BURNS, Ore. — LaVoy Finicum’s shooting death at the hands of Oregon State Police on Tuesday set off a firestorm of anti-government vitriol on social media and could galvanize extremist groups that oppose federal land ownership, experts warned yesterday.
Finicum, a 55-year-old Arizona rancher who played a prominent role in Ammon and Ryan Bundy’s occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, is being hailed in such circles as a martyr who died defending Americans against overbearing federal landlords.
His death has become a recruiting tool for extremist groups and the militant wing of the movement to transfer federal lands to local control.
"This is a movement that has spent a lot of time constructing martyrs, and they would very much like to have one more," said Mark Potok, a senior fellow with the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama, a nonprofit that tracks extremist groups. "I think there are many reasons to be concerned."
This is precisely the result that federal authorities had hoped to avoid.
For more than three weeks, the FBI declined to interfere with the dozens of militants squatting at refuge headquarters about 30 miles south of town. The occupiers demanded that the federal government release two imprisoned ranchers and relinquish control of its roughly 640 million acres of land.
As the militants’ numbers grew, so did the pressure from state, county and tribal officials for the Justice Department to take more aggressive action to prevent the occupation from spreading to surrounding counties.
Police took a calculated risk in deciding to intercept Finicum, the Bundys and at least five others as they traveled north Tuesday afternoon in two cars on a remote highway from Burns to John Day. The location of the arrests among a grove of old-growth ponderosa pine and far from any towns was possibly strategic (see related story).
"We worked to ensure that we could do so in the safest way possible — removing the threat of danger from innocent citizens," said FBI Special Agent in Charge Greg Bretzing.
Yet it did not end peacefully.
According to accounts by two people who said they were traveling with the group, Finicum, who was driving one of the vehicles, sped off in the middle of the traffic stop and crashed his truck into a snowbank. But the accounts differ as to what happened next.
Victoria Sharp, 18, whose Kansas family had sung songs at the refuge, said she was in a car with Ryan Bundy, Ryan Payne of Montana, Shawna Cox of Utah and Finicum when they were pulled over on U.S. Highway 395. According to Sharp’s account, police showered the car with bullets and shot Finicum multiple times after he emerged from the vehicle with his hands up. She claims no one in her party ever touched their guns.
"He was like, ‘Just shoot me then,’" Sharp said of Finicum. And the police shot.
But Mark McConnell, who said he was driving the other car, which carried Ammon Bundy and Brian Cavalier of Nevada, said he was told by Cox that Finicum "charged after law enforcement."
Finicum was definitely not on his knees surrendering, McConnell said in his videotaped account, relaying Cox’s story to him. McConnell said he did not see the shooting himself.
"Her story has changed a few times," McConnell said of Cox. "She’s added pieces, subtracted pieces. I don’t know."
CNN quoted an unnamed law enforcement official as saying Finicum reached for his waistband, where he had a gun, which prompted the police shooting.
Authorities did not arrest Sharp or McConnell. They did arrest the others: the Bundys, Cox, Cavalier and Payne, charging them with conspiracy to interfere with U.S. officials through the use of force or intimidation, a federal felony that carries a sentence of up to six years in prison.
They’re being held in the Portland area without bail pending a detention hearing tomorrow.
Police said they will not release any more details of the incident until the Deschutes County Major Incident Team finishes an investigation into the shooting. No estimated timeline was provided.
Until then, the narrative of Finicum as heroic victim will prevail among Bundy followers.
"A patriot was killed in cold blood, execution-style," said one man in a video posted yesterday by a Facebook group called Convicted Patriots, which claims to stand up for the U.S. Constitution. "It’s time for the patriot movement to rise up."
The post was later removed.
A "Bundy Ranch" Facebook community group that enjoys nearly 160,000 "likes" asked followers to use Finicum’s image as their profile photo and fly flags at half-mast.
"LaVoy has left us, but his sacrifice will never be far from the lips of those who love liberty," said one post. "You cannot defeat us. Our blood is seed."
Several other Facebook groups that have backed the occupation, including Citizens for Constitutional Freedom Support Group and LaVoy Finicum’s Stand for Freedom, have also posted tributes to the deceased leader.
Nevada Assemblywoman Michele Fiore (R), long a supporter of the Bundy family, who is running for the House seat being vacated by Rep. Joe Heck (R-Nev.), tweeted that Finicum was "just murdered with his hands up in Burns."
Foster parent, Mormon
Finicum’s personal story made him an ideal spokesman for the militants.
He said he grew up in Page, Ariz., on the Navajo Reservation. He took part in rancher Cliven Bundy’s standoff in Bunkerville, Nev., and, like Bundy, publicly refused to pay his grazing fees to BLM. His down-home persona distinguished him from other occupation leaders who donned military uniforms and had less connection to public lands.
Finicum, who had 11 children, loved "nothing more in life than God, family, and freedom," according to his website, which promotes his novel, "Only by Blood and Suffering: Regaining Lost Freedom."
He closely followed the tenets of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the religion followed by Ammon Bundy, and does not appear to have ever committed a serious crime.
He cared for as many as 50 foster children through the years, according to The Oregonian. Catholic Charities Community Services Inc. paid Finicum $115,343 in 2010 for "foster services," according to tax records.
Even if police can provide evidence justifying their use of deadly force against Finicum, many associated with the occupation might not believe it.
Interviews with several refuge occupants over the past month show they believe many odd conspiracy theories, such as: The federal government is taking over Harney County ranchlands to claim a secret reserve of uranium and natural gas; President Obama is secretly allied with the terrorist group known as the Islamic State; and the Bureau of Land Management is really a private corporation.
"It would be awfully nice if there was film [of the shooting]," said Potok of SPLC, "because these people are given to concocting absolutely incredible conspiracy theories about the government."
In the aftermath of the BLM’s failed roundup of Cliven Bundy’s cows in April 2014, there were incidents of harassment of federal employees and the murder of two police officers by a husband and wife who had participated in Bundy’s standoff.
An SPLC report this month found that the number of national anti-government militia groups increased 37 percent in 2015 from 2014.
Critics say the government’s failure to bring charges against Cliven Bundy and his followers emboldened the younger Bundys to take Malheur.
A better way?
In the near term, federal lands agencies, including BLM, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Forest Service, should exercise caution, said former BLM Director Bob Abbey.
That means keeping tabs on employees’ whereabouts in the field and keeping radio and telephone contact, Abbey said.
"The key right now is to be cognizant of the situation that employees find themselves in," he said. "It’s really important for agencies, if any employees are harassed or threatened, that there’s quick follow-up."
Abbey lauded the police response at Malheur.
They were patient, maintained dialogue with the occupants, tried to negotiate a settlement and took action when they needed to, he said.
"Their actions were prudent," Abbey said. "I think they were responsible."
It is not clear how soon the dozens of BLM, FWS and Forest Service employees who work in the county will be allowed to return to their offices.
All of the 16 full-time refuge employees have been relocated outside the county, along with many members of their families, after many reported incidents of harassment. One staff member said she was tailed down the highway while leaving town, and there was chatter on social media about the potential of refuge staff being taken hostage.
"We have erred on the side of caution," said FWS spokesman Jason Holm.
BLM’s Burns District office and the Forest Service’s Emigrant Creek Ranger District have remained closed since the occupation began Jan. 2, forcing dozens of staff members to work from home. On Monday, a week-old, soiled newspaper lay in front of the BLM office south of Hines. A sign on a utility pole said "Thank you" to BLM’s law enforcement officers and "Go home, Bundy."
While the occupation may have roused the most extreme opponents of federal lands, it likely did not help groups that seek to transfer federal lands through legal and political channels.
"From now on, anyone who attempts to seize or sell our American lands will be tarnished with the brand of Ammon and Cliven Bundy," said Jessica Goad, advocacy director at the Center for Western Priorities. "The occupiers have given the cause a black eye."
It has put groups like the American Lands Council, a nonprofit that educates and prods Western elected officials to pursue lawsuits and legislation to take control of federal lands, in an uncomfortable spot. They’re fighting for the same ends as the Bundys, though they disagree on the means.
ALC CEO and Montana state Sen. Jennifer Fielder (R) yesterday framed the Oregon uprising as symptomatic of the injustices faced by public lands ranchers, loggers and miners.
"After more than three weeks of occupying a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon, seven protestors were arrested and, sadly, one was left dead at the end of the incident," she wrote yesterday in an email to followers. "It makes you shake your head and wonder, what brought all of this about? And isn’t there a better way?"