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June 17, 2016

Alleged Triple Killer had Extreme Anti-Government Views

Erick ShuteOn June 14, Pennsylvania authorities caught and arrested a fugitive accused of having shot and killed three of his neighbors in West Virginia the previous day. Erick Shute, 29, who allegedly had a long-running series of disputes with the neighbors, reportedly attacked the three (and a fourth who escaped) over a conflict about firewood.

Shute was a minor public figure as the vocalist for the longstanding death metal band Pyrexia, with which he had reportedly been involved since childhood. He also worked as a fire and water damage restorer in New Jersey and was involved with a variety of odd business ventures, involving crowdsourcing, digital currencies, and multi-level marketing, among others.

After the slayings, a woman who described herself as “one of his ex girlfriends” posted on-line that “he has never been [one] for the police or government.” That seems to have been a serious understatement. West Virginia authorities claimed that Shute was an adherent of the extreme anti-government sovereign citizen movement and even suggested that he was building a compound on the West Virginia land reportedly purchased by his mother and used as a weekend home by Shute. Authorities have said they found stockpiles of food, weapons and ammo on the property, as well as “bunkers.”

Actually, Shute’s involvement with anti-government extremism appears to have been more extensive than just the sovereign citizen movement. Rather, to varying degrees, Shute identified with all three major wings of the anti-government “Patriot” movement: the sovereign citizen movement, the tax protest movement, and the militia movement. Shute was also supportive to some degree of anarchism, which is also anti-government, though from a more left-leaning perspective.

Shute’s oldest known extremist ties do relate to the sovereign citizen movement. While living with his mother in New Jersey during the period 2009-11, he subscribed to several sovereign citizen beliefs, especially those rejecting the legitimacy of motor vehicle laws. In 2011, he tried to get a local police department to sign a “peace treaty” with him that would somehow allow him not to have a license or registration. This visit led to his arrest for driving a vehicle with no license plates as well as charges of aggravated assault on a police officer, resisting arrest, and obstruction. Based on a courtroom video he uploaded to the Internet, Shute seems to have defended himself in court—as many sovereign citizens do—claiming that the judge in his case was not a judge but an “executive administrator” and that there had been no judicial courts in America for centuries. Shute was convicted and spent half a year in jail.

Shute also became involved to at least some degree with the tax protest movement, which claims that a conspiracy is hiding the “fact” that most Americans don’t have to pay income taxes. He engaged in argumentative phone calls with IRS representatives and sent hostile letters to the IRS as late as 2015 claiming that he had been given no “proof” he was required to file an income tax return or that the IRS had jurisdiction over him. Judging by some of his on-line remarks, he may not have been paying income taxes for more than five years.

In recent years, however, Shute seems to have identified most strongly with the ideas of the militia movement. The militia movement believes that the federal government is collaborating with a “New World Order” globalist conspiracy to strip Americans of their rights and enslave them. Subsidiary conspiracy theories emanating from the movement include a belief that the federal government is planning to round up citizens and place them in internment or concentration camps; a belief that the government is plotting to suspend the Constitution and declare martial law, perhaps on a pretext such as a terrorist attack or pandemic; and that the government will engage in mass gun confiscations—among others.

Militia movement adherents oppose this perceived government conspiracy. Many, though by no means all, join paramilitary militia groups. Though Shute “liked” a number of militia groups on his Facebook pages, he does not seem to have joined a formal group himself.

However, Shute’s on-line statements clearly indicate an adherence to the movement’s ideology. Responding to a conspiracy article about an employment ad for a U.N. “disarmament officer,” Shute claimed in 2014 that anyone who took such a job “deserves to be killed” by some sort of “painful and horrifying” manner such as being “eaten alive by dogs.” When the governor of West Virginia vetoed a permitless carry firearms bill in 2015, Shute posted that “someone needs to behead this mofo.”

In 2015, Shute expressed happiness at the thought that police officers might be among the first Americans “to get put in internment camps.” He also posted that he could not support the troops “if the troops are training to take you and me away into an internment camp.” Like many other anti-government extremists, Shute became outraged at the military exercises held in the southern U.S. under the name “Operation Jade Helm,” claiming that they were martial law training scenarios.

Shute, an avid fan of anti-government conspiracy websites such as InfoWars, believed in a wide array of standard “Patriot” movement conspiracy theories, from airplanes using “chemtrails” to poison the American people to vaccination programs being part of an agenda “to kill off millions of people.” Shute even claimed to have tried to attend the 2012 Bilderberg conference in Chantilly, Virginia, a magnetic lure for conspiracy theorists who believe that “Bilderbergers” are part of an international conspiracy.

By 2015, it is clear that Shute had developed extreme, and extremely paranoid, attitudes towards government and law enforcement. In February, Shute stated that it was time “to pull the government officials out of their beds at night and hang them from the trees in their front yards.” Urging people to “arm up,” Shute stated in March that everybody should have a gun in every room in their house and that they should even sleep with their guns, so that they would be ready to kill any police officer who came through the door. “This is the time for war,” he wrote, “and if you don’t get prepared to fight, that’s your problem.”

In January and February 2016, Erick Shute became a supporter of the anti-government extremists who engaged in an armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon and subsequent standoff, even listening to the live broadcasts by the final few occupiers in the last hours of the standoff, before they were arrested. After their arrest, Shute wrote that he “loved” the occupiers and that “even though we never met, I feel so close to these people now.”

Incidents such as these increased the already extreme hostility that Shute felt for law enforcement. Responding in February 2016 to a news report of one officer who had killed a dog, Shute urged that the officer be tortured and murdered, including being hung over a fire, whipped, teeth and nails pulled out, fingers cut out, among many other violent and gruesome methods. Indeed, so hostile was Shute to law enforcement that he may have well posed a risk to local law enforcement as well as to his neighbors.

Shute will be extradited back to West Virginia to face multiple homicide charges.


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March 21, 2016

Winston Shrout: The Rise and Fall of a Sovereign Citizen Guru

Federal prosecutors in Portland, Oregon, obtained a 19-count grand jury indictment in mid-March against Winston Shrout, a Hillsboro, Oregon, resident and one of the most prominent sovereign citizen gurus in the United States, a man whose videos and seminars have attracted thousands of people to the anti-government extremist movement.

Winston Shrout

Winston Shrout

Shrout was charged with 13 counts of using fictitious financial instruments in connection with an alleged debt elimination scheme. Fictitious financial instruments are bogus checks, money orders, or similar documents that purport to be payments of money but are not in fact genuine. Since the early 1980s, sovereign citizens have been fascinated with fictitious financial instruments, using them for everything from escaping their own debts to perpetrating major frauds and scams, especially against indebted property owners. Passing them became a federal crime thanks to a law passed after the 1996 Montana Freemen standoff; the Freemen having been energetic promoters of such bogus instruments.

Debt elimination schemes are also extremely common within the sovereign citizen movement; sovereigns use their pseudo-legal language and concepts to convince victims that, for a fee, their mortgages or other debts can simply be made to vanish. Often, fictitious financial instruments and debt elimination schemes go hand in hand.

The federal indictment accuses Shrout of creating and spreading more than 300 bogus “International Bills of Exchange” and “Non-Negotiable Bills of Exchange,” instruments with a combined face value of over $100 trillion (but worthless in fact). The indictment claims that Shrout used such instruments himself and also marketed them as a way for others to pay off their debts. Shrout is also charged with 6 counts of willful failure to file income tax returns.

The indictment is a superseding indictment, adding the fictitious instrument charges to the tax charges, which were originally filed against Shrout in December 2015. Since that original indictment, Shrout has declined to use an attorney—a common tactic for sovereigns—and has defended himself using sovereign citizen filings that, among other things, declare his refusal to consent to the jurisdiction of the federal court or to be taxed by the IRS.

Shrout, 67, has been one of the most influential leaders of the sovereign citizen movement in the 21st century. Sovereign citizens believe that, long ago, an evil conspiracy infiltrated and replaced the original “de jure” government with an illegitimate, tyrannical “de facto” government. They claim that the “de facto” government has no authority or jurisdiction over them, which allows them to rationalize ignoring or breaking virtually any tax, law, regulation, or court order. The movement is dominated by a coterie of gurus, the people who come up with the movement’s pseudo-legal theories—as well as its often-illegal tactics—and teach them to their followers.

Shrout grew up in Kentucky but resided in Utah for much of his life before finally moving to Oregon. Shrout has said he is a college graduate but worked various blue-collar jobs such as carpenter, welder, and construction worker until 1998, when, as he put it, “as luck would have it I was able to retire.”

Following this early “retirement,” Shrout encountered the sovereign citizen movement at a time when it was enjoying a burst of popularity. This was due to a new compilation of sovereign citizen theories and tactics, often referred to as “redemption” or “straw man theory,” which swept through the movement in 1999 like a wildfire and still remain quite popular to this day. Longtime sovereign citizen guru Roger Elvick came up with redemption theory—acting on it would eventually land him in prison—and shared it with a group of disciples who became gurus travelling the country, holding seminars and selling manuals and videos explaining redemption theory and its various associated tactics. Many of those disciples are now themselves in federal or state prison.

Shrout has at times seemed to imply that he learned redemption theory from Roger Elvick, but Shrout’s earliest sovereign citizen filings appear to date from 2000, by which time redemption theory was already quite popular in the movement. In August 2000, he filed a notarized document explaining—in sovereign citizen pseudo-legalese—how he had refused to sign or accept a traffic citation from a Washington County, Utah, sheriff’s deputy.

Two months later, Shrout filed his first bogus lien—a common harassing tactic that sovereigns use against perceived opponents or enemies. Shrout filed a $1,340,000 lien dubbed an “Affidavit of Obligation” against Unified Industries, Inc., which is a corporation that holds resources and business enterprises associated with the Apostolic United Brethren (AUB), one of the major fundamentalist Mormon polygamist sects in Utah. The lien stemmed from some sort of dispute Shrout had with El Rancho Motoqua, a subsidiary company of Unified Industries established to create a polygamist community in southern Utah. In such communities, properties are often not owned by individual business owners or residents but rather by a holding company or trust run by the sect. Shrout seems to have been permitted a residence in Motoqua and came into conflict with the polygamists running the community. In the bogus lien, Shrout complained that he had been threatened with “removal” from his house and that he was “excluded from participation in the religious ceremonies and usages” held inside a community building.

Was Shrout himself an adherent of the polygamist AUB? It is not entirely clear from the lien document, though at one point Shrout refers to himself “and several thousand other fundamentalist Mormons.” However, non-adherents have sometimes resided in AUB communities. Some adherents of polygamists sects have gotten involved with the sovereign citizen movement. Shrout’s stepdaughter, April Rampton, was a resident of Motoqua as late as 2012, before she herself was convicted in federal court on nine counts of filing false tax claims while engaged in a common sovereign citizen and tax protest scheme.

Before the end of 2000, Shrout filed a series of redemption-related documents and he soon became a redemption guru, teaching the theory to sovereign audiences. In 2004, Shrout and Patricia Bekken formed an entity called Solutions in Commerce to market sovereign seminars and workshops. Shrout proved to be a popular speaker, with a folksy demeanor that he deliberately played up, referring to it once as “hillbilly shtick.” The debt elimination schemes that Shrout promoted were also popular; one admiring extremist in 2004 referred to Shrout as a “top dawg” among such promoters.

Shrout’s reputation within the sovereign citizen movement grew in the mid-2000s, but it was the social media revolution that really helped propel him to the top ranks of sovereign gurus, as YouTube videos of some of his appearances and seminars began to circulate widely by 2008-2009, bringing him far greater attention and popularity. This same time period corresponded with the beginnings of the great recession and the mortgage crisis, events that helped spawn a major resurgence of the sovereign citizen movement by creating a large pool of angry and desperate people who were potential recruits.

Shrout held seminars across the country but hardly limited his activities to the United States. In the 1990s, the sovereign citizen movement had taken root in Canada, so Shrout spoke to attentive audiences in that nation—until Canadian authorities finally prohibited him from entering the country. But Shrout found other international audiences, holding seminars in Australia, New Zealand, and Great Britain, helping to bring the sovereign citizen movement to all of those countries—to the dismay of authorities.

More recently, Shrout expanded beyond strictly sovereign notions to express himself on UFOs and other “New Age” issues, claiming that in the early 2000s he and friends of his have been visited by alien “Pleiadians.” He’s made references to everything from incarnated fairies to “Hollow Earth” theory. Several years ago, Shrout set up a new website, dubbed Exo-Commerce, to provide “insight from a universal perspective,” which appears to be an attempt to blend sovereign citizen theories and tactics with “New Age” beliefs. It is difficult to determine whether these are sincerely held beliefs or merely a cynical attempt on the part of Shrout to expand to another gullible audience.

The new federal charges against Shrout could put an end to such opportunism, cynical or sincere. If convicted on all charges, Shrout may face what could be an effective life sentence.


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February 2, 2016

Robert “LaVoy” Finicum: The Making of a Martyr

On January 26, 2016, Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, one of the anti-government extremists involved in the January 2 armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters near Burns, Oregon, was fatally wounded by Oregon State Police (OSP) troopers during an attempt by the OSP and the FBI to arrest Finicum and a number of key occupiers.

Helicopter footage of shooting of "LaVoy" Finicum (middle) as he seems to reach for a weapon.

Helicopter footage of shooting of “LaVoy” Finicum (middle) as he seems to reach for a weapon.

Finicum, along with occupation leader Ammon Bundy and others, were traveling in two vehicles to attend a community meeting in John Day, Oregon, where they hoped to find support for their armed seizure. Seeing an opportunity to apprehend most of the takeover leaders away from the refuge and its many armed extremists, the FBI and the OSP organized a traffic stop with roadblocks along the rural road to John Day. One of the two vehicles stopped and its occupants were removed peacefully.

The other vehicle, driven by Finicum, fled the traffic stop, only to encounter a roadblock a short distance away. Perhaps attempting to evade the roadblock, Finicum drove his vehicle into a snowbank, narrowly missing the police vehicles and an officer.

While other occupants stayed in the vehicle—possibly trapped by the snowbank—Finicum rushed out into the snow. Video footage shot from a helicopter shows a trooper approaching Finicum with the trooper’s weapon drawn. Though Finicum had emerged from the vehicle with his hands partially raised, upon seeing the trooper he appears to have reached for something under his jacket (authorities later confirmed he had a firearm). A second trooper emerged from the woods behind Finicum, which Finicum seems to have heard, because he turned around and once more reached into his jacket. Upon seeing this motion, the second trooper fired shots at Finicum, killing him. Ryan Bundy, another vehicle occupant, suffered a minor gunshot wound, apparently from a stray bullet.


Manufacturing a Folk Hero

The decision by federal and state authorities to make the arrest attempt was in some respects a risky one, not only because officers could be wounded or killed by extremists, but also because the wounding or death of any of the occupiers could have negative consequences in terms of enraging the extreme right and possibly prompting acts of violence.

The arrests did disrupt and demoralize the Malheur occupiers, most of whom soon left the refuge, while a few others were arrested. As of this writing, only four holdouts at the refuge remain, primarily because there is a federal charge against one of them that they want dropped before they will surrender.

However, the death of Finicum unfortunately provided adherents of the so-called “Patriot” movement (which includes militia groups, sovereign citizens, and other anti-government extremists) with something that authorities had hoped to avoid: a potential martyr around whom anti-government extremists could rally. Moreover, anger over Finicum’s death could possibly spawn acts of violent retribution. Rage over deadly standoffs between fringe groups and individuals at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992 and Waco, Texas, in 1993 played a major role in sparking the resurgence of right-wing extremism in the mid-1990s that led to the Oklahoma City bombing and many other acts of violence or attempted violence.

Upon learning of Finicum’s death, “Patriot” movement adherents immediately claimed that he was murdered, though initial accounts from other occupants of the vehicles were confused and contradictory. The FBI publicly released the helicopter video rather quickly—in a clear attempt to quell rumors about the shooting—and, to most viewers, the shooting is likely to appear to have been justified. However, anti-government extremists watching the video have perceived largely what they wanted to see on it and have interpreted the video as still more evidence that Finicum was murdered. Extremists have widely shared the video, which is typically described as proof of Finicum’s “ambush and murder.”

Even before the video was released, the process of turning Finicum into a martyr had already begun. As news of his death spread, extremists on social media created a wide array of graphic memes proclaiming Finicum a martyred hero. One self-declared “liberty speaker” from Washington state, Gavin Seim, uploaded a short video about Finicum titled “The Edge of Revolution.” In the video, Seim describes Finicum as “one of the finest patriots that America could hope to have,” who showed people “what it was like to be a founding father.” Seim urged viewers to “rise for liberty,” claiming that “we can no longer allow the government to murder and abuse and terrorize…These criminals spilled blood yesterday.” Within two days, Seim’s video had received over 110,000 views.

Similarly, musician Jordan Page posted his own video, widely shared on social media, singing a song of his own composition, “The Ballad of LaVoy Finicum,” intended to make a folk hero out of the anti-government occupier:

He left his home to go and take a stand
His voice rang out across a deafened land
And in the end it was a bullet that exposed the lies
A truth remembered is a battle won
And though his murder cannot be undone,
It rings out like an echo, thundering across the night

Page’s song was the most popular of several songs related to Finicum’s shooting that have appeared on YouTube or elsewhere.

One ostensible Finicum supporter is using a t-shirt website to sell “LaVoy Finicum Memorial” t-shirts for $21.99, with proceeds promised to go to the Finicum family—just one of the websites now selling Finicum t-shirts and sweatshirts. Another supporter announced the auction of a framed print of a painting—starting bid, $2,500—with the proceeds allegedly going “to the Bundy Ranch and/or a fund for Levon [sic] Finicum memorial.”


Channelling Anger: Rallies, Protests, Memorials and Vigils

As quickly as news of Finicum’s death spread, supporters of the Malheur takeover began to organize events—rallies, protests, vigils, and memorials—centered on the dead occupier and designed to raise sorrow and anger over his death. As early as the day after the shooting, occupier supporters (and, allegedly, some former occupiers) held a small “candlelight vigil” in Burns, Oregon.

In southwestern Utah, Finicum’s home, supporters organized a memorial for him in front of the Iron County courthouse. The event seems to have included at least one former occupier in attendance, but its centerpiece was Iron County Commissioner Dave Miller, who called the death of Finicum a “travesty” and hoped “the truth” would come out. Other regional events, including one for the Paiute County courthouse, were allegedly also held.

In Phoenix, Finicum supporters Israel Torres and Blanka Nieves, who had previously held support rallies for the Oregon occupiers, organized a “We Are LaVoy” rally on January 29 at Wesley Bolin Plaza, with around 30 or so attendees. Another protest was allegedly organized in Portland, Oregon.

Las Vegas, Nevada, saw a handful of Tea Party activists and anti-government extremists led by Karen Steelmon and Greg Whalen (the latter of whom was in telephone contact with the remaining occupiers in Oregon) organize their own impromptu demonstration in front of the federal courthouse soon after the shooting. They declared that Finicum, who had “been defending American soil from a tyrannical government,” was ambushed and murdered by the FBI. The pair also organized a second Las Vegas courthouse rally on the weekend following the shooting; 12-15 people seem to have participated in that event.

Other events also occurred on the weekend of January 30-31. The one most covered by the media occurred in the long-suffering town of Burns itself, where the anti-government Pacific Patriots Network organized a “rolling” protest of vehicles through the town; estimates of the number of protesters ranged from 50 to over 100. With another rally organized by Idaho Three Percenters at the Harney County Courthouse in Burns for February 1, it is clear that Burns’ ordeal is not likely to end soon. Both of these groups declined to support the Malheur occupiers’ earlier actions but have jumped into the conflict with the death of Finicum. Others traveled out to the location where Finicum was shot and erected a makeshift memorial.

Protests and rallies occurred outside Oregon as well. Heather Lucas and Mike Kay organized a Finicum protest at the FBI office in Columbus, Ohio, with around 45-50 attending from right-wing groups and Anonymous. “Revolution starts here,” said one speaker, “Make no mistake.”

Elsewhere in Ohio, a handful of activists in Lima, Ohio, hung signs and protested on a freeway overpass on I-75. One protester posted on Facebook after the event that the federal government let “rioters burn, loot and assault in Ferguson and Baltimore but when a patriot stands up peaceful [sic] for his constitutional rights he is gunned down by the federal government.”

A similar overpass protest occurred on January 30 across the country in Salem, Oregon, with about 10 protesters. Both were apparently organized by activists with right-wing group “Overpasses for America.” More such overpass protests are scheduled for the first weekend in February in Oregon and elsewhere.

That weekend, the weekend of February 5-7, is when a number of additional events will be held. Of these, the most significant is the memorial service for Finicum in Kanab, Utah, organized by his family, who turned it into a political event by reaching out and announcing it to “Patriot” and right-wing groups to get their attendance. Karen Steelmon, the Las Vegas Tea Party figure mentioned above, announced she was organizing a “procession” of people from the Las Vegas area to “pay respects” at the memorial service. Utahn and former Malheur occupier Wes Kjar has declared he will organize a “memorial horse ride” to the service.

For those too far from Kanab, Finicum supporters have organized the “National Memorial & Prayer Vigil for LaVoy Finicum,” for which they urge people to gather in front of “your local courthouse” on February 5 or the following day.

Other events known to be planned for the weekend include:

  • The Liberty for All III% have announced a “Cowboy’s Last Ride” protest in Olympia, Washington, for the weekend of February 5-7, declaring that they “will never allow one more innocent person to die at the hands of the Government.”
  • In Boise, Idaho, someone calling himself “1776Revolutionist” is organizing the “RIP Lavoy Rally” at the Boise capitol building; attendees are requested to bring “Hands up, don’t shoot” signs.
  • In John Day, Oregon, the town to which Finicum was driving when his vehicle was stopped, Raelene Hunt-Reed and Tyson Baker are organizing a candlelight service for Finicum.
  • Hunt-Reed and Brian Winters have also scheduled a “candlelight memorial” for Finicum at the Crook County courthouse in Prineville, Oregon. This would be the second rally for Prineville; others organized a February 1 “Memory of LaVoy Finicum and All Our Patriots” rally at the courthouse.
  • Arizona activists are organizing a Finicum candlelight vigil at Mesa RiverView Park on February 6, allegedly with “guest speaker Alexander Melusky.” Melusky is running for Senate in Arizona; it is not known if he is actually appearing at this event.
  • Kentucky Three Percenter George Al Collins has announced a “rally and memorial service in remembrance of LaVoy Finicum” at the capitol building in Frankfort, Kentucky, on February 6.
  • John Adams is organizing a candlelight vigil for Finicum at the West Virginia capitol building in Charleston, West Virginia, on February 6.
  • Krista Etter of West Palm Beach, Florida, is arranging a rally at the federal courthouse on February 6.
  • Northeast Ohio Three Percenters are allegedly planning an event on February 7 in front of the FBI building in downtown Cleveland, Ohio.
  • In Ruckersville, Virginia, Michael Madden, the owner of The Confederate Keepers Store, has scheduled a “Rally/Protest of the MURDER of LaVoy Finicum” for February 7, with the location oddly being a convenience store.
  • Colorado anti-government extremists are organizing a February 7 protest dubbed “#WAKETHEDEAD” in front of the FBI office.
  • Steve Baldassari and Scott Henry have announced a rally at the Massachusetts State House in Boston on February 6 “to fight for our rights, defend the Oregon ranchers, but also to honor LaVoy Jeanette Finicum, a true patriot.”
  • South Carolina Three Percenters are allegedly organizing a “VIGIL AND A SHOT FOR FREEDOM MEET” on February 6 somewhere in South Carolina. It is not clear if this is related to a “LaVoy Finicum Tribute and Prayer Meeting” being organized by Bob Hargrove for the Huger Recreation Area at the Francis Marion National Forest on February 6.

Rallies and protests even further in the future are also scheduled—likely to be merely the first of many. These include:

  • Arkansan Madonna Carter is organizing a rally in Little Rock, Arkansas, at the state capitol, for February 13.
  • A “We the People” rally was organized for February 13 in Columbus, Ohio, at the Ohio State House, even before Finicum’s death. Now attendance is likely to be even higher.
  • A “Lavoy Finicum Free the Bundys and Hammons March” in Bowling Green, Kentucky, on March 5 to “honor one of our fellow freedom fighters who lost his life standing up for what was right.”

It remains to be seen how successful the extreme right will be in elevating Finicum to the pantheon of extremists considered martyrs by the movement, or whether their attempts to use Finicum to rally support will be successful past the short term. The still-unresolved standoff in Malheur, with its four holdouts refusing to leave, also makes the future more uncertain. However, what is clear is that anti-government extremists are right now energetically trying to use Finicum’s death to rally support for their cause and this in itself is troubling.






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