Seven Arizona lawmakers are asking the attorneys general of Arizona and Nevada to file a civil-rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice over the handling of the shooting death of 54-year-old Arizona resident Robert "LaVoy" Finicum, one of the men who occupied a wildlife refuge in Oregon earlier this year.
In a letter addressed to Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich and Nevada Attorney General Adam Paul Laxalt, Rep. Bob Thorpe (R-Flagstaff) and six co-signers assert that while the U.S. Attorney General's Office and the DOJ have filed numerous civil-rights complaints against law-enforcement officials and state and local governments, in Finicum's case "the Federal Government has not demonstrated any interest in protecting [his] guaranteed Constitutional and civil rights."
Thorpe notes that leaders of the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement — which lasted "dramatically longer" than the Oregon occupation and led to "considerable property damage" — were not "shot, jailed or charged in a similar manner to those individuals within Oregon."
Thorpe speculates that the reasons have everything to do with political alliances: Occupy Wall Street, he writes, was "typically comprised of labor union and liberal individuals who are politically aligned with President Obama,” while the Oregon occupation was "typically comprised of conservative individuals who are not."
Thorpe, along with Arizona Senator Don Shooter and Representatives Brenda Barton, Sonny Borrelli, Regina Cobb, Mark Finchem, and Jay Lawrence, contend that state law-enforcement officials involved in Finicum's death should "face at a minimum manslaughter charges," and that FBI agents involved should "face at a minimum attempted manslaughter and falsifying evidence charges."
In asking Brnovich and Laxalt to file complaints, Thorpe tells New Times, he hopes to "put some pressure on Oregon officials [to conduct] a transparent, thorough, unbiased investigation into the matter."
This is Thorpe’s second broadside regarding the matter. Earlier this month, he and 13 other Arizona lawmakers wrote to Oregon Governor Kate Brown, Oregon Congressman Greg Walden (the state's sole Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives), and FBI Director James Comey, saying they "cannot tolerate the demonization of patriotic Americans…simply because they question authority," and asserting that state and federal officials must "uphold their legal responsibility to fully and transparently investigate this tragedy, and to quickly vindicate those who have been wrongly accused."
In a statement about the letter, Brown told the media that law enforcement had already conducted an investigation and put the matter to rest: In March, local officials found that the state troopers who'd fired the fatal shots at Finicum were justified in doing so. (The involvement of two FBI agents who also shot at Finicum is still under investigation.)
Finicum's January 26 death came more than three weeks after a handful of armed militiamen took over an office building on the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon, and was mired in controversy from the start. Competing stories of what exactly went happened that afternoon were hotly debated by witnesses and on social media.
There were so many apparently false claims and conspiracy theories that the FBI, in conjunction with state and local law enforcement, released videos of the shooting in order to quell speculation about misconduct.
According to the now-official version of what happened — a version Thorpe says he doesn't trust — leaders of the occupation were on their way to a speaking engagement in a nearby town when federal, state, and local agents intercepted their convoy on a quiet stretch of U.S. Route 395 at about 4 p.m.
One of the vehicles pulled over, and its occupants, who included militia leader and de facto occupation frontman Ammon Bundy, were taken into custody. Finicum, who was driving the other vehicle, did not immediately stop, informing his passengers that they had to get to their speaking engagement and "meet the sheriff," according to the Oregonian, which constructed a minute-by-minute account of what transpired.
One of the other passengers in the vehicle, Ryan Payne, says, "LaVoy, you need to pull over. Just pull over." Finicum says, "No, we have to go see the sheriff." Payne repeats his demand, and Finicum eventually complies.
Officers tell the truck’s occupants to put their hands outside of the window, after which, witnesses interviewed by the Oregonian say, Finicum responded, "We're going to talk to the sheriff right now. Either you can put a bullet in my head right now or we're going to talk to the sheriff."
In the videos released by the FBI, Finicum can also be heard saying over and over again to the officers, "You want a bloodbath? It's going to be on your hands. We're going to go see the sheriff."
After a few minutes of confusion and commotion, Finicum drives away.
More than a mile down the highway, he encounters a roadblock, swerves, and crashes into a snowbank. Officials later estimated that his truck was traveling 70 miles per hour at the time.
According to witnesses, Finicum got out, put up his hands, and yelled at the officers, "Just shoot me, then, just shoot me, then."
On the video, Finicum can be seen turning and reaching for his left jacket pocket, then pulling his hand back and putting it back in the air. When he again reaches for his jacket, three shots are fired, striking him in the back and killing him. Officials found a loaded 9mm semiautomatic handgun in his pocket.
Says Thorpe: "I am extremely concerned that an Arizona citizen expressing his rights was shot three times in the back, and he and his family are not getting any type of favorable press to tell their story. From everything I understand, Mr. Finicum was not armed, [or at least] certainly did not have a gun in his hand — even if you have a gun in your pocket, you're not a threat to law enforcement.
"As I said in my letter," he goes on, "whether you agree or disagree with their tactics, they were exercising their rights." He calls their treatment relative to the treatment of Occupy Wall Street activists "a double standard" and says he and others in the legislature will "keep a light shining on this issue" until it’s resolved.
"I'm not asking for them to be exonerated," Thorpe emphasizes, "but I'm asking for a complete investigation in which they are treated fairly. Because the whole reason why this man was shot is pretty troubling."
Dozens of militia members, including prominent Arizona anti-Islam activist Jon Ritzheimer, eventually were arrested. According to a statement issued by the FBI, they face a "federal felony charge of conspiracy to impede officers of the United States from discharging their official duties through the use of force, intimidation, or threats, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 372."
In his letter, Thorpe expresses the opinion that the militiamen are "facing inaccurate and exaggerated charges," given that they were "merely exercising their Constitutionally guaranteed 1st Amendment rights of free speech, to peaceably assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."
Their federal trial is slated to begin on September 7 in Oregon.
Asked if he supports the militiamen's tactics, Thorpe responds, "I don't think it was the best approach to use, but I think it was well within their rights to do. If they had sought my counsel, I would have said, 'You guys made your point [after a few days]. Now go out and use social media to make your point.'"
Bottom line, he continues, "When you're trying to get the attention of the government, sometimes doing something over the top is the best way to do that."
Asked why he and others who signed the letter weren't more vocal in their support for the occupation as it was occurring — hardly any politicians from any state came out in favor of the occupation — Thorpe says he was tied up at the legislature at the time, but that he and his colleagues did discuss it often, and they feel the occupiers were within their rights.
"I don't know at this point what I'll do next," he says. "I've also contacted Oregon officials, and I've cc'ed our governor on this. I'm just hopeful that we'll see some concern on behalf of our citizens."
Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich's office did not respond to New Times' multiple requests for comment — nor, according to Thorpe, has it responded to his letter.
Read Representative Bob Thorpe's Letter to Attorneys General:
Read Representative Bob Thorpe's Letter to the Oregon Governor, Congressman, and FBI Director:
Keep Phoenix New Times Free... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Phoenix with no paywalls.