PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) — A federal grand jury charged an FBI agent with obstructing justice, claiming he lied to cover up the shots he fired at a truck driven by a spokesman for the Malheur Wildlife Refuge occupiers, just before Robert “LaVoy” Finicum was gunned down by Oregon state police.
Filed under seal on June 20, the indictment accused W. Joseph Astarita of three counts of making false statements and two counts of obstruction of justice.
Ammon Bundy and armed followers occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon on Jan. 2, 2016, on the theory that the federal government has no right to federal land. Three weeks into the standoff, FBI and Oregon state police set up roadblocks on a remote stretch of snowy highway.
Two trucks carrying the occupation leaders stopped at the first roadblock on Jan. 26. There, the FBI arrested Bundy and his bodyguard, Brian Cavalier. During the ensuing trial, prosecutors revealed that the man driving Bundy’s truck, Mark McConnell, was a government informant.
The other truck, driven by Finicum, 54, idled at the roadblock while occupier Ryan Payne climbed out the back and was arrested. In the cab, ranchers Finicum, Shawna Cox, Ryan Bundy and 18-year-old gospel singer Victoria Sharp debated their next move.
Police have released three videos of the incident – one shot from an FBI helicopter, one from Cox’s cellphone and the third filmed by Ryan Bundy on his phone.
“Go. Gun it!” Cox finally 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!”
When he appeared to reach for the loaded 9mm semi-automatic handgun police said was tucked into the inside pocket of his denim jacket, Oregon State Police opened fire. Three bullets hit him, one in the heart.
There was never any dispute about the bullets that killed Finicum. Oregon State Police said two days later that they had fired the shots, and three more. Six weeks later, investigators with the FBI, the Department of Justice Inspector General and the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office said that the shots fired that day by the police were “justified and necessary.”
But two more shots were fired that day, investigators said at the March 2016 news conference, and the FBI agent who fired them lied about it. One hit Finicum’s truck, the other lodged in a snow bank.
Prosecutors on unsealed the June 20 indictment on Wednesday. It charges that Astarita “falsely stated he had not fired his weapon during the attempted arrest of Robert LaVoy Finicum … knowing that the statement was false and material to the FBI’s decision not to call the Shooting Incident Response Team to investigate the propriety of an agent-involved shooting.”
If convicted of all charges, Astarita could be sentenced to 25 years in federal prison. He pleaded not guilty at his Wednesday arraignment. He stood silently before U.S. Magistrate Judge Janice M. Stewart, his head tipped back, chin raised.
An hour later, U.S. Attorney Billy Williams held a news conference, reading from the indictment and revealing nothing more. He responded to questions by saying he did not know the answers or could not reveal the details of an ongoing investigation. He referred some questions to the FBI, which was not represented at the news conference.
The only new information to emerge came from Deschutes County Sheriff Shane Nelson, who headed the investigation of the Finicum shooting. Nelson said the other members of the FBI Hostage Rescue Team who were present on the day Finicum was killed had not been placed on administrative leave after the shooting.
Nelson said he was “disappointed and angry” by the FBI’s lack of action against the team members, but that the indictment made him feel better.
“This will ensure that Astarita and any other culpable FBI agents will be held accountable,” Nelson said.
Local law enforcement agencies have a long and sometimes uneasy relationship with the FBI, over matters of jurisdiction, power and what some local agencies have called FBI grandstanding.
Ammon Bundy, Ryan Bundy, Shawna Cox and four other occupiers were acquitted of all charges related to the Oregon standoff. The Bundy brothers are awaiting trial for a 2014 standoff with Bureau of Land Management agents at their father’s Bunkerville, Nevada ranch.
A second trial over the Oregon standoff netted a mixed verdict, with some defendants found guilty of the conspiracy charges on which the first round of defendants had been cleared. Others were convicted only of misdemeanor trespassing and property damage.