Ambush at Ruby Ridge

How government agents set Randy Weaver up and took his family down


Perhaps it was inevitable that the longest federal trial in Idaho history would be followed by the longest jury deliberation in such a trial—a 20-day marathon that had news people joking about whether the jury planned to put in for retirement benefits. The eight-week trial of Randy Weaver and Kevin Harris grew out of such a bizarre set of circumstances that it's not surprising it took a while for the jurors to sort things out. It probably also took them a while to come to grips with the idea that government agencies could so blatantly engage in entrapment, lying, cover-ups, and the killing of innocent people. As one alternate juror, excused before deliberations were completed, put it: "I felt like a little kid that finds out there is no Santa Claus."

On July 8, 1993, in what The New York Times called "a strong rebuke of the Government's use of force during an armed siege," a jury in Boise found Randy Weaver, 45 and almost always described in the media as a "white separatist," and family friend Kevin Harris, 25, not guilty on six of eight counts, including murder of a U.S. marshal, conspiracy to provoke a confrontation with the government, aiding and abetting murder, and harboring a fugitive.

Weaver was found guilty on two minor counts: failure to appear on an earlier firearms charge and violating conditions of bail on the same count. As of this writing, he is still in custody, with sentencing scheduled for September 28. Although the maximum sentence for the two crimes is 15 years, his sentence is likely to be about a year, roughly the amount of time he has already served. Kevin Harris went free the day of the verdict.

The story behind the Weaver/Harris verdict began with government entrapment and continued through 16 months of armed surveillance of Weaver's cabin in the steep, heavily wooded Selkirk Mountains near Naples, about 40 miles south of the Canadian border in the rural "panhandle" region of northern Idaho. It climaxed in a bloody shootout that left three people dead, including Weaver's wife, Vicki, killed by an FBI sniper as she stood in the door of the cabin holding her 10-month-old baby. In the wake of the shootout, federal agents offered shifting and contradictory accounts of the events.

There are several eerie similarities between the Randy Weaver episode and the federal government's deadly confrontation with Branch Davidians near Waco, Texas, last spring. Both involved the use of massive force against people with fringe religious beliefs. Both standoffs were initiated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms based on technical weapons charges. In both cases the FBI eventually became involved. There are two main differences: Fewer lives were lost in Idaho, and the government may actually be held accountable for what it did there.

We might as well begin with the government's indictment, which portrayed a conspiracy by Randy Weaver, his family, and others "to forcibly resist, oppose, impede, interfere with, intimidate, assault, and/or otherwise cause a violent confrontation with law enforcement authorities." In January 1983, Randy and Vicki Weaver left Iowa, where they had been living, and moved to northern Idaho—perhaps, as the indictment reads, "in their belief and prediction that a violent confrontation would occur with law enforcement officers involving a 'kill zone' surrounding their property," or perhaps, as friends and supporters say, to get away from the rat race and find a place where they could raise their children apart from the hustle, bustle, and immorality of American society.

It has been pretty well established that Randy and Vicki were loosely affiliated with or sympathetic to the Christian Identity movement, which holds, among other off-center beliefs, that the true descendants of the tribes of Israel are the modern nationalities of Europe, that today's Jews are impostors, and that Yahweh has fierce punishment planned for sinful America and its Babylonian Occupational Government. Christian Identity believers claim to live by Old Testament laws, to be the true heirs of Israel. Many or most are white separatists. (Unlike white supremacists, separatists say they simply want to live apart from other races, rather than persecuting or subjugating them.)

Naples may not be the remotest place in Idaho, as some early media reports had it, but it's pretty rural. About 15 miles south is Sandpoint (population: 5,200), a lovely resort community on the shore of the Pend Oreille Lake. About five miles north is Bonner's Ferry (population: 2,000), founded in 1863 as a trapper's outpost, with an economy now based on lumber, farming, mining, and recreation. Fewer than 2,000 people live in the Naples zip code. It's about 10 miles square, but because mountains rise on either side of the valley through which State Highway 95 runs, only an area about two miles by eight miles is inhabited.

A general store and a small sawmill are the only signs of commercial activity. Naples first "boomed" in the 1930s; in the '70s it tolerated an influx of hippies getting back to nature. Many of the residents are retirees. Others are attracted by the beautiful mountains, the low cost of living, the friendly, small-town quality of life, and, as Earl in the general store puts it, "the freedom." It's a place where every other resident, it seems, is a hunter, and most households have guns.

In January 1984, the Weavers bought 20 acres pretty far back in the woods and up in the mountains, on what was called Ruby Ridge. To get to the property, you have to drive about three miles on a decent dirt road off the main drag, then another couple of miles on a much steeper and heavily rutted dirt road. Yet it's only a few minutes from the town store, which in traditional general-store fashion stocks a little bit of almost everything, including classical-music tapes and compact discs. At Ruby Ridge, Randy and Vicki built a cabin on a small, rocky bluff, planted extensive gardens, built a couple of storage sheds, and lived, schooling their children at home. Randy would take occasional odd jobs to pay for things that required cash, but you can make it on relatively little money in the area if you garden and hunt.

The Weavers taught their children their unusual religious beliefs, but they weren't particularly active in either Christian Identity or white separatist activities. They went to a few Aryan Nation meetings—there's an active organization around Hayden Lake, about 50 miles south of Naples—and to some Christian Identity summer camps. A sign at the entrance to their driveway reads "Every Knee Shall Bow to Jahshuah Messiah" (a.k.a. Jesus). They weren't active churchgoers.

Around October 1989, Randy Weaver was introduced to "Gus Magisono," an alias for Kenneth Fadley, a paid undercover BATF informant in the Aryan Nation. "Magisono" asked Randy to sell him two shotguns with the barrels sawed off, even showing him where to cut. Randy was reluctant, but "Gus" was persistent and Randy was strapped for cash. Weaver finally sold him two shotguns for $300. Eight months later, a couple of BATF agents approached Weaver and asked him to serve as an informant within the Aryan Nation. They told him they didn't have a warrant, but they did have incriminating conversations on tape. They threatened him with arrest and confiscation of his truck or house if he didn't cooperate. He refused.

In December 1990, Randy Weaver was indicted for manufacturing, possessing, and selling illegal firearms. The difference between legal and illegal in this case was about a quarter inch of barrel per gun and a $200 tax stamp. On January 17, 1991, two BATF agents, posing as a couple having engine trouble with a pickup truck hauling a camper, stopped on the one-lane bridge leading to the Weaver property. Randy and Vicki stopped to help. When Randy looked under the hood, the male agent stuck a .45-caliber pistol to the back of his neck and announced he was under arrest. Other law-enforcement agents piled out of the camper. Vicki Weaver was thrown face down into the snow and mud. Randy was taken into custody and later released on a $10,000 bond. Vicki was not arrested.

The trial was originally set for February 19, 1991, then changed to February 20 for the convenience of the BATF. But Probation Officer Karl Richins sent Weaver a letter, dated February 7, instructing him to appear on March 20. Although Assistant U.S. Attorney Ron Howen, who later acted as prosecutor, knew Weaver had been sent an erroneous notification, he appeared before the grand jury on March 14 (six days before the date Richins gave Weaver) and got an indictment for failure to appear on February 20. That set the stage.

There's some question about whether Randy Weaver ever received a notification, even the one giving the wrong trial date. In any case, he apparently decided not to appear, fearing he would be railroaded into prison without an opportunity to defend himself properly, on the basis of false testimony. He spent the next 18 months on his mountain, hardly even venturing outside the cabin. Friends brought food and other supplies for the family, which by August 1992 included Sara, 16, Sammy, 14, Rachel, 10, and a 10-month-old baby, Elisheba.

Meanwhile, the feds began an elaborate 16-month surveillance of the cabin and surrounding area. Federal agents testified in court that they never seriously considered simply knocking on the door and serving the arrest warrant, because they feared an armed confrontation. Instead, they paid a neighbor (a relative term in this terrain but the house was on the only road to the Weaver property) to record the comings and goings of visitors and take down license numbers. They paid for a phone line to be installed at the neighbor's house. They placed agents of the BATF and the U.S. Marshals Service on and around the property, usually in full camouflage gear. Agents went to the cabin in the guise of people interested in an adjacent piece of property that had no source of water and hadn't had a serious prospective buyer in years.

Two concealed video cameras, one solar powered, were set up to monitor the family's activities and visitors. Sniper positions were scouted The feds discussed various plans, including the use of stun guns and tear gas, cutting the water supply and kidnapping Sara, who slept in the "birthing house" (a shed several yards from the main cabin) during her menstrual period. About 160 hours of videotape were recorded. Agents rented a whole condominium building in Spokane as a base of operations. Neighbors and friends were questioned. Planes and helicopters were rented for aerial reconnaissance and photography. The habits of the family dogs were studied. Phone taps were ordered for several residences and for the phones at the general store.

Your tax dollars at work. All to capture a man accused of a minor gun offense, a charge that might well have been rejected had it come to trial. Even if Weaver had been found guilty on the weapons charge, he would probably have gotten a shorter sentence than the one he imposed on himself by holing up in his cabin.

The Weavers were aware of being watched, although they may not have known how extensive the operation was. They saw low-flying aircraft, and Vicki even invited a couple of obviously nervous "real estate prospects" into the cabin for coffee one day. Some friends report the family believed they would all be killed eventually, while others say the Weavers expected the feds to get tired of the game. Perhaps their attitude shifted back and forth.

Finally, on August 21, 1992, the ultimate tragedy began. A six-man team from the Special Operations Group of the U.S. Marshals Service came onto the Weavers' property at 4:30 a.m., dressed in full camouflage and ski masks, carrying night vision goggles and silenced 9-mm M-16 machine guns with laser scopes. Three deputy marshals, Lawrence Cooper, William Degan, and Art Roderick, poked around close to the cabin, while the other three, in radio contact, were placed at observation points. The agents testified that they were doing surveillance for a possible future operation. A medical team was on alert at the bottom of the hill.

It's not easy to picture the Weaver property if you haven't been there. I spent several hours there in July with Jackie Brown, who was one of Vicki Weaver's closest friends and the cabin's caretaker during the trial. The cabin is on a stony outcropping, above most of the surrounding terrain, though a steep mountainside some 200 yards to the north towers over it. The road leading to the driveway is fairly steep; the driveway curves around a huge rock and up to the cabin. Except for a few acres cleared for gardens, the whole area is thickly wooded. In addition to the dirt road, an old logging road encircles much of the property. A trail runs more or less straight down from the cabin about a quarter mile to meet the logging road at a place described in testimony as the "Y" (it looked more like a "T" to me). The trail from the "Y" up toward the cabin is overhung with a canopy of leafy branches. The woods are so thick that you can't see the cabin from the "Y" or vice versa.

After poking around the property for a while, the three deputy marshals stood behind the rock near the driveway, well below the cabin, and started throwing little stones up toward the cabin, to "see if they could get the dogs' attention." Soon Striker, the family's yellow labrador, began following the agents, who circled the property along the logging road to the "Y," where there's a thick stand of trees.

Sammy Weaver and Kevin Harris, apparently believing the dog had sniffed out a deer or some other game (the family was out of meat), followed the dog along the logging road. Randy Weaver went down the straighter, easier trail. It's a fairly standard hunting practice to get a deer surrounded and trapped.

Cooper testified that before the deputy marshals could take cover (he said they feared being shot in the back), they saw Randy coming down the trail and ordered him to stop. Randy yelled at Kevin and Sammy to head back for the cabin, that it was an ambush. He fired a couple of shots in the air and ran toward the cabin.

Cooper and Degan took cover in the stand of trees. The dog and the two boys came to the "Y" and turned up the trail toward the cabin. What happened next is still in dispute.

Cooper told the jury that as the boys passed their concealed spot, Degan crouched on one knee and yelled, "Stop, U.S. Marshal!"—whereupon Kevin fired his .30-06 rifle from the hip and shot Degan in the chest. But Idaho State Police Capt. David Neale testified that shortly after the battle, Roderick told him that he, Roderick, had fired first, wounding and then killing Sammy's dog, Striker. And although the government initially claimed that Degan was killed by the first shot of the battle, seven shells from his gun were found near the deputy marshals' hiding place.

What is certain is that the dog was shot in the rear end (suggesting that he was running away) and then killed by a second shot. Sammy Weaver, who was running toward the cabin, wheeled around, yelled something like "you shot my dog, you son of a bitch," fired a couple of rounds, and started running again. He was shot twice—first wounded in the elbow and then killed by a bullet in the back. Kevin fired his .30-06 at the marshals and believed he had hit Degan, though he insists the marshals started shooting first and he was firing in self-defense after Sammy was hit.

Roderick went for help. His report seems to have given those who weren't there the impression that a massive, continuing gun battle was going on. The authorities seemed to believe that the agents were "pinned down" by gunfire from the cabin, a very unlikely scenario given the terrain. Kevin made it to the cabin; he went back later to confirm that Sammy was dead. Toward evening, Randy and Kevin retrieved Sammy's body, wrapped it as best they could, and put it in the birthing shed near the main cabin. A siege that was to last 11 days was under way.

What happened the next day may have been determined on an airplane taking Richard Rogers, commander of the FBl's Hostage Rescue Team, from Washington, D.C., to Idaho. The law ordinarily permits the use of deadly force by law-enforcement officers only when the officers or others are in imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury. But in writing the "rules of engagement" for the siege to follow, Rogers, who had not yet spoken to anyone who had actually been at the cabin, didn't know about the 14 shots fired by the deputy marshals. He seemed to be under the impression that a fierce two-way gun battle was going on even as he wrote. So he decided that any armed adult outside the Weaver cabin should be subject to "shoot-to-kill" sniping, whether or not that person was menacing anyone.

Perhaps unbeknownst to Rogers, videotape surveillance showed that all members of the family, including the children, routinely carried a weapon when outside. The family owned 14 weapons—all legal until a couple of shotguns were sawed off at a government snitch's behest. That may seem like a lot of guns to some, especially city dwellers, but it isn't very unusual in rural areas.

The arrival of the hostage team marked the beginning of buildup. At least 400 people equipped with sophisticated military hardware, including "humvees," armored personnel carriers, and various aircraft, were eventually deployed in the woods around Randy Weaver's plywood cabin.

The rules of engagement supposedly required a warning before any shots were fired, but that didn't happen. On August 22, the day after the shootout, Randy Weaver left the cabin for the little outbuilding that held his son's body. As he raised his arm to unlatch the door to the shed, he was shot by a sniper posted on the mountainside. The bullet entered his right shoulder area and exited near his armpit. He and Kevin Harris, who was also outside, ran for the cabin. Vicki Weaver stood in the doorway, yelling for the two to hurry, cradling baby Elisheba in her arms. She was unarmed.

As Kevin Harris tumbled into the house, another shot from the sniper went through the glass window and entered Vicki Weaver's temple, killing her instantly. The bullet and fragments of Vicki's skull went on to injure Kevin Harris's arm and torso, breaking a rib and puncturing one of his lungs.

The sniper, Lon Horiuchi, was a West Point graduate armed with state-of-the-art sniping equipment and trained to be accurate to within a quarter inch at 200 yards. He claims he missed Kevin and hit Vicki by accident. But Bo Gritz, the former Green Beret commander who eventually negotiated Randy Weaver's surrender, said that after he became a negotiator the FBI showed him a psychological profile of the family prepared for the Marshals Service before the siege that described Vicki as the "dominant member" of the family. "Vicki was the maternal head of the family," Gritz told the Spokane Spokesman-Review. "I believe Vicki was shot purposely by the sniper as a priority target….The profile said, if you get a chance, take Vicki Weaver out."

In any case, Vicki Weaver was dead. Her body remained in the kitchen, covered with a sheet, for a week. Gritz, who thought he remembered Randy Weaver from Weaver's days as a Green Beret, arrived on the scene and offered to try talking Randy out peacefully. At first the FBI ignored him, but eventually they let him approach the cabin. Gritz secured a promise from Wyoming trial lawyer Gerry Spence, whose previous clients had included Imelda Marcos and the family of Karen Silkwood, to represent Weaver if he surrendered peacefully.

On Sunday, August 30, Vicki Weaver's body was removed, and Kevin Harris, whose wound was infected, was taken to a hospital under heavy guard. Around noon the following day, after lengthy discussions with Gritz, Randy Weaver and the three girls came out. Randy was arrested, and his daughters were met by their maternal grandparents, who later took them back to Iowa.

Ron Howen, the assistant U.S. attorney who had been on hand during the siege, secured a 10-count grand-jury indictment of Randy Weaver and Kevin Harris in September. As the trial began in April, U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge told the seven-woman, five-man jury: "This will be one of the most interesting cases you could be asked to sit on as jurors." As Dean Miller, staff writer for the Spokesman-Review, wrote later: "If anything, Lodge's remark was an understatement."

The first of 54 government witnesses was Deputy U.S. Marshal Lawrence Cooper, who appeared in court wearing the same paramilitary full-camouflage regalia he had worn the day Sammy Weaver and William Degan were killed. A couple of witnesses detailed the confusion about when Randy Weaver's original court date had been scheduled. Then came a long string of witnesses testifying about the Weavers' beliefs. Although no evidence was presented to tie the Weaver family to neo-Nazi activities, the full panoply of right-wing anti-Zionist, anti-Semitic beliefs was trotted before the jury. Spence objected, saying the prosecution was attempting to "demonize" his client, but the prosecution was allowed to spend several days describing conspiracy theories, interlocking groups, and violent activities.

Spence and the other defense attorneys used cross-examination to poke holes in the sometimes shifting stories of government witnesses and to put the government on trial indirectly. They uncovered the embarrassing fact that some bullets had been removed from the scene, then brought back later to be dropped on the ground and photographed. They made sure jurors got a closeup look at photographs of the dead dog, Striker, with tracks showing that tank-like vehicles had run over his lifeless body several times. They got the original snitch to admit that it was difficult to persuade Randy Weaver to sell sawed-off shotguns, that Weaver had little inclination to break the law.

Judge Lodge issued a formal reprimand and imposed a fine on the prosecution after background information on the sniper and his initial reports—ordered to be made available to the defense—was sent by fourth-class mail from Washington, D.C., arriving the day after the sniper had testified. The defense team got a government ballistics expert to admit, after poring over maps and diagrams of the "Y," that the physical evidence supported the defense's version of events as easily as it did the prosecution's.

At one point, with the jury out of the courtroom as attorneys argued whether a witness should be called, Judge Lodge wondered aloud why Spence was objecting. By Lodge's estimate, about 75 percent of the testimony from government witnesses so far had helped the defense. When the prosecution was finished, the defense declined to call a single witness, saying the government had so manifestly failed to prove its case that no defense was necessary.

On the final Friday of the case, Spokesman-Review writer Dean Miller reported, lead prosecutor Ron Howen "was 15 minutes into his response to the defense motion for dismissal when he appeared to lose his train of thought. Up to that time, his left hand was shaking violently and his delivery lacked its characteristic vigor. After a long pause, he sighed loudly, shuffled through his notes and looked over at co-prosecutor Kim Lindquist, who smiled encouragingly back, raising his eyebrows. Howen turned back to his notes and then stopped. 'I'm sorry, judge, I can't continue,' he said, his voice unsteady." He left the courtroom and did not return after a recess. Lindquist had to present the closing argument the following Tuesday.

Spence was pleased by the verdict but not satisfied. "A jury today has said that you can't kill somebody just because you wear badges, and then cover up those homicides by prosecuting the innocent," he said. "What are we now going to do about the deaths of Vicki Weaver, a mother who was killed with a baby in her arms, and Sammy Weaver, a boy who was shot in the back? Somebody has to answer for those deaths." Boundary County Prosecutor Randall Day, whose jurisdiction includes Naples, has the option of filing charges against the officials involved in the deaths, but he hasn't disclosed his plans yet. Spence has said he would like to be deputized to prosecute the case himself. A civil suit on behalf of Randy Weaver is a virtual certainty.

If the holocaust in Waco hadn't happened even as the Weaver trial was under way, all this might be an essentially regional story of government bungling with tragic results. But Waco did happen. The lead agency was the BATF, determined to make an arrest of dubious public-safety importance with an overwhelming show of force. The FBI got involved when the confrontation became a siege (Dick Rogers was on the scene at Waco too), and massive amounts of military and paramilitary equipment were deployed against American citizens. The option of a simple arrest was rejected in favor of a military-style attack. Innocent people were killed.

If you talked to some of the self-styled patriots who hung around the Boise courthouse, you would hear all kinds of scary theories. The Weaver operation was just a dress rehearsal for Waco, which was part of a government campaign to shut down, intimidate, or terrorize minority religious groups and political dissenters. Now and then, you'd hear that the real problem was Zionist control of the government.

But the reasons for what happened in Naples and Waco are probably less sinister and more mundane: In their approach to the Weavers and the Branch Davidians, federal law-enforcement officials displayed a mixture of vanity, arrogance, fear, anger, and frustration. An ironworker hanging around the Naples General Store in early July saw it this way: "All these federal agencies—IRS, DEA, BATF, FBI, FDA—have too many agents trained in paramilitary tactics. They get itchy to see if the training really works, so every so often they have to target some poor sap."

Certainly the BATF, which Reagan and Bush era budget cutters recommended abolishing, seems to be an agency in search of a mission. It began life as the Bureau of Prohibition, but it survived after Prohibition was repealed in 1933. It was reorganized as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms under the Nixon administration.It currently carries out a mix of licensing, regulatory, tax-collection, and law-enforcement functions that could easily be handled by other agencies, if they are necessary at all. It's doubtful that the republic would be any poorer if the BATF ceased to exist.

But the problem goes beyond the BATF, to a mindset that says people with strange ideas cannot be trusted. The notion that religious nuts with guns are always a threat to public safety becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The attempt to subdue these supposedly dangerous people provokes the very violence it is intended to prevent.

It need not be so. Sociologist Jim Aho, author of The Politics of Righteousness: Idaho Christian Patriotism, recently told a Coeur d'Alene newspaper that "the big myth about these people is they are essentially evil." Through years of research and interviews, Aho found that members of "patriot" groups weren't unusually inclined toward violence, nor were they particularly socially isolated. Contrary to stereotypes, they were about as well educated as their neighbors. Aho said his findings surprised him, but "on the whole, I found these people pretty indistinguishable," apart from their "bizarre and unique" beliefs.

This is not to say that you'd want to have members of the Christian Identity movement over for dinner. But people can have odd ideas, even abhorrent and disturbing ideas, and still live peacefully with their neighbors. It's best that we let them.

Alan W. Bock is a senior columnist for The Orange County Register.