Officials in Oregon said on Tuesday that state troopers were justified in fatally shooting LaVoy Finicum, who was part of an armed group that had occupied a wildlife refuge, because they feared for their lives.
However, authorities also said that FBI agents involved in the encounter were being investigated for firing shots and never reporting them.
Deschutes County Sheriff Shane Nelson said two bullets believed to be fired by FBI agents did not strike Finicum, who was hit by three rounds fired by state troopers. But Nelson announced at a news conference Tuesday that because the FBI agents “did not disclose their shots to investigators, nor did they disclose specific actions they took after the shooting,” his office and the Justice Department would both investigate.
Michael E. Horowitz, the Justice Department’s inspector general, said in a statement Tuesday that his office was investigating the FBI agents’ actions.
This news came six weeks after Finicium was fatally shot when FBI agents and Oregon state troopers moved to arrest the leadership of an armed group that had seized a federal wildlife refuge.
Nelson said the FBI agents who fired the shots were part of the bureau’s Hostage Rescue Team, an elite group participating in the law enforcement effort to arrest the Ammon Bundy, the occupations’s leader, and others while they traveled on a highway outside the refuge on Jan. 26. The FBI agents were interviewed the day of the shooting and again the following week, Nelson said.
While local investigators believe the FBI agents fired these shots, there did not appear to be any direct evidence so far that FBI agents fired shots, such as shell casings at the scene, according to U.S. law enforcement officials familiar with the investigation. Ammunition from these agents would have been distinct from other shell casings at the scene, officials said.
Nelson said investigators found a bullet hole on the roof of the car that could not be accounted for based on the shots taken by troopers, and said they came to believe that an FBI agent was responsible for it.
These new details came as supporters of Finicum were already enraged by his death. The FBI had taken the unusual step of releasing video of Finicum’s death two days after it happened in response to what they said were inaccurate and inflammatory reports about the incident. This footage did not have audio.
“The public deserved to have the video, with audio and sound, released immediately after the shooting,” Mike Arnold, Bundy’s attorney, said in a statement Tuesday. “Now we know why it wasn’t released: the public would have heard the shots that the government didn’t want it to hear.”
During brief remarks on Tuesday, Greg Bretzing, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Oregon division, said the question of who fired shots during the situation “has not been resolved.”
Bretzing did not specify if he was questioning whether the FBI agents actually fired any shots or saying that he was not sure which specific FBI agent or agents fired shots. Nelson said Tuesday that authorities “don’t know the identity of who fired those rounds,” but he repeatedly said two shots were fired by FBI agents.
A spokeswoman for the FBI did not respond to a quest for comment.
The six shots fired by state troopers — three of which hit Finicum — “were justified and, in fact, necessary” because these troopers feared for their lives, Malheur County District Attorney Dan Norris said at the news conference Tuesday.
Law enforcement officials had stopped a pair of vehicles on Jan. 26 when Finicum, a grandfather and Arizona rancher who acted as the occupiers’ spokesman, tried to drive away at a high speed.
Armed officers shouted commands at the people inside both vehicles when they initially stopped. On Tuesday, authorities released new video footage captured from a passenger inside Finicum’s truck. Finicum can be heard yelling “shoot me” at the agents before eventually taking off down the road.
“It was not the outcome that any of us wanted, but one that he alone was responsible for,” Tim Colahan, the Harney County district attorney, said Tuesday.
Finicum swerved at one point to avoid a law enforcement roadblock, nearly hitting an agent, before eventually veering off the road and into a snowy bank, authorities said.
After Finicum got out of the car and walked toward an officer, he appeared to twice reach toward his jacket, where officials said they later found a loaded 9mm handgun.
There was one state trooper in front of Finicum with a Taser who intended to use the device to subdue him, but two troopers behind Finicum told investigators that they opened fire at him because they believed he was reaching for a gun, Nelson said. All three shots hit Finicum in the back, according to the autopsy conducted by the Oregon State Medical Examiner’s Office.
Finicum’s widow, Jeanette, told reporters that her family did not agree with the findings announced Tuesday. She said that her husband had his hands in the air as a symbol of surrender and was ambushed.
“I can hardly believe that a team of qualified law officers could look at the facts in this case and say that no criminal laws were violated,” Jeanette Finicum said, according to the Oregonian.
FBI officials had previously said they had deliberately allowed the occupation to continue without challenge for weeks, spurred by the memories of backlashes after bloody sieges in Waco, Tex., and Ruby Ridge, Idaho.
During a news conference two days after the shooting, FBI officials released footage of Finicum’s death, evoking what has become common across the country in recent years: law enforcement agents offering a narrative behind a fatal shooting involving a police officer to dispel different accounts of the shooting and avoid possible unrest.
But this video did not quell the anger of some anti-government activists and others who decried Finicum’s death as an assassination and an ambush. A “rolling rally” was held in Burns, Ore., a small town near the wildlife refuge, to show support for Finicum and argue that he was murdered.
After the shooting and the Bundy’s arrest, the occupation at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge dwindled to four holdouts who remained at the refuge until Feb. 11, when they peacefully surrendered after an hours-long, fraught negotiation live-streamed to an audience on YouTube.
Finicum, in his death, had become a martyr for some. One of the last occupiers posted a video before he turned himself in to authorities, calling the refuge “Camp Finicum.” A group gathered at the Utah capitol over the weekend to rally in Finicum’s name.
Authorities have indicted two dozen people for the refuge occupation and say that more charges are likely. People charged with seizing the facility — an occupation that began Jan. 2 after protests supporting two local ranchers convicted of arson — have pleaded not guilty.
Adam Goldman contributed to this report.
[This story, first published on March 8 at 12:50 p.m., has been updated.]