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.