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Courtroom screw-up causes name of officer who killed Oregon standoff leader to be revealed

The people who regard Finicum as a martyr are heavily armed and not known for being reasonable.

LaVoy Finicum, seen here disabling a wildlife camera during the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016, was killed by police after running a roadblock during the standoff. An FBI agent present at the killing is now on trial. CREDIT: ROB KERR/AFP/Getty Images
LaVoy Finicum, seen here disabling a wildlife camera during the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016, was killed by police after running a roadblock during the standoff. An FBI agent present at the killing is now on trial. CREDIT: ROB KERR/AFP/Getty Images

One of the police officers who killed prominent “sovereign citizen” and anti-government militiaman LaVoy Finicum at the height of the 2016 standoff between extremist ranchers and federal agents was inadvertently identified in court on Tuesday.

Officials had striven to keep the names of the two Oregon State Police tactical team members who fired their guns that day secret, for fear of reprisals from allies of the so-called “sovereigns” movement. Finicum is an icon to that crowd, in no small part for his outspoken calls for an armed revolution — or at least his declaration of being ready to start one — in the years prior to the Oregon showdown where he was the sole casualty.

But despite that years-long effort to keep the names close, through redactions and careful answers to reporters and invocations of investigative privilege, all it took in the end was simple human error. And in a bitterly ironic twist, the venue for the outing was a criminal trial not of an armed occupier or would-be revolutionary crackpot, but of an elite federal agent accused of lying about his role in Finicum’s killing.

Oregon State Police Officer Bob Olson was testifying for the second consecutive day when he slipped up. The judge had repeatedly reminded prosecutors, defense attorneys, and witnesses alike that the two SWAT officers who fired were to be referred to only as Officer One and Officer Two, according to The Oregonian. Olson had adhered to that policy through hours of testimony Monday, before naming one of the men in an answer given Tuesday.

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By evening, the Oregonian notes, members of a Facebook group dedicated to the same radical right-wing views on government land management authority and anti-federal militia activity had shared the man’s name more than 1,500 times. “NEVER forget that name,” one of the founders of the group wrote in the post. “Burn, baby, burn,” one commenter responded.

Others from Finicum’s support network have not been so confrontational. Finicum’s widow Jeanette told the Oregonian “That’s not good”  when she heard that the name had leaked, “noting it takes just one loose cannon to harm someone” according to the paper. The managers of a Facebook group associated with Cliven Bundy’s clan, the primary leaders of the movement that Finicum and his fellow-travelers tried to export to Oregon despite the disdain and frustration of locals, took a slightly more conciliatory tack. “Before someone goes and hangs this guy, think […] for a minute,” that group’s post began.

But each group continues to assert that Finicum was shot down in cold blood. Video from a federal surveillance plane released almost immediately after the shooting indicates that’s a skewed, simplistic story of the day. Finicum, Ryan Bundy, and others had ran a road block and nearly struck officers, then led police vehicles on a high-speed chase through snowy roads before skidding to a halt in a roadside snowbank.

Though Finicum’s supporters continue to assert he had his hands up when he was killed, the aerial footage suggests otherwise. His hands were raised when he first exited the car, but he lowered them more than once, and an FBI representative said at the time that officers fired because he put his hands near the pocket that held his his loaded 9mm pistol. The dozens of Bundy allies who’d descended on a deserted federal building on the Malheur Wildlife Refuge that winter had come heavily armed and seemed bound and determined to provoke a shootout, though federal agents set up a perimeter instead and simply waited them out.

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The flamboyant rhetoric of sovereign citizens and self-styled patriot militias, combined with the dismissive and vulgar way in which many media outlets cover their activities from afar, tends to obscure the true details of the underlying story in Oregon.

The Bundys came there in response to a widely-decried federal sentence for a pair of ranchers based in the Burns, OR area. The actual details of the fires the men had set years and years earlier have largely been lost in the maelstrom that Finicum and the Bundys managed to provoke, as ThinkProgress has previously reported. The whole mess played out on cable news shows, while local ranchers sympathetic to the two men and frustrated by federal heavyhandedness on land management issues openly asked the out-of-towners to go find some other cause to hijack.

The case got new kindling earlier this year when President Donald Trump issued full pardons to the two jailed ranchers — a step beyond just mitigating their harsh sentences, and an encouragement to the anti-government types from the highest levels of government itself.

Upon their release, the two men flew home on the private jet of an oil company executive — almost too obvious a tipping of the White House’s hand. The Trump administration has been busy trying to sell off as much pristine wilderness as possible to industries whose practices permanently defile the same natural spaces that ranchers and weekend-warrior camping enthusiasts alike want to see protected and harnessed in more sustainable fashion. Fanning the Bundys’ crackpot fires helps keep those potential allies at each other’s necks instead of united against the despoiling of the west.

Now, the same people who’ve gotten an open high-five from the White House have been given the name of the man they think martyred one of their leaders.