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FBI Agent Charged With Lying About Fatal Oregon Refuge Shooting

The agent is accused of firing shots during the showdown in which anti-government rancher Robert LaVoy Finicum was killed but denying it to investigators.
Image: LaVoy Finicum
Arizona rancher Robert LaVoy Finicum spoke with reporters during a occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on Jan. 5, 2016, three weeks before he was shot and killed.Rick Bowmer / AP

An FBI agent is charged with failing to report that he, too, fired shots last year during the confrontation in which Oregon police killed one of the occupiers of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, according to a federal indictment unsealed Wednesday.

The agent, identified as W. Joseph Astarita, a member of the bureau's hostage rescue team, pleaded not guilty in federal court in Portland on Wednesday afternoon to three counts of making false statements to investigators and two counts of obstruction of justice, according to the indictment, which was filed under seal on June 20.

He was released on personal recognizance pending a trial date of Aug. 29.

Oregon prosecutors determined last year that State Police officers, not FBI agents, fired the shots that killed Robert LaVoy Finicum after a traffic stop on Jan. 26, 2016, on a remote highway near the refuge, which Finicum and other anti-government militants had occupied for more than three weeks.

The protesters' leaders, brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy, and five other people were arrested in the confrontation. Authorities said the shooting of Finicum was justified because he failed to heed officers' commands and repeatedly reached for his own weapon.

The indictment against Astarita provides few details, but the FBI has previously confirmed that it was investigating allegations that one of its agents also fired shots — which missed Finicum — but lied about it to investigators.

On at least three occasions, Astarita lied to FBI investigators when he "falsely stated he had not fired his weapon during the attempted arrest of Robert LaVoy Finicum, when he knew then and there that he had fired his weapon," according to the indictment.

Astarita twice also lied about the gunshots to Oregon State Police investigators, preventing them from informing federal authorities and thereby obstructing justice, the indictment alleges.

After the confrontation, most of the occupiers left the wildlife preserve, with the last few holdouts surrendering on Feb. 11, 2016.

No attorney of record for Astarita was initially listed in court documents.