BURNS, Oregon — A member of an armed anti-government group who was killed in a traffic stop in Oregon vowed a few weeks ago that he would die before spending his life behind bars.
LaVoy Finicum, a 55-year-old rancher from Cane Beds, Arizona, died Tuesday after law enforcement officers initiated the stop near the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
Finicum was a leader of the armed group that took over the southeast Oregon refuge Jan. 2 to protest U.S. federal land restrictions and object to the prison sentences of two local ranchers convicted of setting fires.
He and other occupiers were heading to a community meeting in the town of John Day, about 70 miles north of Burns.
It’s unclear what happened in the moments before his death. Authorities said shots were fired but have declined to say how many, or if Finicum or any of the other activists exchanged gunfire with officers.
Eight occupiers were arrested, including group leader Ammon Bundy. On Wednesday, Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward said the traffic stop initiated on a stretch of road away from populated areas was a tactical decision that officials hoped would bring a peaceful end to the standoff.
Finicum was a prominent presence at the refuge and frequently talked with reporters. His affable but passionate demeanor made him a popular subject for on-camera interviews.
Finicum seemed to have made up his mind about how his role in the occupation was likely to end — with his death.
WATCH: ‘It didn’t have to happen’: Harney County sheriff reacts to death, arrests in Oregon standoff
Just a few days into the occupation, he came barreling to the refuge entrance in a U.S. federal truck.
Rifle in hand, Finicum sat in the middle of the driveway, telling the reporters gathered around him that he learned there was a warrant for his arrest and he wanted to make it easy for U.S. federal agents to find him.
At the time, he said he didn’t know what the warrant charged him with, but he believed agents would try to arrest him soon.
“I don’t think it really matters. There’s enough things they could make a warrant for us, I believe,” he said.
Finicum said he had neither threatened nor harmed anyone during the occupation.
“I have grown up loving the fresh air. I love the elements. 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. This world is too beautiful to spend it in a cell.”
He then gave a message to his family: “And kids, if I don’t come, you know I love you and I’m proud of every damn one of you.”
The rancher was media-savvy and tried to popularize and monetize his political beliefs on his website. He used the site to sell his book, a 252-page paperback titled “Only by Blood and Suffering,” as well as T-shirts, bumper stickers and posters emblazoned with slogans like “Let Freedom Ring” and “Defend the Constitution Original Intent.”
He described himself as a longtime friend of Ammon Bundy’s father, Cliven Bundy, and he participated in the standoff with federal authorities over grazing fees at the elder Bundy’s Nevada ranch in 2014.
Finicum and his wife, Jeanette, raised dozens of foster children, though social workers removed the kids from the couple’s home a few days after the occupation began.
Finicum said the foster kids were the family’s main source of income.
Catholic Charities paid the family more than $115,000 in 2009 to foster children, according to tax filings. Foster parents are generally paid a small per-child amount by the government. It’s intended to reimburse them for the costs incurred in fostering. The money sometimes is disbursed through nonprofit partners.
© 2016 The Canadian Press