FBI agent denies firing shots during Oregon refuge standoff

FILE - In this Jan. 9, 2016 file photo, Robert "LaVoy" Finicum, left, a rancher from Arizona, talks to reporters at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Ore. FBI Special Agent W. Joseph Astarita has been indicted in Portland Ore., Wednesday, June 28, 2017, on accusations that he lied about firing at Finicum when officers arrested leaders of an armed occupation of a federal wildlife refuge in rural Oregon.(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — An FBI agent who is on trial on obstruction and other charges denied Wednesday he fired any shots at a militia leader who participated in the armed takeover of an Oregon wildlife refuge.

W. Joseph Astarita, who began testifying in his own defense late Tuesday, said he has never fired his weapon in the line of duty and did not remove shell casings from the scene. The Oregonian/OregonLive reports Astarita also described his background and detailed his training.

Astarita has pleaded not guilty to charges of making false statements and obstruction of justice after telling investigators he did not fire two shots that missed Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, a key figure in a group that seized the refuge for several weeks in early 2016 while protesting the imprisonment of two ranchers.

FILE- This Jan. 26, 2016., file photo taken from an FBI video shows Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, center, after he was fatally shot by police near Burns, Ore. A federal prosecutor revealed in court documents Thursday, June 23, 2016, that the investigation of FBI agents involved in the traffic stop that led to the killing of Finicum is before a grand jury. (FBI via AP, file)

The errant shots came as Finicum left his pickup while authorities tried to arrest him at a roadblock on Jan. 26, 2016. Oregon State Police fatally shot Finicum seconds later — a killing deemed legally justified.

Investigators looking into the shooting were able to quickly identify those responsible for six of the eight rounds fired that day. No one owned up to the other two. After an investigation into the mystery shots, Astarita was indicted in June 2017.

During Wednesday’s testimony, Astarita said he didn’t fire his rifle when Finicum stepped from his truck because he was concerned about a potential crossfire situation.

Astarita said his initial role was to “man the roadblock,” standing on a small ladder behind the front hood of a FBI rental truck that formed part of a V formation in the northbound lane of U.S. 395.

Agent John Neidert was on a ladder behind the hood of another FBI truck in the southbound lane.

Astarita said he saw Finicum’s truck speeding toward them. He said he got onto the hood of the truck in front of him, and tried to get a sight on the driver’s side of Finicum’s pickup to see if he “could apply effective fire on that driver.”

But he couldn’t see inside the cab of Finicum’s truck. Soon, the pickup veered into a snowbank and he heard a supervisor command, “Bail out! Bail out! Bail out!”

“I saw the truck come through the snow. I saw John disappear,” Astarita testified. “At that point, I thought John was dead.”

Astarita testified that he started moving to help Neidert, and felt tremendous relief when he realized the agent had not been hit by the pickup.

Astarita said he saw Finicum exit the truck, but noticed an Oregon State Police officer in his backdrop.

“Did you fire your weapon at that moment?” defense lawyer Robert Cary asked.

“No, I did not,” Astarita responded.

“Did you fire your weapon at all that day?” Cary continued.

“No, I did not,” Astarita said.

Prosecutors who rested their case earlier this week contend Astarita is the only one who could have taken the disputed shots. Their assertion was based on FBI aerial surveillance videos, Astarita’s unusual remarks to his superiors after the shooting and forensic analysis tracing a bullet back to his position.

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