A grand jury in Portland, Oregon has charged FBI Agent W Joseph Astarita with three counts of making false statements, alleging that he lied when he claimed he did not fire his weapon during the attempted arrest of LaVoy Finicum, a key figure in the Oregon militia standoff at the Malheur national wildlife refuge in 2016.
Astarita, who pleaded not guilty in federal court in Portland, was assigned to arrest the leaders of the Oregon standoff in January 2016 when Finicum drove off the road and into a snowbank, before attempting to flee on foot. During the ensuing confrontation, some of which was captured on film, Oregon state police officers shot and killed Finicum, an Arizona rancher, who police say was reaching for his gun. Police later said the shooting was “justified”.
Here is the press release from the United States Attorney's Office:
The indictment alleges that Astarita knowingly and willfully made false statements to FBI Supervisory Special Agents, knowing that the statements were false and material to the FBI’s decision not to investigate the propriety of an agent-involved shooting. Specifically, Astarita falsely stated he had not fired his weapon during the attempted arrest of Mr. Finicum when he knew he had in fact fired his weapon. Astarita also knowingly engaged in misleading conduct toward Oregon State Police officers by failing to disclose that he had fired two rounds during the attempted arrest.
Astarita was arraigned on June 28, 2017, in Portland. He entered pleas of not guilty to each county and was released pending future appearances.
An indictment is only an accusation of a crime, and a defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
For those who missed it, a portion of Finicum's confrontation with police was caught on film and clearly shows that the first shots were fired while his hands were up in the air...'ironically', no pop stars made a "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" video after this incident.
Last year, we covered the background on the incidents leading up to the Oregon standoff in a post entitled "Now Is The Time To Stand Up": Armed Activists, Militiamen Seize Federal Wildlife Refuge Office In Oregon. It all started when Oregon resident Dwight Hammond set fires on land he leased from the government, an effort he said was intended to fight back the intrusion of invasive plant species and prevent wildfires. Apparently the government did agree and threw Hammond in jail for arson.
On Saturday, militants seized a remote government outpost following a protest by hundreds of angry citizens.
It all started back in 2001 when Dwight Hammond and his son Steven set fire to leased government land in what they said was an effort to beat back invasive plant species and - ironically - prevent wildfires. They set more fires in 2006 and were later convicted of arson.
Both men served time in prison but a judge eventually determined that their sentences were too light and ordered them back to jail.
Some folks were displeased with the ruling and staged a protest that saw some 300 people march through Burns, a city of around 3,000. The procession made a stop by the Hammond residence and proceeded to make an appearance at the local sheriff's office as well.
Enter Ammon Bundy.
Fast forward to November and Bundy's son Ammon was busy trying to come up with a way to keep Dwight Hammond and his son from going back to jail. "Ammon Bundy met with Dwight Hammond and his wife in November, seeking a way to keep the elderly rancher from having to surrender for prison," The Oregonian writes, adding that "the Hammonds professed through their attorneys that they had no interest in ignoring the order to report for prison."
But while the Hammonds have apparently come to terms with their fate, Bundy hasn't and in a brazen move, he and an unspecified number of "outside militants" seized control of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge headquarters, which is a short drive from Burns (where the protest took place).
Of course, the standoff ultimately ended with multiple arrests and the death of LaVoy Finicum.