Killing of Oregon Refuge Occupier Was Justified, But the FBI Still Faces Inquiry

LaVoy Finicum at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in January. (PHOTO CREDIT: Julie Turkewitz/The New York Times)
LaVoy Finicum at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in January. (PHOTO CREDIT: Julie Turkewitz/The New York Times)

Investigators said Tuesday that Oregon state officers acted properly when they shot and killed LaVoy Finicum, one of the activists who occupied a wildlife refuge in Oregon earlier this year, but federal officials have opened an inquiry into the actions of F.B.I. agents for not disclosing that they also fired shots during the confrontation.

The investigators based their conclusions in part on a dramatic, previously undisclosed videotape taken from one of the occupants of Mr. Finicum’s car, which showed him taunting officers and daring them repeatedly to “shoot me.”

Mr. Finicum was killed Jan. 26 after the authorities tried to apprehend him at a police blockade outside Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The wildlife sanctuary had been taken over on Jan. 2 by a band of armed protesters led by two brothers, Ammon and Ryan Bundy, who demanded that the federal government turn over its lands in the West to private owners or local governments.

By the time the confrontation ended on Feb. 11, 25 people had been arrested and charged with felonies; Mr. Finicum was the only one to die, and his shooting at the hands of deputies has become a rallying point for the Bundys’ cause.

Neither of the shots by the F.B.I. struck Mr. Finicum, investigators said. Rather, Mr. Finicum was shot and killed by three rounds fired by Oregon state officers, all of which struck him in the back, they said. The Malheur County district attorney, Dan Norris, said that all six shots fired by Oregon officers, including the three that hit Mr. Finicum, were justified.

Another investigator, Sheriff Shane Nelson of Deschutes County, said that, “Of particular concern to all of us” was that the F.B.I. agents “did not disclose their shots to investigators.”

While the findings are a relief to the local troopers, the F.B.I. agents on the scene face serious questions. F.B.I. agents from the hostage and rescue team were interviewed by investigators immediately after the shooting and again about 10 days later. On both occasions, they denied having fired any shots. Investigators said they ultimately concluded that two of the shots — one hitting the truck — must have come from one of the F.B.I. agents, whose identity is still unknown to investigators.

Once investigators learned last month of the failure of the agents to disclose their full role, investigators in Washington were immediately summoned to Oregon to begin looking into possible impropriety, officials said. The federal inquiry will be done by the Justice Department inspector general’s office along with the United States attorney’s office in Oregon.

Greg Bretzing, the special agent in charge of the Oregon office, declined to say Tuesday whether any of the F.B.I. agents involved in the episode had been suspended while the case was being reviewed. He said that “the question of who fired these shots has not been resolved,” and F.B.I. officials said that they were not yet convinced that they came from one of their agents.

But other law enforcement officials, convinced that the two shots came from the F.B.I., said they were at a loss to explain why the agents would deny responsibility and risk serious consequences. With Mr. Finicum driving his truck straight at an F.B.I. agent at one point, the two mystery shots appeared to be just as defensible as the other six shots, the officials said.

“Why deny firing the shots?” asked a law enforcement officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the open investigations. “That’s really the $64,000 question.”

The involvement of the United States attorney’s office in the new inquiry is particularly ominous for the F.B.I. because it signals that Justice Department officials believe the case could rise to the level of criminal charges.

The video released Tuesday was taken by a witness, Shawna Cox — who was riding in Mr. Finicum’s car and arrested in the Malheur takeover — and covers the moments before Mr. Finicum’s death.

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SOURCE: NY Times, Julie Turkewitz and Eric Lichtblau