The US Department of Justice has unexpectedly launched a criminal investigation into the conduct of FBI agents linked to the shooting death of militant rancher LeVoy Finicum, one of a group of militiamen who occupied a federal building in an Oregon wildlife refuge. The Department of Justice is attempting to determine if an FBI agent failed to report firing two shots and obtained help from four other FBI agents in covering up the truth.
Finicum, a 54-year-old rancher from Arizona, was shot dead as he approached a state law enforcement officer after his truck struck a snowbank near the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The drama began when Finicum and other militiamen, who had taken over the refuge headquarters to protest federal handling of public pasture lands, were confronted by a police roadblock on 26 January as they left the buildings in two vehicles to attend a nearby community meeting.
Finicum sped away from the roadblock, and was fired on three times by an Oregon state trooper before he careened into a snow bank and stepped out of his truck to his death. Local investigators determined that two Oregon state troopers shot Finicum three times in the back during the chaotic scene outside the truck. The troopers said they opened fire when Finicum reached for his jacket pocket holding a loaded handgun as he faced another trooper brandishing only a stun-gun. A local prosecutor called it a "completely justified" shooting, reports the Oregonian.
In a surprising new video just released by authorities and taken by passenger Shawna Cox from inside Finicum's truck, Finicum can be heard shouting at law enforcement agents from the driver's seat before he steps out: "You back down, or you kill me now."
Though the FBI agent fired twice, the bullets did not hit Finicum and didn't contribute to his death, according to officials. Now all five unnamed agents, part of the elite Hostage Rescue Unit, are under criminal investigation. Inspector General Michael Horowitz is leading the independent inquiry.
The newly released video shows that Finicum repeatedly ignored police orders to stop and surrender, first at the traffic roadblock and then after he crashed. He nearly ran over an FBI agent before careening into the snowbank.
Cox's video shows that one shot hit the truck's left rear passenger window just as Finicum stepped out. At the time, Finicum appeared to have his hands at least at shoulder height, according to the Oregonian.
Investigators later determined that the bullet entered the truck through the roof before shattering the window and that it was fired by an FBI agent. Another bullet from the same agent apparently went wild and missed the truck altogether, according to the investigation.
Finicum then moved toward the back of his truck and out of view of Cox's phone, but she continued to record what was said as officers ordered Finicum to get on the ground. Instead of getting down on the ground, investigators determined that Finicum first faced a state trooper with the stun gun, taking cover in nearby trees. He then turned toward two troopers advancing toward him from the highway. Those two troopers were the ones who fired when Finicum turned back toward the lone trooper while reaching for a loaded 9mm Ruger semi-automatic pistol in his jacket, investigators said.
Finicum was struck from behind in the left shoulder, the left upper back near his neck and the right lower back, a state autopsy found. The bullet in his lower back migrated up and hit several organs, including his heart. He died at the scene.
A prosecutor ruled the shootings were legally justified because state law allows use of deadly force when officers believe a person is about to seriously injure or kill someone. Although he was shot from behind, law enforcement officers believed the trooper in front of Finicum was in danger.
"All six shots fired by the Oregon State Police, the three into the truck and the three that struck Mr. Finicum, are justified," declared Malheur County District Attorney Dan Norris. The shots were "in fact, necessary," he added.
"Mr. Finicum repeatedly and knowingly made choices that put him in this situation," said Harney County District Attorney Tim Colahan. "It was not the outcome that any of us wanted but one he, alone, is responsible for.
But Finicum's widow, Jeanette Finicum, said the shooting death of her husband was not justified, and that he was reaching for his side because of the pain caused by a bullet wound.
The investigation into the FBI agents fuels the suspicions of militia backers who have claimed that Finicum was murdered as he was surrendering. The sheriff in neighbouring Grant County, Glenn Palmer, described the police operation as an "ambush."
After the latest information was released Jeanette Finicum issued a statement saying: "My husband was murdered."