By Peter Henderson
The FBI released a video on Thursday investigators say shows one occupier of an Oregon wildlife refuge reach for his jacket pocket before being shot dead by law enforcement, after speeding away from a traffic stop where the group’s leader was arrested.
Authorities said 54-year-old Robert LaVoy Finicum, a rancher from Arizona who acted as a spokesman for the occupiers at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, was armed when he was stopped by police and killed on Tuesday afternoon.
The aerial video taken by a law enforcement aircraft showed Finicum speed away from authorities in a white truck and nearly strike a law officer, while trying to evade a police barricade before barreling into a snowbank and exiting the car.
The grainy aerial footage shows Finicum raise his hands in the air and then turn and flail his arms, which lower down to his body moments before he is shot by Oregon State Police troopers, according to the FBI.
Greg Bretzing, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Portland office who narrated the video for reporters, said Finicum can be seen reaching for his jacket pocket, where law enforcement found a handgun. But a lack of focus in the video makes it difficult to discern Finicum’s precise movements before the shooting.
Bretzing told reporters at an evening news conference in Burns, Oregon, that, while the video showing Finicum’s death was potentially upsetting, it was released “in the interest of transparency.”
The video release came hours after a lawyer for Finicum’s family claimed other evidence may exist that shows the Arizona rancher was not threatening authorities.
“Based on some things that I’ve seen, I think there is potentially a completely different side to the story compared to what is being represented,” Finicum family attorney Todd Macfarlane told Reuters earlier in the afternoon. He could not be reached for reaction to the FBI video release.
Macfarlane said one of the sources for his view was the version of events from Victoria Sharp, who says she was at the scene and watched Finicum die.
Sharp said in an interview with Reuters Finicum was shot with his gun in his holster and his hands in the air, shouting and walking toward police.
Neither state nor federal law enforcement would comment on whether Sharp was at the scene or on her own detailed description. Reuters was not able to independently confirm her version of the events beyond the video released on Thursday.
‘HANDS IN THE AIR’
A second occupier detained in Tuesday’s action and subsequently released said an 18-year-old woman was in the car with Finicum and gave a similar description of the start of the police stop.
“He stepped out, and he started walking, with his hands in the air. And they actually didn’t shoot him immediately. It took, I’m guessing, they didn’t shoot him for maybe 15 seconds,” she said. “He started walking out on the snow and he was shouting. He was saying, ‘if you’re going to shoot me, then just shoot me’.”
Finicum was one of the most vocal and colorful faces of the occupiers, a father and rancher who wore a cowboy hat and carried a gun on his hip. He usually wore a gun in a holster, and he did that day, Sharp said.
“I’m not sure if it was a hip holster or a leg holster, but I know the gun was holstered and he did not touch it. He had his hands in the air,” she said.
The occupation began when leader Ammon Bundy and at least a dozen followers took over a small cluster of buildings at the refuge on Jan 2, in a flare-up in the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion, a decades-old conflict over federal control of millions of acres in the West.
Police and federal agents kept their distance from the site, 48 km from Burns, a small rural town in Oregon’s rural south-east, in an effort to avoid a violent confrontation.
But on Tuesday, Bundy and his leadership team left the refuge to speak at a community meeting in John Day, Oregon, and were stopped by law enforcement. The stop led to Finicum’s fatal shooting and the arrest of Bundy, along with four others.
Bretzing said four occupiers remained holed up at the refuge compound on Thursday night, as authorities sought to negotiate with them to leave. According to the FBI, three of the nine people to have left the refuge have been taken into custody.
Following his initial court appearance in Portland on Wednesday, Ammon Bundy urged the holdouts to stand down, saying he would continue the fight in court.
Reactions to the takeover by Burns residents have ranged from sympathy for two imprisoned local ranchers whose plight began the protest, to dismay at the armed occupation by individuals seen as outsiders.