PORTLAND, Ore. — A special agent with the elite FBI Hostage Rescue Team has been indicted and accused of trying to cover up the firing of gunshots during an encounter with a member of an armed groupwho occupied an Oregon wildlife refuge last year.
The indictment — filed last week and made public Wednesday — does not accuse Special Agent W. Joseph Astarita of shooting the occupier, but it is a public black eye for the FBI group, which the bureau has described as unparalleled in its law enforcement capabilities.
At the height of the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which stretched on for weeks at the bird sanctuary in southeastern Oregon, authorities pulled over some of the group’s leaders as they traveledon a snowy highway toward a meeting on Jan. 26, 2016.
FBI agents and Oregon State Police troopers swarmed the group, and one of the occupiers — Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, a 54-year-old rancher who acted as the group’s spokesman — tried to drive away at high speed.
After nearly hitting an agent, Finicum veered off the road and into a snowy bank. He walked toward an officer, appearing to reach for his jacket, in which officials say he was carrying a loaded 9mm handgun. State troopers opened fire and struck Finicum three times in the back, killing him.
Weeks later, authorities said they had deemed the shooting justified because the troopers feared for their lives. That same day, Oregon officials and the Justice Department’s inspector general announced that they were investigating the actions of FBI agents during the encounter.
Deschutes County Sheriff Shane Nelson said at a March 2016 news conference that investigators found a bullet hole on the roof of Finicum’s car that could not be accounted for based on the shots troopers fired. Nelson said they came to determine that an FBI agent fired that shot. On Wednesday, speaking after Astarita was indicted and publicly identified, Nelson said Astarita fired the shot that struck the roof of Finicum’s car.
On Wednesday afternoon, Astarita — in a dark gray pinstriped suit and a red and navy striped tie — stood in magistrate court before Judge Janice M. Stewart. Astarita was next to a federal defender, who entered a not guilty plea on all counts. A week-long jury trial was set to begin Aug. 29; Astarita is not being held in custody.
When Astarita appeared in court, one apparent supporter of Finicum was in the front row, a tattoo of Finicum’s cattle brand on her right wrist.
In the five-count indictment filed under seal last week in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon and unsealed by a judge on Wednesday, Astarita is described as an HRT member assigned to the wildlife standoff.
The indictment said Astarita “falsely stated he had not fired his weapon during the attempted arrest of Robert LaVoy Finicum, when he knew then and there that he had fired his weapon.” He is described as firing two shots during the encounter.
According to the indictment, Astarita made a false statement to three different supervisory special agents, all of whom are identified only by initials for security reasons. The indictment also charges Astarita with two counts of obstruction of justice for allegedly misleading Oregon State Police officers about the two rounds.
An FBI spokesman did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.