On January 26, 2016, Oregon State Police SWAT and the FBI Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) deployed together for the planned arrest of leaders of the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The plan called for an initial traffic stop on Oregon highway 395, with a road block farther down the highway in case either of the two vehicles the leaders were traveling in did not comply at the initial stop.
The driver of the vehicle Ammon Bundy was riding in complied at the initial stop and all occupants were taken into custody. Robert Lavoy Finicum, who was driving the other vehicle, initially stopped, then, after Ryan Payne got out of the truck, took off towards the road block. When he reached the road block, Finicum crashed his truck into the snow bank to avoid it. After he exited his vehicle, Finicum was shot three times by OSP officers.
There have long been rumors that police and FBI involved in the shooting death of Finicum were ordered to turn off dash and body cameras. It has now been confirmed that these rumors have some basis in fact.
In the investigation into the shooting death of Finicum, investigators determined that there were two shots fired that were unaccounted for. FBI HRT operator W. Joseph Astarita has since been charged with lying about firing his rifle twice at Finicum at the road block. Astarita has requested the charges be dismissed.
According to court documents filed February 2, 2018 by the prosecution in response to W. Joseph Astarita’s motion to dismiss the charges against him, Oregon State Police (OSP) officers, at the request of the FBI, did not wear body cameras on January 26, 2016 during the attempt to arrest occupation leaders.
A footnote in the 32-page response states:
“OSP SWAT troopers are ordinarily required to wear body cameras while deployed. However, they did not wear the cameras while deployed with HRT–at HRT’s request.”
After the two shots that were unaccounted for were discovered, and it was also discovered that shell casings from those two shots as well as some of the shots fired by OSP officers were missing, a new investigation of the FBI HRT operators involved was opened. The FBI operators were interviewed for a second time by OSP detectives, as described by the prosecution’s response to Astarita’s dismissal motion.
According to the document, “on February 6, 2016, two OSP detectives re-interviewed defendant, [Astarita], B.M., [Astarita’s immediate supervisor] and the HRT operative who was nearly struck by Finicum’s truck at the roadblock. By then, the detectives knew that there were unaccounted-for shots and missing shell casings. The HRT operators knew it as well. The HRT operators set conditions for the interview. They were only willing to be interviewed if: 1) they were interviewed as a group, not individually; 2) the interview was not recorded; and 3) their lawyer could be present by speakerphone. In addition, they would not answer any questions previously asked without being able to reference statements from prior interviews.” (Emphasis mine).
The response also argues that though Astarita has claimed he didn’t speak at this second interview, the OSP detectives have stated that he did. The document states, “he spoke less than others who were present, and considerably less than he did during the first interview. He did nothing to correct statements made on his behalf…These sorts of factual disagreements can only be resolved at trial, not in a pretrial motion to dismiss.”
It is inexplicable that the FBI would request that no body cameras be used during the arrest attempt, and it is also odd that OSP agreed to the request. This only serves to raise suspicion as to the intentions of the officers involved. The reasons behind this decision need to be made clear.
That a member of any law enforcement agency would lie about, and actively work to cover up, shots fired during an arrest attempt harms the credibility of, and trust in, all law enforcement. Although it comes as no surprise that the FBI would attempt to cover up the shooting as they have a track record of such activity, when something like this happens, they must be held accountable.