Robert LaVoy Finicum (January 27, 1961 – January 26, 2016) was an American spokesman for the militia group Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, who seized and occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in the State of Oregon, United States, on January 2, 2016.
On January 26, 2016, law enforcement officers attempted to arrest Finicum and other occupation leaders while they were traveling on a remote highway away from the occupation site. After fleeing the officers, Finicum was stopped by a roadblock, where he challenged officers to shoot him. He was shot and killed by state troopers while moving his hands toward his pocket, where officers later found a loaded weapon.
Prior to the occupation, Finicum lived in Arizona where he made a living as a foster parent and operated a no-income cattle ranch.
According to the High Country News, “the public record on Finicum is thin prior to 2014.”
In 2002, Finicum filed for bankruptcy while living in New Mexico and doing business as “Southwest Horse and Trails”. By 2008, Finicum operated a foster home for troubled boys near Chino Valley, Arizona. According to a 2010 tax filing, Catholic Charities Community Services in Arizona paid the family US$115,343 to foster children in 2009. In January 2016, the state removed all of Finicum’s foster children due to his involvement with the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Finicum said this took away his family’s main source of income.
During that time, Finicum also operated a ranch that did not produce income. After the state removed his foster children, Finicum told the media, “My ranch, well, the cows just cover the costs of the ranch.”
In August 2015, Finicum decided to cease complying with the terms of his grazing permit with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). At the time, he released a YouTube video in which he claimed it was unconstitutional for the federal government to own BLM lands and said he was inspired by Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and events surrounding the 2014 Bundy standoff. In less than six months, Finicum accrued more than US$12,000 in fees and fines, which he refused to pay.
In 2016, Finicum was erroneously mentioned in court filings in the government’s felony case against William Keebler, who planted a bomb at a BLM cabin near Finicum’s ranch earlier that year. In the first complaint filed with the court, the government alleged Finicum had accompanied Keebler on a “reconnaissance” of the cabin in October 2015. However, the government later filed a corrected complaint and an FBI agent testified Finicum had not actually been there. His widow said Keebler had been at their ranch on other business that day, and stated that her husband had no knowledge of Keebler’s bombing plans.
On January 26, Finicum was one of several occupation leaders who left the refuge (located in Harney County) via a two-truck convoy. The convoy also included occupation leaders Ammon Bundy, Ryan Bundy, Shawna Cox, and Ryan Payne plus two supporters, Victoria Sharp and Brian Cavalier. Their intention was to speak at a public meeting in the city of John Day in adjacent Grant County. Finicum was driving his white 2015 pickup truck, followed by a dark-colored Jeep.
Oregon State Patrol unsuccessfully attempting to arrest two of Finicum’s passengers, Ryan Bundy and Shawna Cox, during a traffic stop. Finicum fled the scene.
State and federal authorities used the opportunity to intercept them with a two-phase operation involving a traffic stop and a roadblock about two miles further along the highway. Both were set up on an unpopulated stretch of U.S. Route 395 in Harney County. The operation had originally been planned for a location in adjacent Grant County, but was moved to Harney County because the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Oregon State Police (OSP) considered the Grant County sheriff, Glenn Palmer, to be a security leak due to favorable comments he had made with respect to the militants. Authorities feared a militia response, and a location was selected with poor cell phone service.
As the convoy entered the operation area, vehicles driven by the FBI and the OSP pulled in behind the Jeep. When the Jeep pulled over, Ammon Bundy and Brian Cavalier were peacefully arrested. The driver of the Jeep, Mark McConnell, who was a government informant and the only occupant of the vehicle with a firearm, was not arrested or charged.
In the lead vehicle, Finicum kept driving but eventually stopped as well. Police fired a 40mm plastic-tipped round of pepper spray, which hit the top of Finicum’s truck. At that point, Ryan Payne exited Finicum’s truck and surrendered peacefully. Finicum’s other passengers, Ryan Bundy, Shawna Cox, and Victoria Sharp, remained in his truck.
After Payne’s surrender, Cox and Bundy each started recording cell phone videos of the confrontation. The videos captured police identifying themselves as Oregon State Patrol and ordering Finicum to turn off his engine. Refusing their order, Finicum yelled back that he was going to meet Palmer and that the only way officers could prevent that meeting was to shoot him. Finicum yelled at the troopers, “You back down or you kill me now. Go ahead. Put the bullet through me. I don’t care. I’m going to go meet the sheriff. You do as you damned well please.”
About seven minutes after stopping his truck, Finicum drove away with his three remaining passengers at high speed. They were pursued by officers. About 1 mile (1,609 m) later, Finicum rounded a bend and spotted the roadblock. As OSP fired at Finicum’s approaching vehicle, Finicum braked and steered his truck left into deep snow, narrowly missing an FBI agent.
When Finicum’s truck became stuck in the snow, he immediately exited the vehicle, just as two shots were fired by an FBI agent. One shot struck the roof of Finicum’s truck and the other went wild. These shots became the subject of controversy because the FBI agents initially failed to disclose them.
Meanwhile, Finicum moved about in the snow, alternating between holding his hands above his head and seemingly reaching into his jacket, where officers later found a loaded semi-automatic weapon. OSP officers and FBI agents armed with rifles positioned themselves along the road, while an OSP officer, who had holstered his firearm and equipped himself with a nonlethal Taser X2, walked toward him from the treeline with the intention of subduing him. As Finicum moved his hands down, he turned towards the approaching taser-holding officer and repeatedly yelled, “You’re going to have to shoot me!” The troopers believed Finicum to be armed and considered his hand position to signal an imminent threat to the life of the taser-holding officer; Finicum was holding his jacket with his left hand and reaching for a pocket with his right hand. Two troopers fired a total of three times, and a third who was about to fire held back, realizing a fourth shot was not needed. Medical assistance was given to Finicum approximately 10 minutes after the shooting.
Ryan Bundy received a minor shrapnel wound during the incident.
After Finicum’s death, officials stated that he was reaching for a gun in his pocket when he was shot by a state trooper. The FBI also said that a loaded handgun was found in Finicum’s pocket. It was later identified as a 9mm Ruger SR9 handgun. Finicum received the handgun as a gift from his stepson. His public autopsy was performed on January 28, but officials withheld the autopsy report from the press until March 8. Cause of death was listed as three gunshot wounds of the back, abdomen and chest. All wounds were specified as gunshot entry from the back (posterior left shoulder, left upper back and right lower back.)
Investigators with the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office, assigned to process the scene of Finicum’s shooting, were accounting for the two known sets of shots fired by the OSP officers during the event (the shots that killed Finicum, and the earlier shots that struck his vehicle) when they discovered a bullet that struck the roof of the truck at a different trajectory. After ascertaining the bullet’s existence with cell phone video taken by one of Finicum’s passengers, investigators modeled the bullet’s trajectory using computers, and determined that the bullet was fired from the direction where two FBI agents were standing. They later determined that a FBI Hostage Rescue Team member fired twice at Finicum, missing and injuring a second militant in the process. The agent, whose identity was withheld, was under investigation, along with four other FBI agents who were suspected of attempting to conceal evidence of the gunshots. They reportedly told investigators that none of them fired a shot during the incident.
During initial processing of the scene, the rifle cartridge casings purportedly fired by the FBI agent were reported not present. However, an OSP officer later described seeing two casings at the scene near where the FBI agents were positioned. FBI aerial surveillance video shows agents searching the area, then huddling together before breaking up moments later, with one agent bending over twice to pick up an unknown object. Law enforcement officials began the investigation into the gunshots after watching the full surveillance video and suspecting something was amiss. Two FBI pickup trucks were searched for casings, but none were found, while at least three OSP officers were interrogated about their initial processing of the scene.
On March 8, officials revealed their findings to the public. The U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation into the conduct of the agents. Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office investigators, along with the district attorneys of Malheur and Harney Counties, declared that Finicum’s shooting death was “justified and necessary.”
On April 5, cellphone video footage shot by another of Finicum’s passengers was released by authorities.
An FBI agent, W. Joseph Astarita, was alleged to have fired two shots at Finicum’s pickup, one of which penetrated the roof of the pickup and exited through a window. FBI agents were believed to have recovered the ejected empty cartridges. A five-count indictment for lying about the circumstances at the scene of Finicum’s death, and obstruction of justice, was obtained in Portland against Astarita by the Department of Justice. He was represented by a public defender and his trial began in Portland in late July 2018. A federal jury found Astarita to be not guilty on all charges on August 10, 2018.
Prior to the video of the action being released, some of the militants and supporters had claimed that Finicum was cooperating with the police when he was shot. This included a claim by Nevada legislator Michele Fiore (who was not present at the arrest) that “he was just murdered with his hands up.” Cliven Bundy was quoted as saying that Finicum was “sacrificed for a good purpose.” In a March 3 interview in jail, Ammon Bundy called the shooting “egregious” and said that the officers involved “should be ashamed of it.”
At a news conference, officials had initially declined to comment on the Finicum shooting because the encounter was still under investigation, but they later released surveillance video of the incident, which officials said shows Finicum reaching for a handgun after feigning surrender. However, Finicum’s family continued to dispute the nature of the shooting, claiming that he was shot in the back while his hands were in the air, and denied the FBI’s assertion that Finicum was armed at the time of his death. The Finicum family commissioned a private autopsy, but declined to make the results public.
Sheriff Dave Ward (sheriff), Harney County commissioner Steven Grasty, the Center for Biological Diversity and multiple unnamed officers. The lawsuit seeks more than $5 million in damages for Finicum’s wife, Jeanette Finicum, and each of their 12 children and his estate. Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, called the suit a “bizarre, incoherent, yet nonetheless dangerous, attack on free speech.”