SALT LAKE CITY — A passionate group of people converged on the Utah State Capitol Saturday to trumpet their support for an Arizona land rights advocate who was killed in a confrontation with law enforcement officers at a federal wildlife refuge in southeast Oregon in January.
The event was one of dozens scheduled around the country and staged to remember LaVoy Finicum, a 55-year-old rancher from Cain Beds, Arizona, who was killed by state police during a traffic stop near the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Burns, Oregon. Leaders of the local event also called for the release of “political prisoners” currently jailed in Portland, Oregon.
“(This event) is to bring awareness to our government’s overreach of power,” said Jeanette Finicum, wife of LaVoy Finicum. She said her husband was killed trying to educate and warn people about the abuse of power being perpetrated by the federal government.
“They are encroaching upon our rights and freedoms in every way of life,” she said.
LaVoy Finicum was a leading member of an armed group that officials said unlawfully took over the refuge on Jan. 2, expressing objection to federal land restrictions and the prison sentences of two local ranchers convicted of setting fires.
On Jan. 26, he and other occupiers were heading to a community meeting in the town of John Day, about 70 miles north of Burns.
It was unclear what happened in the moments before his death, but the FBI said he reached for a pocket where he had a loaded 9mm pistol after exiting his stopped vehicle and facing law enforcement officers. The scene was caught on video from an overhead helicopter, but it remained difficult to see exactly what occurred.
Eight occupiers were arrested, including group leader Ammon Bundy — son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy — who engaged in a prolonged protest and confrontation with federal agents in 2014. At the time of the Oregon arrests, officials said the traffic stop was initiated on a road away from populated areas as a tactical decision in an effort to bring a peaceful end to the standoff.
Finicum was a prominent presence at the refuge and frequently talked with reporters. A few days into the occupation, rifle in hand, he told reporters that he learned there was a warrant issued for his arrest and he would to make it easy for federal agents to find him.
Finicum said he had neither threatened nor harmed anyone during the occupation, but seemed to have made up his mind about how his role in the occupation was likely to end:
"I have grown up loving the fresh air. And this is where I'm going to breathe my last breath," he said. “I'm not going to spend my last days in a cell."
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.
With American flags and signs depicting quotes and slogans from both scripture and from the early days of the nation as a backdrop, Finicum's wife Saturday described her spouse as a patriot who believed in the Constitution.
“I’m proud of my husband,” she said through tears. “I’m grateful for the stand that he took. He was a good man. He didn’t deserve to be murdered.”
The rally drew participants from miles away, including Mike Deacon of Eagle, Colorado, who said he felt a kinship with the cause that Finicum stood for.
“Our rights are being infringed upon,” he said. “I’m concerned about our freedoms.”
He said that the government is slowly eroding individual liberties.
Cheyenne Turner of Price said Finicum’s death struck a chord with her and she felt compelled to join the effort to fight what she called government incursion.
“The government is getting their hands into our lives to where we can’t stand up for our Constitutional freedoms that are being taken away from us,” she said. “We want our rights back from the federal government.”
About 100 people gathered in Portland, Oregon, according to the Portland Oregonian, in support of the Constitution and in memory of Finicum.