An elite FBI hostage rescue team is under investigation after one or more federal agents apparently lied or failed to admit that they shot at Oregon occupier Robert “LaVoy” Finicum during a fatal showdown in January, officials revealed Tuesday.
News of the potentially embarrassing investigation came as officials announced Tuesday that Oregon State Police troopers were justified in killing Finicum on Jan. 26, when state and federal law enforcement captured the leaders of a lengthy armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Ore.
One Oregon State Police trooper fired three shots at Finicum’s truck as the rancher sped toward a law enforcement roadblock at 70 mph and crashed into a snowbank on a rural Oregon highway.
Then, after Finicum got out and reached for a loaded gun in his jacket, two state troopers shot him three times, according to the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office investigators who reviewed the shooting.
All six of the state troopers’ shots were deemed justifiable, “and, in fact, necessary,” said Malheur County Dist. Atty. Dan Norris, who reviewed the investigation.
But investigators said they also found evidence that an FBI agent had fired one or two rounds at Finicum and failed to admit it during multiple interviews, which has led the U.S. Justice Department Office of the Inspector General to open an investigation of the FBI agents at the scene.
“Of particular concern to all of us is that the FBI [hostage rescue team] operators did not disclose their shots to our investigators, nor did they disclose specific actions they took after the shooting,” Deschutes County Sheriff L. Shane Nelson said in a televised news conference Tuesday, without specifying to which actions he was referring.
“The failure by HRT operators to disclose that they fired shots during this contact, and actions they took after the shooting, are the subject of an ongoing investigation by both Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office and the inspector general of the United States Department of Justice,” Nelson said.
Greg Bretzing, the FBI’s special agent in charge in Oregon, did not go into detail about the allegations, but said, “The question of who fired these shots has not been resolved.” He added that his office would cooperate with the inspector general’s investigation.
The development is likely to inflame supporters of the armed protest group that took over the wildlife refuge Jan. 2 to protest the federal government’s land-use policies. Some supporters view Finicum as a martyr, and his violent death has inspired right-wing demonstrations around the country.
Before the Jan. 26 stop, Finicum had hinted at his willingness to die for the armed occupation, and on Tuesday, investigators played a video taken by one of the women riding inside the rancher’s truck in which he tells police, “Just shoot me!”
“You can go ahead and shoot me. Put the laser right there, put the bullet through the head,” Finicum can be heard shouting at police who had pulled over his truck. “You want blood on your hands?”
The video also shows other occupiers in Finicum’s vehicle apparently urging him to drive away from the police who stopped him, which is a felony, officials said.
When Finicum drove into a three-foot snowbank to avoid a law enforcement roadblock, he nearly hit an agent on the FBI’s hostage rescue team, and then almost immediately got out of his truck after it came to a stop, officials said.
As Finicum staggered from the truck, an Oregon state trooper pulled out a Taser, but the rancher was shot by two other troopers when he reached for a loaded 9-millimeter handgun in his left inside jacket pocket, officials said.
A state autopsy showed that Finicum was shot three times in the back, the Oregonian reported.
Deschutes County investigators said they were puzzled by a bullet hole in the roof of Finicum’s truck, which did not come from shots fired by Oregon state troopers — but instead, apparently, from the FBI agents at the scene.
“During the course of our investigation, we discovered evidence that an FBI HRT operator fired two shots as Mr. Finicum exited the truck, and one shot hit the truck,” said Nelson, the sheriff.
The FBI agents apparently did not admit to firing the shots during interviews, Nelson said.
After further investigation raised concerns, the local investigators briefed the U.S. attorney in Oregon of the FBI agents’ actions on Feb. 18, who in turn notified Bretzing the next day. The FBI special agent in charge then promptly notified the Justice Department inspector general’s office, Nelson said.
On Feb. 20, an agent from the inspector general’s office and a team of investigators from the inspections division of the FBI flew to Bend, Ore., to review the evidence in the case, Nelson said.
The Office of the Inspector General confirmed that the FBI's hostage rescue team was under investigation, but declined to provide details.
The armed occupation of the refuge ended Feb. 11 after the final holdouts surrendered to law enforcement officials who had surrounded the compound where they were holed up.
After becoming a sprawling crime scene, the refuge is almost ready to reopen as the federal government prosecutes dozens of men and women facing felony conspiracy charges in connection with the occupation and a similar showdown with federal officials on Cliven Bundy’s Nevada ranch in 2014. Two of Bundy’s sons were among the Oregon occupiers; they and two other sons are among those facing charges in the Nevada case, as is the elder Bundy.
“The refuge is clear and will be reopening soon,” Bretzing said in a statement. “People who once feared for their safety are back in their homes. Those who chose to break the law will have their day in court. Life is not yet completely normal, but we are on the path to reconciliation and recovery.”