Robert “LaVoy” Finicum is a martyr and was murdered, backers of an armed group of occupiers who took over an Oregon federal wildlife refuge said when they learned the group’s de facto spokesman was fatally shot during a police maneuver Tuesday.
Although differing accounts of Mr. Finicum’s shooting already have emerged from witnesses — one says he had his hands up in surrender while another says he rushed at police — extremism experts warn that supporters will likely try to use the death as a rallying cry for their cause.
“When anybody is killed by the government, especially the federal government, they try to make martyrs out of them,” said Mark Pitcavage of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. “The fear is that if they were even somewhat successful, the anger over that might provoke violent acts of retaliation.”
Police have confirmed little about the shooting, which occurred as authorities intercepted a caravan of the group’s leaders as they left the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and drove to a community meeting about 70 miles away in John Day, Oregon.
Authorities on Wednesday had yet to even confirm that Mr. Finicum, a father of 11 children, was killed. Confirmation came from witnesses, family and friends of the 55-year-old Arizona rancher, who had joined the resistance movement after his own disputes with federal land management authorities.
“They may be trying to keep a low profile because they are afraid the situation may escalate,” said Daryl Johnson, a former analyst with the Department of Homeland Security unit that studied threats posed by anti-government groups. “But the U.S. government remaining silent on the matter does allow for other people to interpret and put out their message on what they perceive happened.”
Mr. Finicum had become known as the spokesman for the group, which took over an abandoned building in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in January. Three of those involved in the takeover are sons of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who has a history of challenging federal public lands authority, notably in a 2014 standoff with federal agents at their ranch over a grazing-fee dispute.
Statements posted on the Facebook page of the Bundy Ranch, which has provided videos and live streams of events inside the refuge during the occupation, referred to Mr. Finicum’s death as murder and seemed to urge others to join to serve as witnesses to any future government intervention.
“LaVoy has left us, but his sacrifice will never be far from the lips of those who love liberty. You cannot defeat us. Our blood is seed,” one post read.
Supporters also have used the page to promote an audio recording or account of the shooting from a woman who was purportedly in the same car as Mr. Finicum when the shooting happened.
The woman, identified as Victoria Sharp, said she was in a car with Mr. Finicum when law enforcement stopped the vehicle. She said individuals inside the car were yelling to law enforcement to let them get the female passengers out of the car.
“He stuck his head out and they shot at him,” Ms. Sharp said.
The vehicle continued driving and hit a snowbank, at which point she said officers opened fire at the car, striking it multiple times. She said Mr. Finicum was exiting the car when he was shot.
“He was just walking with his hands in the air, and they shot him. They shot him dead,” she said.
Varying accounts disputing the allegations that Mr. Finicum was shot with his hands up also have emerged online.
Mark McConnell, who was riding in one of the other vehicles in a caravan with the truck carrying Mr. Finicum, has posted his own videotaped account online. Noting that he did not witness the shooting but had a chance to talk to others who were in the vehicle, Mr. McConnell said Mr. Finicum “charged after law enforcement” before he was shot.
“He was not on his knees, none of that nonsense,” Mr. McConnell said. “But he went after them; he charged them. LaVoy was very passionate about what he was doing up here.”
Eight others were arrested during the incident.
Citing the ongoing investigation into the shooting and the fact that some armed protesters remained at the wildlife refuge, FBI Special Agent in Charge Greg Bretzing said Wednesday he could not go into detail about the circumstances of the shooting. But he did fault the protesters for setting up the circumstances that led to the deadly exchange in the first place.
“Let me be clear: It is fully and unequivocally the behavior and the choices made by the armed occupiers that have led us to where we are today,” Mr. Bretzing said. “And, as the FBI and our partners have demonstrated, actions are not without consequences.”
Mr. Finicum, bedecked in a wide-brimmed cowboy hat and carrying a handgun on his hip, was among the most visible of the protesters who encamped in the Oregon refuge. He often gave tours to reporters, and in one interview sat outside under a blue tarp with a rifle in his lap, earning him the social media hashtag #Tarpman.
During one interview early in the standoff, he told reporters he would rather die than go to prison.
“I’m not going to spend my last days in a cell. This world is too beautiful to spend it in a cell,” he told The Associated Press.
The rancher was media-savvy and tried to popularize and monetize his political beliefs on his website, OneCowboyStandforFreedom.com. He used the site to sell his book, a 252-page paperback titled “Only by Blood and Suffering,” as well as T-shirts, bumper stickers and posters emblazoned with slogans like “Let Freedom Ring” and “Defend the Constitution Original Intent.”
He described himself as a longtime friend of Cliven Bundy, and he participated in the standoff with federal authorities over grazing fees at the elder Bundy’s Nevada ranch in 2014.
Mr. Finicum and his wife, Jeanette, raised dozens of foster children, though social workers removed the kids from the couple’s home a few days after the occupation began.
Mr. Finicum said the foster kids were the family’s main source of income.
A handful of occupiers remain holed up at the refuge that Mr. Finicum and the others had held for close to a month. Experts say the concern now is negotiating with the remainder of the occupiers without incurring other loses.
“They are very jittery and paranoid,” Mr. Pitcavage said. “Once these people calm down, some of them may join the others who have already left, and it may be easier for the FBI to negotiate with those who remain.”
Whether Mr. Finicum’s death will rally others to join the cause remains to be seen.
But in the meantime, authorities have established checkpoints along the main roads leading to the refuge.
“One thing authorities have to worry about more than they did before is people coming to help them or join them,” Mr. Pitcavage said.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.