Sheriff's social media comments on fatal Ore. occupier shooting draw outrage
Critics said the comments 'only inflame an already tense situation and incite further violence'
By Les Zaitz
BURNS, Ore. — Militant leader Robert "LaVoy" Finicum, armed, angry and facing arrest, shouted again and again to police who had stopped him outside Burns that he needed to go see "the sheriff."
He felt only one man could protect him — Grant County Sheriff Glenn Palmer.
Finicum, 54, never reached John Day, where Palmer was waiting to share the stage with the anti-government protesters who had taken over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in neighboring Harney County a month earlier.
Finicum was shot and killed by state troopers after the FBI said he ignored demands to surrender, tried to elude pursuing officers and crashed into a snowbank after swerving to miss a police roadblock.
In the days since the Jan. 26 shooting, Finicum's final words and Palmer's response to the deadly confrontation have focused attention on the sheriff who has openly challenged federal authority in his own county.
Palmer took to social media to say he knew nothing about plans that day to stop the occupation leaders and that he had not been at the "ambush site."
His words drew a rebuke from the Oregon State Sheriffs' Association, concerned that his description would "only inflame an already tense situation and incite further violence." The association's executive committee is considering a citizen request that it investigate Palmer.
In the last week, Palmer has declined repeated interview requests from The Oregonian/OregonLive.
But he twice met with some of the occupation leaders earlier in the protest and supported the community meeting in John Day.
His reputation as a hardline critic of the federal government has drawn strong support from some local loggers, ranchers and outdoor enthusiasts who have defended Palmer in recent days. One militant pledged online that 6,000 militia members would respond to Grant County if the sheriff needed help.
Another Facebook poster called Palmer "a true American citizen" who "did nothing wrong at all in my book by meeting with this nice crowd!"
Others in Grant County, who fear speaking publicly because of Palmer's position, object to his apparent sympathy with the refuge occupiers.
One critic, though, has gone public repeatedly to criticize Palmer's conduct.
Judy Schuette, a 30-year Grant County resident and retired school secretary, bought an ad in the Blue Mountain Eagle weekly newspaper demanding Palmer explain his actions. Schuette and others then organized a demonstration against him and the refuge occupiers outside the community meeting.
"His actions have been irresponsible with the very real danger of more violence," she wrote in a post.
Another indication that Palmer's conduct is dividing the community: His former undersheriff announced last month that he would challenge Palmer, who is seeking his fourth term.
Todd McKinley, who served nearly eight years under Palmer and now is director of Grant County Community Corrections, said he was urged to run by residents who don't feel Palmer represents them.
"They are ashamed of him," McKinley said, because of "the perceived support of the militia, bringing the militia into our county, bringing outside interests to our county."
Finicum obviously thought the sheriff was an ally.
Shawna Cox, who was riding in Finicum's pickup at the time of the shooting, said Palmer "has always been in support of us."
When Finicum saw police coming onto U.S. 395 behind them, he told those in his truck, "We have to get to the sheriff," said Cox, who was arrested and faces a federal conspiracy charge for the occupation.
Finicum felt threatened by the police and believed that Palmer "would be our protection," she said.
Palmer had already made clear to the militants that he shared their views about the federal government.
Ammon Bundy, who had participated in an armed standoff with federal rangers in 2014 at the Nevada ranch of his father Cliven Bundy, claimed from the start of the Jan. 2 refuge takeover that the U.S. Constitution restricts how much land the federal government can own. Bundy asserted that federal land in Harney County had to be turned over to private owners or to county government.
Palmer supports a similar application of the constitutional provision repeatedly cited by the occupiers — Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled the provision doesn't establish such a limit and that another provision gives broad authority for managing federal lands.
Bundy and other protesters insisted that Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son, Steven, were wrongly prosecuted by the federal government on arson charges for lighting fires that burned federal land. They demanded that the men be freed from prison.
In a Jan. 20 statement to The Oregonian/OregonLive, Palmer questioned the court order requiring the Hammonds to return to prison a second time to serve the rest of their five-year sentences. He urged an examination of "why or how the federal government put the Hammonds in jeopardy once, released them, and then placed them into jeopardy again."
He said in his statement that the refuge takeover could be resolved if the federal government conceded to the militants. "Letting the Hammonds free and making them whole would be a start," Palmer said.
About 10 days into the occupation, Ammon Bundy texted an invitation to Palmer, inviting him to the wildlife refuge. Palmer said in his statement that he learned Harney County Sheriff David Ward didn't want him to go to the refuge, but instead wanted him go to Burns to denounce the armed occupation. Palmer said he wouldn't do that.
"I am not in the business of shaming or humiliating anyone," Palmer said.
As the occupation wore on, sheriffs from around the state sent help to Harney County, including the four neighboring counties of Lake, Malheur, Crook and Deschutes. Law enforcement officials said the only neighboring sheriff who didn't send help was Palmer.
Within days of Bundy's invitation, the occupiers sent a delegation to John Day, where they had lunch with Palmer and then adjourned to a private conference room with him and about a dozen local residents. Palmer has said he didn't know the occupiers would be at the lunch.
He later met with takeover leaders a second time, though he has refused to provide any information about that session. But the occupiers have, including Ryan Payne, a self-described militiaman from Montana.
Payne had been involved in the Bundy ranch standoff. He later said he helped organize civilian snipers, who took aim at federal agents. If the agents made a wrong move, "every single BLM agent in that camp would've died," he told a newspaper in his home state.
After meeting with Palmer in John Day, Payne said in an interview that the sheriff's views about the federal government meshed with those of the protesters.
Joining Payne for one of those meetings was protester Jon Ritzheimer, an Arizona man notorious for harsh anti-Muslim comments he made last year.
On a Facebook post, Ritzheimer called Palmer a "fine man." Ritzheimer wrote that he would respond if Palmer needed help "to protect his citizens from an intrusive tyrannical government."
Ritzheimer said that after meeting with Palmer, the sheriff "pulled out a very nice copy of the Constitution that he keeps in his chest pocket and he asked me and Ryan Payne to sign it."
After Finicum's shooting, Palmer took to Facebook to defend Finicum against allegations circulating on social media that he was found with a stolen gun. The FBI has said Finicum had a loaded 9mm handgun in his pocket when he was killed, but hasn't said anything about its ownership.
The sheriff wrote that Finicum had been "through the wringer of state agencies" overseeing the foster children he cared for in Arizona. "I could positively, without a shadow of a doubt say that possessing a stolen gun is not and was not in this man's vocabulary," Palmer wrote.
During the traffic stop, Finicum repeatedly yelled at police that the group had a meeting with Palmer. Because Palmer isn't answering media questions, it's not known whether he had agreed to meet with the militants separately from their joint appearance at the John Day community meeting.
Palmer didn't respond to interview requests and said via email that he wouldn't respond to written questions sent to him from The Oregonian/OregonLive.
"I am not obligated to respond to you," Palmer wrote last week. "I do not have anything to say to you."
Palmer was the first "sheriff of the year" selected by the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association.
The national association defines the constitutional sheriff as "the last line of defense between the overreaching federal government and your constitutionally guaranteed rights." The association says on its website that sheriffs "have the authority and duty to stop state and federal enforcement of laws repugnant to the constitutions."
Palmer has drawn such a line in Grant County, where more than half the land is in federal ownership. Palmer has opposed orders closing U.S. Forest Service roads for conservation and expense reasons.
He deputized 11 citizens without public notice to create a plan for managing the forest. And he has declared that the Forest Service has no authority to enforce laws on the Malheur National Forest without his permission.
"Your jurisdiction as I see it is limited in nature to the federal building in John Day," Palmer wrote in a March 31, 2011, letter to the national forest's supervisor.
Palmer, 54, has long been closely tied to the national forest even outside his police duties. He's been a member of the local snowmobiling club that grooms hundreds of miles of forest roads for snowmobilers. He's on the board of a youth camp that leases a Forest Service compound.
An Air Force veteran, Palmer has spent his entire police career in Grant County, starting as a part-time jailer in 1985 and then becoming a patrolman. He ran for sheriff in 2000 but was appointed to the job when the incumbent died days before the election.
The Jan. 26 community meeting with Finicum and the other key figures of the refuge occupation was billed in part as a presentation on how to limit the federal government's role in Palmer's county. They had earlier conducted a similar meeting in the Harney County community of Crane, where Payne and Ammon Bundy lectured the audience on their interpretation of the Constitution.
The shooting occurred roughly 90 minutes before the John Day session was to start, but Palmer had no advance notice that the FBI and state police planned to round up almost all the occupation leaders, according to law enforcement officials and people who talked with Palmer.
Brooke Agresta — who identifies herself as the intelligence officer for 3% Idaho, a self-styled patriot group — said in an interview that she learned of the shooting from a "community member" trying to get to John Day for the meeting. The community member encountered a police roadblock on U.S. 395 and was told there had been a shooting but received no details.
Agresta, who was in the Burns area before and after the occupation, said she texted Palmer and then called him to see what he knew. When she asked about a shooting, Palmer responded, "What are you talking about?"
Jim Carpenter, the Grant County district attorney, said Palmer then grabbed him in a hallway of the meeting space to share what he knew. Carpenter asked him to go along when the sheriff said he was heading out.
Carpenter said he and Palmer encountered state police setting up a roadblock at the edge of the rural town of Seneca on the highway. Carpenter said Palmer retrieved his shotgun from his patrol SUV when troopers warned that someone was walking toward them with a gun.
That turned out to be a photographer from The Oregonian/OregonLive, who was carrying a tripod. But photos of Palmer at the scene with his shotgun later triggered rumors in John Day and on social media that Palmer had helped set up the militants for arrest.
Some mistakenly believed the photo was taken at the shooting scene, a claim that prompted Palmer to state that he had not been to the "ambush site."
Daniel Kenoyer, shown on Palmer's personal Facebook page as a friend, two days later posted his account of a conversation with Palmer.
He quoted Palmer as saying he had "no idea of the ambush" and that "I took no part in killing LaVoy Finicum." Palmer didn't respond to written questions about the reported exchange.
Carpenter said he and the sheriff stayed at the roadblock about 20 minutes but could learn no information from troopers about what had happened. Then while there, Carpenter said, he received the FBI press release on his phone that disclosed the shooting and arrests of the occupation leaders.
The two decided to return to John Day.
"OSP was telling us there was nothing we could do to help at the roadblock," Carpenter said.
Palmer dropped off the prosecutor at home and, according to witnesses, returned to the community meeting where he gathered outside with supporters of the occupiers.
Palmer's dubbing of Finicum's shooting as an ambush prompted the rare censure from the state sheriffs' association, a 100-year-old group representing Oregon's 36 elected county sheriffs.
"This was in no way an ambush," the association said in a statement to The Oregonian/OregonLive. "This was a carefully planned high-risk vehicle stop by highly trained officers and was implemented to take into custody armed persons who had openly engaged in a variety of criminal activities."
The association said that if Finicum and others had "given up peacefully, no shots would have been fired and no blood would have been spilled."
Jonathan Thompson, executive director of the National Sheriffs' Association, said sheriffs generally "don't get into the nuancing of what you might say is after-the-event quarterbacking."
He declined to address Palmer's conduct, but said that "anybody who comments on an event, an investigation, an incident should make certain they know all of the facts and have all of the insights into the decisions that were made."
The state sheriffs' association said, "We do not know of any request from Sheriff Palmer to talk to anyone who was involved in the incident."
Last Friday, the association released a statement on its website condemning the refuge occupiers as "militia men and women (who) have broken into publicly owned buildings, disrespected Native American heritage and intimidated and harassed local residents and officials."
The statement also pointedly took issue with any supporters.
"These men and women are asking for change, and we support their right to challenge our government to make change," it says. "However, we do not agree with or support any citizen or elected official who would advocate for change in a manner that includes illegal action, threats of violence, or violence against any citizen of the United States."
The occupation continues with four holdouts who have refused to leave without immunity. Each faces a federal conspiracy charge.
Last week, Stewart Rhodes, the founder and president of the national patriot group, went online to chide occupiers for picking Harney County as the place to make their stand. He noted that Ward, the local sheriff, was "your enemy."
Rhodes said that group instead "could have easily gone instead to a county with a stronger sheriff."
Such as, he said, Sheriff Glenn Palmer.
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