Finicum's Death Changes Tone Of Occupied Wildlife Refuge In Oregon

Jan 28, 2016
Originally published on January 28, 2016 2:31 pm
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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

A handful of armed militants in a wildlife refuge in Oregon are defying calls from the FBI and their own leader, now in custody, for them to leave. The atmosphere there is tense after the death of one militant who was among a group of armed protesters that were being arrested earlier this week. Robert LaVoy Finicum was a rancher, the father of 11 and unofficial spokesperson for the militants. NPR's Nathan Rott reports that his death has changed the tone of the Oregon standoff.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: LaVoy Finicum made it clear from the start of the standoff at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge...

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LAVOY FINICUM: This is intended to be a peaceful occupation, if so be.

ROTT: He often wore a holstered handgun and would sit out at night in the January cold with a long gun across his lap. But he said they were only there for protection and safety.

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L. FINICUM: We should never, ever point guns at each other.

ROTT: The outspoken rancher with his sand-colored cowboy hat and thin-rimmed glasses was steadfast in his beliefs that the federal government should turn over land to local authorities and private land owners. The 55-year-old Finicum kept a blog and Facebook page called One Cowboy's Stand for Freedom. He had written a novel a few years ago, and he told reporters earlier in the weeks-long standoff in Oregon that he'd be willing to die for the cause. On Tuesday afternoon, he did. Now, there are conflicting reports of what exactly happened. The FBI says that Finicum and several other militants in two separate vehicles were pulled over on a highway Tuesday by state and federal authorities. Two very different eyewitness accounts have come out on social media since. In a video on YouTube, a woman named Victoria Sharp says she was in the car with Finicum before he got out and confronted the authorities during the arrest.

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VICTORIA SHARP: He had his hands in the air. He was like, just shoot me then. Just shoot - you know what? Just shoot me. And they did. They shot him dead.

ROTT: On social media, that storyline grew to depict Finicum as on his knees with his hands up when he was shot. The other account of what happened, posted on Facebook by Mark McConnell, a militant who says he was driving the other vehicle that got pulled over, disputes that.

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MARK MCCONNELL: He was not on his knees. He was none of that nonsense. But he went after them. He charged them, you know. LaVoy was very passionate about what he was doing up here.

ROTT: The contrasting stories have been picked up by people on both sides of the Oregon standoff. Those supporting the occupation of the federal wildlife refuge are calling the killing a cold-blooded murder and framing Finicum as a martyr. Folks on the other side are saying on social media that Finicum was a criminal, and his death shouldn't be surprising given his part in the armed occupation of a federal building. Robert Finicum, a Utah national guardsman and one of LaVoy's sons, says he's uncomfortable with the portrayal of both.

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ROBERT FINICUM: Was he a radical? I mean, that's the picture that's painted in the news right now. He was not radical in a dangerous sense. He's always been a peaceful person. But my father believes that this is more important than life. I don't know. I thought his life was more important. But I loved him - still do.

ROTT: As to whether he wants his dad to be remembered as a martyr or as a reason for the rest of the occupants of the wildlife refuge to go home...

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R. FINICUM: I will say that I just hope that nobody else loses a life. And I am grateful that nobody else has so far.

ROTT: Nathan Rott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.