An FBI agent has been indicted on federal charges for allegedly lying about firing a weapon at LaVoy Finicum, the spokesman for last year’s 41-day-long occupation of a remote wildlife refuge in Oregon by armed anti-government activists.
W. Joseph Astarita, an agent with the bureau’s Hostage Rescue Team, was charged on three counts of making false statements and two counts of obstruction of justice related to his official account of a dramatic Jan. 26, 2016 shootout on an isolated Oregon road that left Finicum dead.
The indictment alleges that Astarita falsely said he did not fire his weapon while attempting to arrest Finicum and several other Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupiers who he and other law enforcement officials encountered on a remote stretch of highway. Astarita is accused of actually firing two rounds and then knowingly lying to Oregon State Police about his conduct on two separate occasions, according to the indictment.
Alison Clark, a defense lawyer representing Astarita, entered not guilty pleas on his behalf at a court hearing Wednesday, but said he will retain his own local attorney during the trial, according to the Oregonian newspaper.
The charges are the result of the Justice Department’s more-than-a-year-long investigation into the death of the Arizona rancher, whose killing by law enforcement personnel immediately spawned conspiracy theories and made him a martyr in the anti-government community. U.S. authorities concluded that agents were justified in firing at Finicum.
The FBI last year released a 26-minute video of the incident, which showed that Finicum crashed his pickup truck into the snow after speeding away from a surprise traffic block. Oregon officials said that an FBI agent, now revealed to be Astarita, fired at Finicum as the truck was crashing, but the bullets did not hit the occupier. Finicum was then shot three times by state police troopers after he stepped out of the vehicle and reached for his coat pocket, where he had a loaded handgun.
Four other FBI agents are also under investigation for covering up Astarita’s gunshots, and the status of that probe is unclear, according to the Oregonian.
The indictment is yet another bizarre twist in the legal aftermath of the occupation led by Ammon and Ryan Bundy, whose father, Cliven, infamously carried out his own occupation of federal ranchland in 2014 near the family’s Bunkerville, Nevada home.
The Bundy brothers and five other defendants were acquitted last fall of weapons and conspiracy charges for preventing employees at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management from working at the refuge through intimidation, threat or force. Four other occupiers were charged with offenses ranging from conspiracy to damaging government property in a separate trial that concluded in March.
Ammon, Cliven and Ryan Bundy are all currently awaiting trial in Nevada for conspiracy and weapons charges related to the 2014 standoff.
Read the full indictment below: