With his shaved head and soft voice, Robert “LaVoy” Finicum resembled a monk — albeit a monk wearing a Stetson and packing a Colt .45 pistol on his hip.
And like a monk, Finicum waxed poetic when asked earlier this month whether he was prepared to die rather than go to jail for occupying a federal wildlife refuge in rural Oregon.
“Absolutely,” he told NBC’s Tony Dokoupil on Jan. 5. “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.”
That interview proved prescient Tuesday when Finicum died during a confrontation with federal and state authorities. While police had yet to confirm that he was the one killed, his daughter and followers made the announcement, according to the Oregonian, treating his death as a martyrdom.
Details of the incident remained unclear Wednesday morning. Finicum, an Arizona rancher who served as a de facto spokesman for the small band of armed men occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, was on his way to a meeting several hours away when he and other occupiers were pulled over by authorities.
According to the Oregonian, Finicum and another occupation leader, Ryan Bundy, resisted orders to surrender. Gunfire erupted, and Finicum was killed. Bundy was shot in the arm. Eight occupiers were either arrested or had turned themselves in.
Michele Fiore, a Republican assemblywoman in Nevada who is close to the occupiers, though, tweeted that Finicum was “murdered with his hands up.”
Fiore did not witness the shooting. Instead, she recounted to the Oregonian a conversation with the wife of Ammon Bundy, another occupier who was also arrested but allegedly called his wife before being taken to jail. According to Fiore, Bundy told his wife that Finicum was cooperating with officials and was lying on the ground with his hands up when he was shot three times.
Authorities have not yet described the shooting, although they are scheduled to hold a news conference Wednesday morning.
However Finicum died, he was immediately painted as a martyr by the movement he helped lead.
“America was fired upon by our government and one of liberty’s finest patriots is fallen,” the Bundy Ranch announced on Facebook shortly after the shooting. “He will not go silent into eternity. Our appeal is to heaven.”
“My dad was such a good good man, through and through,” Arianna Finicum Brown, one of Finicum’s 11 children, told the Oregonian. “He would never ever want to hurt somebody, but he does believe in defending freedom and he knew the risks involved.”
My heart & prays go out to LaVoy Finicum's family he was just murdered with his hands up in Burns OR.Ryan Bundy has been shot in the arm
— Michele Fiore (@VoteFiore) January 27, 2016
Despite his spectacles and soft-spoken demeanor, however, LaVoy Finicum had a fierce and defiant edge to him. In countless 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.
To his supporters, he was a hero, a cowboy or simply “Tarp Man,” a name he earned while huddling under a plastic sheet in the cold.
To his critics, he was a terrorist.
When Dokoupil bluntly asked him if he had a death wish, Finicum said no. In fact, he loved life.
But his answer didn’t end there.
“There are things more important than your life — and freedom is one of them,” he said. “I’m prepared to defend freedom.”
A rancher’s radicalization
It wasn’t always this 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.
But everything changed when he heard about Cliven Bundy.
In March of 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.
“We definitely don’t recognize [the BLM director’s] jurisdiction or authority, his arresting power or policing power in any way,” he told supporters. “This is a lot bigger deal than just my cows. It’s a statement for freedom and liberty and the Constitution.”
The then-68-year-old rancher’s defiant stance seemed to strike a chord with many conservative Americans, worried about what they perceived as the overreach of the federal government.
Finicum was one of Bundy’s admirers. He quickly traveled up to Nevada to support his fellow rancher, riding alongside him in his “range war.” Ultimately, the federal government relented, releasing Bundy’s cattle. To this day, he hasn’t paid the fees.
Finicum returned home a different man.
“After that incident, I had to do a lot of soul-searching,” he told the St. George News. “I realized that Cliven Bundy was standing on a very strong constitutional principle — and yet, here I was continuing to pay a grazing fee to the BLM.”
Finicum started a blog, called “One Cowboy’s Stand for Freedom,” on which he mused about freedom, states’ rights and self-reliance. He even wrote a novel, “Only by Blood and Suffering,” described by Talking Points Memo as a “post-apocalyptic cowboy thriller.” According to the book’s jacket, it’s a “stirring, fast-paced novel about what matters most in the face of devastating end-times chaos.”
Then, in August, Finicum finally made his own real-life stand, setting his cattle grazing on federal land without paying for it.
“I hereby cancel all my contracts with the BLM,” he wrote in a letter to the U.S. solicitor general, according to the St. George News. (The Office of the Solicitor General is part of the Justice Department, which represents the federal government before the Supreme Court and is influential in developing interpretations of the Constitution on behalf of the United States.)
“Our stand is that the Constitution forbids them from owning and controlling … that land,” Finicum told the newspaper, echoing Bundy in an article published Nov. 1. “The states are the ones that should control these public lands.”
In the eyes of the federal government, Finicum was trespassing. As Finicum saw it, he was exerting “private property rights” protected by the Constitution.
Finicum’s one-man protest didn’t have time to reach the proportions of Bundy’s standoff. Instead, in late December, he headed to Burns, Ore., to join the Bundy family and other ranchers in lambasting jail sentences for Dwight and Steven Hammond, local ranchers convicted of arson on public land.
When the Hammonds surrendered Jan. 4, however, Finicum, Ryan Bundy, Ammon Bundy and other ranchers didn’t go home. Instead, they took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
Their protest was just beginning.
Finicum quickly became the de facto spokesman for the standoff at the refuge. Unlike other occupiers, he seemed calm and sweet-natured. And he excelled at couching his radical movement in terms to which others could relate.
“All we’re doing is protecting the livelihood of the people here,” he told Dena Takruri, a young, female Palestinian American journalist for Al Jazeera. When she asked whether African Americans or Muslims would be treated the same way as the all-white ranchers — who were allowed to come and go from the refuge — Finicum said: “My heart goes out to anyone who has violence perpetrated upon them.”
Finicum also seemed self-sacrificing compared with other occupiers. When he heard that the FBI had supposedly issued a warrant for his arrest, he huddled outside the refuge’s lodge in the cold and snow, covered only by a blanket and blue tarp, so that federal agents would not “have to run around in the dark, kicking in doors, having to look for me.”
When media attention died down in mid-January, Finicum kept up his routine of issuing a daily radio broadcast, insisting that the siege would continue until the federal government ceded control of the 187,000-acre refuge to the county.
“It needs to be very clear that these buildings will never, ever return to the federal government,” Finicum told The Washington Post.
By Monday, Finicum’s daily routine had almost become boring. In his radio blog, he described sleeping until 6 a.m. Sunday, putting on his “best Levis,” and then heading into town and to church. He was two days shy of his 55th birthday, and his wife had driven to the refuge to spend a few days with him.
But Finicum’s last radio blog also hinted at what was to come.
“Definitely a lot of saber-rousing going on around us,” Finicum said on the blog. “I do believe they’re positioning themselves. There’s definitely a hardening of their postures. They’re bringing in more assets. …
“It’s unfortunate the federal government is beating the war drums,” he continued in his usual calm demeanor. “We just carry on. We don’t worry about it.”
Finicum told listeners that the occupiers were “alive and well” three weeks into their standoff, and he thanked them for their prayers.
“Know that we are determined,” he reassured them. “This is not a place of fear in here. The fear is out there. We know that God’s hand is in this. Whatever happens, we know that it’s going to be okay.”
A day later, Finicum was dead.