Four days after taking the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Harney County, Oregon, LaVoy Finicum, a 55-year-old Arizona rancher told NBC News that he’d rather die than spend his days in prison.
“There are things more important than your life and freedom is one of them,” he said in early January as he sat huddled in a blue tarp outside of the wildlife refuge keeping watch with his gun in his lap. “I’m prepared to defend freedom.”
Finicum told NBC that night that he was staying outside to ensure that the FBI could find him if they came to arrest him.
Finicum was shot and killed Tuesday night when law enforcement stopped two cars carrying standoff leaders on their way from the refuge to a meeting in Grant County. Ryan Bundy, another militiaman, was shot and transported to the hospital, but did not suffer any life-threatening injuries, according to The Oregonian.
Before Finicum’s death was even confirmed, supporters rushed to portray him on social media as a martyr who, according to unverified accounts, had his hands up and was unarmed when he was shot. Law enforcement sources told CNN that Finicum and Ryan Bundy were the only two leaders who did not surrender during the confrontation.
Finicum had taken a strong interest in land disputes with the federal government after he stood at Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy’s side during his confrontation with the Bureau of Land Management in 2014. After returning home to Arizona, Finicum – a Mormon father with 11 children– made a decision. He was no longer going to write a check to the federal government for his grazing fees.
At the refuge, Finicum became a spokesman for the militiamen, fielding questions from press and helping plan events like one Saturday where ranchers were invited to come to the commandeered refuge to sign “declarations of emancipation” from the federal government, documents asserting they would no longer pay grazing fees. According to the Oregonian, Finicum had incurred about $12,000 in fees with the BLM.
In a video posting just hours before his death, Finicum described why the militiamen were still holding onto the refuge after more than three weeks and after local officials and community members had asked them to go. Finicum said that the occupation was intended to push back on the federal government’s overreach.
“They do not want to let go of this,” Finicum said. “They do not intend on loosing here and we do not intend on giving it back to them.”
But Finicum’s participation in the standoff had taken a toll. Back home in Arizona, child services had removed four foster children from his family’s care, a move Finicum characterized as retribution. Oregon Public Broadcasting had reported that Finicum made most of his income from fostering.
Before Oregon, Finicum kept a website One Cowboy’s Stand For Freedom where he documented his beliefs, his family and his ranch.
Finicum writes on the website that “he has drawn a line in the sand and that line is the Constitution in its original intent.”
He also had written a cowboy thriller about the chaos of the American West after an electromagnetic pulse collapses the country’s infrastructure called “Only By Blood and Suffering.” The novel traced a family as each grown child navigated the new world and fights back against the overreach of the federal government.