Officials in Oregon said on Tuesday that state troopers were justified when they fatally shot LaVoy Finicum, who was part of an armed group that seized a wildlife refuge there for several weeks, because they feared for their lives.
But authorities also said that FBI agents involved in the encounter were being investigated for firing shots and never reporting them.
The bullets fired by FBI agents did not strike Finicum, who was hit by three rounds fired by state troopers, Deschutes County Sheriff Shane Nelson said at a news conference. But because the FBI agents “did not disclose their shots to investigators, nor did they disclose specific actions they took after the shooting,” he said his office and the Justice Department would both investigate.
Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department’s inspector general, said in a statement Tuesday that his office was investigating the FBI agents’ actions.
This news came six weeks after Finicium was fatally shot when FBI agents and Oregon state troopers moved to arrest the leaders of an armed group that had seized a federal wildlife refuge.
Nelson said the FBI agents who fired the shots were part of the bureau’s Hostage Rescue Team, an elite group participating in the law enforcement effort to arrest the occupation’s leadership while they traveled outside the refuge.
Even though authorities say the FBI’s bullets did not hit Finicum or anyone in his vehicle, this previously undisclosed detail comes as anti-government activists and other supporters of Finicum were already enraged by his death, describing it as an ambush and an assassination.
The FBI had taken the unusual step of releasing video footage of Finicum’s death two days after it happened in an effort to correct what they said were inaccurate and inflammatory reports about the incident.
Law enforcement officials had stopped two vehicles carrying some of the occupiers on Jan. 26 when Finicum, a grandfather and Arizona rancher who acted as the occupiers’ spokesman, tried to drive away at a high speed.
Armed officers shouted commands at the people inside both vehicles when they initially stopped. On Tuesday authorities released video footage captured from a passenger inside Finicum’s truck. Finicum can be heard yelling at the agents before eventually taking off down the road.
“It was not the outcome that any of us wanted, but one that he alone was responsible for,” Tim Colahan, the Harney County district attorney, said Tuesday.
Finicum swerved at one point to avoid a law enforcement roadblock, nearly hitting an agent, before eventually veering off the road and into a snowy bank, authorities said. After Finicum got out of the car and walked toward an officer, he appeared to twice reach toward his jacket, where officials said they later found a loaded 9mm handgun.
There was one state trooper in front of Finicum with a Taser who intended to use the device to subdue him, but two troopers behind Finicum told investigators that they opened fire at him because they believed he was reaching for a gun, Nelson said.
FBI officials had previously said they had deliberately allowed the occupation to continue without challenge for weeks, spurred by the memories of backlashes after bloody sieges in Waco, Tex., and Ruby Ridge, Idaho.
During a news conference in January, FBI officials released footage of Finicum’s death, evoking what has become common across the country in recent years: law enforcement agents offering a narrative behind a fatal shooting involving a police officer to dispel different accounts of the shooting and avoid possible unrest.
But this video did not quell the anger of some anti-government activists, who decried Finicum’s death as an assassination and an ambush. A “rolling rally” was held in Burns, Ore., a small town near the wildlife refuge, to show support for Finicum and argue that he was murdered.
Finicum, in his death, had become a martyr for some. One of the last occupiers posted a video before he turned himself in to authorities, calling the refuge “Camp Finicum.” A group gathered at the Utah capitol over the weekend to rally in Finicum’s name.
Authorities have indicted two dozen people for the refuge occupation and say that more charges are likely. People charged with seizing the facility — an occupation that began Jan. 2 after protests supporting two local ranchers convicted of arson — have pleaded not guilty.