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Vindication for FBI Team in Oregon Standoff, but a Mystery Remains

PORTLAND, Ore. — An FBI 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.

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Kirk Johnson
, New York Times

PORTLAND, Ore. — An FBI 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, Joseph Astarita, had been accused of firing two shots — neither 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 the jurors in U.S. District Court concluded that Astarita, 41, a 13-year veteran with the FBI 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.

The verdict was seen as a victory for the rescue team whose members said they had felt besieged by the charges against Astarita. Teammates who had supported Astarita, believing he had never fired the shots, expressed relief at the outcome. And for the FBI, the acquittal was a rare public exoneration in face of relentless attacks by President Donald Trump and his conservative allies.

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.

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. Finicum then emerged, and was fatally shot by an Oregon state trooper, who said Finicum was reaching for his weapon.

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 Finicum’s truck and one that veered off into the woods — were unaccounted for.

For the law enforcement community, and the FBI in particular, questions surrounding the unexplained shots remain troubling and painful.

Unresolved, too, was a belief by many of 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.

Astarita’s lawyers asserted that the government’s case — largely based on forensic analysis, projecting the path from which a bullet struck Finicum’s truck — was unreliable. The defense team had also argued that the Oregon state trooper who killed 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 Thursday and only through midafternoon Friday.

Still, the U.S. 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.”

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.

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. Astarita’s lawyers, in a statement, called him, “a hero,” thanking the jury for seeing through “a case that should never have been brought.”

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.

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.

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