FBI agent charged with lying about Oregon refuge shooting

Send a link to a friend  Share

[June 29, 2017]  By Eric M. Johnson and Dan Whitcomb

(Reuters) - An FBI agent has been charged with lying when he told investigators he did not fire his weapon at a protester killed by police during a 2016 standoff at a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon, according to court documents unsealed on Wednesday. The agent, Joseph Astarita, was charged with three counts of making false statements and two counts of obstruction of justice in an indictment handed down in U.S. District Court in Oregon on June 20.

According to the court papers, Astarita falsely told investigators he did not open fire at Robert "LaVoy" Finicum during a confrontation between protesters and law enforcement on a snow-covered road near the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on Jan. 26, 2016.

Astarita, who is a member of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's hostage rescue team based in Quantico, Virginia, is not accused of killing Finicum or striking him with any bullets.

Finicum, a 54-year-old rancher who acted as a spokesman for the refuge's lands-rights occupiers, was shot dead by Oregon State police in an incident caught on videotape taken by a law enforcement aircraft.

A county prosecutor later found the shooting justified, saying Finicum appeared to have been reaching for a weapon. Finicum's family members have accused law enforcement of covering up the circumstances surrounding his death.

Billy Williams, the U.S. attorney for Oregon, told reporters on Wednesday the indictment does not call into question the local prosecutor's finding that officers were justified in using deadly force against Finicum.

An autopsy found that the rancher was killed by three rounds fired by Oregon State Police officers that struck him in the neck, shoulder and lower back.

Astarita also faces two counts of obstruction of justice for failing to disclose to Oregon State police officers that he fired two rounds during the attempted arrest, the indictment said.

[to top of second column]

Arizona cattle rancher LaVoy Finicum talks to the media at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon, January 5, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart/File Photo

Astarita was arraigned Wednesday in Portland, Williams said. He pleaded not guilty to all counts and was released pending future court appearances.

It was not immediately clear if Astarita had retained an attorney.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The takeover of the wildlife refuge was initially sparked by outrage over the plight of two imprisoned Oregon ranchers the occupiers believed had been unfairly treated in an arson case. But the militants said they were also protesting larger grievances at what they saw as government tyranny.

The leaders of the occupation, Ammon and Ryan Bundy, were taken into custody at the roadside where Finicum was shot dead.

Both Bundys and five of their followers were acquitted by a federal jury in October of conspiracy charges.

The Bundys still face assault, conspiracy and other charges from a separate armed standoff in 2014 at the Nevada ranch of their father, Cliven Bundy, triggered when federal agents seized his cattle for failure to pay grazing fees to the government.

(Reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle and Steve Gorman and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by David Andrew Hay and Leslie Adler)

[ 2017 Thomson Reuters. All rights reserved.]

Copyright 2017 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Back to top