PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) – Police gunned down a leader of the 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge “assassination style” as he fled Oregon’s Harney County, his family claims in federal court.
Robert “LaVoy” Finicum was a spokesman for the 41-day occupation, led by Ammon Bundy’s coalition of Mormon ranchers and militiamen. Bundy and his gang believe the federal government has no authority to own land, outside of narrow military purposes. They took over the federal bird sanctuary, claiming to seize ownership on behalf of local ranchers.
Most of the group has so far evaded legal consequences for both the Oregon occupation and a 2014 armed standoff with the Bureau of Land Management on patriarch Cliven Bundy’s Bunkerville, Nevada ranch – except those who pleaded guilty ahead of several trials that largely ended in acquittals or mistrials.
And except for the one man who died: In the third week of the occupation, police shot and killed Finicum in a snowbank alongside a rural stretch of highway after he tried to evade a police roadblock.
There was never any dispute about the three bullets that killed Finicum. Oregon State Police said two days after his death that they had fired the shots, along with three more. Six weeks later, investigators with the FBI, the Department of Justice Inspector General and the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office said the shots fired that day by the police were “justified and necessary.”
But Finicum’s widow claims the shooting was politically motivated. In her lawsuit, she says her husband “was deliberately executed by a pre-planned government ambush, after he had exited his vehicle with his hands up.”
In her lawsuit, filed on her behalf by attorneys Lisa Ludwig of Ludwig Runstein in Portland, Oregon, and J. Morgan Philpot of Alpine, Utah, Jeanette Finicum likened her husband’s situation to that of a North Korean citizen “attempting a desperate border run for safety.”
FBI spokeswoman Beth Ann Steele said the FBI does not comment on pending litigation. Representatives for Oregon State Police and Gov. Kate Brown did not immediately return phone calls requesting comment.
The group LaVoy Finicum was a part of claimed during the Oregon occupation that sheriffs have the power to overrule state and federal authorities – which is why, two years ago today, they left the bird sanctuary heavily guarded and drove in a caravan to neighboring Grant County. That county’s sheriff Glenn Palmer was an outspoken ally of the Bundy cause and the group believed Palmer could shield them from the government agents who had descended on Harney County, in the remote southeastern corner of Oregon.
But the FBI had an informant: Mark McConnell, who was driving the jeep carrying Ammon Bundy and his bodyguard. Oregon State Police surprised the group with a roadblock. McConnell stopped, allowing agents to arrest Bundy and his bodyguard without incident.
LaVoy Finicum, 54, stopped his truck too. Cellphone video from inside the truck showed its occupants debating what to do as the truck idled on the snowy road.
Finicum rolled down his window.
“Shoot me, just shoot me,” he called out the window. “Put the bullet through me!”
Anxious debate continued inside the truck until fellow occupier Shawna Cox decided for the group.
“Go. Gun it!” Cox yelled.
Finicum sped off through the snow. A mile and a half later, he tried to swerve around the second roadblock and rammed into a snow bank.
Finicum leapt from the truck as it stopped, hopping through the deep drifts and yelling, “You’re gonna have to shoot me!” He approached two cops, while a third was behind him.
When he appeared to reach for the loaded 9mm semi-automatic handgun police said was tucked into the inside pocket of his denim jacket, the Oregon State trooper opened fire. Three bullets hit him, one in the heart.
Jeanette Finicum, her 12 children and LaVoy’s estate sued a laundry list of agencies and officials involved in the monitoring and investigations of both the Oregon and Nevada standoffs. She wants $70 million – $5 million per plaintiff – in general damages on a wrongful death claim from the United States, the FBI and the Bureau of Land Management.
Other defendants include former BLM agent Daniel P. Love; Salvatore Lauro; retired U.S. Senator Harry Reid; former FBI agent in charge of Oregon Greg Bretzing; FBI agent W. Joseph Astarita; the state of Oregon; Oregon State Police; Gov. Brown; Oregon Senator Ron Wyden; Harney County; Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward; former Harney County Judge Steve Grasty; and the Center for Biological Diversity.
Jeanette and the others also seek punitive damages.