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F.B.I. Agent Did Not Fire His Gun During Militia Standoff, Oregon Jury Finds F.B.I. Agent Told the Truth, Jury Finds. He Did Not Fire His Gun During Militia Standoff.
(about 2 hours later)
PORTLAND, Ore. — An F.B.I. agent was found not guilty on Friday of lying to investigators about firing his rifle during a 2016 confrontation when a leader of an armed militia was killed.PORTLAND, Ore. — An F.B.I. agent was found not guilty on Friday of lying to investigators about firing his rifle during a 2016 confrontation when a leader of an armed militia was killed.
The agent is Joseph Astarita, 41, a 13-year veteran with the F.B.I. and a member of its elite hostage rescue team. He had been accused of firing two never-explained or accounted for shots — both of which missed their mark, at a roadblock where law enforcement officials were trying to stop leaders of an armed militia that had taken over a federal wildlife refuge in central Oregon. The agent, Joseph Astarita, had been accused of firing two shots — neither shot struck anyone at a roadblock where law enforcement officials were trying to stop leaders of an armed militia that had taken over a federal wildlife refuge in central Oregon.
But jurors in Federal District Court concluded that Mr. Astarita was not the one who fired the mysterious shots. But the jurors in Federal District Court concluded that Mr. Astarita, 41, a 13-year veteran with the F.B.I. and a member of its elite hostage rescue team, was not the one who fired the mysterious shots. The decision only deepened the mystery that has surrounded the unexplained shots, and has been a topic of intense debate among law-enforcement officials, conspiracy theorists and militia supporters ever since the confrontation along a snowy, tree-lined rural road in central Oregon.
One militia member, LaVoy Finicum, was killed by an Oregon state trooper after running a roadblock and, according to the trooper, reaching for his weapon. The verdict was seen as a victory for the rescue team whose members said they had felt besieged by the charges against Mr. Astarita. Teammates who had supported Mr. Astarita, believing he had never fired the shots, expressed relief at the outcome. And for the F.B.I., the acquittal was a rare public exoneration in face of relentless attacks by President Trump and his conservative allies.
Mr. Astarita held the hands of his lawyers on both sides as a clerk read the verdicts, then left the courthouse without making a comment. For federal prosecutors, the decision was only the latest disappointment in two years of efforts at obtaining significant convictions in trials of leaders or participants in the takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
His lawyers argued that the government’s case largely based on forensic analysis, projecting the path from which a bullet struck Mr. Finicum’s truck was unreliable. Defense lawyers had also argued that the Oregon state trooper who killed Mr. Finicum, a shooting that was ruled justified by investigators, could have fired the two missing shots and had motive to lie because of the tensions at the time around the shooting. On Jan. 26, 2016, a militia member, LaVoy Finicum, had gunned his pickup truck toward the roadblock and then up into a snowbank not far from the wildlife refuge that the militia members had occupied. Mr. Finicum then emerged, and was fatally shot by an Oregon state trooper who said Mr. Finicum was reaching for his weapon.
Mr. Astarita could have faced up to five years in prison on each of the two counts of making false statements, and up to 20 years on the obstruction of justice charge. But the fatal shooting also left behind a mystery: Eight shots were fired in those frantic moments near the roadblock. Six were accounted for, admitted to by the state troopers who fired them, and deemed a justified use of force. The two others one that struck Mr. Finicum’s truck and one that veered off into the woods were unaccounted for.
Despite the weeks of testimony and complicated forensic evidence, the jurors needed relatively time to dismiss it all, concluding that prosecutors had failed to make their case. They deliberated for a few hours on Thursday and only through midafternoon on Friday. For the law enforcement community, and the F.B.I. in particular, questions surrounding the unexplained shots remain troubling and painful.
The United States attorney for Oregon, Billy J. Williams, said that the case was important and worthwhile, however it turned out. Unresolved, too, was a belief by many of Mr. Finicum’s followers that those two shots may have pushed him to the brink of desperation, fired just as his truck was plowing into the snow, and convincing him that he had to come out ready to shoot back.
Mr. Astarita’s lawyers asserted that the government’s case — largely based on forensic analysis, projecting the path from which a bullet struck Mr. Finicum’s truck — was unreliable. The defense team had also argued that the Oregon state trooper who killed Mr. Finicum could have fired the two missing shots and had motive to lie because of the tensions at the time around the shooting.
After weeks of testimony and complicated forensic evidence in the case, the jurors needed relatively little time to dismiss it all, concluding that prosecutors had failed to make their case. They deliberated for a few hours on Thursday and only through midafternoon on Friday.
Still, the United States attorney for Oregon, Billy J. Williams, said that the case was important and worthwhile.
“We strongly believe this case needed to be brought before the court and decided by a jury,” he said in a statement. “Our system of justice relies on the absolute integrity of law enforcement officials at all levels of government.”“We strongly believe this case needed to be brought before the court and decided by a jury,” he said in a statement. “Our system of justice relies on the absolute integrity of law enforcement officials at all levels of government.”
The Department of Justice’s Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz, whose office participated in the case with the U.S. Attorney, said in a statement that the office would “continue to investigate allegations of misconduct.” Mr. Astarita could have faced up to five years in prison on each of the two counts of making false statements, and up to 20 years on the obstruction of justice charge.
Mr. Astarita held the hands of his attorneys on both sides as a clerk read the verdicts, then left the courthouse without making a comment. He held the hands of his lawyers on both sides of him as a clerk read the verdicts, then left the courthouse without making a comment. Mr. Astarita’s lawyers, in a statement, called him, “a hero,” thanking the jury for seeing through “a case that should never have been brought.”
For federal prosecutors, the verdict was the latest disappointment in more than two years of failure to obtain important convictions at the trials of leaders or participants in the takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in January 2016. Other cases tied to the standoff have brought mixed results. Some militia members pleaded guilty, and four participants were convicted last year. But the leaders of the armed takeover, Ammon and Ryan Bundy, were acquitted of conspiracy charges in 2016 by a jury here in Portland.
Though some militia members pleaded guilty, and four participants were convicted last year, the leaders of the armed takeover, Ammon and Ryan Bundy, were acquitted of conspiracy charges in 2016 by a jury here in Portland. And a federal trial last year in Nevada stemming from an armed standoff with the Bundys at their ranch resulted in a mistrial after the judge said prosecutors had withheld evidence.
A federal trial last year in Nevada stemming from an armed standoff with the Bundys at their ranch resulted in a mistrial after the judge said prosecutors had withheld evidence.
The two missing shots, of the total of eight that were fired in a few hectic seconds on Jan. 26, 2016, have loomed larger and larger over time.
For the law enforcement community, and the F.B.I. in particular, the questions surrounding the shots became a kind of wound that could never heal. Suspicions festered within law enforcement and the right-wing militia community about why the shots were never explained: Since they were fired around the time Mr. Finicum got out of his pickup, did the shots accelerate tensions and lead to his decision to reach for a weapon?
With Mr. Astarita cleared of having a role in the mystery, that question remains.