G. True Nelson: Former Deputy Sheriff, Military Officer, FBI Special Agent, and Security Consultant / Private Investigator. He currently resides in the Portland, Oregon Metro area. He is a writer on crime and judicial process; as well as discussing his personal observations on American culture and social mores.
FBI Special Agent Joseph Astarita indicted on federal charges related to the killing of Robert “Lavoy” Finicum – Illegal Occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. (Part 2 / Conclusion)
The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Hostage Rescue Team
(HRT) is the focal point, the head of the spear, for the FBI’s Critical
Incident Response Group (CIRG). CIRG was
formed after I left the Bureau and I don’t have any first-hand knowledge of its
inner-workings. However, said Group
incorporates many different areas of expertise:
hostage negotiations, demolitions, in addition to HRT.
HRT Training is extremely difficult. The process, a few years back, required potential
applicants for HRT training to have at least three years as a ‘street Agent,’ involved
in working cases, writing reports, and occasionally being participants in
arrest situations. CIRG had difficulty
getting the necessary numbers and applicant quality required for HRT. Now CIRG has changed (not lowered) the
requirement to two years on the ‘street’ as an Agent – and they have begun to
recruit military type individuals like Navy SEALS, Army Rangers and other
Special Ops veterans.
Which brings me to W. Joseph Astarita, the FBI Agent under
indictment. As far as I know, his
background and experience is not known – but we can assume his HRT training
has been extensive.
I will get right to the point. Agent Astarita might have violated some
obscure element of the FBI’s ‘rules of engagement’ when he fired his weapon at
the car containing Finicum and the others.
But let us remember that the driver of the car (Finicum) was attempting
to evade law enforcement and his vehicle was approaching; at a high speed, a
roadblock – behind which law enforcement officers were standing.
Question: Why were law
enforcement personnel standing behind a roadblock (consisting of parked vehicles)
with a suspect vehicle barreling toward them at a high rate of speed? Why not stand off to the side? Or behind a tree? The video showed one Agent jumping from
behind the road block as Finicum’s car appeared to be on course to crash into
the road block. This Agent almost made a
fatal mistake in that Finicum decided to plow his automobile through the snow attempting
to go around the law enforcement vehicles.
The snow stopped the car, whereupon Finicum jumped out.
Astarita was standing at the time, he could have well believed that his life or
the lives of others were in danger – warranting efforts to stop the car. Yes, I know there were ‘innocent’ passengers
in Finicum vehicle, but that doesn’t change the decision process.
Let’s just say that Astarita, with all of his extensive
training, was a little ‘trigger happy.’
I don’t happen to believe that, but let’s consider it for the sake of
argument. And, in shooting, in some way,
he had violated an FBI rule.
Did he contribute to the ultimate death of Finicum? That’s really a stretch, but one could say
that Astarita’s shots raised the tension among law enforcement personnel at the
scene, which contributed to lethal action - when the OSP officer ultimately shot Finicum. I don’t buy this, but this
concept will undoubtedly be trotted out in the civil suit.
After shots were fired, Astarita picked up his spent cartridges,
apparently doubting his personal judgment in firing at the car driven by
Finicum - and then attempted to conceal the fact. This defies common sense – not the
picking up of spent cartridges part – he may not have wanted to litter. (Yes, yes, stated with tongue in cheek.) But the part where he lied about it. Why would he do that?
There are a couple of possible answers that come to
mind. Members of HRT are allegedly trained
to the point of perceived perfection. And,
consequently I imagine they are inordinately sensitive about their image and
Astarita might have fired accidentally, which might explain
why one bullet missed Finicum’s car completely, and one bullet creased the roof
of the car. If he, in the throes of
understandable stress, accidentally pulled the trigger and/or missed the target
he intended to hit, he might have been embarrassed enough to attempt to conceal
the fact. The FBI's administration would have
subsequently asked: Why did you fire
your weapon? And, if justified as you
say, why did you miss your target after we’ve spent all this time training you?
Or perhaps: There was
a Team Leader with the HRT, presumably not Astarita; and that said team leader
told his men not to fire until he gave the word. Astarita jumped the gun (so to speak), and
consequently felt he violated the Team Leader’s orders.
On a HRT, not following directives, would be a bigger offense than an
outsider might first think. Following orders is absolutely imperative to a high-speed organization like HRT. No free-lancing is allowed under most
Astarita’s big mistake, that will undoubtedly cost him his
job, is that he lied. And, furthermore,
continued to lie after being placed under ‘oath.’ The FBI has no place for personnel that lie
under ‘oath.’ Said individual can no
longer testify in court without their credibility being immediately challenged.
If convicted should Astarita be sentenced to jail or
prison time? I don’t think so. His lie compromised or injured no one other
than himself – and he will probably regret his decision for the rest of his
What remains unanswerable at this point is whether or not
some of the other HRT members also lied to protect Astarita? I hope not.
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