New evidence has emerged that an agent with the FBI’s elite Hostage Rescue Team may have opened fire on Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, one of the central players in an anti-government standoff in Oregon, after Finicum’s truck crashed near a police roadblock.
Several members of the FBI unit were present Jan. 26 when authorities attempted to stop two vehicles carrying leaders of the standoff away from their stronghold at a remote federal wildlife refuge. During the encounter, two Oregon state troopers shot and killed Finicum; eight other people were arrested.
Last week, Deschutes County Sheriff Shane Nelson, who is overseeing the investigation, said he had concluded that “FBI HRT operators fired two shots as Mr. Finicum exited the truck, and one shot hit the truck.” Nelson accused the agents of failing to “disclose their shots to our investigators.”
The FBI agents have denied firing their assault rifles during the incident. But in a recently released interview, an Oregon State Police officer told investigators that he spotted two copper-colored rifle casings near the spot where the FBI agents were standing. The Hostage Rescue Team has used copper-colored casings, former agents said; the Oregon state police use only silver-colored casings. The copper casings were never recovered.
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Meanwhile, the Portland Oregonian reported Tuesday that FBI surveillance video taken after the shooting shows the agents searching the area with flashlights and huddling. One of them then bends over twice and appears to be picking something up.
On Wednesday, a law enforcement official confirmed the video account. If allegations of a coverup are determined to be true, the incident would be hugely embarrassing to the FBI and deal a devastating blow to the FBI team’s reputation.
The Hostage Rescue Team is a highly trained unit that was formed after the massacre at the Munich Olympics in 1972. Many operators were once in the U.S. military and served in the Joint Special Operations Command.
Team operators, who are expert marksmen, have repeatedly deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, embedding with Navy SEAL and Delta Force commandos. Most recently, the FBI unit has been working with Delta Force in Iraq.
The unit has played a key role in some of the FBI’s worst disasters — including raids at Ruby Ridge in Idaho and in Waco, Texas — and some of its finest operations. In 2013, unit operators were involved in the rescues of two kidnapped children, a 16-year-old girl in Idaho and a 7-year-old boy in Alabama.
Little is known about the operators involved in the Oregon standoff. An Oregon state trooper told investigators he wasn’t sure whether they used their real names. An investigator described them as “pretty mysterious.”
Finicum and other anti-government activists seized the Malheur Federal Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Ore., on Jan. 2. Three weeks later, as Finicum and other leaders of the standoff traveled to a meeting in a nearby town, the FBI and Oregon state police pounced, pulling their vehicles over on a snowy highway.
Finicum, driving a Dodge pickup that carried four other passengers, attempted to flee, but he crashed into a snowbank as he tried to circumnavigate the roadblock. Finicum exited the truck and was shot and killed moments later as he appeared to reach for a gun in his jacket. Oregon state police said they fired six shots, three of which struck Finicum.
Before the shooting, however, video footage taken by one of the truck’s passengers shows a truck window being shattered by a bullet as Finicum stands outside the vehicle with his hands in the air. Investigators say a second shot immediately followed the first, but it didn’t appear to strike the truck.
Photographs of the pickup and surveillance video later showed the first bullet had entered the roof at a trajectory that traces back toward the spot where a Hostage Rescue Team operator was positioned.
The FBI declined Wednesday to comment. Earlier this month, FBI Portland Special Agent in Charge Gregory T. Bretzing said, “The question of who fired these shots has not been resolved.”
The Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Justice is investigating the incident. The new information provides circumstantial evidence of possible misconduct, officials said, but is not conclusive.
Former Hostage Rescue Team operators played down the surveillance footage, saying it’s common for operators to scour the area for anything that might pose a threat, such as unexploded ordnance. They said it also not unusual for operators to huddle for a post mortem after a mission.
It was not clear Wednesday whether the inspector general had interviewed the operators involved in the Oregon shooting. The agents continue to work, but they cannot be deployed in situations that might require them to use their weapons.