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Locals, FBI Talk Differently About Finicum Shooting


FBI Special Agent in Charge Greg Bretzing speaks on the conclusion of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation Thursday, Feb. 11.

FBI Special Agent in Charge Greg Bretzing speaks on the conclusion of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation Thursday, Feb. 11.

Dave Blanchard/OPB

Both local law enforcement and FBI officials spoke during a Tuesday press conference on the investigation into the shooting death of Robert LaVoy Finicum, one of the occupiers of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

But there was a sharp contrast between what local and federal officials would say about the investigation.

How Many Shots Were Fired And By Who?

Local Officials Say: “Of the eight shots fired, the six fired by the Oregon State Police were justified and in fact necessary.” — Malheur County District Attorney Dan Norris 

“During the course of our investigation, we discovered evidence that an FBI (Hostage Rescue Team) operator fired two shots as Mr. Finicum exited the truck.” — Deschutes County Sheriff Shane Nelson 

FBI Officials Say: “In between the two series of shots fired by OSP troopers, one and possibly two additional shots were fired by law enforcement as Mr. Finicum was exiting his vehicle immediately after hitting the snowbank. The question of who fired these shots has not been resolved.” — FBI Special Agent Greg Bretzing

The big question of the investigation was whether the gunshots that killed LaVoy Finicum were justified uses of deadly force. Norris is specific in saying that shots fired by OSP troopers were necessary, including the three that struck Finicum.

Norris is clear: Of the eight shots, six have so far been deemed justified. Nelson also pointed out in his comments that two more shots came from the FBI operators.

Bretzing does not back what the local law enforcement said. Instead, he said it’s not clear who fired or even how many shots there were.

FBI spokeswoman Beth Anne Steele said Bretzing didn’t confirm those shots as coming from FBI operators because that piece of this story is under investigation by the federal Inspector General’s Office. The investigation will also look at the question of why HRT operators didn’t disclose the shots to investigators if they fired them.  

The top of militant leader Robert "LaVoy" Finicum's vehicle. The Central Oregon Major Incident Team released photos of evidence from Finicum's Jan. 26 killing.

The top of militant leader Robert "LaVoy" Finicum's vehicle. The Central Oregon Major Incident Team released photos of evidence from Finicum's Jan. 26 killing.

Courtesy Central Oregon Major Incident Team

References To Use Of Deadly Force

Local Officials Say: “I have concluded that all six shots fired by the Oregon State Police, the three into the truck and the three that struck Mr. Finicum, are justified.” — Norris

FBI Officials Say: “The threat Mr. Finicum posed to OSP troopers and agents along Highway 395 on that day was real and imminent, and certainly justified the use of deadly force by law enforcement.” — Bretzing

Every time Norris spoke about the use of deadly force, he was careful to refer only to the six shots from state troopers. When Bretzing talked about the use of deadly force, he spoke more vaguely about “law enforcement,” which could mean OSP, FBI or both agencies.

It’s worth noting it wasn’t Norris’ duty to scrutinize the shots that came from the FBI. Norris said his specific role was to look at the OSP shots, and investigators did not have access to interview FBI agents after forensics of the scene pointed to the other two shots coming from HRT operators.

A Peaceful Conclusion?

FBI Officials Say: “Since Jan. 2, the FBI has worked in partnership with Harney County and our law enforcement partners across the state to resolve the situation at the refuge … hundreds and hundreds of FBI employees traveled to Burns with the sole purpose of bringing this situation to a peaceful conclusion. Working together with our partners, we have been able to do just that.” — Bretzing

The Finicum shooting investigation was supposed to clear up questions about law enforcement’s action. Instead, those two questionable gunshots are in some ways raising more suspicions about the occupation, Finicum’s death and the FBI’s role.

Bretzing said that no one wanted the situation to end in violence, a statement often repeated by Harney County Sheriff David Ward and other local officials during the 41-day occupation.

Despite the death of Finicum, Bretzing characterized the end of the occupation as meeting that goal of ending peacefully.

And that claim — that the incident came to a peaceful conclusion — was something said only by the FBI at Tuesday’s press conference.

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