BURNS, Ore. — Authorities said Friday that they were still working for a peaceful end to the standoff at a rural Oregon wildlife refuge, where an occupation that began nearly a month ago has dwindled to just four people who remain there even as the group’s leaders faced new court hearings following their arrest.
By late morning in eastern Oregon, there were no indications of a breakthrough in the protest over federal control of ranch lands — an armed occupation that has opened wider debates over government reach in the West and the limits of civil action in opposition.
[In Oregon, frustration over federal land rights has been building for years]
Four holdouts have stayed hunkered down in a barricaded federal building, and they still remained in the refuge Friday morning, officials said. The FBI said Thursday night that its negotiators were in contact with the small group.
Meanwhile, FBI officials moved aggressively to dispel questions about the shooting death Tuesday of one of the most high-profile occupiers of a rural Oregon wildlife refuge. A video appears to show the man reaching for a loaded handgun before being shot by an Oregon state trooper.
While the video is low-quality and leaves room for interpretation, Greg Bretzing, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Portland division, said Thursday the officers who fired at LaVoy Finicum believed he made two moves with his right hand to reach toward the loaded 9mm semiautomatic handgun inside his jacket.
Finicum, a cowboy-hat-wearing spokesman for the occupiers who took over a building at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns on Jan. 2, was killed in an operation that also resulted in the arrests of five people, including the group’s leader, Ammon Bundy, and his brother, Ryan.
With 11 occupiers in custody, just four were left at the refuge, resisting fresh calls from their jailed leader to “turn yourselves in and do not use physical force.”
[‘We’re the grunts that get stuck behind’: The final holdouts of the Oregon occupation]
In a statement issued through his attorney Thursday, Ammon Bundy told the holdouts: “The world is listening.”
Bundy said he plans to “use the criminal discovery process to obtain information and government records.” Bundy also disputed the suggestion that he and the others at the refuge were “armed occupiers,” saying his group had instead been “educating people and getting them to move towards freedom.”
Bretzing said Oregon state authorities were conducting a formal investigation into the use of deadly force. But he said the FBI was taking the unusual step of quickly releasing the graphic video to counter what he called “inaccurate” and “inflammatory” public statements about the shooting.
Social-media accounts of anti-government extremists lit up after the shooting with plaudits calling Finicum a martyr who had been shot without cause by law enforcement. A widely shared audio recording on YouTube purported to be from an 18-year-old woman who was in the car and said she saw officers fire multiple shots into Finicum without any provocation.
The video shows armed officers stopping Finicum’s truck and another vehicle and waiting nearly four minutes as they shouted commands for those in the truck to surrender.
“Law enforcement showed great restraint,” Bretzing said, adding that the FBI was also posting the entire video on its YouTube channel.
The video then shows the truck driven by Finicum speeding off after the four minutes, swerving to avoid a law enforcement roadblock and nearly hitting an FBI agent before getting stuck in deep snow.
Finicum emerged from the car and walked away from it and appeared to be speaking or shouting at the officers, although the video has no audio. After several seconds, he was shot.
In this tiny town in the middle of eastern Oregon’s wide-open desert plains, the painful wounds of an armed occupation winding down on a nearby wildlife refuge are not likely to heal soon.
As an icy rain fell in Burns on Thursday, residents said the fabric of life in their rugged, isolated community had been deeply torn by their sudden and unwitting emergence as the epicenter of anti-government extremism in the United States.
“People who have been friends for 30 years are no longer talking,” said Patty Hodge, a bartender at Central Pastime in downtown Burns. “We’ve all gotten along or been civil for many years, and now, because of a difference of opinion, people are enemies. I hope our community heals.”
While some people in Burns shared the occupiers’ rage at the federal government, most opposed the armed takeover and said they were glad it finally appeared to be over.
“It’s a huge relief; this whole thing just divided the community,” said one man in a camouflage cap, sipping coffee at the Donut Hole bakery. Like most people interviewed, he declined to give his name, saying that “this is a small town, and I have to live here.”
“These people were self-interested outsiders,” he said. “They didn’t care about anybody in this community. And somebody got killed over this. That’s the last thing the people in this town would want.”
While he and others described longtime friendships lost over the issue, and a barrage of unwanted publicity in a place that savors its rugged isolation, others sided with the anti-government extremists who made up the occupying force.
Down the road at a “ranch, farm and home supplies” store, selling safes, wood stoves, animal feed and Buck knives, a woman said she was a “hard-core” supporter of the armed action against the federal government.
“Anything the federal government is involved with stinks,” said the woman, who also declined to give her name, calling Finicum’s shooting a deliberate “ambush.”
“It could have been handled differently; they weren’t going to hurt anyone,” the woman said. “I live my life by God and creed, and the federal government has taken that away from us. If you want to know what’s going on, talk to [conservative talk show host] Glenn Beck.”
In an emotional news conference Wednesday, Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward said the occupation “has been tearing our community apart.”
“It’s time for everybody in this illegal occupation to move on. There doesn’t have to be bloodshed in our community,” he said. “If we have issues with the way things are going in our government, we have a responsibility as citizens to act on those in an appropriate manner. We don’t arm up and rebel.”
But questions remained about whether the standoff at the wildlife refuge, and the death of Finicum, would embolden others to take up arms against the federal government.
“Now that they have this following, there’s going to be some little town down in Wyoming or Idaho or Colorado that’s going to go through the same thing — they’ll be next,” said the man at the Donut Hole.
The arrests Tuesday and Wednesday, along with the blockade around the facility, marked a sharp shift in the standoff in southeastern Oregon, which began when armed protesters headed to the refuge and said they were acting to support two local ranchers who had been told to report back to prison after a federal judge ruled that the sentences they had served for arson were insufficient.
Mark Pitcavage, who tracks anti-government extremists for the Anti-Defamation League, said federal authorities clearly took steps to avoid creating a “victory” for the occupiers.
During a 2014 standoff at the Nevada ranch of Cliven Bundy, the father of Ammon and Ryan Bundy, officials backed down and decided not to pursue more than $1 million in grazing fees that he owed the federal government.
Pitcavage said that strategy allowed the anti-government activists to “declare victory,” which seemed to empower them to take on the federal government in other cases involving long-simmering issues of ranching and mining rights on federal lands.
But in this case, he said, authorities moved in after just a few weeks and “decided there was going to be no repeat of the Bundy Ranch situation.”
“Nobody’s going to be celebrating this,” Pitcavage said.
The greater worry, he said, was that anti-government extremist groups would be infuriated by the death of Finicum and plot violent retaliation. He said it was too soon to tell how Finicum’s perceived “martyrdom” would play out.
An FBI affidavit signed Tuesday and filed in federal court outlined how authorities monitored the situation through information readily provided by the group.
In addition to monitoring social-media postings, federal agents also spoke with residents and law enforcement officials in the area. At one point, concerns were raised about whether the occupiers would remain at the refuge, which was remote and empty when the group arrived.
The day the occupation began, the affidavit stated, an agent with the Bureau of Land Management said he was told by a county sheriff’s officer that the occupiers “had explosives, night vision goggles, and weapons and that if they didn’t get the fight they wanted out there they would bring the fight to town.”
The affidavit also stated that problems began well before the takeover. A woman wearing a Bureau of Land Management shirt told agents that two people confronted her at a grocery store, shouting and threatening to burn her house down.
Hodge, the bartender, said many in Burns have felt as intimidated by the huge law enforcement presence in town as they have been by the occupiers. She noted that FBI agents and other officials have filled up most hotels, and on many evenings, the majority of cars on the road belong to authorities.
“It scares them,” she said. “It just scares the hell out of me.”
She said many residents have questions about the way the occupiers were arrested and are worried that both the occupiers and the law enforcement officials have created an atmosphere of distrust that could last for a long time.
“I just hope they haven’t started a war in Burns,” Hodge said. “It’s a good possibility they did.”
Berman reported from Washington. Leah Sottile in Portland, Ore., contributed to this report.