(Update: FBI agent in court, pleads not guilty; FBI statement, including link to indictment)
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - An FBI agent charged with lying about shooting at a key figure in last year's armed occupation of a national wildlife refuge in Oregon pleaded not guilty Wednesday to five felony charges.
W. Joseph Astarita briefly appeared in court Wednesday and was released on his own recognizance.
The agent's two gunshots did not hit Robert "LaVoy" Finicum during a January 2016 traffic stop, but soon afterward, Oregon State Police fatally shot the Arizona rancher after he reached toward a handgun in an inner pocket.
Investigators determined the troopers were justified in shooting Finicum, but also found the FBI hadn't disclosed that someone on their team had fired two shots.
Finicum was a spokesman for the group that took over the remote Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to oppose federal control of land in the Western U.S.
The charges come after the inspector general of the U.S. Justice Department investigated possible FBI misconduct and whether there was a cover-up.
Finicum, a spokesman for the group, fatally shot on Jan. 26, 2016.
Investigators determined OSP troopers were justified in shooting Finicum after he reached toward a handgun he kept in a jacket pocket. But they also found FBI members of an FBI hostage rescue team failed to disclose that they fired two rounds that missed the Arizona rancher.
NewsChannel 21's Pedro Quintana spoke with Finicum's widow Wednesday, and also is talking with Deschutes County Sheriff Shane Nelson, whose agency was called in to investigate the shooting and the events that led up to it. His story on Fox @ 4 and KTVZ at 5, 6 and 7.
Here's the FBI's full statement and link to the indictment:
FBI SPECIAL AGENT INDICTED FOR MAKING FALSE STATEMENTS AND OBSTRUCTION OF JUSTICE
PORTLAND, Ore. – A federal grand jury in Portland has charged W. Joseph Astarita, a member of the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) based in Quantico, Va., with three counts of making false statements and two counts of obstruction of justice.
Astarita was one of a number of FBI agents assigned to the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and was present during the shooting of Robert LaVoy Finicum on January 26, 2016, in Harney County, Oregon.
The indictment alleges that Astarita knowingly and willfully made false statements to FBI Supervisory Special Agents, knowing that the statements were false and material to the FBI’s decision not to investigate the propriety of an agent-involved shooting.
Specifically, Astarita falsely stated he had not fired his weapon during the attempted arrest of Mr. Finicum when he knew he had in fact fired his weapon. Astarita also knowingly engaged in misleading conduct toward Oregon State Police officers by failing to disclose that he had fired two rounds during the attempted arrest.
Astarita was arraigned on June 28, 2017, in Portland. He entered pleas of not guilty to each count and was released pending future appearances.
An indictment is only an accusation of a crime, and a defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
This case was investigated by the Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General in partnership with the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Oregon.
A copy of the federal indictment is available via the following link:
STATEMENT BY U.S. ATTORNEY BILLY J. WILLIAMS ON INDICTMENT OF FBI SPECIAL AGENT ASTARITA
PORTLAND, Ore. – On Wednesday, June 28, 2017, Billy J. Williams, United States Attorney for the District of Oregon, delivered the following statement on the indictment of FBI Special Agent Joseph Astarita.
Remarks as prepared for delivery.
Good Afternoon. My name is Bill Williams and I am the United States Attorney for the District of Oregon.
Before we discuss the case we are announcing today, I would like to take a moment to introduce a few of my colleagues. I am pleased and honored to be joined by Deschutes County Sheriff Shane Nelson, Superintendent of Oregon State Police Travis Hampton, and U.S. Department of Justice Office of Inspector General Special Agent-in-Charge Michael Tompkins.
In March 2016, at a press conference in Bend, I announced that our office had begun a joint investigation with the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General into alleged actions of FBI Hostage Rescue Team members assigned to the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
Today we unsealed charges against FBI Special Agent Joseph Astarita, a member of the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team, or HRT for short.
Special Agent Astarita was one of a number of FBI agents assigned to the occupation tasked with attempting to apprehend certain members and leaders of the occupation, including Robert LaVoy Finicum on January 26, 2016 in Harney County, Oregon.
As you know, Mr. Finicum fled the scene of a traffic stop at a high rate of speed and was pursued by members of the FBI’s HRT and the Oregon State Police. In an attempt to evade a roadblock set up by the FBI and OSP, Mr. Finicum drove off the road and into a snow bank, nearly running over an FBI HRT member.
After failing to follow multiple commands to put up his hands, Mr. Finicum was shot by OSP officers while attempting to reach for a firearm inside his jacket. Special Agent Astarita was present during the shooting of Mr. Finicum.
The Deschutes County Major Incident Team, assisted by OSP detectives, led the investigation of the officer-involved shooting.
Special Agent Astarita is being charged with three counts of knowingly and willfully making false statements to FBI Supervisory Special Agents, knowing that the statements were false and material to the FBI’s decision not to investigate the propriety of the agent-involved shooting.
Specifically, Special Agent Astarita falsely stated he did not fire his weapon during the attempted arrest of Mr. Finicum when he in fact had.
Special Agent Astarita also faces two counts of obstruction of justice for knowingly engaging in misleading conduct toward OSP officers by failing to disclose that he had fired two rounds during the attempted arrest.
I would ask that media outlets choosing to report on this case take note of two key facts.
The first is that an indictment is only an accusation of a crime, and Special Agent Astarita is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.
The second is that Special Agent Astarita’s alleged actions that led to this investigation and indictment do not, in any way, call into question the findings of the Major Incident Team’s investigation of OSP’s use of deadly force. OSP’s actions were justified and necessary in protecting officer safety.
I would now like to introduce my colleague, Deschutes County Sheriff Shane Nelson.
Earlier AP story:
Authorities moved in on Ammon Bundy and others as they were driving from the refuge to a planned community meeting in John Day.
The Deschutes County sheriff alleged as Finicum left his truck, an FBI agent shot twice at Finicum, though none of the hostage team members said they discharged their firearms.
The county sheriff’s office was tasked with investigating the Finicum shooting.
The FBI agent’s bullets didn’t hit Finicum, 54, an Arizona rancher who was the spokesman for the takeover near Burns in Harney County.
State police troopers then shot Finicum three times after he emerged from his truck and reached for his inner jacket pocket, where police said he had a loaded 9mm handgun.
One bullet pierced his heart, an autopsy found.
The Oregon investigators determined that one agent fired at Finicum’s pickup, hitting it in the roof and missing on the second shot. Federal law forbids “knowingly and willfully” making any false, fictitious or fraudulent statement or representation or concealing information.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Gorder Jr. revealed in court papers last year that a grand jury was reviewing the FBI actions.
Less than two months after the shooting, the FBI acknowledged that a federal agent was under investigation for firing shots, and four other members of his FBI team were under investigation for covering up the gunshots. The status of the investigation into the other FBI team members is unclear.
It’s not clear if the indicted agent is on leave or has been dismissed from the job. The hostage team is part of the FBI’s Critical Incident Response Group, based out of Quantico, Virginia.
U.S. Attorney Billy J. Williams in Oregon has scheduled a news conference Wednesday afternoon at the federal courthouse. His spokesman, Kevin Sonoff, declined comment. Portland’s FBI spokeswoman Jennifer Adams said she was unaware of the matter.