BOISE, Idaho — Victoria Sharp says she is certain LaVoy Finicum was unjustly gunned down by state police after they and the FBI pursued his vehicle in southern Oregon.
“I was just a few feet away in the truck,” she insisted to CNN. “I know what I saw.”
Sharp, 18, claims she was one of three people in the back seat of a white truck driven by Finicum, one of the armed occupiers at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Sharp says she and seven siblings went to the occupation site recently to sing Christian songs and provide “moral support for the protest of the federal government.”
They left the refuge near Burns last Tuesday for a community meeting in another town. The FBI said it had information that Finicum and the others in two vehicles were armed.
Finicum pulled away from an attempt to arrest him and Ammon Bundy, the leader of the nearly four-week occupation. A dramatic chase down tree-lined U.S. 395 ensued. As shown on an FBI video taken from a pursuing helicopter, it ends when Finicum swerves to miss a roadblock, nearly hitting an officer and plowing into deep snow.
The driver quickly exits the video with hands in the air.
That’s virtually the only point on which Sharp, of Lakeside, Montana, and authorities concur. While the occupiers said “America was fired upon by our government,” the FBI released the video on Thursday, saying Finicum had reached at least twice for a pocket containing a handgun. The agency said it wanted to present “an honest and unfiltered view” of the confrontation.
Sharp said Thursday that as soon as the vehicle hit the snow bank, she heard shots hit the truck. It’s not clear on the video whether any rounds were hitting the vehicle.
“He had his hands up,” Sharp said. “He was shouting that if they were going to shoot, then just shoot him. I remember him saying that if they shoot him, it’s an innocent man’s blood on their hands.”
As seen on the FBI video, Finicum reaches twice toward a jacket pocket. Officers fire. Finicum falls to the ground. The FBI said it recovered a loaded 9mm semiautomatic handgun in that left side pocket of his jacket.
Sharp said she heard three shots and saw Finicum fall. “He wasn’t doing anything aggressive, anything,” she insisted. “He was just walking with his hands up.”
When asked whether Finicum reached for a weapon, Sharp said, “He was not showing any signs of aggression.”
Teen reviews video several times
Sharp agreed to sit with CNN and view the FBI video.
CNN pointed out the first, then the second time on the video where viewers can see Finicum reach across his body toward that left-side pocket.
“You know, I can’t say that he was reaching for a weapon or not,” said Sharp.
She watched the video again.
“OK, he was running through snow and it does not look like he is reaching to me. He’s trying to keep his balance. He’s running, I remember it. He didn’t reach for anything.”
Sharp reviewed that moment several more times. Each time, CNN pointed out what looked like a reach toward that pocket.
“I’m saying that the video does not show that he’s reaching for something,” said Sharp. She said she was in the truck and knows what she saw.
The FBI had no further comment Friday on Sharp’s contentions and referred calls to the Harney County Joint Information Center, which referred to an FBI statement issued Thursday. It does not contain any information about Sharp. Employees who answered CNN calls to the center said officials would not discuss anything about the truck’s occupants.
Five people were arrested in the traffic stop and chase, including Ammon Bundy. CNN could not independently confirm Sharp’s account, though the FBI statement said a woman in the truck was not arrested and would not be named.
Greg Bretzing, the FBI’s special agent in charge in Oregon, said Thursday the video included the shooting of Finicum was released “in the interest of transparency.”
“We know there are various versions of what occurred during this event: most inaccurate, some inflammatory,” Bretzing said. “To that end, we want to do what we can to lay out an honest and unfiltered view of what happened and how it happened.”
Finicum drove away from law officers
Sharp said the caravan had left the wildlife refuge in the middle of the afternoon, headed for the town of John Day. Finicum’s truck was ahead of Ammon Bundy’s Jeep.
The teen said she was in the truck’s back between passengers Ryan Bundy and Shawna Cox. Another occupier was in the front passenger seat.
While the Jeep stayed at the stop, a standoff was developing between Finicum — who had driven a distance up the road — and numerous officers.
Sharp had fallen asleep in Finicum’s truck when she woke with a start. She was confused at first, then saw a number of police vehicles. Finicum didn’t want to get out of the car, and was determined to try and drive to the local sheriff on his own, she said.
Sharp said the passenger in the front of the truck, Ryan Payne, stuck his head and hands out of the window. He then said, “They fired at me.” Payne exited with his hands up and surrendered, officials said.
The FBI’s statement does not mention any shot fired toward the truck this early in the standoff.
Sharp insisted she heard a shot and said that’s why she didn’t exit the vehicle immediately. For 3 minutes and 47 seconds, the FBI video shows the white truck idling in the road.
“LaVoy was talking to them. He was not aggressive in any way to them,” said Sharp. “He said, ‘We’re going to talk to the sheriff. You need to leave us alone, back down.'”
The people in the truck were discussing what would happen if Finicum drove off, Sharp told CNN. The FBI said its agents and state troops gave verbal commands for the truck occupants to surrender.
LaVoy Finicum remained determined to try to see the sheriff on his own, said Sharp. “And then he said, ‘Hey guys, I’m going to drive.'”
Shawna Cox told her to get down, Sharp said. “‘They might shoot when he starts driving,'” she says Cox told her.
Minutes later, the truck encountered another roadblock and went into the snow bank.
‘People lost their lives for our freedom’
In an emotional news conference after Tuesday’s confrontation, Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward placed the blame for Finicum’s death squarely on the armed occupiers. But Victoria Sharp doesn’t see it that way, deflecting all blame to the federal government for Finicum’s death.
Sharp, who calls the Bundys family friends, said Finicum’s death will inspire others to engage in future protests of the federal government.
“I’m more wiling now than before to expose what the federal government is doing because it’s worth it. If I lose my life for the future of America it’s worth it. People lost their lives for our freedom. And if I lose mine for the freedom of others, than it’s worth it.”
On Monday, nearly a week after the shooting, four people continued to occupy the refuge.
Supporters and opponents of the occupiers faced off Monday in front of the Harney County Courthouse for what amounted to dueling rallies, with both sides chanting and occasionally shouting profanity.
And the situation continued for another day.