By John Friend —
Controversy surrounds the exact manner and circumstances in which iconic Arizona rancher Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, 54, was killed on January 26. Finicum had been serving as a key leader and spokesman during the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge just south of Burns, Oregon, when he was shot and killed in a joint Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)-Oregon State Police operation.
Two days after Finicum’s death, the FBI released aerial video footage captured by a surveillance plane directly above the encounter on U.S. 395 in an effort to clarify the circumstances and dispel rumors of law enforcement misconduct.
Unsurprisingly, the video footage, coupled with eyewitness testimony put forth by some of the individuals present during the confrontation, have only fueled more heated debate about the fatal encounter between the leaders of the occupation and state and federal law enforcement authorities.
Results of the investigation currently being conducted into Finicum’s death will not be made public for four to six weeks, according to law enforcement officials. The Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office is the lead agency responsible for the investigation, but will be assisted by local and state police officials.
“This is an on-going investigation and in order to maintain its integrity, no further information will be released until a thorough investigation and review is completed by Malheur County District Attorney, Dan Norris,” Deschutes County Sheriff L. Shane Nelson explained in a statement.
On that fateful day, Finicum and other leaders of the occupation, including Ammon Bundy, Ryan Bundy, Ryan Payne, Shawna Cox, and Victoria Sharp—all key figures involved in the occupation and protest—were traveling to John Day, a small town roughly 70 miles north of Burns.
Locals in John Day, which is located in Grant County, Oregon, had invited Bundy and his entourage to address a community meeting which was to be attended by Grant County Sheriff Glenn Palmer, who had met with some of the occupation leaders in the past and had shown support for some of the demands they issued, including the release of Dwight and Steven Hammond, the local ranching family whose re-sentencing late last year under federal anti-terrorism laws initiated the occupation of the Refuge.
While driving to John Day, Finicum and those in his truck noticed police SUVs and other law enforcement vehicles on a side road just off of U.S. 395.
“It’s a set-up,” Finicum is reported to have stated at the time.
Finicum, who was driving in front of the Jeep transporting Ammon Bundy to the community meeting, was then followed by law enforcement vehicles with their emergency lights on. According to Shawna Cox, who was in the vehicle with Finicum, Ryan Payne, Ryan Bundy, and Victoria Sharp, Finicum did not want to stop for law enforcement authorities. An argument ensued between Payne and Finicum, and Finicum eventually stopped his truck in the middle of the highway.
Payne proceeded to roll down his window and put his hands out.
“That very second, I see a red laser light, right by the mirror,” Cox recently explained in an interview with The Oregonian. “I heard the ping—they shot at him. He jumped back. I thought it hit his bracelet.”
Payne eventually surrendered to authorities after exiting the vehicle. Shortly thereafter, Finicum sped away, only to discover a major police roadblock as he continued north on U.S. 395. Finicum swerved his truck off the highway in order to avoid the roadblock, running into a snowbank.
Cox claims that law enforcement officials immediately began shooting at Finicum’s truck after it became stuck in the snowbank, and Finicum exited in order to draw fire away from the women inside. Shortly after exiting the vehicle, Finicum was reportedly shot and killed by an Oregon State Police officer. Cox claims Finicum was yelling, “Shoot me! Shoot me! Shoot me!” at law enforcement authorities.
Finicum’s family has released two separate statements questioning the FBI’s and Oregon State Police’s version of events, who allege Finicum was disobeying officers’ orders and made attempts to reach for a firearm. The Finicum family’s second statement, released February 2 through the family’s lawyer, describes the death of LaVoy as “unjustified,” alleging the FBI and Oregon State Police are involved in a cover-up.
“It is our position that not only was the shooting death of LaVoy Finicum completely unjustified, but that the FBI and Oregon State Police may also be engaging in a cover-up, and seeking to manipulate and mislead the media and the American public about what really happened,” the statement reads in part. It continues:
[ . . . ] what we believe the video [FBI video] shows is that LaVoy was being fired upon before he even got out of the truck. He exited very quickly and ran away from the vehicle to draw the gunfire away from the truck and its remaining occupants. He had his empty hands in the air. He never wielded a weapon. He never posed any genuine threat to anyone. It is our position that he was cornered like a helpless animal, with nowhere else to turn, and executed in cold blood. We believe he had already been shot before he ever lowered his hands. We believe some of his hand movements were a natural physical reflex to being shot. He was shot multiple times in the back with his hands in the air. He was then completely ignored and disregarded for an extended period of time, and left to die with no attempt to provide any medical attention, while officers and agents (estimated to be at least 20 at that location), thoroughly terrorized the remaining occupants of the vehicle, including two women, by shooting the truck full of holes.
The Finicum family is demanding that the FBI release all audio recordings and unedited video captures of the confrontation, as well as photographic images of Finicum’s truck following the confrontation.
Finicum, who AFP spoke with and interviewed on January 7, died defending his beliefs, according to family members.
“My dad knew he needed to stand up for what was right, to defend freedom,” Arianna Finicum Brown, one of Finicum’s daughters, told The Oregonian. “He was willing to die defending them.”
John Friend is a California-based writer who maintains a blog.