LaVoy Finicum styled himself as a cowboy, down to the Stetson hat and Colt .45 pistol on his hip. And he lived his life adhering to a similarly old-fashioned code — right up until his death Tuesday in a confrontation with federal and state authorities.
With a shaved head and a soft voice, the 54-year-old Arizona rancher became the de facto spokesman for the band of armed men and women camped out at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in remote Oregon.
In one of many interviews during the nearly month-long occupation, a reporter asked Finicum whether he was prepared to die rather than go to jail.
“Absolutely,” he told NBC. “I have been raised in the country all my life. I love dearly to feel the wind on my face, to see the sun rise, to see the moon in the night. I have no intention of spending any of my days in a concrete box.”
Those words proved prescient late Tuesday when authorities moved suddenly to arrest the leaders of the occupation, which had been called to protest the imprisonment of two local ranchers — and a federal government Finicum and others said had overreached in its powers. While authorities have not confirmed the name of the person killed, Finicum’s daughter said it was him and other relatives began posting online remembrances, casting him as a martyr.
Publicly, authorities declined to elaborate Wednesday. But a law enforcement official — speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation — said Finicum was the only one of several armed men who resisted arrest when agents stopped their car on an Oregon highway not far from the refuge.
Finicum’s relatives contend his killing was unjustified. While critics dismissed him as an armed terrorist, supporters of the occupation rallied around him Wednesday as the heroic embodiment of their cause.
Finicum’s relatives — and his own words online and in interviews — paint a portrait of a more nuanced and complicated man.
He had a vast family that included 11 children and, over the years, roughly 50 foster children.
One daughter, Challice Finch, 24, described her father as a deeply loving and generous man who was devoted to his family and loved to teach.
“Anyone that would give him a few seconds, he would teach about the Constitution, about how a car runs, about rock formations,” she said in a telephone interview. “It was a constant state of teaching. He loved to help people learn and grow.”
Finicum’s 11 children were a mix of adopted, half- and full siblings, according to Finch. Beyond those children, she said, Finicum and his wife felt called to take in many foster children because they “wanted to do something more meaningful with their lives.” They specifically requested teenage boys because they are the most overlooked in the foster system, Finch said.
Tax records show that in 2009 Finicum received $115,343 from Catholic Charities to care for the foster children. In an interview with Oregon Public Broadcasting, Finicum described the payments as his primary source of income. This month, around the start of the Oregon standoff, authorities removed four foster children from the Finicums’ ranch, Finch said.
In a statement Wednesday on Finicum’s Facebook page, Finicum’s family urged supporters not to give up his fight against government overreach. “This fight against tyranny is not over. Press forward,” the statement said.
Another daughter, Arianna Marie Brown, added on her Facebook account that she had “nothing but utmost respect for law enforcement” and asked that her father’s death not “be an excuse to show hatred, especially toward them.”
During the weeks-long occupation, Finicum stood out, even among the colorful cast of protesters camped out at the federal facility in rural Oregon. While other occupiers wore hunting gear or camouflage-patterned clothes, Finicum stuck to cowboy attire: hat, jeans and denim jacket.
Despite his spectacles and soft-spoken demeanor, Finicum had a fierce and defiant edge. In several interviews, he shrugged off his movement’s illegal, armed occupation of the Malheur refuge. And he openly espoused a radical brand of constitutionalism that rejected the federal government’s authority over land it has owned and maintained for decades.
But he wasn’t always that way.
Two years ago, Finicum was about as far from the national spotlight as he could get. He was an unknown rancher grazing his cattle on 17,000 acres of the Arizona Strip, the state’s arid northwestern corner near the border with Nevada and Utah. His life was dictated by the season and the state of his herd.
He may not have enjoyed interacting with the federal Bureau of Land Management, but he paid his 2014 grazing fee of $1,126 in advance, according to the St. George News in Utah.
All that changed when he heard about Cliven Bundy.
In March 2014, Bundy, a cattle rancher from Bunkerville, Nev., engaged in a tense standoff with federal officials. BLM officials argued that Bundy had failed to pay for 20 years of grazing privileges on federal land. They seized his cattle and demanded more than $1 million. Bundy refused to pay.
Finicum quickly traveled to Nevada to support his fellow rancher, riding alongside him in his “range war.” Ultimately, the federal government relented, releasing Bundy’s cattle.
Finicum returned home a different man.
He started a blog, called “One Cowboy’s Stand for Freedom,” on which he mused about freedom, states’ rights and self-reliance. He wrote a novel, “Only by Blood and Suffering,” about a cowboy “in the face of devastating end-times chaos,” according to its listing on Amazon.com.
In August, Finicum made his own stand, setting his cattle grazing on federal land without paying for it, according to the St. George News.
Then, late last month, he headed to Burns, Ore., to join Bundy’s sons, Ammon and Ryan, and other ranchers protesting jail sentences for two local ranchers convicted of arson on public land.
When those protesters began their occupation of the wildlife refuge a few weeks ago, Finicum became one of their leaders.
As part of a regular radio blog he posted online, Finicum described this week how the occupation was dragging on and falling into a drab routine. But his last radio entry, on Monday, also hinted at a looming confrontation with authorities.
“Definitely a lot of saberrousing going on around us,” Finicum said of federal authorities. “I do believe they’re positioning themselves. There’s definitely a hardening of their postures. They’re bringing in more assets.”
Finicum made sure to thank his listeners.
“Know that we are determined,” he reassured them. “We know that God’s hand is in this.
“Whatever happens, we know that it’s going to be okay.”
Julie Tate and Joe Heim contributed to this report.