Mys­tery bul­let hole cited as agent faces court over pro­tester’s death

Marlborough Express - - WORLD -

UNITED STATES: The shoot­ing of Robert ‘‘LaVoy’’ Finicum on a snowy Ore­gon high­way on Jan­uary 26, 2016 was one of those in­stant Amer­i­can dra­mas in which ev­ery photo, ev­ery eye­wit­ness ac­count and ev­ery mil­lisec­ond of video be­come foren­sic ev­i­dence in a public de­bate over whether some­one de­served to die at the hands of po­lice.

In clas­sic fash­ion, two sides ex­am­ined the same ev­i­dence and saw two dif­fer­ent things.

To the govern­ment, Finicum, 55, was reach­ing for a loaded gun in his jacket af­ter speed­ing away from a traf­fic stop, and the shoot­ing by Ore­gon State Po­lice troop­ers was jus­ti­fied.

To thou­sands of antigov­ern­ment ac­tivists across the coun­try, the Ari­zona rancher was a folk hero who be­came a mar­tyr when, in their view, he was am­bushed - shot in the back with­out a gun in his hand - by over­ag­gres­sive law en­force­ment of­fi­cials who were try­ing to crush the armed oc­cu­pa­tion of the Mal­heur Na­tional Wildlife Refuge.

But when it came to one mys­te­ri­ous piece of ev­i­dence in the case, the two sides were both­ered by the same ques­tion: where did the bul­let hole in the roof of Finicum’s truck come from?

The govern­ment of­fered an an­swer yes­ter­day when a mem­ber of the FBI’s elite Hostage Res­cue Team was in­dicted on sus­pi­cion of shoot­ing twice at Finicum dur­ing the chaotic en­counter and then ly­ing about it to state and fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tors.

The agent, W Joseph As­tarita, en­tered a plea of not guilty to five counts of ly­ing and ob­struc­tion dur­ing a two-minute ar­raign­ment in fed­eral court in Port­land.

As­tarita and the Hostage Res­cue Team - the FBI’s crack coun­tert­er­ror­ism unit, which re­sponds to crises all over the na­tion - had been sum­moned to ru­ral Ore­gon to help re­solve the govern­ment’s high-stakes stand­off with a band of heav­ily armed oc­cu­piers who took over Mal­heur on Jan­uary 2, 2016.

The oc­cu­pa­tion near Burns, Ore­gon was widely viewed as the ide­o­log­i­cal se­quel to the Bu­reau of Land Man­age­ment’s 2014 armed show­down with ranch­ers and mili­tia in Bunkerville, Nevada, who were protest­ing the govern­ment’s at­tempts to get a lo­cal rancher, Cliven Bundy, to fol­low fed­eral wild­lands laws.

Finicum, who had a ranch in Ari­zona, and two of Bundy’s sons came to Ore­gon for sim­i­lar rea­sons - protest­ing on be­half of lo­cal ranch­ers - and the oc­cu­piers holed up at the re­serve, hold­ing court with re­porters and some­times ad­vanc­ing du­bi­ous le­gal the­o­ries about the il­le­git­i­macy of the fed­eral govern­ment. In in­ter­views, Finicum hinted he might be willing to die for the cause.

Ob­servers - and par­tic­i­pants - feared both encounters might lead to the kind of tense law en­force­ment siege that had met bloody con­clu­sions at Ruby Ridge in Idaho in 1992 and Waco, Texas in 1993. The Nevada en­counter ended af­ter fed­eral agents with­drew from the scene. But in Ore­gon, agents de­cided to act.

Ore­gon State Po­lice and the Hostage Res­cue Team de­cided to ar­rest Finicum and some of the oc­cu­pa­tion’s other lead­ers on a ru­ral stretch of high­way away from the wildlife refuge as he led a two-truck convoy filled with pas­sen­gers.

Finicum ini­tially stopped when pulled over by law en­force­ment, but then sped away, crashed his truck into a snow­bank, and nearly hit a Hostage Res­cue Team mem­ber as he ap­par­ently tried to avoid a po­lice road­block. One Ore­gon state trooper fired three shots at Finicum’s speed­ing ve­hi­cle but didn’t hit any­one.

Then, a mo­ment af­ter Finicum stag­gered out of the truck with his arms in the air, a video taken by one of the pas­sen­gers in­side the truck shows an ap­par­ent shot hit­ting the roof of the ve­hi­cle and strik­ing a win­dow.

Af­ter­ward, Finicum moved to­wards of­fi­cers and ap­peared to reach to­ward his jacket, un­der which was a loaded gun, and was fa­tally shot by state troop­ers.

All of the troop­ers’ shots were deemed jus­ti­fi­able ‘‘and, in fact, nec­es­sary’’, Mal­heur County District At­tor­ney Dan Norris said last year af­ter re­view­ing the shoot­ing.

But in­ves­ti­ga­tors were con­cerned that they could not ac­count for the shots ap­par­ently fired by an FBI agent that left the bul­let hole in the roof of Finicum’s truck.

None of the FBI agents took re­spon­si­bil­ity for fir­ing the shots. Sus­pi­cions were fur­ther aroused when in­ves­ti­ga­tors later re­port­edly could not find two shell cas­ings that had ini­tially been spot­ted at the scene.

Law en­force­ment video also re­port­edly showed some of the FBI agents search­ing the area with torches and hud­dling to­gether, with one agent pick­ing some­thing up off the ground, ac­cord­ing to a re­port in the Oregonian news­pa­per last year.

That is one rea­son Finicum’s widow said she was grate­ful for yes­ter­day’s in­dict­ment, but not sat­is­fied.

‘‘I be­lieve there’s more that needs to be done; there were other of­fi­cers in­volved in the coverup,’’ said Jeanette Finicum, 57, who has taken over her hus­band’s ranch. Finicum left be­hind 12 chil­dren and 25 grand­chil­dren.

Although the govern­ment’s pros­e­cu­tion of one of its own agents helps to an­swer a ques­tion that the two sides had shared about the shoot­ing, the pros­e­cu­tion is not likely to mol­lify Finicum’s sup­port­ers.

‘‘These are not hostage res­cuers. The HRT are as­sas­sins,’’ Gavin Seim, an ac­tivist who sup­ported the Mal­heur oc­cu­pa­tion, said in a Face­book video in which he cited the team’s pres­ence at the 1990s stand­offs at Ruby Ridge and Waco.

‘‘A man was mur­dered, as­sas­si­nated on the side of the road. I’m sorry, guys. This is not so awe­some. This is not a vic­tory when the ter­ror­ists of the planet, of our coun­try, of our peo­ple com­mit crimes.’’

Seim added that Finicum ‘‘ex­em­pli­fies mak­ing a prin­ci­pled stand, stand­ing up and giv­ing his life for his friends and for lib­erty’’.

Like many of his fel­low ac­tivists, Seim had a much darker view of law en­force­ment. ‘‘Ev­ery po­lice re­port in Amer­ica is false. That’s the norm,’’ he said. Of As­tarita, he added: ’’This guy just got no­ticed.’’

At yes­ter­day’s court hear­ing, As­tarita was or­dered to re­main free pend­ing trial. The agent de­clined to com­ment while leav­ing court.

The pros­e­cu­tion against As­tarita comes af­ter more than a year of in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the US Jus­tice Depart­ment’s Of­fice of the In­spec­tor Gen­eral, and as the govern­ment is still try­ing to pros­e­cute anti-govern­ment pro­test­ers who have ini­ti­ated stand­offs with fed­eral agents in Ore­gon and Nevada over the fed­eral govern­ment’s wild­lands poli­cies.

Billy J Wil­liams, the US at­tor­ney for Ore­gon, said the charges against As­tarita had no bear­ing on the in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the Finicum shoot­ing, which he de­scribed as ‘‘nec­es­sary and jus­ti­fied’’.

When asked the ques­tion on most minds about As­tarita - ‘‘why did he lie?’’ - Wil­liams of­fered only this: ‘‘I sus­pect that ques­tion will be an­swered in court. – LA Times

PHOTO: REUTERS

Ari­zona cat­tle rancher Robert ‘‘LaVoy’’ Finicum was shot dead at a traf­fic stop af­ter join­ing the armed oc­cu­pa­tion of an Ore­gon wildlife refuge by anti-govern­ment ac­tivists.

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