(Updates with widow’s statement, paragraph 4,5)
By Dan Whitcomb
March 8 (Reuters) - A leader of the armed occupation of an Oregon federal wildlife refuge killed by police was shot three times in the back, a county prosecutor said on Tuesday, calling the shooting “justified and necessary.”
Robert “LaVoy” Finicum died at the hands of Oregon State Police on Jan. 26 after he ran from his pickup truck at a roadblock along a snow-covered roadside during the occupation by lands rights protesters at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
Relatives of Finicum, who was a spokesman for the group that seized buildings at the refuge, have he posed no threat during the confrontation.
His widow, Jeanette Finicum, read a prepared statement in St. George, Utah, on Tuesday, asserting that her husband was ambushed.
“He was walking with his hands in the air. A symbol of surrender,” she said. “We have talked with an independent investigator who has stated that the video provides a setup assassination.”
Deschutes County Sheriff Shane Nelson said at a news conference in Bend, Oregon, that a loaded 9 mm handgun was found in Finicum’s jacket pocket following the shooting.
Malheur County District Attorney Dan Norris said eight shots were fired at Finicum, six of them by Oregon State Police officers and two by FBI agents.
An autopsy found that three of the bullets fired by Oregon State Police officers struck Finicum in the base of the neck, shoulder and lower back and led to his death, Norris said.
“The six shots fired by the Oregon State Police were justified and in fact necessary,” Norris said.
During the news conference, officials played video and audio tapes of the confrontation, during which Finicum can be heard telling law enforcement officers: “Go ahead, put the bullet through me.”
At another point he is heard to say: “If you want a bloodbath, it’s on your hands.”
The videotape had been released previously but was newly synched with video and audio taken from inside the pickup truck by a protester. The original videotape was played in slow motion at times to show what law enforcement officials said was Finicum reaching for his weapon immediately before he was shot.
The deadly encounter unfolded moments after Finicum sped away from law enforcement officers who had just taken protest leaders Ammon and Ryan Bundy into custody, then tried to run a police roadblock, plowing into a snowbank and narrowly missing an FBI agent.
Finicum can be seen raising his hands as he emerged from his vehicle, then turning as he apparently flails his arms and then falls to the ground. His precise movements are difficult to discern from the video.
The U.S. Department of Justice said in a statement that its inspector general’s office was investigating the actions of the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team in the Finicum shooting.
The takeover, which began on Jan. 2 with at least a dozen armed men, was sparked by the return to prison of two Oregon ranchers convicted of setting fires that spread to federal property in the vicinity of the refuge.
It also marked the latest flare-up in the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion, a decades-old conflict over federal control of millions of acres in the West.
“What’s important to me is what was going on in Mr. Finicum’s head,” said Mike Arnold, a lawyer for Ammon Bundy who said “non-lethal rounds” were fired by law enforcement officials as Finicum pulled away from police in his pickup.
“By the time he got to the roadblock in his mind he believed that he was being fired upon unlawfully and that this was an ambush,” Arnold told reporters after Tuesday’s news conference.
Oregon Public Broadcasting reported that members of the Finicum family were expected to issue a statement later on Tuesday.
The final four holdouts were taken into custody on Feb. 17, ending the 41-day standoff. At least 16 people have been charged in connection with the occupation. (Reporting by Sharon Bernstein, Eric Johnson, Dan Whitcomb and Victoria Cavaliere; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Dan Grebler and Tom Brown)