By Dan Whitcomb
(Reuters) – A slain leader of the armed occupation of a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon was killed by three gunshots fired into his back by police, a county prosecutor said on Tuesday, calling the shooting “justified and necessary.”
Robert “LaVoy” Finicum was shot and killed by Oregon State Police on Jan. 26 after he ran from his pickup truck at a roadblock along a snow-covered roadside during the occupation by lands rights protesters at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
Relatives of Finicum, who was a spokesman for the group that seized buildings at the refuge, have previously said that he posed no threat to police during the confrontation and have rejected official assertions that he was armed at the time.
Speaking at a press conference in Bend, Oregon, Deschutes County Sheriff Shane Nelson said a loaded 9mm handgun was found in the pocket of Finicum’s jacket following the shooting.
Malheur County District Attorney Dan Norris said eight shots were fired at Finicum during the confrontation, six of them by Oregon State Police officers and two by FBI agents.
An autopsy found that three of the bullets fired by Oregon State Police officers struck Finicum in the base of the neck, shoulder and lower back and led to his death, Norris said.
“The six shots fired by the Oregon State Police were justified and in fact necessary,” Norris said.
During the press conference, officials played video and audio tapes of the confrontation, during which Finicum can be heard telling law enforcement officers: “Go ahead, put the bullet through me. I don’t care. I’m going to meet the sheriff. You do as you damn well please.”
At another point he is heard to say: “If you want a blood bath, it’s on your hands.”
The videotape had been released previously but was synched with audio from inside the pickup truck and played in slow motion at times to show what law enforcement officials said was Finicum reaching for his weapon immediately before he was shot.
The U.S. Department of Justice said in a statement that its inspector general’s office was investigating the actions of the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team in the Finicum shooting.
The takeover, which began on Jan. 2 with at least a dozen armed men, was sparked by the return to prison of two Oregon ranchers convicted of setting fires that spread to federal property in the vicinity of the refuge.
It also marked the latest flare-up in the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion, a decades-old conflict over federal control of millions of acres in the West.
The leaders of the standoff, Ammon and Ryan Bundy, were arrested at the same traffic stop at which Finicum was slain.
The final four holdouts were taken into custody on Feb. 17, ending the 41-day standoff. At least 16 people have been charged with conspiracy to impede federal officers in connection with the occupation.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein, Eric Johnson and Dan Whitcomb; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Dan Grebler and Tom Brown)