PORTLAND, Ore. — An FBI agent pleaded not guilty on Wednesday to charges that he lied about shooting at a key figure in last year’s armed occupation of a national wildlife refuge just before the man was killed by Oregon police.
W. Joseph Astarita said nothing during a brief court hearing and was released on his own recognizance.
He was indicted on five felony charges after the inspector general of the U.S. Justice Department began investigating last year possible FBI misconduct and whether there was a cover-up.
Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, a spokesman for the group that took over the remote bird sanctuary to oppose federal control of land in the western United States, was fatally shot Jan. 26, 2016. Oregon State Police opened fire after he got out of a vehicle at a police roadblock, held up his hands and then reached toward a handgun that he kept in an inner jacket pocket.
Investigators determined the troopers were justified in shooting Finicum but also found members of an FBI hostage rescue team at the scene failed to disclose that they fired two rounds that missed the Arizona rancher.
A grand jury indicted Astarita on three counts of making false statements to his FBI supervisors on the day of the shooting and the day after it and on two counts of obstruction of justice for misleading the Oregon State Police. A jury trial is set for Aug. 29.
Finicum’s widow, Jeanette Finicum, has said she plans to sue Oregon State Police and the FBI, alleging the use of excessive force in her husband’s death. Nobody answered a call to her number Wednesday, and her lawyer, Brian Claypool, did not return a message seeking comment.
Dozens of people, including leader Ammon Bundy, occupied the remote Malheur National Wildlife Refuge about 290 miles southeast of Portland, from Jan. 2 to Feb. 11, 2016. They were allowed to come and go for several weeks as authorities tried to avoid bloodshed seen in past standoffs at Waco, Texas, and Ruby Ridge, Idaho.
But authorities moved in Jan. 26 when key standoff leaders left the refuge to attend a community meeting, pulling over two vehicles and arresting the occupiers inside.
Finicum, 54, was driving one of the vehicles. Video taken by one of his passengers showed the occupants panicking after authorities stopped the truck.
With his window rolled down, Finicum shouted at officers: “Shoot me, just shoot me! Put the bullet through me.”
Finicum then sped off. He was driving more than 70 mph when the truck came to a roadblock and plowed into a snowbank.
Authorities say the FBI agent fired two errant shots as Finicum left the truck. As Finicum stood in the snow, authorities told him to lie on the ground. Instead, he reached toward his jacket, leading state troopers to fire three rounds, all of which hit him.
Most occupiers left the refuge after Finicum’s death, though four holdouts stayed an additional 16 days.
Federal prosecutors tried to convict occupation leaders Ammon and Ryan Bundy and five others in a trial last fall but jurors acquitted them of charges of conspiring to impede federal workers from their jobs.
Jurors convicted four men in a second trial. An additional 14 people pleaded guilty without going to trial.
The Bundys and others are now facing trial in Nevada on conspiracy charges in a 2014 armed standoff with federal agents.
Read complete coverage of the feud between the Bundy family and the BLM