Bundyville: The Remnant Chapter Three: The Widow’s Tale

When LaVoy Finicum was shot by law enforcement, the anti-government movement called him a martyr. That message is spreading.

Leah Sottile | Longreads | July 2019 | 25 minutes (7,518 words)

Part 3 of 5 of Bundyville: The Remnant, season two of Bundyville, a series and podcast from Longreads and OPB

I.

I have seen LaVoy Finicum die and die and die. 

Log onto YouTube and watch Finicum’s end, spliced, paused, and dissected by people who never knew him but who, too, have again and again watched it happen.

When Finicum was killed, law enforcement officers were acting on an opportunity to arrest the leaders of the weeks-long Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation in Oregon. Finicum was one of just a few actual ranchers who joined the Bundys’ occupation. Ranching was Finicum’s dream — something he’d only started doing once he turned 50. He didn’t grow up a rancher, but he intended to die one.

In the final seconds of his life — on the very last day of his 54th year — Finicum proved to be even more of a true believer in the purpose of the occupation than the Bundys themselves. 

 

Keep the characters of Bundyville: The Remnant straight with this character list.

That frigid late January day, an informant tipped the feds off that cars carrying the Bundys and other leaders would be traveling to Grant County, Oregon for a meeting with citizens and the area’s sheriff, who was allegedly sympathetic to the cause.

But the group never got to the meeting. Before they could arrive, members of the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team and Oregon State Police SWAT team stopped the cars on a remote bend. Ammon Bundy followed law enforcement orders to get out of the car with his hands up, kneel on the ground, and crawl towards the officers. But Finicum refused to surrender.

Suddenly Finicum, who some viewed as a grandfatherly voice of reason back at the refuge, was yelling at the officers from his driver’s seat. He told them: “Back down or you kill me now.”

“Boys, you better realize we got people on the way,” Finicum yelled. “You want a bloodbath? It’s gonna be on your hands.”

In his back seat, the other occupants of the car — Ryan Bundy, a grandmother named Shawna Cox, and 18-year-old gospel singer Victoria Sharp — frantically tried to call people back at the refuge, but realized they’d been pulled over in an area with no cell service.

“I’m going to be laying down here on the ground with my blood on the street, or I’m going to see the sheriff,” Finicum yelled out the window. Finicum told the occupants of the car he would leave, try to get help. “You ready?” he asked. 

“Well, where’s those guns?” Ryan Bundy responded, telling the other passengers to duck down. 

“Gun it!” Cox said. “Gun it!” 

Finicum slammed the accelerator. Driving at over 70 miles per hour, careening around a bend, the sound of bullets pecked at his truck. Up ahead, the FBI and Oregon State Police had blocked the road. 

Finicum jerked the wheel — either to avoid hitting the road block, or to speed around it altogether. “Hang on!” he said. The truck crashed into deep banks of snow, sending up a white wave that made it look as if he’d plowed over an FBI agent. Finicum leaped from the truck, hands raised. All around him, officers yelled, “Get on the ground!”

This is all on the internet: Cox’s cell phone captured the conversation and fear in the truck, drone footage shot from above shows the lone white Dodge Ram pickup. 

You can see the crash, see the driver’s door fly open. You can see Finicum hop out as he taunts at the police that they’re “gonna have to shoot me.” You can hear the three bullets — bang, bang, bang. Dead. 

Every time I watch the video I think I’ll hear some new intonation, some missed revelation, and yet Finicum always dies the same. Three pops. He doesn’t jump or yelp. He simply crumples: a body tense and alive one second, a heavy sack of bones dropped to the ground for eternity the next. A puppet without a hand. Gravity stronger than spirit.

As Finicum stumbled in the snow, he yelled to the officers to shoot him before reaching multiple times toward his jacket. The overhead video captures that. Later, official reports said Finicum had a loaded 9 mm handgun in his inside jacket pocket. The shooting was ruled justified.

And yet now, three years later, a movement of people across America see his death another way entirely: As an assassination. An execution. A carefully-calculated hit on a lifelong member of the LDS church and short-time associate of the notorious Bundy family. Finicum is seen as a friend to men whose favorite part of the U.S. Constitution is the line about well-armed militias. The snowy road where he died is Finicum’s own Golgotha. The FBI roadblock is referred to, in some corners of the internet, as “the killstop.”

***

Three years after Finicum’s death, inside a VFW hall on a puddled side street in Salem, Oregon, a specific brand of nostalgic, stars-and-stripes patriotism is unmistakably on display. 

A Betsy Ross flag hangs in one corner; a flag poster is tacked to the far wall. A bulletin board is bordered by stars-and-stripes rickrack. Red, white, and blue practically seep from the walls as if it were sap pushed from the very planks that hold up the roof. 

On the breast of every person who has paid $50 to be here is a round pin that reads Justice for LaVoy, set on a border of American flag ribbon.

When the day’s program begins, some 100 people push themselves up from folding chairs the best they can, placing palms over hearts. A curly-haired cowboy in tight jeans leads the room in a twangy rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.”

The room turns its collective body — overwhelmingly white and over 50 — toward a  yellow-fringed flag. They sing low and soft with the cowboy, like it’s church. 

As this day unfolds, it will become evident that this is, in a way, a kind of church. These people are believers in an American religion with its own martyr, its own symbols. They have their own prayers, moral teachings, and deadly sins. The name Robert LaVoy Finicum  — or just LaVoy — is a hallowed one in the collective mind of the Patriot movement.

The people have gathered here to remember the death of Finicum. They are angry, mourning. 

And the Passion of Finicum is bolstered by another belief held here: The federal government is so corrupt that it will kill its own citizens if they live too freely.

That message, to one degree or another, has always been on the wind in the West. Since the federal government sent troops in to exterminate Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest; since it declared the polygamous Mormons in Utah in rebellion; since it put a sniper on a mountaintop in rural Idaho and shot a bullet through Vicki Weaver, standing inside her cabin at Ruby Ridge in 1992, holding her infant daughter. But it’s the primary teaching of the Patriot movement — a movement that was around long before the Bundys — that will remain long after Cliven has faded into a folk herodom. 

There’s a key difference between Cliven Bundy and LaVoy Finicum. As I’ve written about the Patriot movement, I’ve come to understand that Bundy might be the godfather of a movement that has bedeviled feds across the West. But to a lot of ranchers, he’s a joke — an affront to everything so many public lands ranchers have worked for. Those people see Bundy’s ideas about the federal government as outlandish and a distraction from the real issues in rural America: jobs, water, development, health care.

But Finicum’s death resonated in the Bundys’ world and far beyond it. He believed in the same disproven, unsupported claims as the family, but the difference was that he believed in those things enough to die for them. Death seems to have softened more people to the idea that the government is the aggressor. With his death, Patriots could point to another marker on its timeline arguing that the government can and will come after people. 

But who Finicum really was before 2016, what he really believed, has never been clear to me. He’s no ancient prophet with a story lost to time. His life story can be told. The government said that Bill Keebler, after bombing the BLM building, claimed his actions weren’t for LaVoy, but for “what he stood for.” So what did he stand for?

Finicum in January 2016 at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge during the armed takeover led by the Bundys. Finicum described himself as wanting “to be like the guy standing in front of the tank at Tiananmen Square.” (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

Glenn Jones wrote something in his journal about Finicum, and Keebler said his bomb was for whatever Finicum stood for. Both craved eye-for-an-eye acts of revenge, payback: virtues the Patriot movement has always prized. The movement is fueled by a burning for comeuppance, and at its worst, that’s gotten a lot of people killed. In 1995, Timothy McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City — an apparent act of revenge for Ruby Ridge and Waco. 

Since Finicum’s death, the message of his martyrdom has been amplified by a very powerful voice: a woman sitting at the back of the VFW behind a table of belt buckles, T-shirts, stickers, and hats bearing Finicum’s distinctive cattle brand. Miniature American flags decorate the tablecloth. 

Dorethea Jeanette Finicum, who goes by Jeannette, is a pretty 59-year-old woman with blue eyes that sparkle and a bright smile with a perfect gap between her two front teeth. She wears a denim shirt embroidered with blue flowers, ashy-blond hair that suggests she’s from a different era, a different world where hairstylists still feather and shag. She is the Patriot movement’s Lady of Sorrows, and people here love to touch her: placing hands on her back, offering handshakes. One man holds her in a tight embrace: “Jeanette, I will never, ever forget you,” he says. Behind her, someone has displayed an Old Glory afghan for the room to see.

She’s a “chuck wagon mom” who, the moment three state-issued bullets ended her husband’s life, turned into a full-blown political activist. Today, she is indisputably one of the stars of the modern Patriot movement. 

She sells stacks of Only By Blood and Suffering, the novel her late husband wrote about an overbearing government that attacks a cowboy rancher, shooting and killing him. Sitting next to her behind that table of goods is her new husband — a plain man in a plaid shirt who scurries away at the sight of a reporter. 

Since the summer of 2018, the widow Finicum has taken a film about her husband called LaVoy: Dead Man Talking on the road — a film she and its producer, a 49-year-old Washington state man named Mark Herr, describe as a documentary made up mostly of footage from Finicum’s free YouTube channel. 

Before queuing up the first hour of the documentary, Herr takes the microphone. All eyes turn his way. “All right let’s get started,” he says. “If you oppose white supremacy, if you oppose — you’re against — white supremacy, would you please stand?” 

The room rises. 

“You don’t agree with white supremacy? OK,” Herr says. “If you’re pro–responsible government — you’re pro-government. You’re pro–responsible government, would you please clap?”

The room claps.

“Wow!” Herr exclaims. “Very interesting!” 

This goes on: Sit if you want the federal and state governments to combine (no one sits). Sit if you want the legislative, judicial, and executive branches to combine into one big entity (no one sits for that either, including producer Ryan Haas and I, who felt it was the sporting thing to do).

“Oh that’s so interesting!” he says, forcing surprise into his words.

“Guess who you’re standing with,” he says, as the room settles back onto the folding chairs. “You stood with LaVoy Finicum.”

Just before Herr hits play, a woman who organized this event reminds the room that there is security here. Anyone caught recording will be removed. A huddle of men and women in sweatshirts bearing the logo of the Idaho Three Percenters militia settles into seats. A man with a handgun on his hip — nestled in a leather holster embossed with the words “We, the People”  — leans against the wall near the only two reporters in this room, me and Haas. 

Dead Man Talking is Finicum’s story told through the eyes of the Patriot movement — so it’s mostly about his life after he went to the Bundy Ranch standoff in 2014. The movie doesn’t answer questions about how Finicum came to believe what he did, or how that belief compelled him to die.

Illustration by Zoë van Dijk

The film is concerned, primarily, with the man’s death. Dying, after all, is what he’s known best for; Finicum’s public life was only a blip: 21 months out of 54 years. From the time Finicum arrived, alone, at Bundy Ranch in 2014, to the time he died a leader at the Malheur occupation in 2016, only 650-some days passed. He was a martyr made at the speed of the internet.

Finicum’s videos — posted to his YouTube channel — say pretty much nothing anyone in the Patriot movement wouldn’t have heard before. He was like a low-calorie Cliven Bundy delivering a droll, monotonous soliloquy about the Constitution, the founding fathers, freedom, liberty. 

But the videos are a window into everything Finicum wanted to be seen as. In some videos, he wore a cowboy hat, black suit coat, and a Western bow tie — as if he’d just strolled out of a tintype photograph. Behind him: a woodstove, a kerosene lantern, a painting of a cowboy crouched by his horse, and one of a Mormon temple. 

In other videos, blades of grass wiggled in front of the camera, a bright blue sky behind him. “It doesn’t take too much to see that dark storm clouds are gathering,” he said, crouching in front of the camera. “We need to have our houses in order. We need to have our relationships in order. We never know how many days we have on God’s green earth here, and we need to make the best of each and every one of them.”

His channel shows him stockpiling for the end. And in the Bundys, it is as if he saw proof that the horses of the apocalypse were on the horizon.

But the Bundys were shopping a conspiracy theory that Finicum bought hook, line, and sinker when he arrived at Bundy Ranch, as if he’d been waiting to hear it. Like he’d had his finger on a light switch in a dark room for years, itching for the chance to flip it and light up his whole world. 

 

II.

LaVoy Finicum and his cousin Josh Cluff both called the tiny, tiny town of Fredonia, Arizona, home. In the winter, the wide-open lands all around it are an otherworldly picture show of red cliffs dripping with melting ice against blue skies. Snowfields are untouched, stretches of pure white fleece that go all the way to the edge of the earth. 

At a lone gas station near Kanab, Utah, where Haas and I make a pit stop, a large pickup truck is surrounded by women and girls in matching prairie dresses: navy blue, plum, lime green. They’ve formed a chain, passing a truckload of boxes into a FedEx van. Their hair is pinned back in braids and waves, styles unmistakably associated with polygamous sects like the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — a radical offshoot of Mormonism. 

Seeing them is a reminder that polygamy is still alive and well in this area and around the rural West, despite FLDS leader Warren Jeffs being sentenced to life in prison in 2011. The towns of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah, aren’t far from here — and they’ve long been FLDS strongholds. And they were, essentially, in LaVoy Finicum’s backyard.

The homes and rusted trailers of Colorado City spread south along State Route 389, petering out, then swelling again to form the town of Cane Beds. That’s where the Finicums lived. They participated in civic life, which often intersected with the FLDS church. One of Finicum’s post office boxes was in Colorado City. He attended town hall meetings there, too. Today, just off State Route 389, LaVoy Finicum Road leads the way to Cane Beds (one report attributed the naming of the road to Finicum himself, who requested the switch before he died). 

In the days after his death, prominent polygamists joined the anti-government chorus in declaring Finicum a martyr. Ross LeBaron Jr. — whose father created the polygamous sect Church of the Firstborn of the Fulness of Times — gave a written statement to a Salt Lake Tribune reporter: “LaVoy, the Bundy’s [sic] and others are my heroes. They stood for something bigger then [sic] themselves. They are not sellouts like many are today. I thank God for all those that are standing for the greater good.”


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As I’ve reported in desert towns around the West — up north in Panaca, all through the Arizona Strip — I’ve noticed that this type of interaction between mainstream Mormons and FLDS is typical. Sam Brower, a private investigator who wrote a book called Prophet’s Prey: My Seven-Year Investigation Into Warren Jeffs and the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints, says polygamists are “part of the landscape.”

Cane Beds, he says, is for “FLDS refugees” and people who often “still believe in polygamy,” but it’s also just a really cheap place to live. 

“I know after [Finicum] was killed, there were people — ex-FLDS people I know — that were saying, ‘I knew that guy, he was living down the road from us.’ They knew who he was.” 

I tell him about the women I saw near Fredonia, how it surprised me to see a group I thought was so fringe, living outside the boundaries of the law, out in the open. “There’s a degree of tolerance,” he says. “You just become more callous to having them around all the time.” I’m bothered by this. Finicum, at the end of his life, was so obsessed with freedom and liberty, and yet I never heard him rage on YouTube about the oppression of women and sexual abuse of girls happening in his literal backyard.

Finicum, who was Mormon, lived around and in FLDS strongholds for much of his life — could even have been friendly with them. In talking to Brower, I have to wonder if living so close to people with a radical lifestyle might have made Finicum more open to hearing fringe religious ideas. 

Like when the Bundys talked to him about the White Horse Prophecy — how they believed their quest against the government was prophesied by Joseph Smith himself. If Finicum had been around people who were preaching an alternate gospel all his life, might he have been more open to believing fringe ideas, instead of questioning them?

***

Robert LaVoy Finicum was born January 27, 1961 to David and Nelda Finicum, and was baptised nearly two weeks later in the Fredonia LDS ward by his uncle, elder Merlin Cluff. 

By the 1960s, Finicums and Cluffs had been around the Arizona Strip for generations. LaVoy’s grandparents Dale and Beulah Finicum homesteaded in the area, living in a dug-out house in the ground. LaVoy’s parents, too, embraced the pioneer grit that helped settle this region. When Finicum’s father, David, was a teenager, he made local headlines when he shot himself in the leg. He was riding on a horse when it brushed against a tree branch that  caught the hammer of the revolver in his saddle and shot him. He rode for 20 more miles before getting help, according to one account.

In 1986, Finicum’s parents rode in a horse-drawn covered wagon from Kanab, Utah, to St. George in a reenactment of the Honeymoon Trail — a wagon train that, in the 1870s, helped populate the Arizona Strip along with transporting goods to St. George to help in the construction of the LDS temple there. After the building was complete, the trail continued to be used, carrying couples, instead of supplies, to be married in the temple.

LaVoy, though, was raised in the far northwestern corner of Arizona Navajo territory, where his father took a job with the Arizona Department of Transportation, paving and repairing roads. He attended school in Page, Arizona.

The family home was close to Lee’s Ferry, Arizona, named for Mormon settler John D. Lee. Lee was executed for helping murder 120 pioneers traveling through a Utah canyon on their way west, an event now known as the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre. It is considered one of the earliest acts of domestic terrorism. 

Lee’s Ferry, also, is the birthplace of a foundational prophet of the FLDS church, Leroy Johnson, who was also an early leader in Colorado City. 

In February 2019, I traveled to the Fredonia home of Finicum’s younger brother, Guy. He looks, and sounds, eerily like LaVoy: He’s bald, wears wire-rimmed glasses, speaks in a measured-tone. And he laughs when I say I just want to hear more about who his brother really was. “Nobody would have dirt like the little brother,” he says. He’s a licensed mental health counselor who works with substance abuse recovery programs, and his words come across with a measured delivery.

“We were kind of isolated down there. No television, only the friends in the couple houses next to us and then the Navajos that lived on the reservation around us,” he says. It took them 45 minutes to get to school. “We’d be the only white faces on the bus.” He says the family was accepted with open arms by the tribal community.

Guy says his brother, as a child, was “the Batman and Joker rolled into one character. He was my nemesis,” Guy says. “He loved to tease me. But as soon as we left the home he was my hero. … He said, ‘Hey, here’s my brother.’ He included me.”

He tells me that LaVoy always wanted to be a cowboy, but “as a little boy, he didn’t have any cattle. So that was my job. I was his livestock,” he says, letting a laugh loose again. “I got a hog tied and earmarked more than once.” I’m so used to hearing grim recollections of LaVoy’s death, it’s surprising to hear his brother laugh about a memory of him.

In high school, LaVoy turned his attention to basketball. Their father poured asphalt by the house so LaVoy could put up a hoop. 

“Every morning I’d wake up hearing that ball bouncing,” Guy says. 

After graduation, LaVoy served his LDS mission in Rapid City, South Dakota, but held onto his passion for basketball long after it was realistic for him to keep pursuing it. 

Upon returning home, he married a woman named Kelly “after a very short courtship,” according to Guy, and the pair soon had their first child. Kelly was from Oregon, and the newlyweds moved there so LaVoy could take a job managing apartments in a Portland suburb. Finicum also hoped he could walk onto a local college basketball team, but quickly realized he couldn’t spend money on tuition that could be used to feed his family.

“He regretted that decision because he was never able to get a college degree. … He had to go to school to play basketball,” Guy says. “But he felt like he had neglected his wife and his little kid.” 

Kelly and LaVoy had four children, and got a divorce in 1989. “LaVoy’s problem is, he always wanted to be a cowboy,” Guy explains.  

Finicum, from his 20s to 40s, bounced around the West. I found addresses for him in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Las Vegas, near Flagstaff, in St. George, Cedar City, and Provo, Utah. For the most part, he worked as a property manager — something he excelled at, Guy says. But the work never seemed to really interest him. 

“Every time he’d get successful, he’d get sick of living in the city and try to move back home. And when he’d come back home, he just could never get a foothold and find anything that he could support his family on. So they’d come back here and be dirt poor and struggle,” Guy says. Sometimes LaVoy would move to cities before his family, sleeping in his car as he looked for work, brushing his teeth and shaving with a jug of water. 

As we’re talking Guy gets up from his seat in the living room. “I want to show you something,” he says, and disappears into a nearby room. He emerges with a packet of papers in his hands, fixed together with a single strand of suede cord. 

He explains that one year when LaVoy had no money to buy Christmas gifts, he gave him these drawings instead. Guy delicately fingers through the old pages. There’s a drawing of their grandparents’ house, and below it LaVoy wrote about the old wood cookstove inside, the ticking clock on the wall, the smell of percolating coffee — a beverage choice that set them apart from their LDS relatives. 

Guy smiles, but as we look, one page strikes me as particularly haunting. It’s a sketch of the private family cemetery plot in Cane Beds, where LaVoy is now buried.

In LaVoy’s depiction of it, he sketched the place as if there was just one body buried there. In the center of the drawing is a sole gravestone and a mound of fresh dirt. Around it is an old wooden fence, two trees, then vast white nothingness.

***

In July 1990, several months after his divorce, LaVoy married a woman named Rachel, and soon they had two children together. That marriage was short-lived. (I reached out to both Kelly and Rachel on Facebook, but never heard back.)

In 1992, Jeanette Finicum was at a singles dance at her church, and she was line dancing when her future husband walked in. “I can remember being out on the floor and this gorgeous cowboy walked into the room,” she said. “He sat up on the stage and he just sat there watching all of us dance. And I thought to myself, ‘Boy, I want to dance with him.’” 

They danced — a slow song. And when Jeanette asked LaVoy to keep dancing, he said he had no rhythm. She called him chicken. “He says, ‘I’ll tell you what. If you can tell me how many kids I have, I’ll dance this next dance with you.’”

She guessed six. He nodded.

I went, ‘Oh my gosh, you have six kids?!’ And I’m going, ‘Oh my heck, you are definitely the package deal,’” she recalled. “To make a long story short, two weeks later we were married. (According to Finicum’s obituary, the couple married in 1994.)

The pair raised 11 children together. LaVoy and Jeanette later moved near Prescott, Arizona, where they became foster parents. Guy explained that being a foster father was perfectly suited to his brother. “He was a very alpha personality. And he just carried presence with him that nobody ever wanted to challenge,” he said. Boys who other foster parents couldn’t control “just would fall in line behind him.” Foster parenting, too, allowed him to earn enough to attain his cowboy dream. 

Records from the Bureau of Land Management show Finicum cosigned a grazing permit in 2009 with his father, but started ranching by himself in 2011 near Mount Trumbull, deep in the Arizona desert, near the Grand Canyon. In 2014, he was in good standing with the BLM. He always paid his bills on time. 

According to Guy, the Finicum boys were raised hearing stories of how the federal government was trying put ranchers out of business. Ranchers who once could run cattle near the Grand Canyon were slowly pushed out, and national monuments like the Grand Canyon-Parashant further reduced grazing areas. 

“That was kind of the culture we grew up with is these guys are here to tell us what to do and take away what we have,”said Guy.

Even when LaVoy was finally able to ranch, something he achieved in his 50th year of life, “he couldn’t make it work very well,” Guy said. Then he went to Bundy Ranch in 2014, met Cliven Bundy and saw yet one more rancher saying the government was no friend to ranchers. 

When he died, Guy said,  ”he was right in the middle of his dream.”

 

III.

On June 23, 2015, Finicum wrote a letter to the BLM: 

“I am writing you this letter to express my appreciation for the time we have associated together in connection with my grazing on the Arizona Strip. It has been a pleasant association and without conflict,” he wrote. “I have the greatest respect for you and judge you to be honorable men.” 

He continued: “At this time I feel compelled to stand for [sic] up for the Constitution of our land and in doing so please do not feel that I am attacking your character.” He repeated what Cliven Bundy had been telling people at Bundy Ranch: about the Founding Fathers; about Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17; and the idea of government-owned land being a ruse. Wool pulled over the eyes of hard-working Americans. 

“This is not about cows and grass, access or resources, this is about freedom and defending our Constitution in its original intent.” 

This confused BLM employees. 

On July 13, an employee called Finicum “to discuss what’s going on.” Finicum was cordial but explained he was making a stand. 

“When asked if he was going to turn-out his Livestock + pay his grazing fees, he wouldn’t answer + resorted back to the Constitution and making a stance,” the employee wrote. 

In 2015, Finicum’s permit only allowed for him to graze cattle from October 15 until May 15. But on August 7, a BLM employee called Finicum to let him know he saw 24 of his animals in two pastures, asked him to remove them within a week, and told him he couldn’t put any more cattle out. 

Finicum replied that  he was “not asking for permission.”

Finicum published a video to YouTube that same day, claiming the BLM had drained his water tank to fight a wildfire “without so much as a hidey-ho or a please.” 

“It’s mine. It’s for my cows. I need it,” he said. “Quit stealing.” 

Three days later, the BLM received another letter from Finicum, which stated, “I am severing my association with the BLM.” He took to YouTube again, telling viewers it was time to “do something more than just talk.”  In the video, he’s crouched by the camera in fringed leather chaps with a long scarf tied around his head and a cowboy hat over it. This isn’t the same droll Finicum of the year before, in front of the woodstove and the temple paintings. He’s fired up — and he’s talking directly to the men at the BLM — the people who, two months earlier, he said he had so much respect for. “You gonna come in there like you did with my friend Cliven?” he said. “Well, I’m telling you, leave me alone. Leave me alone, leave Cliven alone.” 

Finicum in the video posted to his YouTube channel, Aug. 14, 2015.

In the days that followed, the BLM found 32 cows, two bulls, and 24 calves under 6 months old in trespass. All had Finicum’s brands and earmarks. Nearby more were observed near a water trough, but the water was off. 

On August 24, the BLM mailed Finicum a trespass notice. On United States Department of the Interior letterhead, they told him he owed $1,458.52. 

***

Guy Finicum tells me his brother was always a crusader for the little guy. He says that’s why he went to Bundy Ranch: LaVoy saw a little rancher being bullied by the big government.

“There are individuals to this day who consider LaVoy the best friend they ever had. And often these individuals were those who had no friends — the ostracized ones, the ones who were picked on,” he says. “And LaVoy wouldn’t stand for anybody picking on anybody.” Court documents allege that on September 1, 2015, Finicum was meeting with Keebler — the Utah man who would later go on to push the button on a dummy bomb given to him by the FBI, believing it would destroy a BLM building near Finicum’s ranchlands. Finicum, according to the documents, told Keebler he was ready to plan a confrontation similar to the one at Bundy Ranch. In a meeting with Keebler, which was recorded by the FBI, Finicum said he “wants to be like the guy standing in front of the tank at Tiananmen Square” and that if he died in a confrontation with the government, “then the cause is the poor rancher’s widow.” 

According to the federal government, that meeting occurred one week after Finicum received notice that he was racking up BLM fines. About a month later Keebler brought the two FBI agents — who he thought were his fellow militiamen —to a meeting at Finicum ranch in Northern Arizona to strategize a standoff. 

By October, his trespass fines had increased to $5,791.72. 

“We as a family were quite concerned when he started drawing a line in sand with the BLM,” Guy says, “because I’m like, ‘LaVoy, I know you don’t like bullies, but you’re picking a fight with the federal government — they don’t lose! They don’t lose’ … And he’s like, ‘Well, they’re wrong.’”

The way his brother explains it, after LaVoy went to Bundy Ranch, all he could see, everywhere he looked, was the federal government “amassing more and more power.” 

He went from a person flying under the radar to a person who became very vocal in just a matter of a year,” he says. LaVoy believed the country was on the verge of a collapse. It was the entire premise of his novel, Only By Blood and Suffering

“He wrote a story with an ending of a cowboy getting into a shoot-out with the federal government and gets killed, and then here that’s exactly what happened to LaVoy,” says Guy. “What do you make of that?” I ask.

He pauses. “It’s no accident.”

LaVoy didn’t do all the things his cowboy protagonist did. But “that was the person he wanted to be,” Guy says. “He wanted to be a person who had the ability to stand up and make a difference and protect what he believed in.”

None of this seems important to the people inside the Patriot movement: the man who struggled to make ends meet; the foster father devoted to helping the kids who needed direction; the rancher who failed time and time again to achieve his dreams, only to finally attain one and only see it for its imperfections. 

Finicum, the Patriot martyr, is a man obsessed with his own end, a man willing to conspire against the government, then die over and over again in an infinite internet loop. 

“It must be so painful to see the video of the shooting,” I say to Guy. 

“What’s harder is hearing the commentary on it, and people saying, ‘Well this is who he is, and this is what he was doing, and this is what happened,” Guy says. I ask for an example. He points to the way the media reported his brother was reaching for a gun in the inside pocket of his jacket. “There is no way my brother would put a gun in his pocket. OK? And how do I know that? I grew up with him,” he says. “We’ve carried guns in a lot of ways, and carrying a gun in a coat pocket doesn’t work. … When you carry it without a holster, it goes in one place. It goes in your waistband, tight against your body.”

The gun in Finicum’s inside pocket is the source of many conspiracies around Fincum’s death — ones that seemed to gain traction during the summer of 2018, as one of the FBI HRT agents, who’d been on the scene, stood trial. Agent W. Joseph Astarita was accused of firing two bullets at Finicum as he leaped out of the truck, then lying about those shots. Video footage does, in fact, show a round piercing the ceiling of the truck as he jumps out with his hands up. Astarita was acquitted of all charges, and the bullets still haven’t been accounted for. To people who saw conspiracy in Finicum’s death, the trial, some felt, gave their version of events credence: If someone was lying about a bullet, wouldn’t they be willing to lie about a gun, too? YouTubers analyzed photos from the scene. Some reason that if Finicum’s weapon was found as police photographs show it inside his jacket pocket, and he tried to reach for it, that gun would have come out upside-down.

It’s not a surprise to me that as even-keeled and even-minded as Guy Finicum seems, that he might not see the reasoning for the shooting in the video of his brother. He theorizes that LaVoy wasn’t reaching for a gun, but was trying to keep his balance in the snow after being shot with a nonlethal projectile. He doesn’t understand why the FBI set up the roadblock where they did, in a place where Finicum might not have been able to brake in time.

He and LaVoy disagreed a lot about liberty — about the best way to convert the hearts and minds of their fellow Americans. LaVoy wanted to fight the government; Guy thought getting individuals to think about liberty — and what it meant to them — was more effective. 

“He’d say, ‘No, we got to make a stand.’ And I’m saying, ‘No, I don’t.’ I don’t think we need to, I think we just need to put our hearts in the right place and become that within ourselves,” he recalls.

So it wasn’t entirely surprising for Guy to watch LaVoy go to Harney County, Oregon, to join the Bundys in the refuge occupation. But with no end in sight to the standoff, Guy was worried. So worried, in fact, that he drove to Oregon. 

I thought things were kind of crazy, and I thought, ‘What in the world’s my brother doing?’ I went up there to talk sense into him, honestly,” he says. But at the refuge, he listened to what LaVoy and Ammon Bundy had to say. He got to know people. He thought maybe it wasn’t what the media had made it out to be.

“My whole attitude completely shifted, and I left saying to my brother, ‘Stay the course. Stick to what you know you’re doing,’” he says. Guy doesn’t think his brother committed suicide by cop. But he claims that he felt his brother was going to die in Oregon.

People may say you can’t know things like this, but I knew when I said goodbye to him up there in Oregon he was going to die up there. I knew,” he says. “Don’t ask me how I know. I was just standing there and all of a sudden it hit me that he was going to die there. So when I said goodbye to him up there, I really thought it would be the last time I’d ever seen him.”

Guy shakes his head. Says he can’t believe he just told us that. It’s so personal. 

And I don’t know what to do with it either. Sitting there in his living room, I don’t think I understand a love that is so strong you can simply step aside and watch someone you love get what they want most, even if it will kill them, leaving behind daughters and sons, foster children, a wife, a mother, a brother. A ranch. A hard-fought dream.

It makes me wonder if LaVoy’s dream was never about being a lone horseman in the country, but was a way to further escape reality and dissolve into the fictional, apocalyptic world where he could be a hero. 

He ranched in a place so far-flung, it makes Cliven Bundy look like he is ranching in New York City. Finicum was so alone out there. He had his cows, his old cow dog. It looked perfect. And yet, even then, it wasn’t perfect enough. He believed he was entitled to something more. 

Guy Finicum, like people across this country, has a sticker donning his brother’s name on the back of his truck. I ask if he thinks of LaVoy as a martyr. 

“He is a martyr for his cause. He did far more to push the word out about what he stood for by dying than he ever would have if he was out there speaking on the circuit,” he says.

He’s seen Patriots around the country talking about LaVoy like they knew him. Like they really got him. For a while, Guy argued with people online, tried to edit his brother’s Wikipedia page to correct all the things someone somewhere was saying his brother was based off the final seconds of his life. 

People didn’t really know LaVoy, he says. “I believe the vast majority people don’t even know who LaVoy really was, or what he really was standing for.”

 

IV.

Back in Oregon at the VFW, Jeanette Finicum is talking to her flock about Oregon Democratic Senator Ron Wyden. During the 41-day Malheur occupation, Wyden told a news station that “the virus was spreading” the longer the armed standoff continued. 

“What was the virus?” Finicum asked the crowd. 

“Freedom and truth,” the only person in this room wearing a red Make America Great Again hat calls back. 

But if the goal of the movie Dead Man Talking is to tell the truth and buck the media’s portrayal of LaVoy Finicum as an extremist, racist, or anti-government radical, the journey it has taken over the past six months has been circuitous. She hasn’t shown it to schools, libraries, mainstream GOP groups, or media. 

In fact, if the film’s hosts across America show anything, it’s that the Patriot movement is everywhere — not just the West. It is alive and thriving, and it adores Jeanette Finicum: the poor rancher’s widow. 

The film debuted at the Red Pill Expo in Spokane, Washington, a conference that featured speakers known for homophobia, climate change denial, and an overall obsession with how the “deep state” is apparently operating behind the scenes of the American government. 

Last September, the Colorado Front Range Militia screened the film; the next day, the Heritage Defenders — a conservative group linked to anti-Muslim legislation — got a preview.

The film made its way to Tucson, hosted by people involved with a group of gun-toting local conspiracy theorists that believed they had found evidence of an immigrant child sex trafficking ring — a wild conspiracy that drew the interest of QAnon and Pizzagate believers nationwide—which actually turned out to be just a pile of junk in the desert.

The path continues like this: Finicum brought it to Utah, hosted by the widow of the bankroller of the Sagebrush Rebellion, Bert Smith. It went to Pennsylvania, hosted by an Agenda 21 conspiracy theorist. It went to Northern Idaho, paid for by an Idaho Three Percenter who floats QAnon theories on Twitter.

Last summer, Finicum and Herr hosted one of Dead Man Talking’s very first showings at a separatist religious community called Marble Community Fellowship in northeastern Washington. She appeared onstage next to Washington state representative Matt Shea. 

In Salem, the crowd doesn’t hear about how, eight months after LaVoy’s death, Jeanette applied for a new grazing permit with the Bureau of Land Management, or how she met with BLM employees in November 2017 to pay all the fees they owed. 

“The meeting went well” in “what could have been an awkward situation,” wrote one of the federal employees in an email afterward. 

It was as if when LaVoy died, his own personal stand against the government died with him. He became an avatar for whatever anyone wanted him to be.

Jeanette, at the microphone at the VFW, talks about how police shot her husband. “That’s murder, people,” she says. 

“That’s right,” someone in the audience calls back. 

“No American citizen deserves that,” she says. “We deserve our right to due process. We deserve our right to a trial. We deserve to have charges. We deserve to be served with a warrant. We deserve that process. Do we not?”

“You hear my husband saying, ‘We’re going to go see the sheriff, you can arrest me there. Follow me and you can arrest me there,’” she recalls. “He was not fleeing law enforcement when he left that first stop. He left to go to law enforcement whom he trusted. That’s what he was doing.” 

The room nods. 

They believe Finicum — after fighting with the government, after occupying a federal property for weeks — was entitled to choose which agency arrested him. To do what he pleased. 

“He had done nothing wrong,” she says.

Before the day is done, the Old Glory afghan that’s been sitting behind Finicum’s table is auctioned off from the stage. 

The singing cowboy leads the room again; this time he’s an auctioneer. Quickly, there’s a bidding war over the blanket. Two hundred. Three hundred. Seven hundred. Finally a couple wins the afghan. They pay $1,500. That money will go to Jeanette. Behind her merchandise table, Jeanette pops up from her seat one more time as people file downstairs for a spaghetti dinner. Someone is making an offering. 

She hands a man a copy of Only By Blood and Suffering. As if collecting tithes, she accepts his offer. He gives her $500 for the book. 

Up next, Chapter 4: The Preacher and the Politician

***

Leah Sottile is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in theWashington Post, Playboy, California Sunday Magazine, Outside, The Atlantic and Vice.

Editors: Mike Dang and Kelly Stout
Illustrator: Zoë van Dijk
Fact checker: Matt Giles
Copy editor: Jacob Gross

Special thanks to everyone at Oregon Public Broadcasting.