FBI agent accused of lying about Finicum shooting

W. Joseph Astarita pleaded not guilty to 5 charges

A courtroom sketch of FBI Agent W. Joseph Astarita in court on June 28, 2017. (Deborah Marble)
A courtroom sketch of FBI Agent W. Joseph Astarita in court on June 28, 2017. (Deborah Marble)

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 has pleaded not guilty to five felony charges.

According to court documents obtained by KOIN 6 News, W. Joseph Astarita was charged with 3 counts of making a false statement and 2 charges of obstructing justice. He pleaded not guilty in court Wednesday and was released pending further court appearances, the US Attorney’s office said.

It comes after the inspector general of the U.S. Justice Department investigated possible FBI misconduct and whether there was a cover-up. Robert “LaVoy” Finicum was fatally shot Jan. 26, 2016.

Astarita was a supervisory special agent and part of the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team based in Quantico, Virginia.

Court documents say Astarita falsely said he did not fire his weapon in the standoff but he knew he did. According to the documents, he fired 2 rounds but did not hit Finicum.

“Special Agent Astarita specifically stated he did not fire his weapon, when in fact he did,” US Attorney for Oregon Billy Williams said.

Finicum was a spokesman for the group that took over the refuge to oppose federal control of land in the Western U.S. investigators determined Oregon State Police were justified in shooting Finicum after he reached toward a handgun he kept in a jacket pocket.

Officials said the accusation against Astarita does not change the ruling that the shooting was justified.

“The actions of the FBI HRT in this case damage the integrity of the entire law enforcement profession,” Deschutes County Sheriff Shane Nelson said.

Finicum supporters waited outside the courthouse to protest Astarita’s actions.

“The checks and balances are completely out of whack here,” Finicum family friend Kelli Stewart said. “And as a result good people are sitting behind bars while criminals who shoot at American citizens on our paycheck are walking free.”

While Astarita is facing charges that carry penalties of up to 55 years, Stewart thinks he should be facing stronger charges.

“The fact that his indictment isn’t conspiracy to impede a federal investigation, attempted murder and obstruction of justice shows me that justice still isn’t being served,” Stewart said.

Authorities moved in on Ammon Bundy and other leaders as they were driving in two vehicles from the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to a meeting on Jan. 26, 2016.

A screen grab from a video taken by Shawna Cox shows LaVoy Finicum during a traffic stop on Hwy 395 on Jan. 26, 2016 minutes before he was shot to death by OSP troopers. (Released March 8, 2016)

The Deschutes County sheriff said that as Robert “LaVoy” 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.

OSP 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.

KOIN 6 News Staff contributed to this report.