qualified law officers could look at the facts in this case and say that no criminal laws were violated,” Jeanette told OPB. “Many people including my lawyers, have tried to prepare me for this — ‘be strong,’ ‘accept this with peace’ — but I don’t think anything could prepare me to accept what is so clearly a finding that challenges the Constitution that my husband died defending.”
Federal prosecutors have charged 16 of the surviving occupiers with conspiracy to impede a federal officer.
The defendants include the alleged leader of the occupation, Ammon Bundy, as well as well-known right-wing activists Jon Ritzheimer, Ryan Bundy, and Shawna Cox. They were all charged with one count of conspiring to impede officers of the United States, and If convicted, could spend up to six years in prison.